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A Survey of the Consanguine or Matrifocal Family

Princeton University

NTHROPOLOGISTS have often used extreme examples as heuristic devices or as illustrations of general points. I n this paper I will consider the matrifocal family, which is usually thought of as a n extreme variant from the normal range of family types, in the hope that a discussion of this extreme form may lead to a more general understanding of the external variables affecting the structure of the family in human societies. I will first define my terms, then give a brief description of the archetype of the matrifocal family, and, finally, review some of the attempts which have been made to explain its existence. I will criticize theories which have been offered as explanations and attempt to describe, in as general terms as possible, the conditions in which the matrifocal family is to be found. I n conclusion, I will attempt to indicate something of the general significance of this type of family for the comparative study of social organization.

The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction (hlurdock 1949: 1). Within the family all members are related, either in fact, putatively, or potentially, by blood or marriage. The matrifocal family is a co-residential kinship group which includes no regularly present male in the role of husband-father. Rather, the effective and enduring relationships within the group are those existing between consanguineal kin (Solien 1959: Abstract).2 An examination of the ethnographic literature indicates that the matrifocal family may occur within societies in a continuum defined by two fairly highly correlated variables from a situation in which it is highly institutionalized and the normally expected type to a situation where it is not directly institutionalized and occurs with relatively low frequency.

The Archetype
The most extreme form of the matrifocal family is probably the traditional Nayar family of the Malabar Coast of south India. The Nayars were a landlord and military caste. Here the family would normally be composed of an older mother, perhaps her brother, the mothers daughters, and their children. The young and adult males were off serving in the army. Girls married a t a relatively early age, after which any children they bore were considered legitimate, but the girls remained in their natal homes and never established co-residence with their husbands. The women might take one or several


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lovers who visited them a t night, but did not take u p co-residence. I n old age, the mature men who retired from military service returned to their natal homes (Gough 1954). This type of family clearly fits the definition of the matrifocal family which was originally developed in the Caribbean area, At the other end of the continuum we might expect to find instances where the matrifocal family was not institutionalized, not common, and where it could be explained on purely demographic grounds. For example, in our society a widow and her children who formed a residence unit would be a matrifocal family, although this would not necessarily be an institutionalized form and might be a relatively rare occurrence. The existence of the hypothetical widow and her children is not, however, devoid of social significance. We might ask why, for example, she was normally allowed to remain unmarried, and why she was not involved in some such custom as the levirate; likewise we might ask how it was that her family could survive or whether a very high proportion of families of similar composition could survive. Evidently even this accidental sort of matrifocal family implies some supporting social norms, or might be spoken of as being indirectly institutionalized or supported.

Theories of Ihe Matrijocal Family

Theories of the matrifocal family can be discussed under a number of categories, according to the types of variables which are considered to be important. These include demographic, historical, value systems, role systems and socio-economic variables. A satisfactory theory would be one which applied to all cases and which involved a minimum of variables. We will begin our review of theories with a further examination of the demographic, more or less accidental conditions which could lead to a high proportion of matrifocal families in the community. I there were more fef males than males available for the formation of families, this might lead to the existence of matrifocal families in the absence of contravening institutions such as polygyny or delayed age of marriage for females. How might an unbalance of the sex ratio occur a t the appropriate ages? (By appropriate age we mean simply age a t marriage.) Given normal expectations of life, we could have a surplus of females under a number of circumstances including: 1) delay of age of marriage for males, in which case, because of normal death rates, there would be more females than males of a marriageable age; 2) normal operation of age and sex-specific death rates which would act to reduce the numbers of males in a population relative to the number of females as age advances, thus altering the sex ratio in the relevant portion of the population; 3) increased mortality for males in the marriageable ages, or before marriage, beyond the normally expected higher rate for males, e.g., due to war mortality, would have a similar effect (if this were the cause, it would have to continue indefinitely since the sex ratio would return to normal levels after a single generation in which there was not abnormal mortality); 4) sex differences in migration rates.


