Family life in different cultures
Posted by Mission Catalyst at 10:56 on 25th May 2010
Read fascinating insights and stories about family life from BMS workers in Angola, D R Congo, Nepal and Uganda by clicking the four links below:
Lynne Brown explains why weddings in Angola are a true family affair.
Mum, dad and 2.4 children used to be what constituted the family unit in Britain.
This has never been the case in Angola. In fact, in a society where everyone is called brother or mother, sister or father, it can be very hard to work out who is related to who and how.
This situation is complicated further as wives and husbands die young and the partner remarries, or when the parents in a family separate and find other partners.
“He’s my brother – same dad, same mum.”
“He’s my brother – same dad, different mum.”
“He’s my brother, son of my uncle.” “ Oh, you mean he’s your cousin?” “ No, he’s my brother.”
It can all be really confusing, but at the end of the day it’s the fact that you are family that counts. That sense of belonging and mutual help is vital for survival in a country where educational opportunities are poor and health care not even a lottery.
Benefits & responsibilities
In the Bacongo people group, family pulls together and pools resources to educate children, get treatment at hospital, and bury other family members and so on.
Being part of a family has its benefits but also carries huge responsibilities and, if you don’t fulfil your family obligations, something very bad could happen to you as a result.
Take the case of two young people who would like to get married. He has to write a letter to her family, declaring his interest. This should be accompanied by about $250.
It isn’t her mum and dad who receive the letter, it is the family, and the family, especially aunt and uncle, decide if the young man is suitable.
If he meets the criteria, the family writes a list of goods and money that they require for a dowry. In the past, this was merely a symbol of commitment, but nowadays dowries are big business.
Included in the list are such things as suits for father and uncle. Good quality cloth and gold necklaces and earrings for mum and auntie, shoes, crates of fizzy drinks and bottles of alcohol.
Money is also required and the going rate for Luanda is $1,000. It can take years for the young people to save enough to fulfil the dowry.
If they decide just to get married in a state ceremony, any illness or difficulties with conceiving or with children will be blamed on them not fulfilling the family obligations. The bride’s family in turn is responsible for the wedding party.
The bride never really leaves her family. Yes, she goes and lives with her husband, but she remains a voice in the decision making process of her family.
It has been described as her being on loan from the family to her husband and any children are hers and her family’s first, male children being the most important.
The family system has huge strengths for survival but can cause difficulties and divided loyalties for those who are Christians. It’s not easy for Christian young people to remain pure until marriage when they have to provide large dowries.
How easy is it for them to take a stand against the superstitions of the wider family? When an influential family member suggests taking a sick child to the witchdoctor it is not easy to refuse, even when you know that it is only God who can help.
What a blessing when families are Christian and seek to put God first and so avoid many of the pitfalls of the superstitions in families. We need to be praying for God to strengthen these families.
By Lynne Brown, BMS worker in Angola
Pat Woolhouse tells the story of Congolese teacher Katendi Menga Fidèle.
In the old days, teachers were respected members of the community in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These days, with very small salaries, it is hard for them to support their own nuclear families, let alone do anything for the wider family.
They don’t generally enjoy much respect any more, so it’s even more surprising that Katendi Menga Fidèle is regarded as the head of the family and consulted on most decisions.
He’s not the oldest member, but even the older ones seem to look to him. An uncle (a pastor) relies on him to keep a fatherly eye on his (grown-up) family, who also live in Kimpese.
One of the two women – only slightly younger than Fidèle – recently wanted to marry. She has a teenage daughter but had never been married. However, when the opportunity came, it was Fidèle whose permission was sought and who was expected to arrange everything.
A younger brother died not too long ago of Aids. We knew what the situation was and Fidèle went off to visit him in hospital. His own wife and children had told the doctors not to give him any further treatment, but deferred to Fidèle when he remonstrated with them.
The young man died anyway, but Fidèle was able to be a Christian influence at the otherwise pagan funeral and also persuade the wife (who tested positive for HIV but is still in good health) that she needed to get medical help in order to stay healthy.
The man had already been caring for the oldest daughter for some years and she (a pupil in the school) was remarkably unaffected by her father’s death, telling us that she already had a new father who had done more for her that her biological parents.
Fidèle’s influence is not limited to his own family, for he is responsible for all who live in his part of the CECO medical centre and has spent many nights helping with sick people who need to be carried to the dispensary, dealing with marriage problems and other family palavers.
He’s recently taken under his wing two young men who were both staying in Kimpese to complete their final year at school. One had already lost his mother, and his father had abandoned the family and returned to Angola. The other one has a caring, but widowed, mother in Angola. The two of them set up home together and looked to Fidèle for guidance.
They’ve now both finished and so will be moving on – but there will be others to take their place, I am sure.
