Soon after I’d arrived in Tanzania to teach school, I was sitting outside with my fellow teachers one evening as four men walked by in single file. I thought I recognized the first, and asked who he was. “The brother of the last,” one of my new colleagues replied.

I was taken aback. I had expected the name of a distinct individual, but instead I got a relationship that meant little to me.

I should have known better. In studying Swahili, I’d learned that one’s father’s brothers are all referred to as “fathers” – “big fathers” if they were older than one’s own father and “little fathers” if they were younger. The same applies to one’s mother and her sisters. And one’s cousins were all “brothers” and “sisters,” as people were defined by their relationships to one another across generations.

In conversations, people were not referred to by name, but by relationship. Thus, “Assumwisiye” was referred to as “our father’s brother,” or “our little father,” such that one had to learn how everyone was related to one another if one was to understand whom they were referring to.

Thus, one person might refer to someone as my “big sister” while another referred to the same individual as my “little mother,” thoroughly confusing the stranger who did not know how the three were related to one another (in this case, the two speakers were “uncle” and “nephew”). This was easy for people who lived their whole lives in small, close-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else, but it was a daunting task for a stranger, and I never was sure I had it right.

But it was an enduring lesson in how Africans think about people very differently than we do. Whereas we see each person as a unique individual, each with his or her own distinctive name, Africans see people as members of a family or kinship group, defined by their relationships with others in the group, and people live to serve the group, not themselves.

Kinship was a theory of society long before it was discovered by anthropologists, and it casts new light on how we understand human behavior.

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