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I t is possible to make mathematical calculations of the effects of these several devices for alteration of the relevant sex ratios, given certain assumptions about the nature of the population parameters and marriage customs? General conclusions which are suggested by preliminary investigations of this sort are as follows: In societies characterized by high birth and death rates, the normal differences in mortality between males and females will have little effect on producing abnormal sex ratios during the relevant age periods. A delay in age of marriage for males of approximately five years4 will have a relatively large effect in producing a higher ratio of females to males in this type of population, especially if the population is expanding. As life expectancy increases, the effects of normal sex differences in mortality may increase to produce more females in the relevant age category-the extent of this effect depends on the rate of growth of the population. As age of marriage is delayed for both males and females, the normal operation of sex differences in mortality will increase the proportion of females in the relevant ages. The effects of differential migration and abnormal (war) mortality have an obvious and direct effect on the relevant sex ratio. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that the demographic predisposition for the production of matrifocal families will exist in societies where age of marriage is delayed for men (or is made earlier for women), especially where the population is expanding and is characterized by a moderate or low mortality rate, or where there is a surplus of male migration, or abnormal male mortality. We have already indicated that some minimum of supporting institutions is necessary for the matrifocal family-e.g., a matrifocal family would not exist in a society in which the levirate was strongly enforced. I n other words, although demographic considerations may generate the population conditions for the appearance of the matrifocal family, they do not in themselves offer a complete explanation of how the family is supported in the society.

Historical Explanations
Frazier (1939) has suggested that the Negro family in America shows a high proportion of matrifocal families as a result of the conditions of slavery, in which there was direct intervention by slaveholders in the families of the Negro slaves. It seems likely that this explanation is partially valid in those specific circumstances where the Negro family took this form. However, i t is not an adequate general explanation, since many of the societies in which the matrifocal family is found were never subjected to the conditions of slavery. The economic conditions which Frazier suggests as supporting the matrifocal family, once it was created, are discussed later. Herskovits (1941, 1943) has considered the matrifocal family to be the historical descendent of African polygynous families from which the father has been forcibly removed. Again, this theory of survival is too specific to account for the presence of similar family forms in non-Negro populations such as the Nayar. It also begs the question of why this trait survived while others did not.


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I n general, historical explanations seem too specific t o account for the worldwide distribution of this family form.

Value System Explanations

Kreiselman has emphasized the role of values in her explanation of the matrifocal family in Martinique. Although she accepts the idea that social arrangements make their own values (Kreiselman 1959, citing Arensberg 1957), she has attempted to account for the high proportion of matrifocal families by referring to the absence of the rule of legitimacy in the Martinique value system. The absence of this rule (which specifies that every child shall have a socially recognized father) depends on three conditions: The absence of the extended family or unilineal descent group, . . . a strong neolocal preference, . . (and) the sanctioning of the fruits of any sexual behavior (Kreiselman 1959: 296297). The absence of the rule of legitimacy, although it does not necessarily cause any particular household type, will make possible the sub-conjugal household (Kreiselman 1959: 296) which is the matrifocal type, according to our terminology. I believe Kreiselmans theory can be disputed on two grounds, logical and empirical. The argument appears circular a t worst, or improperly stated a t best: absence of the rule of legitimacy would appear to be equivalent to the sanctioning of the fruits of any sexual behavior, so it would not seem proper to cite the latter as a cause of the former. Perhaps this is a matter of definition. This is not the place to debate definitions of value but it would seem best to look instead for the social conditions which are described as requisite for the matrifocal family. Kreiselmans explanation quite obviously does not apply to the traditional Nayar society in which there was a strongly solidary matrilineal descent group, matrilocality (or duolocality), and recognition of the principle of legitimacy. Furthermore, I can see no junctional reason why the matrifocal family cannot develop in the face of general rules of matrilocality or duolocality as well as with neolocality, although it does seem to be functionally incompatible with patrilocality. Likewise, since social recognition of biological maternity seems to be a cultural universal, there seems to be no reason why the matrifocal family could not be associated with matrilineality (as indeed it was among the Nayar)-again, patrilineality seems to be in conflict with this family form, since there would be little to establish the childs rights in his patrilineage.6 It would seem that Kreiselman is actually explaining the high rate of illegitimacy in Martinique rather than developing an explanation for the matrifocal family. We cannot here consider further the adequacy of her explanation of high illegitimacy rates.

