Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

ZAMBIA: The Extended Family – Blessing or Burden?

LUSAKA, Mar 15 2011 - Peggy Kapanda has bad memories of the time she spent living 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 other children in addition to their own three young boys.

Peggy Kapanda with her extended family: her own three sons and two young cousins she has also taken into her home. Credit:  Jorrit Meulenbeek/SNS

Peggy Kapanda with her extended family: her own three sons and two young cousins she has also taken into her home. Credit: Jorrit Meulenbeek/SNS

“They are my aunts’ children,” says Kapanda. Dorothy, now in the last year of high school, was unable to go to school in the village where she stayed. The nearest school was far away, 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. “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 grateful, Kapanda finds a lot of people in town do not understand her action. “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 beyond your own small family unit used to be common in Zambia, like in most African cultures. No matter how poor one may be, people are still expected to take responsibility for others in their extended family.


In Zambia, a proverb in the Bemba language captures it well: “Clothes can be too small, but food can never be too little to share”. But in recent years this culture has slowly been changing, as people start to see the disadvantages of this system.

Changing circumstances, changing attitudes

Jack Kampole, a communications consultant and video producer who runs his own company in the capital Lusaka, recognises the tensions and pressure that come with family expectations. Through hard work, 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 some family members feel he would be able to do more, and that his big house has plenty of space for more of his brothers.

Collins Phiri, who came to Lusaka from the Copperbelt province looking for business opportunities, experienced the same thing.

He is now setting up his own taxi business, and 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 AIDS pandemic 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 organisation providing counseling and activities for street children, but also trying to reconnect them to their families.

“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?”

Masuwa sees this attitude especially in towns. “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 former president 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.”

* Published under an agreement with Street News Service.

 
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