NAIROBI, KENYA — Nairobi couple Matthias and Theresia have 12 children, most of them now grown up. He is a secondary school teacher. She also trained as a teacher, but does not practise since she looks after Matthias’s mother who has been very ill for several years and who lives near Mombasa, 300 miles away. When Matthias’s brother died, he cared for the four orphans, as is customary among the Coast people, and they have lived with him ever since.

Hamisi is a gardener, also from the Coast, who has five children. When his brother, a fisherman, was drowned at sea in a monsoon storm, Hamisi took in his three children. This custom of the Coastal Bantus, or the Mijikenda, the nine peoples, is common to other tribes and indeed the whole of Africa. Blood ties in Africa remain extremely strong and unbreakable. Orphanages exist, but they are a urban innovation and cater for abandoned babies or street children. In a society where the poor have no recourse to social security or insurance, traditional institutions still come to the rescue, although usually at great sacrifice to the guardians.

Kioko is a night-watchman working in Nairobi. His wife and children live in Kilungu, 150 kilometres south east of Nairobi, where she farms a tiny patch of dry land to help bolster his meagre salary of a little more than a dollar a day. Recently one of their little daughters fell into a fire and burned her face and eyes; she has had plastic surgery. The operation was performed in a government hospital but was not altogether successful and had to be done again. Now Kioko, unbelievably cheerful, patient and trusting in God’s goodness, is trying to pay the hospital bill. Until he manages to raise the money, his daughter cannot be discharged, thus increasing his debt.

Strong traditions

A young woman and her grandmother participate in a ceremony before she leaves for college in the US.(USAID)The African family is strong because it is built on sacrifice and shared suffering and the sanctity of life and of family ties. Births, marriages and deaths are marked with dance and ululation, not only of the nuclear family but of the extended family and close friends. Except in the more developed areas, the circumcision of boys is still practiced with all the ritual, ceremony and solemnity of many centuries. The naming of the newborn is not arbitrary or whimsical; it follows certain rules and procedures. Add the modern “rites of passage” like graduation from school or going abroad to study, and one can understand how in Africa a person is born not just into a nuclear family but into a community, a tradition, which is part of a divine plan.

Attacks on the family are persistent and manifold, but determination, tradition and faith are stronger. For almost 50 years Africa has been a prime target of birth control promoters from countries which also donate aid. Family planning propaganda reaches the farthest corners of the continent through radio. Even nomads tune in. Clinics have boxes of condoms — but probably no aspirins or malaria tablets. Often without their knowledge, women have been sterilised after giving birth in a hospital; others are victims of contraceptive devices rejected in the donor countries.

An anti-birth mentality has insinuated itself among some of the more educated. In some quarters a woman with more than two or three children is ridiculed by her work colleagues. For their part the men are sometimes expected to work unreasonable hours, as in Europe and the United States. Deadlines have to be met and if this means working until midnight and over the weekend, so be it. Consequently, many children grow up closer to the house watchman or gardener than to their father.

A difficult working environment

In 1953 the Carpenter Committee on African Wages published a report on conditions for the workers at the lower end of the social scale. Most colonial powers had the same approach to male workers, whether on plantations or in factories. One-room houses, often known as cubicles, were constructed for the working man, but not for his family. This report said that “there would never be stability in the labour force until there was offered a sufficient salary to keep a man and his family in the place of work”. The target was set for five years later, 1958.

Nearly 50 years later this still has not been implemented. Elsewhere the report stated that “for stability a worker must have a home and not just a bed space”. It was an important distinction. Yet few factory workers and casual workers, often married men with families, have what would be considered a “home” by accepted standards. This separation from wife and family has led to infidelity, promiscuity, countless single mothers, AIDS and a threat to the unity of the family. Where proper houses have been built, they are much smaller than what would be tolerated in more developed countries. Some attribute this to the fact that this is a poor country; others say it is aimed at keeping down family size.

Traditionally women have been entrusted with the education and upbringing of the children. Fathers will only intervene when real need arises. In the evenings men would stay out with their age-mates, those he underwent circumcision with, and return only to sleep. Nowadays, instead of drinking traditional brew in some outdoor meeting-place, they congregate at a bar if they can afford the time and the money. Otherwise, they drink unhealthy local brew, for a man is measured by how much he can “take”.

A man would always be proud of his sons, and not only when they are young and cute. In traditional society once a boy reached adolescence he would be initiated and, in a certain sense, would have “left home.” His point of reference and his companions would be his age-mates until, and even after, he got married. His father would slip slowly into the background. In modern city life, young men stay at home. They bring more trouble than joys to their parents. They mix with their peers, often with disastrous results. But even then, a child is always one of the family; he is never rejected.

Strong women

In Africa women are exceptionally strong. Countless mothers cope with having many children, keeping down a job, taking an active part in social and community life, and filling in for the husband. In Nairobi adult literacy classes, there are many women in their 70s but very few men. AIDS has taken a terrible toll, particularly in areas which offer opportunities for quick cash, such as the fishermen of Lake Victoria, the long-distance lorry-drivers or the matatu (public taxi) conductors. This has left thousands of orphans, many of whom are staying with grandmothers.

There is one I remember particularly, Felista. She lives in Kibera, the largest slum
in sub-Saharan Africa, two square kilometres where an estimated one million people are housed in shacks. You reach her place by jumping over open sewers. She is 80 and has a broken femur. All her seven children have died. She is looking after 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. When she feels well enough she sells vegetables to keep her family together, and yet she manages to crack jokes and enliven the conversation. And Felista is not an exception.

The modern urban African family is threatened by consumerism, and some of the good traditional values are being eroded, but there are many reasons for optimism. Family-unfriendly Western ideas such as gay rights, same-sex marriages, abortion rights and test-tube babies have little or no impact here. Whatever their personal weaknesses may lead them to do, most people know that life is sacred. Even if a man and woman are staying together without the benefit of clergy, they know that they must get married in the sight of God and of the community.

Divorce has always been rare, since a man had paid a dowry for a bride who had left her father’s home. The Kikuyu term for a woman, “mundu wa nja”, for example, means “someone from outside”. Nowadays divorce is a little more common among the more educated and Westernised. Even so, husband and wife are not going to split up because they are “psychologically incompatible”. Marriage preparations and negotiations between their families are elaborate, and they have ample time to get to know each other. Hasty marriages are almost unknown.

Many young couples realise they know little about bringing up children and are very eager to learn. Books on the topic are popular, and many churches and some schools organise activities and sessions to equip parents with the necessary skills.

The African family is under attack, but it is becoming aware of it. Its salvation may be the extended family, the immediate community, and a strong sense of interdependency. Also, Africa is still being evangelised. Many people, including Muslims, take their faith very seriously, including the upbringing of their children. The individualistic money culture has gained a toehold here, but the extended family and its traditions are stronger. There are good reasons to believe that the African family will survive and thrive.

Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.