Functional Explanations I functional analyses are to be valid, as a part of a comparative science of f societies, they must have universal as well as particular applicability. I n other


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words, results of the analyses must apply not only to the society which is under consideration, but also to all societies, or a t least a well defined set of societies, when a finite number of conditions are met. This point is so obvious that it would seem unnecessary to state explicitly were it not for the fact that the requirement for universal applicability is rarely met in functional analyses. Too often the researcher neglects to recognize that he is stating general principles of social organization in attempts to understand any society.6 We do not mean to deny the historical uniqueness of any society, but as scientists we must have faith in our ability to generalize, or we will never be able to test any of our hypotheses. The functional analysis of a society which can be applied only to that society is not scientifically satisfactory, even for that society. Several authors have indicated the relationship between economic structure and family structure and, in particular, have pointed to the presence of the matrifocal family in situations where males were unable to fulfill their family economic roles successfully (e.g., Smith 1956, Greenfield 1959, Solien 1959). I believe this explanation to be partially true, but too specific in the form in which it has been stated by students of the Caribbean family. Solien, for example, in a study of the Black Caribs of Guatemala (which is actually the most widely comparativc study so far), has stated the following requisites for the existence of the matrifocal family: 1) a society in which the traditional culture has been forcibly changed or dissolved through the intervention of forces from the Western world; 2) entrance into the Western economic system through migrant wage labor; and 3) possibly an imbalance of the sex ratio, resulting in a preponderance of females of childbearing age (Solien 1959: Abstract). Solien (as well as most other modern authors) rejects the historical theories of Herskovits and Frazier and also rejects the idea that the matrifocal family is an indication of social disorganization. Rather, she sees it as a functional adaptation t o the above-mentioned conditions, which are widely found in Caribbean and other communities. I intend now to introduce several other crucial cases from the anthropological literature to refine and modify this functional explanation. We shall be asking questions about the necessity and sufficiency of the conditions which have been suggested. Are these requisites found in all cases of the matrifocal family, and do they always produce the matrifocal family where they are present? The conditions specified by Solien do seem to fit several other Caribbean communities, such as those of Negroes in British Guiana and in Barbados (Smith 1956, Skinner 1955, Greenfield 1959). Ordinarily these societies have a sharp sexual division of labor, in which the men are seasonally employed as agricultural wage laborers, away from the places where their families live, or may migrate semi-permanently, unaccompanied by females. Females are usually locally occupied with subsistence agriculture, or perhaps with agricultural wage labor, or trade within the area of their residence. I n these communities matrifocal families account for 20 to 40% of the total number of residence groups.


