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Family Structure, Roles & Relations in Gambia
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The traditional extended family is the most common type of family unit structure in The Gambia and is a unit that can help to foster good or bad family relationships. It plays a central role in Gambian society and it is perceived as a status symbol to support a large family and have more than one wife.

Traditionally Gambian families tend to be large and three generations may live together in one household with each having different roles. The average household size is 8.5 members per household, and the dependency ratio 65% (The Gambia Bureau of Statistics, 2006) and estimated at 6 people in urban areas and 15 people in rural areas.

Individuals tend to take over as head of a Gambian household much later in life at around 40 years old. It is not very common to find grandparents living in their children's houses as they themselves tend to be the head of their own family. Households have a complicated hierarchy and are constantly changing and one of the reasons is the polygamous nature of Muslim society. A second wife may through default become the first wife. Where a man has multiple wives they would pool their time and effort for the general betterment of the household.

Temporary Head
Son's children
Daughter's children
Head's parents
Brother / Sister

It's quite normal in Gambian society to call more than one person 'mother' or 'father', and often people with no apparent blood ties are called 'relatives'. Though it should be noted that because Gambia is so small and inter-marriage between people from different ethnic groups so common many people are related without even knowing it particularly in the Greater Banjul area.

Being a patrilineal society the father is normally head of the family though the role and responsibilities of running of the household is left to the wife. The times when most family members living outside the household meet at one time is usually at naming ceremonies, funerals and weddings. At these events different members have different roles to play as there would be an immediate hierarchy based on age, religious learning and status through birth and lineage. Respect to elders is vitally important in developing good relationships in particular greetings, showing due respect and listening to advice.

At the lowest village level there is the compound which would have the eldest male as the head of the household and possible several other families who share blood ties as well as the wives and children, uncles, aunts and grandparents. His role is of decision maker and resolving disputes. Then there would be other compounds, perhaps nearby, were related family members live and the head of this grouping is yet again the eldest male. Then finally there is the chief or what Gambians call the  Alikaalo who is the oldest man from the founding family of the village. This localised family make-up is fairly typical among different groups.

There is no hard-and-fast rule to this family make-up as older male members can choose to move out and start their own compounds with their own wives. It can be a fluid system as it is very common in the Kombo St. Mary District to find households with just the father, mother and children, if they haven't already left home, and maybe a relative who helps out in the house or keeps the wife company. Having said this however, wealthy Serahules in the K.S.M.D like to keep tradition alive and tend to have a large extended family structural group staying in one building.

Many more educated women now work in The Gambia, though it was less common among the older generation and as a result it has altered the traditional role that wives have played.


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