A Portrait of the Pulaar Family

Grace Bachmann - Senegal


January 24, 2013

Each family has a patriarch.  He may have more than one wife, though I observe most commonly that a man has no more than two wives in one household.  They have many children if they are fortunate; child mortality rates are relatively high.  When a wife passes, the partriarch may take another wife. When the patriarch passes, the wives may disperse and marry into other families, or accept an uncle as the patriarch.  If a son is old enough, he may accept the role, which includes familial leadership and financial responsibility.  A married man often takes a widow as his wife- a mutually beneficial practice in that the widow regains financial and physical security while maintaining her domestic role in the new household.  In cases of divorce, children, especially sons, stay with their father, who is fiscally responsible and will leave land and other assets to them in the future.

When in one family there are two lines of offspring, the terms brother and sister automatically loosen.  When brothers are more distant genetically, the term brother applies to a wider range of people.  They make no distinction between brother and half-brother, and cousins are “kottirabe” (“brothers” in Pulaar) as well.

In western culture the individual functions as the most basic unit of society; in Senegal, it is the family.  Culture deems the family unit society’s source of stability and security.  Peuls use the term family loosely but strategically.  Their broad definition and lax utilization of family enrich Pulaar culture.  The more people one can consider family, the more secure he/she is.  The Senegalese attitude towards all people reflects a strong underlying belief in the human family that manifests itself daily.

People wear their pride in a variety of ways but first and foremost in their generosity and hospitality.  Always there is one more place at the communal eating bowl.  A piece of fruit or a baguette maybe divided among as many people as present.  Caring for people comprises a large part of their pride.  A hungry, or a clothes-less or homeless family member would simply disgrace.   Always the woman cooking sets aside a bowl of rice or meal for a unexpected guest, and the omnipresent sense of sharing and communal living mean there is always space for one more in the hut or house.  In any one household you may find a child or children, a cousin or distantly related to the family, sent from far away villages to be educated as well.  In a family of only sons, distant relatives lend a daughter to help mothers maintain the house.  They can be sure their children will be well cared for; families easily and warmly assimilate new family members.

The family unit functions in favor of emotional health.  No one ever lives alone.  It’s lonely and inefficient and no one wants to do it.  Depression and other mental health conditions are hardly identified; granted individuals don’t visit a doctor with regularity but the culture also guards against such conditions.  Three and a half months into my stay, I’ve learned words for scared and angry, but the word sad isn’t in my vocabulary.

African culture means that financial security is dependent on the multigenerational nature of families.  A social security system like ours in the U.S. has no place in this society.  One’s physical condition and the coming of age of one’s offspring dictate retirement.  Children take care of the elders in the family home; forget nursing homes and assisted living.  The population is such that families produce sufficient offspring to support senior citizens, who also do not typically live into their 80s and 90s.

Grace Bachmann