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We have already mentioned the traditional Nayar of India prior to British rule. They had an even more extreme sexual division of labor. Most of the adult males were employed for wages as soldiers of the regional rulers. They spent most of their time away from their home village in this occupation. I n old age they retired to the home of their mother, where they took an important role in family affairs. The Nayars residence groups were strongly solidary matrilineal kin-groups, which controlled rights to the cultivation of certain lands, from which they received most of their income. As we have said, the family was the archetype of the form we call matrifocal, and all of the residence groups seem to have been of this type. The contemporary Mescalero Apache reservation population (Kunstadter 1961) is dependent on a variety of economic resources including office wage work, manual labor in logging, road building and cattle herding, payments from communally run livestock, and welfare. Females have access t o all these sources of income except manual labor, and their occupations allow them to remain in their normal residences; males have access to all sources of income, but many of the jobs available to them, such as logging or cattle herding, involve temporary or semi-permanent separation from the females. The group was traditionally bilateral and remains so today; traditionally, marriage involved bride-service; today the ideal of neolocality cannot always be realized because of a severe local housing shortage. An actual survey of residence groups reveals that the nuclear family (often with additional children, usually those of the wife and mother) is the most common type, with approximately 15% matrifocal families and about 1.5~0 patrilineally extended or patrifocal (i.e., no regularly present female in the role of wife-mother). Let us re-examine the necessity and sufficiency of the requisites Solien has suggested for the matrifocal family in light of these cases. One common feature in all cases presented so far (Black Carib, Guiana Negro, Barbados Negro, Nayar and Mescalero) is participation in an economic system, the scope of which is larger than the local community. This emerges despite the fact that local group has usually been the unit of study by the anthropologist. The Nayar case illustrates the fact that this economic system need not be Western so long as it is supracommunal and involves a complex division of labor which allows separation of adult males and females. Neither must there be intervention by forces from the Western world. I t is an accident of history that the Western world has been the agency for intervention or introduction of complex economies and simultaneously has acted to prevent other solutions to the family problems raised by these economies. Furthermore, migrant labor, especially the migrant agricultural labor of the type found in the Caribbean, is an unnecessarily particular statement of the sexual division of labor. Neither the Nayar nor the Mescalero have this pattern, yet both show the matrifocal family. Also, if migrant agricultural labor were a sufficient requisite, we would expect that the matrifocal pattern would exist among migrant Anglo-American farm laborers, but evidently this is not so. We will discuss this case later. Soliens suggestion of wage labor implies a money economy. The relation-


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ship of a money economy to this family type is not entirely clear. The presence of a money economy may be functionally related to the requirement of a physical separation of adult males from adult females, which is involved in divisions of labor of the type with which we are dealing. It might seem that money, or some readily portable medium of exchange, makes possible some economic connection, however tenuous, between adult males and adult females despite their physical separation. However, the Nayar case illustrates one other way which may be used to maintain economic connections between males and females. The traditional Nayars were only marginally involved in a money economy while living in their villages, and the traditional family system actually broke down a t the time a money economy was introduced a t the village level. I n the traditional Nayar system, the older men returned from army service to their natal (not marital) homes, where they managed and controlled family economic interests. Thus, contrary to what Smith (1956) suggests for British Guiana, the Nayar males did have important family economic roles-but in their natal, not marital families. The importance of a money economy for the matrifocal family seems to be that money is associated with complex economies, and complex economies are necessary for the type of division of labor which separates most adult males from adult females within the local c ~ m m u n i t y . ~ To summarize, the proportion of matrifocal families in the community appears to be a function (in the mathematical and social sense) of the degree of physical separation of adult males and adult females involved in the division of labor. I n order for this physical separation to take place, the group in question must be a part of a larger economic system, and that system, as a concomitant of its complexity, usually will use money as a medium of exchange. This would seem to be a trite and obvious observation-if there are few eligible men around, and if the women have children, there will necessarily be matrifocal families. This is not the case, however, since the unbalanced sex ratio might easily be handled in several other ways including polygyny, female infanticide, or reduced age of marriage for males.8 I t is not my purpose to explain why these choices have not ordinarily been made, but it is clear historically that Western intervention has acted directly against polygyny and female infanticide, and frequently directly against reduced age of marriage for males through compulsory school attendence. The unbalanced sex-ratio in the communities under consideration should probably not be thought of so much as a cause of the matrifocal family but as an additional effect of the division of labor involving separation of the sexes. We will have more to say about this in consideration of situations in which the matrifocal family does not exist. We can add a negative requisite (i.e., a condition which must not exist) by examining cases in which the matrifocal family has not developed. The Mambwe, an agricultural and cattle herding people of Northern Rhodesia, have a somewhat less extreme division of labor than do the Nayars or the Caribbean Negroes. Both males and females participate in the subsistence agriculture and


