Wolof - Kinship

Kin Groups and Descent. The basic social units in a village are the residential groups, which usually occupy a single compound. These groups generally have at their core a patrilocal extended family but may also include unrelated members. Each such corporate group has as its head the senior male of the dominant family unit. Groups of contiguous residential groups usually consist of patrilineages. The larger and more important patrilineages may have segments in several villages. Traditionally, the patrilineages have been the pivotal kin groups at the political-legal level, especially with respect to the control of land and political offices. The senior male of a patrilineage becomes its official head, the laman . The Wolof also recognize the meen, a matrilineal descent line. There is a good deal of controversy in the literature as to whether or not the meen truly constitutes a matrilineage, and thus whether or not the Wolof have a double descent system (cf. Diop 1985 and Irvine 1973 for opposing viewpoints—pro and con, respectively—on this issue). In modern times the meen does not constitute a corporate group, nor does it have any politico-jural functions. The meen is important because it is believed to be the main source of one's moral character and because it includes those maternal relatives to whom one turns for help in times of trouble such as illness or economic problems.

Kinship Terminology. The Wolof have bifurcate-merging kin terms in the first ascending (parental) generation (i.e., father's brother and mother's sister are called by the same terms as father and mother, respectively, whereas father's sister and mother's brother are called by separate terms). The cousin terminology does not fit any of the standard classifications. Parallel cousins are called by the same terms as one's siblings; cross cousins are differentiated both from parallel cousins and from one another, but they are not called by distinct terms. Rather, they are called "child of the father's sister" and "child of the mother's brother," respectively. There is a joking relationship between cross cousins: one's matrilateral cross cousins are called "master," and one's patrilateral cross cousins are called "slave."

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