Igbo Descent Organization: Group Functions

Lineage functions in the Igbo system are organized at three levels: the maximal lineage, the major segment, and the minor segment (Meek: 1970:88-111).
  1. The maximal lineage assumes mainly symbolic and ritual importance. It also plays an important role in the marriage system, insofar as people of the same lineage, and, accordingly, from the same village, are forbidden to marry or to engage in sexual activity.
  2. The major segment is designated as the umunna, literally a group of people descended from the same father, but not of the same mother. It occupies a section of the village and owns common lands, which it allocates to its members for housing and farming. It is led by a formal lineage head, the okpara, who is usually its senior member. In some groups, this individual is the oldest male of the oldest branch of the lineage; in others, he is the oldest male overall. His office derives from the ritual importance of his ownership of a sacred object, the ofo, a special tree branch, which embodies the spirits of the ancestors. He performs sacrifies to them and also carries out important observances for the earth goddess. The okpara is the umunna’s political leader and its representative to the village’s governing council. In both instances, his power is limited because collective pronouncements are never fully binding, and decision making and administrative actions must follow democratic principles.
  3. The minor segment is a branch of is a branch of the umunna and forms a single compound ezi, within the village. It has its own realm of ritual, economic, and political activities. The compound head, the obi, makes sacrifices to more immediate ancestors, allocates land near the compound that is used for kitchen gardens, and settle disputes among family members. His activities and decisions must be guided by consultation with his constituents, especially with the heads of the smaller domestic groups that make up the unit. He receives an important perk of office through rights to one day of work from his dependents per four day week.

An ofo,  symbol of the authority of the lineage head, represented as an encrusted bundle to the right, and other ancestral representations.
Source: "Ofo, uxurhe and other pieces (includes ikenga)"
G. I. Jones - Photographic Archive of Southeastern Nigerian Art and Culture, Southern Illinois University. © All rights reserved. 
Copyright to the image belongs to the G. I. Jones estate.

In addition to group membership, patrilineal descent controls the course of succession and inheritance. When a man who holds an office, such as okpara or obi dies, his status is passed on to his most senior relative within the relevant subdivision, usually a brother or cousin rather than a son. The heir will not only take on the title of the deceased, but will also assume access to or control over any corporate property. He will also be entitled to inherit the dead man’s widows, whom he may decide to marry or allocate to other members of the patrilineage. Other than the transfer of family assets, inheritance of personally acquired property, such as crops in the field or trading wealth, will pass on from father to son, usually to the eldest son, who will also assume responsibility for caring for his younger brothers. If siblings cannot cooperate under fraternal leadership, the inheritance can be subdivided. In this case property is divided according to the number of wives a man has; each group of full brothers receives an equal amount, which is initially placed under the control of the oldest brother in each group. An extra share goes to the eldest son, on the basis of actual chronological age. (This ranking of the seniority of brothers differs from many African patrilineal systems with polygynous families, where it is determined by the status of their mothers within the household. Usually the son of the most senior wife become the main heir). In any event, the senior son becomes the formal family elder and continues to serve as the spritual and political leader of the unit. He will assume the ownership of the ofo, if the sublineage controls one.

Women do not normally inherit within their families of origin or from their husbands, except to the extent that they can expect to be maintained by their husbands’ heirs. They can acquire wealth and assets in their own right, which, as personal property, will go to their children. If they are childless, they have the option of producing heirs through “woman marriages”. If they do not follow this option, their husbands will inherit.

While the umunna constitutes the major field for social identification and participation in Igbo society, other institutions also form essential elements in the social order. Some of these, such as the age and title associations are not kinship based. Others, such as a person’s relations with his or her mother’s relatives, the umunne, are closely integrated into the kinship system. In spite of a patrilineal emphasis, the Igbo have developed a special set of relationships with maternal kin that is sometime called complementary filiation. Through this institution, patrilineally organized people are considered to have special rights in their mothers’ patrilineages, including several that they do not receive in their own descent groups. Thus, the course of an Igbo’s life is marked by continual visits with his or her mother’s kin, who, because of the rule of lineage and village exogamy, must always reside in a different settlement. Short stays may be organized for a variety of reasons. Longer ones, lasting for several years, will occur because of a commission of a crime or involvement in a serious dispute in a person’s natal village. During such visits, the guest expects to receive warm hospitality and affectionate and indulgent treatment. He or she will also engage in relaxed interactions, which can involve practical jokes and ribald discussions that would be quite inappropriate in normal contexts. Such joking relationships and the designation of joking kin have been observed in many societies, and we shall investigate a similar, although differently patterned, custom among the Ju/’hoansi (see Ju/'hoansi Joking and Avoidance Relationships). The specific focus on maternal kin for the Igbo has generally been observed in other patrilineal societies. This practice has been labeled the avunculate and has been explained as a way of counterbalancing the heavy weight of formal and sometimes highly stressful relationships among agnatic kin ((Radcliffe-Brown 1940)). Note that this institution does not indicate an element of matrilineality, which is in fact present in a few Igbo groups. The mother’s relatives in this instance are members of a person’s mother’s patrilineage and do not form a matrilineal group in any sense.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: April 2002
Last updated: September 2003