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herding. The males, however, occasionally leave home to seek wage work in the copper mines. Ordinarily the men are accompanied by their dependents; but when the dependents do not accompany the migrating males, they are taken care of by his patrilineal relatives. The Mambwe were traditionally patrilineal, with solidary local patrilineages (i.e., in effect they were patrilocal). These patrilineages have continued to function under changed economic conditions involving migrant labor. A sex ratio of up to two adult females to one adult male in some Mambwe communities has apparently not led to the development of matrifocal families (Watson 1958). I n addition, there is no indication that matrifocal families tend to develop in the case of rural European migrants (Thomas 1939) or among migrant farmers of European descent in the U. S. (Jamieson 1942, McWilliams 1942). I n these cases whole families tend to migrate and work together in agricultural occupations. These cases suggest that the matrifocal family will not develop when families migrate as wholes, or where there are patrilocal families which can take up the slack while males are away from the community. Note that I am not saying that a strong patrilineal tradition will prevent the development of matrifocal families-as I have already mentioned, Skinner in a study of British Guiana (1955) has shown that patrilineal East Indians begin to develop matrifocal families when living under the same economic conditions as the Guiana Negroes, especially after neolocality has developed and wives are able to inherit their husbands homes. In sum, matrifocal families develop as a result of the division of labor separating adult males and adult females in a community; other solutions to problems of reproduction and residence in a community with an unbalanced adult sex ratio may be unavailable due to Western intervention, although these alternatives may not always be chosen when available. General Conclusions Turning now to wider considerations, I think that this rather aberrant form of family has some implications for the study of the evolution and structure and function of the human family. The matrifocal family has been considered as primitive, by Frazier (1939), for example, in his analysis of the Negro family in America. Likewise the mother-centered family has played a role as an early stage in generally discredited theories of the evolution of the human family (e.g., Bachofen 1861). Our survey indicates that the matrifocal family is not a primitive form, since, as we have seen, the existence of this family type everywhere depends on the existence of a complex division of labor. The nuclear family is commonly assumed to be a cultural universal (e.g., Bell and Vogel 1960). For example, Murdock has stated: The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping, Either as the sole prevailing form of the family, or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. . The view of Linton that the nuclear family plays an insignificant



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role in the lives of many societies receives no support from our data (Murdock 1949: 2-3). The data presented in this paper indicate clearly that there are some communities in which the nuclear family is greatly deemphasized or may in fact be absent as a strongly functional group. I n other words, the nuclear family is not universal. But blurdock would be entitled to more than a minor quibble in this regard, since all of the groups we have discussed as examples of the matrifocal family have been parts of larger socioeconomic systems in which the nuclear family has been present. Given the present state of agreement on units of social analysis, there is no satisfactory solution to this quibble. We need better definitions of our units before we state universals. Nevertheless, it would seem that certain trends of modernization and reduction of family economic roles could lead to a situation in which the requisites for the matrifocal family were spread to a larger portion of any given society, including our own. The rising proportion of matrifocal families in U. S. society may be an indication of this (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1961, table no. 31). The question of why adult males are ordinarly more or less permanently attached to families as husband-fathers in the vast majority of contemporary human societies has not been answered in this paper, although it might be suggested that it has something to do with the sexual division of labor. We might ask another unanswered question now that we have shown that the nuclear family is not universal, Why do we not find in the vast array of human societies a t least one in which the patrifocal family is emphasized, e.g., one in which children are taken away from their mothers as soon as they are beyond the age of necessary physical dependency, and transferred to the homes of their fathers? Presumably such a situation might exist in communities with complex economies which had patrilineality and patrilocality combined with separation of adult males and females. Investigation along these lines might lead us to further conclusions with respect to the origin of the family and its functions.

