SCOURGING LOVE: the joys and pains of the extended family system – Chimromma Francis-Elelegu

The traditional African community has a socio-dependent
structure which forms the core of the society. The family, both nuclear and
extended, makes up the foundation from which the moral, spiritual, economic,
social and political values are concretized. It is the most important of
institutions in Africa because it constitutes the pillar on which rests the entire
social structure. It is a system in which no one is supposed to have a life of
their own because every member of the family directly or indirectly has a role
to play in the life of the individual member.

The benefits of the extended family system cannot be
overlooked as it increases a sense of security and responsibility, provides
boundaries and limitations, increases entrepreneurial growth, defines
expectation and assists in fashioning the focus of every member. For example,
in a situation where a member of an extended family looses a parent who is
supposed to be the bread winner, the other members of the family rally around
to see that such a child does not lack. Another example of the extended family
influence is in the area of marriage. When a young male or female member of an
African extended family becomes of age to be married, it becomes the
responsibility of every adult married or widowed member to inquire, query,
advice and practically harass such a member until he or she finds a mate. In
some cases, parents, aunties and sometimes uncles, go a step further to arrange
for a spouse for the unmarried ones who in some extreme cases suffer
ostracizing in situations where the unmarried refuses to concur.

There is hardly any African, Nigerian or Ika person in
particular who hasn’t had the slightest stint of the extended family
experience. Everyone has a story to tell; some interesting, others bitter and
full of regret. I spoke to a couple of people who shared their extended family
experiences with me.

Peter*, a CEO of a private manufacturing company, is a major
beneficiary of the benevolence of the extended family. He says ‘whatever I am
today, I owe it first and foremost to God, and to my uncle Onyeka* and his
wife, Nkechi*’. Peter who had his primary school education in Umunede, could
not afford to go further because his parents where very poor and didn’t see a
need for it. So he became a farm boy. However his future turned around one
blessed Christmas when Uncle Onyeka and his wife visited for the holidays.
Peter’s intelligent answers to questions thrown at him by his Uncle Onyeka
earned him his ticket to Surulere, Lagos were his uncle lived. ‘That move to
Lagos changed my life.’ said Peter. ‘I did my best to do all the house hold
chores as a sign of gratitude and ran errands for auntie Nkechi which endeared
me to her as she didn’t have children of her own. After two years of staying
with them, Aunty gave birth to her first and only child after 10years of
marriage. She accorded the blessing to my staying with them and started
referring to me as her first son.’ I have done very well since my secondary and
university education, and in my business of which the initial capital was given
me by my uncle.’

But this is not the same story for Chekwume*, a successful manager
with a leading Nigerian financial institution. She had a traumatic experience
while growing up as a teenager in her Uncle Austin’s house. She remembers her
experience vividly: ‘Auntie Christy*, my uncle’s wife was a witch’. Chekwume
said ‘Both my parents died when I was only 10 years old. My uncle took me in
with the intention of giving me a formal education, but Christy, his wife, had
other plans. She was not particularly happy that I was coming to live with them
and did not fail to express her displeasure through words and action.’ Chekwume
continued with her story of how Aunty Christy constantly reminded her that
staying with them was a temptation and a trap set by their extended family. At
first, Aunty Christy only spoke harshly to Chekwume until the day Chekwume
broke a ceramic plate. Chekwume recounts her experience with tears filled eyes:
‘that was my baptism of fire. Aunty Christy thoroughly beat me with whatever
she came in contact with. She even marked my leg with a piece of the china plate’
as she lifted up her skirt to reveal her scars of many years. In all of these,
her uncle Austin hardly reacted to her narration of her experiences whenever he
came back from work. ‘All he did was to remind me to read my books and accept
life the way I saw it. He even added to my pains by reminding me that I had
nowhere else to go. This led me to withdraw into my books. Thanks to God,
despite all odds, I excelled in my education better that any of her children
and here I am a successful executive!’ Chekwume went further to say ‘After my
first salary, I made sure that I bought Aunty Christy six dozens of expensive
china plates as ‘gratitude for her harboring me. I know she got the message!’

