There are various definitions of the family
There are various definitions of the family

Who is family?

There are certain things in this life about which there should be no arguments.

Or so one would hope.

Working out what is family, and who is family should not lead to any arguments, no matter where on this earth you find yourself.

I say this taking into full consideration, expressions like nuclear family, close family, extended family and other such additions to the concept of family.

The dictionary defines what is called an “immediate family” as consisting of parents, children, siblings and spouses; and an “extended family” as consisting of grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.

It was from the UK Home Office that I learnt that a sister is not regarded as “a close relation”.

I confess I was incredulous.

If my sister, to quote the Ghanaian saying, “same father, same mother” is not my close relation, then who on earth can be my close relation?

The Home Office official explained to me that it was: “for the purposes of their office that sisters and brothers did not qualify as a close relation, it is quite likely that the social services will have a different definition”.

I decided I would not get into whatever different definitions British officialdom had for siblings.

I would keep to what I learned from my parents and stick to the knowledge that my brothers and sisters were the closest relatives I had.

 That is until you maybe get married and you have children, and then you might have some competition for your siblings.

Funerals in Ghana

I thought I had the ultimate conversation-stopping story about the odd Brits saying sisters and brothers were not close relations until I started having to organise funerals in Ghana.

Then I realised we could be quite odd here in Ghana as well.

Over here, it appears the definition of family changes completely depending on whether the definition is being made when there is a death or when it is made when people are alive.

Easily, the most dramatic moment of discovering what constitutes family in this country comes when your parent dies and you discover that when the elders meet and refer to “the family”, that entity does not include children or spouse.

In other words, when your father dies, his children and his wife/your mother are not regarded as constituting “the family”.

And because the children and spouse are not part of the family, they do not have any rights about the arrangements for the funeral. 

They have responsibilities as children of the dead person, which would include buying coffins, paying for graves and generally finding money to fund the arrangements, but they do not have any rights about the arrangements.

A dead body in Ghana belongs to “the family” and I keep being told this has been affirmed by the courts of the land and it is firmly rooted in our traditional beliefs and practices. 


I have never quite understood why when there is no death and when we are marking other events of life’s milestones, the definition of the family seems different from what a family is defined as when there is a death.

When there is a birth, for example, members of the family stand out very clearly and there is no argument in identifying those who must have a say in how things ought to be done.

When a newborn child is to be named, there is never an argument about the proper family not being told or being involved in the rites that are performed.

During marriages, I have never heard of anybody going to court to get an injunction to stop the ceremony because the real family, the “owners” of the bride or groom have not been properly acknowledged or were not consulted about the date of the wedding.

How come when we go to make donations at weddings or naming ceremonies, we are not obliged to give a percentage of the donation to “the family”?

How come someone, obviously an unqualified person, since he wouldn’t qualify to be called “family” when there is a death, can name a child, make decisions on what schools a child might attend and preside over marital rites, but is not family when this person dies?

These milestones surely are far more important in a person’s life than the disposal of that person’s dead body. 

Strange things

When you look more deeply into this sacred “family” that we have, you find strange things.

I used to feel ever so superior to my European and American friends because I said our definition of family was far more inclusive than theirs. 

I would cite for example, the fact that we don’t make much of a distinction between siblings and cousins, thus, my cousins, the children of my aunts and uncles and my siblings, the children of my mother and father would all be my brothers and sisters.

That works until you start extending my brother and my sister nomenclature to absurd lengths.

My hometown of Abutia is not exactly a big place and if you put your mind to it and want to draw a very detailed family tree, you might end up finding out that all of us from the town are related to one another.

Are all the people from Abutia, therefore, my brothers and sisters? I wonder.

My mother’s people have relations in the nearby town of Sokode and my father has relations from the regional capital Ho, which is some 15 kilometres from Abutia.

If you get my drift, the circle of my brothers and sisters might then extend from the children of Stephen and Augustina Ohene to take in Abutia, Sokode, Ho and whilst we are about it, we might take in the entire Volta Region.

It is probably the same thinking that makes people who would never think of me as family when we are at Abutia or anywhere in the Volta Region, suddenly start calling me “sister” when we meet in Accra or Koforidua.

Once we are in the midst of people who speak a different language, a.k.a strangers, everybody from Abutia and the Volta Region becomes my family.

I don’t suspect that anyone believes that all these people who call each other “nye bro” have any kind of blood relationship.

They are simply people who feel the urge to band together as a form of protection against outsiders. 

But then, there are the family you acquire who do not come from anywhere near your hometown, or region, do not speak the same mother tongue and cannot trace any common ancestry or bloodline.

They started as friends and they became family.

The real McCoy. We should find a proper place for them in our definition of family.    

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