By Pat Woolhouse, a BMS worker in D R Congo
Alan and Megan Barker write about priorities and permissions in Nepali families
Traditionally Nepal is a patriarchal society. Women’s rights are only really now being addressed.
This is shown in a small way everyday at meal times when the senior males will eat first (served by the mother or grandmother of the house) followed by younger boys and then most of the other females and then lastly the person who did the cooking – either the mother or the youngest daughter-in-law.
It can mean that when food is short the females in the family will have to go without. This can also be embarrassing as guests if you are not used to it as you may be served and be expected to eat separately or maybe with the men, but the mother will just serve and watch until you are finished.
Another way this is shown is in education. Boys will be expected to complete their schooling but girls, if they are allowed to go to school at all, will often only complete a few years and then be expected to help at home. This attitude is changing in the cities and in more educated families but is still strong in the rural and poor areas.
Most family units in Nepal consist of a large extended family of three or four generations. The females are expected to do all the household chores, work in the fields and tend to the animals. (Nepal is one of only a few countries where the life expectancy of women is lower than men.)
When a male family member reaches marriageable age it is expected that the chosen bride (arranged marriage) will move into the family home where she will have to work for the rest of her husband’s family.
The youngest daughter-in-law gets the most menial tasks. Again, this attitude is changing in the cities and in more educated families but is still strong in the rural and poor areas.
Some examples: a friend of ours, who is now a Christian, was married off when he was young but he didn’t really want to get married. He agreed to it however by saying that he didn’t want a wife but his parents would have a daughter-in-law (ie someone to help around the house).
Another friend, a female, got married at about age 28 – quite late for Nepal. However, she still needed permission from her in-laws to carry on her job as a secretary. They also said she didn’t need to wear a sari – the traditional clothes of a married woman.
It is very common across Nepal for a married man to get a job in another parta of the country, or abroad, and to leave his wife at home with his parents to continue helping around their house.
Society in general respects age too and so the eldest male in a family will be the one with the most respect in the family and in the local area too.
Although it is also said that the one who holds the rice spoon (ie the one who serves the food – mother or grandmother) is the one who actually makes the final family decisions… but only in private!
Alan and Megan Barker are BMS workers in Nepal
Caroline and Steve Sanderson explain how domestic relations work for many people in Uganda – and how the Church should respond.
People often comment admiringly on the almost total absence of divorce in Uganda.
There are of course some wonderful, warm, loving, mutually-enriching Ugandan couples. In some cases, interlinked, interdependent marital ties bind people together economically and socially, for better or worse.
However, in many cases across Uganda the story is one of abandoned wives struggling mightily to raise their children with little or no help from their husbands.
The cliché pictures the men drinking local brew under the mango tree and the women working in the field with an infant strapped on their back.
We are close friends with a few great Ugandan husbands/fathers that buck the trend, but generally, maintaining the status quo of domestic relations in Uganda is considered to be sacrosanct.
Here is one example of a friend who typifies the courage of the African woman on one hand and the desperate need for the cultural rule book on domestic relations to be redrawn on the other.
Maria is a mother, grandmother, women’s leader, evangelist and by some tenuous stretch of Ugandan customary law, also a wife. However, like many women across Africa, Maria is one of various wives taken by her husband.
Polygamy is permitted when people marry under custom rather than in church. If a man can pay the bride price then he can ‘purchase’ as many wives as he can afford. Domestic violence is often the upshot in an unequal relationship between a husband and a ‘bought possession’ (his wife).
Maria’s story is no different. Beaten and discarded, Maria has long since been left by her husband, leaving her to feed herself and the children she bore him.
Maria and her husband had three children. A few years ago, her son was presented with a baby, delivered on his doorstep by his ex-girlfriend. Maria is now raising her grandson as though she was the mother as her actual son completes his studies.
More recently, Maria’s sister died. Her two orphaned children, faced with becoming another child-headed family statistic, were rescued by the ‘Ugandan social services network’ (aka move in with Auntie Maria).
Food, school fees, rent, medical bills and clothing all need to be paid for. Maria cannot cope with all of these demands. In order to help out, Maria’s eldest daughter works in a remote corner of the West Nile region of Uganda saving her money to cover the expenses at home.
The expectation in many African households is that the mother will be the home co-ordinator and then uncles, children, overseas sponsors or relatives will contribute to the survival pool.
Although the law provides for divorce and alimony, as well as maintenance for children, the absence of access to justice means that itinerant polygamous husbands continue to neglect their parental responsibilities.
People will generally know that Christian teaching opposes divorce but have very little understanding of what Christian teaching says in the positive about marriage and parenting.
Poverty eradication is part of the answer to the domestic relations malaise but the bigger questions lie with the Church’s need to emphasise monogamous, committed, life-long marriage in the style of Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3.
Caroline and Steve Sanderson are BMS workers in Uganda. Names in the article have been changed to protect identities.