Continuing the ‘giving back to my society’ theme, Blog 3 of the ‘painting in the dark’ series talks to the trials and tribulations of the quasi-modern East African family. We write ‘quasi-modern’, as there is little doubt that the orthodox East-African family has undergone a shift from its African roots to a quasi-modern institution, strongly influenced by Western culture
One would assume that shifting from a traditional and at times archaic institution, to something quasi-modern and supposedly better, is a good thing. However, we have to ask, if the trajectory from the orthodox to the quasi-modern, has been smooth and rewarding to the East African citizen.
If we assume that effectiveness is achieving our goals in life, then a comparative analysis of the quasi-modern family in East Africa versus that of old, should show the quasi-modern family unit as a much more effective entity – is it, though? Is it working for the East African citizen?
A comparative analysis of old and new:
The orthodox East African extended family, usually a nucleus of ten plus individuals and much more from the African clans, gave certain guarantees to its members:
- A social safety net as provided for the parents by the children – there was no need for formal national social security schemes that we see today
- Sibling insurance was seamlessly organised and guaranteed within the family nucleus – if your brother or sister needed money for emergency medical treatment, it was the duty of the siblings to underwrite such
- Death in the family was managed and underwritten by the extended family – I never saw commercial funeral service providers in my country, till I was thirty years plus. One may assume that the modern funeral service provider is a blessing to the East Africa family until you ask how many can afford the service. We soon shall be getting bank loans to pay for funeral services.
- Materialism and mercantilism were unheard of – we lived as Africans and in good and bad, we always afforded a smile and a wide one at that. The pressure to sustain cash flow to access supermarkets week in week out, as opposed to the local African ‘duuka’, has brought stress onto our faces and into our lives. No longer can we get that credit facility from Isabirye’s duuka. The supermarket is a just-in-time cash-eating facility
- The East African family structure guaranteed old people’s care. Social services were seamlessly integrated into the family structure. The old were looked after till death and were never left alone. Old age wasn’t the burden and curse it is turning into today
- The Kindergarten was a family affair – there were simply too many of us growing in the East African villages that Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) was seamlessly organised and integrated into the family structure. The Presidents of today may never have attended the modern kindergarten
- Food security management skills were seamlessly integrated into the family structure and passed on from generation to generation. East African families had traditional food silos, and food shortages were uncommon. We may choose to justify the food security challenge we witness today – i.e. that it is caused by climate change and not partly by the demise of the viable East Africa orthodox family structure.
The orthodox East African family structure guaranteed a viable livelihood to its people; such family structure organically took shape over hundreds of years, and it was pretty effective. There were informal, but sustainable social safety nets; we lived active as opposed to sedentary lives; we didn’t have to worry about uncertainty brought about by modern society and the resulting pressure on the East African citizen
A family structure that was effective and built over hundreds of years, and sustainably met complex needs of the East African people, has been done away with in just under fifty years.
And what is the alternative? The so-called modern family structure. How do we define this quasi-modern family structure that is fast taking root across East Africa? We are not sure at the Effectiveness Lab that we have the correct answer to this question. We are left asking if the quasi-modern family in East Africa is the result of a complex and uncertain world, whose sheer complexity can no longer be met by the Orthodox East Africa family or something else
The one thing we can write with certainty is that the modern East African family, in its true sense, is a ‘convenience’ machine’, made to mimic its’ peer institution in the Western world.
Indeed, in providing convenience, the quasi-modern family structure addresses certain complexities that have been brought on to the East African people by the modern society.
- In an increasingly fast moving, yet ill-equipped ‘world’ of East Africa, convenience is sought after by many and at a premium price. You will get anything you need as long as you have money. For example: you can hire a full-time nurse to look after the old; hire a funeral service company to manage the funeral of a beloved one; access 12/7 kindergarten services for your children including those under two years; you can access processed food anytime and as a result, there is no longer need to store food using traditional African knowledge; you can live a sedentary lifestyle and as and when you need, access gym services
The above arrangement is simply too good, for as long as you have the money to buy convenience
The cost of convenience:
While we do not condone the idea of a static East African culture and family structure, there is a problem with the manner, speed, and rationale the change to the East African family in the last fifty years has happened
The East African family structure has and is still undergoing a massive transformation. Sadly, the family of old is transforming into something that is not understood by all East Africans, cannot serve every East African, and has left millions of people in East Africa exposed, yet not even aware that they are exposed. Accustomed to the fail-safe mechanisms of the orthodox East Africa family structure, many East Africa citizens assume that the same fail-safe mechanism is extended to the quasi-modern family structure. The quasi-modern family structure and its convenience paradigm is for the lucky few and is not yet sustainable for the average East African citizen
In effect, the quasi-modern East African family is painting in the dark. Why? Because it has abandoned a sustainable orthodox structure for the quasi-modern family structure, that is built on sand
What can be done to address this dilemma? Look out for the fourth and final blog in this ‘painting in the dark’ series