Family and Social Connections
Thursday, May 10, 2012
One of the things I love about The Gambia is the importance of the family. It is the basis of society, it contributes, to a great extent, to people’s definition of themselves.
To have fifteen to thirty people living together in a compound provides a whole community of support and solace. From the very young, to the very old, each has a role to play. The very elderly can offer experience, tell stories about the family, they are likely to be the ones the youngsters go to when seeking advice, they cannot ask their parents, that is too difficult, but grandparents be they direct or extended family, can be more objective.
The less elderly can help with the child care, along with the young people, if a baby is crying anyone will pick her up and play with her, or rock her to sleep, or pass her to the mother for a feed. When a child is upset they may go to an aunt or older cousin for attention, it doesn’t matter who, they all love the child and anyone will do. Then the parents and young people are out all day working and bringing money into the compound, while the older people are looking after the children.
It is one big social welfare system. The extended family is there to support all, it is their duty. If a child cannot be supported by the direct family, there will be an aunt or an uncle who can take them into their compound, they may take on paying school fees, or when a young person needs to move away from home to study or work, there will doubtless be some family member who can take them in, in the new place. The elderly are supported and cared for and do not have to worry about their future.
This is so unlike the majority of the Western world where the elderly are sent off to homes for old people, there is no concept of the responsibilities of the extended family, even the nuclear family, splits up as the children grow older, become more independent and make homes for themselves elsewhere. Their children are farmed out to carers and nurseries, enabling the parents to go out to work, there is no place for grandparents here. There is no feeling of responsibility to support external family members such as cousins, aunts and uncles, never mind more distant relations. There is the welfare state, benefits for those not working or elderly, why should they need family?
However, there are pros and cons for both systems. Some people in The Gambia are beginning to question why they should take on the responsibilities of those more feckless than themselves. A young woman, or man, with a good job, suddenly finds they are head of the household, the father has lost their job, the older brother earns very little, he has a poor education and has ten children and two wives and there are another six siblings to support, four of whom are still at school. So our young woman or man, has to work hard to support everyone, meanwhile they cannot start their own family because it is too expensive. This social welfare system is becoming a real burden for some, particularly the eldest son, who is the one to feel the most responsibility for this large family. The solution? Move out of the compound into her/his own, let the family get on with it? How can you? An added burden in the future will be where to live? Land is running out, as the family expands and family land is used up by more compounds, there are some villages where there is none left and what land is left will have to be paid for, there is none to inherit.
As work in the villages reduces, as farming becomes less economic, the young people will continue to move to the towns. It is very expensive to rent or buy in the towns and jobs are not abundant, how will they survive? Will the extended family be able to support all these people? I don’t think so.
In the West it is a different issue. Young people move away from home, never to return. People lose contact with their wider family, they lose a sense of identity with a community, this releases them to behave in a much more selfish way. They can do what they want, without worrying about its effect on the family or community. Hence our society is fragmenting, everyone is living their individualized lives, there are more people living on their own, enacting their lives through the internet, social interaction is less. The children do not all play together in the streets, the grandparents are not there helping to bring up the children, neither are the parents. People are not helping in the community, watching out for each other. The concept of society is breaking down.
Here, the concept is still strong, it is important, without the strong social bonds, how will people function and survive? This weekend I witnessed these social bonds in action. Some of the younger people, who are now living in the Kombos, or further afield, felt a need to support their village, FoniJarrol,they wanted to help it to develop. They called a meeting, and people came from far and wide to attend.
The aim was to get everyone involved in thinking up and enacting ideas to help the development of the village. The meeting was well attended and everyone had a chance to have their say. However, disappointingly, for the majority of the time, it was all men. The women were busy cooking the delicious lunch, it was unfortunate they were not there to contribute their wisdom. There appears to be good support and commitment, everyone wants to do their bit.
Now the village is looking forward to developing some ideas and improving their situation and those who no longer live there are committed to helping, after all, most of their family and social connections are still there and that is their identity. I sincerely hope that this is the way The Gambia will move forward, that people will not lose their ties with their family, village and community, as we are doing in the West.
Author: Jayne Forbes