Social Structure in Rural Communities

Social Structure in Rural Communities

The crucial social units in rural systems were villages (or other forms of local community) and groups based on common descent, actual or putative. These were basic entities, even if subject to change in form and function in the period preceding the Portuguese incursion and during the centuries when Portugal exercised only indirect influence in the interior. Throughout these hundreds of years, changes in the structure of rural political and economic systems had their impact on rural communities and kin groups, but rural community organization and the organization of kin groups, often linked, remained the most significant elements in the lives of ordinary Africans.

In general, the connection between a rural community and a descent group (or some other kin-based set of persons) lay in the fact that the core of each community consisted of a descent group of some kind. Others in the community were tied to the members of the group by marriage or, in an earlier period, by a slave or client relationship, the effects of which may well have survived the formal abolition of slavery, as they have elsewhere. Typically, neighboring villages were tied together either because their core groups were made up of members of related descent groups (or different segments of a larger descent group) or, in some cases, by fairly frequent intermarriage among members of a limited set of villages.

Traditionally, descent groups in Angola are matrilineal; that is, they include all persons descended from a common female ancestor through females, although the individuals holding authority are, with rare exceptions, males. In some cases, junior males inherit from (or succeed to a position held by) older brothers; in others, males inherit from their mother's brother. Patrilineal descent groups, whose members are descended from a male ancestor through males, apparently have occurred in only a few groups in Angola and have been reported only in conjunction with matrilineal groups, a comparatively rare phenomenon referred to as a double descent system.

It must be emphasized that even where double descent systems did not exist, kin traced through the father were important as individuals in systems in which group formation was based on matrilineal descent. In some cases, the Bakongo for example, an individual would be tied through his father to the latter's matrilineage, appropriate members of which have an important say in aspects of that individual's life.

Broadly speaking, matrilineal descent groups alone have been reported for the Bakongo (but are well described only for some of the Zairian Bakongo), the Mbundu, the Chokwe, and the Ovambo, but their occurrence is probable elsewhere. A double descent system has been reported for Angola's largest ethnolinguistic group, the Ovimbundu, and might also be found among some of the southern groups.

The structure and workings of the double descent system of the Ovimbundu had not been adequately described as of 1988. In any case, ethnographic studies made in the middle of the twentieth century suggest that patrilineal groups as such (as opposed to links with the father and some of his kin) had virtually disappeared and that matrilineal groups had, by and large, lost most of their significance as a result of major changes in patterns of economic activity.

Descent groups vary in size, degree of localization, function, and degree of internal segmentation. In the kinds of groups commonly called clans, the links between a putative common ancestor and the living cannot be traced, and no effort is made to do so. Such groups are larger in scope than the units into which they are divided, although they need not have many members in absolute terms. They are rarely localized, and their members may be widely dispersed. Clans have not been widely reported in Angola. The only large ethnic category in which they have been said to exist is the Bakongo. Even among the Bakongo, the clans do not seem to have had political or economic functions.

More typical of traditional Angolan communities have been the kinds of descent groups usually called lineages, in most cases matrilineages. Among such descent groups, the common ancestor is not so remote, and genealogical links can be traced to her. Structurally, lineages of greater depth (for example, those five to seven generations in depth from ancestor to most recent generation) may be further segmented into shallower lineages (perhaps three to four generations in depth), lineages at each level having different functions. This structure seems to have been the case among the Bakongo. There, the deeper unit controlled the allocation of land and performed tasks connected with that crucial function, whereas shallower lineages controlled matters such as marriage.

Another important aspect of rural community life was the role of traditional leaders. After the outbreak of African opposition to colonial rule in the early 1960s, most local leaders were, if not loyal to the Portuguese, reluctant to support the nationalist movements. The MPLA, in particular, was urban based and therefore had little contact with local leaders in rural areas. Following independence, however, and most markedly in the 1980s, the government recognized the necessity of gaining the support of rural peasants to counter the spreading influence of UNITA. Thus, party officials began appointing local leaders to district or local committees, thereby reassigning to them a significant role in the local political hierarchy.


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