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Matrilineal Inheritance

Among most Akan, the family line is matrilineal - in that it passes through the mother to her children. A man is strongly related to his mother's brother (wɔfa) but only weakly related to his father's brother. This must be viewed in the context of a polygamous society in which the mother/child bond is likely to be much stronger than the father/child bond. As a result, in inheritance, a man's nephew (sister's son) (wɔfase) will have priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew relationships therefore assume a dominant position. Although legislation was introduced in Ghana in 1985 to change this traditional pattern of inheritance, in recent decades there have been numerous cases of conflict between family members (children vs. nephews/nieces) over the inheritance of property.

Lineage property has to be inherited only by a member of the matrikin; in contrast, self-acquired property can be given as a gift to anyone the deceased so wishes. The Akan inheritance and succession system stipulates that property and status are transferred from the mother’s brother to sister’s son. It is, however, a more complex principle than the usual examples given in anthropological explanations. When a man’s brothers are available, a consideration of generational seniority stipulates that the line of brothers must be exhausted before the right to succeed passes down to the next senior genealogical generation of sister’s sons.

There are gender issues about inheritance. A man inherits from another man, when it is said that he has taken over his “gun”. A gun (otuo, pl. atuo) was in the past, and still is, a symbol of authority and economic importance. Guns are important for hunting and protecting farms from pests. When negotiating marriage in the past, lineage elders had good reasons to refuse giving their girl to the suitor if he did not own a gun. Guns thus indicated status and were used as an important instrument of recognition. Women inherit from their mothers, sisters or female cousins, and are said to have taken over the deceased’s “hoe”.

The inheritance of a man’s “gun” or a woman’s “hoe” does not mean it is the instruments of production that are passed on; the successor also inherits the deceased’s social and political status. Although men inherit from fellow men and women from fellow women, a woman may inherit from a man if she is the only suitable candidate. Inheritance by women is not as complex as that of men, for rarely do men inherit from women. Is there any reason behind this? An elderly woman informant asked back: “How would the man take the woman’s place among other women in the community, or how would he wear or use her clothes and other possessions?”

In the past, a man raised his own children and his nephews and nieces with ease. His nephew was given particular attention and nurtured to succeed and inherit from the older man. Transformations occurring in Ghana since the 1970s have been affecting many aspects of the lineage organisation. The traditional inheritance rules that a man names his brother or his sister’s son to succeed and inherit the considerably huge property he left behind was sometimes to the disadvantage of the deceased’s own children and wife, although local ideas did not see anything wrong with it; to many, it ensured that property remained in the matrilineal group. Since matriliny and virilocality (or even neo-local residence) make the wife and her children “outsiders” in the husband’s household, they were not expected to enjoy from his property, which may have been part of the lineage property the man may have inherited from his own wɔfa.

Around early 1970s, the writing of a will to show the person to whom the deceased wanted to leave his property became popular. A will as a legal document was obviously an attempt to solve the conflicts about inheritance, but sometimes the prolonged bitter legal battles only display that the situation is far from resolved. The Intestate Succession Law was passed by the State in 1985 (cf. Manuh 1997) and automatically grants two-thirds of a man’s property to his children and widow if he died intestate, with the remainder to his family. These social changes, which have seen the will come into vogue and the promulgation of the intestate law, may have reduced the motivation to take care of other kin members outside the conjugal family. Weddings and civil (registered) marriages are a symbol of status, and it is believed that almost every woman would want to be wedded. Such marriages are usually viewed as insurance—a protective mechanism for the wife and children as outsiders.

Many deceased husbands today leave their property to their wives and children because of weddings, court marriages, and the writing of a will, which emphasize elements of patriarchal (reliance on men) relations at the expense of the matrilineage. Because the will and wedding give the legal backing and ensure that property goes to the children, the mother’s brother is increasingly not required to care for his sister’s son. Moreover, the wɔfa himself may have a wedded wife who would not like him to look after his sister’s son.

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