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The family as a natural environment

In Africaone can become a member of a family in various different ways: as well as biological birth, alliance, the blood pact, marriage, and so forth. In each one of these cases one becomes a real member of a specific family. To understand the nuances of the concept of an African family it is first of all necessary to analyse the concept of the human person that people in Africa have. According to the African vision, man is fundamentally a bundle of relations, on these he lives and for these he is striving. He is conceived of not only as an isolated individual, but as belonging to a community, a family, whose members are always in communion with those of the world of the afterlife, invisible, with whom they form a single identity, a world which, according to the African conception, is like an immense spider’s web of which it is impossible to touch one thread without making the whole community vibrate. From the social viewpoint, therefore, the young person perceives him- or herself as a vital “member” of his or her community, that he or she is “daughter or son of”, belonging to this or that other family, to this or that other clan, to this or that other tribe and to a specific village. This belonging to something larger stirs deep within the young person a strong sense of dependence and of a relationship with God, with others and with the world. 

Thus the greatness and fulfilment of African human beings consists not only of their rationality, but also of their relationality which makes them live and fulfil themselves. For this the family is the natural environment in which individuals have their existence, act, find the necessary protection and security and, lastly, where even after earthly life they are assured of continuity through their descendence. In the exercise of this relationship, Africans find their freedom too, because if the experience of relationality is lived harmoniously it should not must not stifle freedom. The African family thus produces in the young man or woman a strong feeling of “us”, to the point that they can bind themselves to it, giving up even the ability to make personal judgements or to undertake anything new in their lives, and believing they have found order, security and happiness in the sense of absolute belonging. Thus the abandonment of one’s family is seen as a disgrace. Hence the matrimonial covenant is not an act that concerns only the responsibility of a particular man and woman, but rather an alliance between two families, that of the husband and that of the wife. This community dimension constitutes a defence in the case that difficulties arise within the couple. Every child that is born, even if brought up mainly by his or her parents, belongs in fact to the entire family, community and village, which is why one can say that all of them are responsible for the child’s education. An African proverb says that when the baby boy or girl is in the mother’s tummy he or she belongs to the whole family but that once born the baby belongs to the whole village. The family continues to exercise its authority over the young person even when he or she becomes adult, because the decisions taken by the community, even if they are to the detriment of the person concerned, must be respected and implemented by all. If on the one hand this attitude facilitates the exercise of authority, on the other hand in many cases it makes people irresponsible: in order to act, they await the word of the chief or elders, to the point that when young people are to marry they are obliged to leave the choice of their spouses to the elders, as if they were not the ones directly concerned. As a consequence the young person’s very existence is conceived of and lived by all as a community project, which is why a synthesis of natural, cultural and spiritual values of the whole family, clan and village results: in other words what he or she does exists not for him- or herself but for and in the family. In the clan and in the tribe the individual is absorbed in and by the group, because it is this that provides for all his or her needs and from birth traces his or her path for the future. Hence the young person is gradually trained and guided by the family, through a series of passages which little by little confer on him or her ever more demanding and extensive roles, until he or she reaches the point of taking on the fullest role, the one for which they have been destined: being a husband or wife and father or mother, to give continuity to the family for the survival of the clan. Indeed both the boy and the girl are under the obligation to marry to perpetuate the lineage, which is why no one in his right mind can think of not marrying or refuse to have children. In fact children represent such an important value that to prevent them from being born is considered a crime. Thus for everyone marriage is a social duty, a factor of individual and collective survival, a sign of social and moral balance. What makes African marriage valid is not only the consent, the fact of being ratified and consummated, but also the observance of the stages which African tradition provides for: the knowledge and acceptance of both spouses, the alliance between their families sealed by the exchange of gifts. We can therefore affirm that African marriage takes place in stages. Since, as has been seen, one of the fundamental aims of the African person is procreation, when a couple is sterile hey are thought to have been struck by a curse and, to seek to eliminate it, an attempt is made to consult fortune-tellers or ever more often the spouses have recourse to medically-assisted procreation and therapeutic remedies. Despite the attachment that Africans feel for their cultural values, it should not come as a surprise if an African girl or boy were to choose freely celibacy for the Kingdom, to respond to the personal call of Christ who invites him or her to follow him on the path of consecrated charity. Religious chastity is a commitment that gives rise to problems in all the world’s cultures, partly because it represents a challenge to human nature and requires a strenuous process of ascesis and discipline which lasts for the whole of life. In traditional African society, the woman was considered guardian of the tradition, teacher and