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This article explores the ways that the institution of the avunculate has been used as an idiom for negotiating forced displacement, dispossession, and insecurity in the forested region where modern-day Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire converge. The essay analyses the ways that the rights and responsibilities that inhere in the MB-ZS relationship are both invoked ‘aspirationally’ by those with no prior link of kinship and parried by those who should in principle be bound by them. This degree of play suggests that the avunculate in this region is best understood as one of several idioms used to legitimate claims made on others, often in times of uncertainty and instability. Rather than treat this relationship as an always-already existing social institution, the article suggests that it is also the product of a historical experience of persistent warfare, displacement, and flight.