The phrase by marriage may be redundant since within a nuclear family the married couple is (potentially) related to each other by blood through their common children. For this reason the term matrifocal is preferable to the term consanguine for the type of family under consideration here, since all families are consanguine (related by blood). Note that we have not said that females in this type of family hold ultimate authority, nor have we said anything about the existence of or conditions of marriage. Consistent with Murdocks definition of family, we use the term to refer to a residential kinship group. Defined in this way the term matrifocal may be applied to families which have otherwise been labeled consanguine, Caribbean, West Indian, or suhconjugal. For purposes of these qualitative estimates we have made use of the following somewhat unrealistic assumptions: all eligible individuals marry when they reach the appropriate age; there is no divorce, and no remarriage of widowed individuals; sex ratio at birth is normally in the range of 103-105 males per 100 females; population parameters are as described in United Nations publication ST/SOA/Series A, Population Studies, No. 2.5. I t might be noted that the Irish peasant family (Arensberg and Kimball 1940), in which age at marriage is greatly delayed, especially for males, does not fit our model, since the injunction for everyone to marry is not en-


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forced, and since female emigration apparently occurs a t a higher rate than male emigration, resulting in a preponderance of males of the relevant age. I.e., males are five years older than females when they marry. It has been reported that traditionally patrilineal East Indian families have tended to develop matrifocal residence units under economic and acculturative conditions of the British Guianas while a t the same time they are becoming bilineal or nonlineal (Skinner 1955). I n general, legitimacy would seem to be functionally more important in patrilineal as contrasted with nonpatrilineal societies. 6 For example, Greenfield has stated as his objective to apply a combination of both structural-functional and cultural-historical analysis to the Barbadian family and thereby explain the several (family) forms observed. My conclusions, even where valid outside of Barbados, are not intended as a general explanation. . . . (Greenfield 1959:15-16). I would maintain that any functional explanation is inadequate unless it has general applicability. The local sex ratio need not be radically disturbed if, for example, there is some form of caste restriction on marriage so that not all local males are eligible to marry any surplus females. * Reduced age of marriage for males is mentioned here rather than increased age of marriage for females since the reproductive age for women is biologically more constricted than it is for men.

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MCWILLIAMS, CAREY 1942 I11 fares the land: migrants and migratory labor in the United States. Boston, Mass., Little, Brown and Co. MURDOCK, GEORGE P. 1949 Social structure. New York, The Macmillan Company. SKINNER, ELLIOTT P. 1955 Ethnic interaction in a British Guinea rural community: a study in secondary acculturation and group dynamics. Columbia University doctoral dissertation. Ann Arbor, Michigan, University Microfilms. T. SMITH, RAYMOND 1956 The Negro family in British Guiana: family structure and social status in the villages. London, Routledge & Regan Paul, Ltd. SOLIEN, NANCIE L. 1959 The consanguineal household among the Black Carib of Central America. University of Michigan doctoral dissertation. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UniversityMicrofilms. THOMAS, ROT^ S. DO 1939 Migration, marriage, and divorce. Rural Sociology, 4, 2: 155-165. UNITED NATIONS, DEPARTMENT SOCIAL OF AFFAIRS, DIVISION POPULATION OF 1956 Manuals on method of estimating population, Manual 111, methods for populationprojections by sex and age. United Nations publication ST/SOA/Series A, Population Studies, no. 25. U. S. DEPARTMENT COMMERCE, OF BUREAU THE CENSUS OF 1961 Statistical abstract of the United States: 1961 (Eighty-second annual edition). Washington, D. C., U. S. Government Printing Office. WATSON, WILLIAM 1958 Tribal cohesion in a money economy: a study of the Mambwe people of Northern Rhodesia. Manchester, Manchester University Press on behalf of the RhodesLivingstone Institute.