mother, and above all she played an effective religious role recognized by males and her dowry was merely symbolic.Today many aspects of the situation of women are improving – thanks to evangelization, to access to study and to financial independence – while others are deteriorating: the dowry has become an opportunity for trade for some unscrupulous families and the phenomenon known as bureau (office), that is, a sort of high-class prostitution masked by meeting places and restaurants, which often also involves educated women. This is a sort of non-institutionalized polygamy, even worse than the recognized polygamy, which does not respect the woman’s dignity. It is these same African women who must impose on society their right to be considered with dignity and respect. Women cannot wait for African society to convert: freedom is never asked for but is taken. Another state in which women still experience situations of oppression is widowhood. If the community dimension is without a doubt an advantage for loneliness, in many cases ritual prescriptions are applied which respect neither the faith nor the human dignity of women whose husbands die. Every possession of the family is in fact inherited by the paternal branch and the widow, forced in addition to months of isolation, silence and squalor, can have everything taken from her. For men instead this does not happen and the search for a new wife begins straight away. The Church, committed to safeguarding the dignity of the human person, must firmly combat these practices which do not honour either authentic African cultural traditions or the Gospel. She must likewise call into question the public powers and guarantors of the ancestral tradition (the chiefs of the family) to fight against ritual practices which lead to maltreating widows and orphans or to depriving them of all their possessions for the benefit of the original family of the deceased husband. The limitations of a family system based essentially on a strong conception of solidarity, sharing and hospitality that sometimes end by encouraging the phenomenon of parasitism are therefore evident. Quite often, in fact, people who have achieved a comfortable situation precisely thanks to the help of their relatives, instead of seeking to repay them with their work grow lazy and refuse to commit themselves to what they are called to do, simply because they are convinced that they can always continue to count on their help. In this case, the only help to give to people of this kind is to refuse them all material assistance, to put them in a condition to provide on their own for themselves (cf. 2 Thess 3:6-12). To avoid as far as possible this kind of deviation the young must be educated in understanding the true value of solidarity and sharing, with insistence on the fact that sharing is not done to encourage personal aims, but for the purpose of helping those who, in spite of their goodwill, find themselves in conditions of dire poverty. It requires of every individual a commitment not only to provide for his or her own needs but also to set aside something to give to those who are really in situations of need. Another negative effect that can derive from the African cultural system, based on strong family and tribal ties, is manifested in the case in which solidarity is only practised with members of one’s own kin, because it often generates a fierce conflict between the various tribes which can easily degenerate into tribalism. It should also be underlined that in Africa the supremacy of the class of elders sometimes leads to its abuse by adults who become excessively demanding and overbearing to the point of exploiting young people for their own personal interests. In their intransigence in wishing to perpetuate the ancient moral imperatives, they fail to take into account or do not want to recognize the epochal changes that are happening in society, also in African society, and oblige young people to preserve the old traditions, even those that are now outdated, and to pass them on to their descendents. In this way, however, they limit themselves to having imitated and followed slavishly the path plotted out by the elders and ancestors. Thus rather than encouraging change and progress fostering personal initiative, the latter prevent it, with the consequence that the new generations do not have the audacity to come out of the past to create something new. Today, young Africans who were previously educated in the family and for the family, attending modern schools in towns aspire to become independent from their families and no longer have any intention of being totally integrated into their communities, instead aspiring to develop their own qualities and personalities to the maximum to be able to be totally fulfilled in their femininity or masculinity. Among the many forces which aim to detach young people from the family traditions should be denounced the so-called programmes for development and formation in reproductive health which often spread “the culture of death” in Africa. They are at the root of the libertinage of individualism linked to the banalization of sexual relations and incite people to flee from permanent and lasting commitments in marriage. These attitudes, rendered more rigid by financial difficulties are also spreading in Africa the culture of a falling birth rate. The proclamation of the Gospel of the family cannot leave Africa in this antinatalist situation of the servile imitation of alienating practices. The Church must promote with determination an evangelization that brings a solution to the dissemination of a culture of death through voluntary abortion and sterilization, contrary to religious traditions. On this road Africa risks completely losing its culture, and finding itself facing a serious disintegration of the family.

Rita Mboshu Kongo

                     The author

Rita Mboshu Kongo, a Congolese theologian and pedagogist born in 1966 in Luebo, studied medicine at the University of Kinshasa. Having moved to Rome, she entered the Congregation of Mary, the Most Holy, Co-Redemptrix. After a licence in spirituality she earned a doctorate at the Pontifical Institute of Spirituality “Teresianum” in Rome. She teaches at the Pontifical Urban University and is a member of the editorial staff of “women, church, world”.

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