What is Family – An African Perspective

There is an African saying, “IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD” hence the statement, “IAM BECAUSE WE ARE”. This has been the base and foundation for the African Family Unit for generations.

In the village of Kufa lives an old woman who could be over ninety years of age. Her real age is not known. She is called by the name Gogo “VaShemu”. Gogo, means (Grandmother), which is what all old women over the age of 60 years are known by. She is known as a no-nonsense old lady. Children from the village and beyond coming from school will not misbehave because for fear of the wrath of Gogo VaShemu. She appears when you least expect her and will discipline if you are found misbehaving. The men in the village will not ill-treat their wives, for the fear of what would happen should their wives report them to Gogo VaShemu.  They did not want to be caught on the wrong foot. The “Gogo VaShemu” sterms from the English word, “Shame”. When she is listening to a story she will always say “shame …” as a way of showing her disapproval of wrong doings that come up in the story. This is the reality in most African villages and community setups. Everybody is his or her brother’s keeper. Children grow up knowing that anybody older than them could and would discipline them if found misbehaving. All older women are either mom (if their mother’s age) or auntie or Grandmother. All elderly men are referred to as father, Uncle or Grandfather. The younger generation would refer to their older ones as elder Sister/ brother or younger brother/ younger sister etc. this expressed in vernacular language makes a lot of sense.

This set up is slowly being eroded by the mixture of cultures especially in urban settings where families have become autonomous. However, people are becoming more and more aware that they are losing that family bond within the community. The cohesion that sustained relationships is disappearing to detriment of those that would have benefitted. Most people now believe that something has to be done urgently.  Churches in the urban setting have often established structures that fill in the gapes left behind by the collapsed traditional cultural setup referred to as “Nzanga” in Shona. (A Zimbabwean dialect.)

In the African set up, there is no “orphan”. At a school in the Village of Etu, are five siblings. This means they use the same surname. One is in 2nd year, two of them are in the same class, third year, one is next class and the other one is two years ahead. From the outside, looking at the ages of these children, its puzzling how they can be siblings where there are no twin sets! They call each other brother and or sister and if you ask the question, is this your real brother, they will answer is yes without hesitation. Unless you are really close to one of them or from the community, you will never know that two of the children are orphans from the father’s brother. It is the norm for the family of the deceased to be automatically adopted by the surviving brother or sister, uncle or any close relative. The children of my father’s brothers and my mother’s sisters are all my “brothers and sisters” not cousins as portrayed in the western society. There is no such thing as half-brother or half-sister. It is normal for an African to claim, on more than one occasion, that they have lost a father. This is not cheating or mischief because all the father’s brothers are his or her fathers. One is either a biological father or a father through by way of the family bloodline. The word uncle refers only to the mother’s brothers.

This system eliminates the need for orphanages in our community as they take care of their own and share even the meagre resources. Even the cases of dumped babies are not so common because of the availability of aunts, uncles for shelter and counselling. The concept of orphanages and adoption has been politicized and commercialized and is eroding cultural and moral values while adversely affecting the family unit at the same time. Some of those who start orphanages and adoption agencies are in it mostly for the money. However, this is a subject on its own and cannot be justly dealt with in this article.

When does a person cease to be a child? Is it 18 years, 21 years or any other date later? In the African setting, a child remains a child. An eighteen year old, cannot decide to sleep out or even go out without permission. In the normal African setting, a child will only leave home to live independently when married. In the case where they are going to work away from home, strict guidelines are prescribed and accountability remains a must. They cannot bring a boyfriend or girlfriend to sleep over. There is no question of living together before marriage. It is just not done. Parents have the right to disapprove of a friend or associate of their child.

This helps very much with discipline and acceptance of authority. The parents will respect the child as long as they make good choices. If a child is not happy with the parents, they do not shout at them but seek an aunt or uncle to intervene (close family circle). Talking back to your parents, whether they are wrong or right is unacceptable. If the parents go to church, there is no question of leaving a child behind just because the child does not feel like going to church unless they are an adult. Even when the child has left home, there are certain things expected of him or her as part of the family.

Priscilla P. Penny
International Vice President
The Girls’ Brigade International

website: www.girlsbrigadeafrica.org