Clara* is a happily married woman with two handsome and
active sons. She lives in a comfortable house in Ikeja, Lagos owned by her
husband, Ben Osemeke*. However, life had not always been a happy one for Clara.
‘When I was 25years old, I lost my then fiancé to a car accident. I thought
that was the end of the world for me. I neither ate nor drank well and I lost
all my sense of belief in God for I felt that was very unjust.’ For the next
four years that followed, Clara went into her shell and said good bye to
socialization. Her family became more worried as she approached her 30th
birthday. No one understood her except her elderly and widowed aunt, Mary, with
whom she spent most of her weekends and spare time. Ben, a good friend to
Auntie’s youngest son Chuka while they were both in the UK for studies, was
back to Nigeria as he was offered an appointment by a leading oil company
because of his area of expertise. ‘The first time we met in Auntie’s house, I
was not in any way attracted to him as he had this subtle ‘arrogant air’ of a
typical Ika man. On my subsequent weekend visits to Auntie’s, Ben was always
there for lunch, cracking jokes and saying interesting parables in pure and
fluent Ika. I got attracted but was scared to lay down my guard of ‘no
relationship’. One day, after Ben left for home, Aunty called me aside and said
to me “Nwam, I know how you feel, for I too have loved and lost someone, but
the difference is that the memory of the life we spent together as husband and
wife has kept me going. I’ve also got lovely children to show for it. Life is
too short to spend it alone, give this young man a chance.” It was after I fell
in love with him that I discovered that Aunty, our matchmaker, was the brain
behind his constant visits and sold the idea of marriage to him.’

Mrs. Tessy Okoro*, a provision store owner and a mother of
four daughters spoke strongly against keeping members of the extended family
especially when they are much older than the children at home. She explains ‘I
am not against helping any less privileged family member. But I would not
advise anyone to bring them into their homes. My experience was most
unpalatable. I took my second cousin’s son Richard to the city just to be of
help to his family by sending him to school. He constantly complained about
school and always stayed out of his classes. He insisted that he wanted to be a
carpenter. So after much effort I let him have his way and he joined a
carpentry shop close to the house.’

She continued ‘the horror came when my first daughter
returned from after school lessons to discovered that Richard was sexually
molesting my second and third daughters whom I left under his care. Although he
threatened them not to tell me, my first daughter courageously told me when I
returned from the market with their baby sister. I sent Richard right back to
the village and swore never to bring any one to my home again.’

More often than not, less privilege members of the extended
family have impossible expectations from the more successful or privileged
ones. The less successful sometimes make impossible demands and expect that the
privileged one must agree to their every one of them. This has led to discord,
strife, unhealthy rivalry, jealousy, envy and the ‘pull him down’ syndrome in
many families. There are cases of people living and working for many years
overseas, who have sent their hard earned money to relations back home to set
up a businesses, build a house or carry out projects for them back in Nigeria,
only to find out that on a return visit, little or nothing had been done. Some
other less successful ones who had equal opportunities earlier in life with the
successful ones sometimes blame their circumstances on the inability of their
successful relation to help them, rather than take responsibilities for their
actions.

However, the fact that there have been negative out comes
from extending a helping hand to less privileged family members does not
completely rule out the expediency of that culture. So many people in countless
ways have benefited from such gestures. I believe it is not the help that
matters but how the assistant is rendered. Before giving a helping hand, we
must learn to weigh it to see how best such a relation can benefit without
having any adverse effect on our immediate family. It is often said that it is
better to teach a person how to fish than to give the person fish to eat. Any
person in the position of being helped should always see it as a privilege and
not a right and should make the best out of the situation however palatable or
unpalatable it may be. Our future is completed dependent on the choices we make
today. Let us learn to make the right choice and take responsibility for our
actions.

 

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