Kpelle - Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although monogamy has become more common in the late twentieth century, polygyny remains the preferred marital type. Anthropologist James Gibbs (1965) describes six types of union recognized by the Kpelle, ranging from the most prestigious (full bride-price paid outright with patrilocal residence) to casual liaisons. The Kpelle prefer marriage with bride-price, although bride-service is acceptable as well. Patrilocal postmarital residence is preferred, but neolocality associated with bride-service is quite common for very young couples. At least 20 percent of Kpelle marriages end in divorce, which can be quite complex and protracted. Grounds include infertility and adultery for husbands, and physical abuse and nonsupport for wives. Divorce negotiations involve property, especially when substantial bride-price is involved.

Domestic Unit. The polygynous family, with each wife and her children having their own hut, is the ideal form, but it is quite rare. It is more likely that all members of a polygynous family live in the same house, with each wife having her own room. Often one wife will live elsewhere, even several kilometers away. Monogamous nuclear and extended families are on the increase.

Inheritance. A man's authority, property, and younger wives are inherited either by his oldest surviving brother or his oldest son. Obligations, debts, personality, and food taboos, among other things, are inherited patrilineally.

Socialization. Until age 2, children are very much indulged; from age 2 to 6, they are trained through threats and ridicule; after age 6, corporal punishment is frequently used. At all ages, curiosity is stifled and innovation actively discouraged. Boys are circumcised when they are young. At some point between the ages of 7 and 20, boys are initiated in seclusion and en masse into the secret men's society called Poro. While Poro school used to last up to four years, nowadays it is generally much shorter. Physical initiation features scarification on the back and often on the chest and stomach as well. Also between the ages of 7 and 20, girls are initiated into the women's Sande society, a process that traditionally lasted up to three years. Clitoridectomy and labiadectomy are central features of female initiation. For both sexes, initiation is carried out by masked figures.

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