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The extended family: blessing or burden?

 Street News Service 14 March 2019

The traditional African structure of the extended family is under pressure in modern day Zambia. Taking care of distant family members is no longer as common as it used to be. (941 Words) - By Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Peggy Kapanda with her ‘extended family: her own three sons and the two daughters to her aunt she took into her home. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Peggy Kapanda with her ‘extended family: her own three sons and the two daughters to her aunt she took into her home. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek


Peggy Kapanda has bad memories of the time she stayed with her uncle when she was young. She was treated as a second-rank child. But this only motivated her to do a better job herself. At her small home in John Laing compound, in Zambia's capital Lusaka, she and her husband take care of two children in addition to their own three young boys.

"They are children to my aunts," Kapanda tells their story. Dorothy, now in the last year of high school, was unable to go to school back in the village where she stayed. The nearest school was far, and after her father died her family had no financial means to send her there.

For Kapanda, a teacher by profession, taking the girl in was a natural thing to do after she saw her situation. "Staying there in the village, without going to school, she would have been married now, with I don't know how many children. I feel pity for these children who have no school, no future."

While her aunt is really thankful to Kapanda for taking in her daughter, she finds a lot of people in town do not understand her. "They see it as wasting money. Why do I educate these children when they won't even stay around to take care of me later? But that is not why I do it."

Taking care of distant family members besides your own small family unit used to be common in Zambia, like in most African cultures. No matter how poor you may be, people are still expected to take responsibility for relatives outside their small nuclear family unit, the so-called extended family.

In Zambia, a proverb in the Bemba language captures it well. 'Clothes can be too small, but food can never be too small to share'. Especially if a family member is doing well, traditionally you could always turn to them for support. But in recent years this culture has slowly been changing, as people also start seeing the disadvantages of this system.

Jack Kampole, a communications consultant and video producer who runs his own company in capital Lusaka, recognizes much of the tensions and pressure that come with family expectations. His hard work has paid off, and he has managed to build his own house in Makeni compound, for his wife and his two kids.

"Before I was married I was already working. I told my brothers: this is the time I can help you pay school fees and everything. But now I am married I have my own family to take care of. I have to make my own plans."

He currently has one of his younger brothers staying with him, but still some family members feel he would be able to do more, and that his big house has plenty of space to keep more of his brothers.

Collins Phiri, who came to Lusaka from the Copperbelt province looking for business opportunities and is now setting up his own taxi business, experienced the same thing.

He feels that if you want to make a career for yourself, it is best to move out of the town where you have your family, because once you start making money, the demands and requests for assistance you get from family members will hold you back, leaving you with little money to save and invest in your own business.

Social welfare organizations and churches have been calling for a return to the extended family system, especially as a way to take care of the country's enormous number of orphans.

As a result of the HIV/Aids crisis there are between 750 000 and 1.2 million orphans in Zambia, according to the HIV/Aids National Strategic Framework 2006-2010. A survey done in Kitwe, Zambia's second largest town, revealed that almost 20 percent of children under 14 did not live with their parents.

"In our family tracing surveys for orphans and street children we have had many cases where we ended up finding the relatives", says Teddy Masuwa. He works for Macnet Zambia, an organization providing counseling and activities for street children, but also trying to reconnect them to their relatives. "But in many cases the relatives refused to take the child," Masuwa says.

"People think: you are an NGO, you must be getting a lot of money from donors, why don't you take care of them?"

Especially in town Masuwa sees this attitude. "In rural areas the extended family system still works, because there families require a lot of manpower. If there is an orphan boy, an uncle will just say: come here, so he can help in cultivating the land. But in town, people don't see a benefit. They will only see their salary getting smaller."

Masuwa blames it on the culture of capitalism, replacing the spirit of 'African humanism' that president and ' father of the nation' Kenneth Kaunda promoted for 27 years after independence. "We were used to staying together. We never knew aunties or cousins. Everybody was your mother or your brother," he recalls.

"Nowadays most people think they will do better when they just focus on their own business, but I don't think that's true. We need each other for development."

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