|Print | Back||March 5, 2013|
African VoiceIt Takes a Village to Raise a Child
by Imo Eshiet
Hillary Clinton’s 1996, It takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us is an obvious intertext of the African proverb. Reviewers quickly read into it a liberal and socialist mindset. Chris B, who voiced the remark, noted how the proverb was twisted out of the context of the extended family system to mean “rather a large conglomerate of social and governmental entities that step in to alleviate parents of the responsibility of raising their own children”.
In traditional Africa, life revolves around community. I grew up in one such society. Then my village was so rudimentary that we had no police, sheriffs, courts and prisons; nobody wore uniforms or wigs that set them apart as law enforcement agents. Family, village and clan councils made laws and regulations binding on the groups within their jurisdiction and served as courts and congresses.
Though everyone had oversight over every child, parental responsibility was distinct and related at the same time to the groups. Parents took primary responsibility for the character or what was locally known as ‘home training’ of their children. Though anyone in the larger family who had the means could help, yet it was the basic duty of parents to pay school fees and hospital bills whenever that was necessary.
There was a lot of sharing and collective attention to child upbringing. I recall being dewormed or treated for endemic malaria by relations without my parents’ consent. Some aunts would grab and give me a hot herbal bath made from boiled lemons, lemon grass, roots and tubers, the barks of mango and orange trees mixed with Epsom salt. Sometimes they would have me gulp some of the bitter concoction in a bid to keep me from dying like many of my mates, who succumbed in great numbers to deaths that proper health care and hygiene would have prevented.
Often my parents had no idea of this treatment except when I went home smelling fresh and minty from aromatic herbs folks had used to scrub me. At other times, they would know because I was too full to eat after some aunts had made me drink some broth made from herbs, chicken feet and chitterling to get rid of worms they suspected were making me bloated. Because every aunt and uncle was addressed as Mama or Papa, we were so close knit we did not know until much later who our biological parents were.
Sometimes we would pass from school straight to the home of an uncle and live there for days, weeks and even months without the knowledge of our parents. These relations would, of course, assume responsibility for discipline when we stepped out of line. In those days spanking or ear and cheek pinching were common. No one raised a finger if anyone’s child was spanked by an adult who deemed it necessary to administer such punishment.
I recall teaming up with some village urchins to sing bawdy songs satirizing the anatomy of women. I had no clear idea what the words of the song meant, but the song was performed with so much gusto by my newfound friends I could hardly resist the temptation to join in, even though my parents had warned me against the company of such boys. The songs had neither rhyme nor reason, but the boys improvised pleasing alliterative and call and response patterns into their cheeky songs to mask the sexually explicit references.
Flinging caution to the wind, I chimed in. Even in those days I had no melody in my voice, but the boys didn’t mind and so I crooked on like a bullfrog with a sore throat. Pretty soon the song picked up tempo and resonated from afar as we hooted, howled and hollered with reckless abandon like some carefree sailors on a drinking spree.
It was in the midst of this vigorous ruckus that a neighbor sauntered in from a garden where she raised vegetables and fruits. Her upper body was bare and rivulets of sweat crisscrossed it from crown to toe. In my village men and women work with their upper bodies naked because the merciless sun makes any piece of clothing cling uncomfortably when the sweat starts pouring to cool the taxed muscles. Pretending to like our performance, she approached us swaying with lively and regaling dance steps.
She thrust forward a grimy water bottle and asked me to rush home, fill it up with water and bring it back to her where she was working on her garden. I was so thrilled with her brisk dance that I failed to observe that while she held the bottle towards me with one hand, the other hand was hidden behind her back. As I made to collect the bottle from her, she grabbed me and I soon found out the other hand was hiding a switch.
As soon as her motive became clear to my older and wiser new friends, they vanished. With one hand holding me and the other the switch, she asked me to show her the parts of womanhood we were impugning in our rowdy song. When it appeared I had no clue, she decided to end the drama by laying the switch heavily and angrily on my tiny, wiggly legs while I jumped and thrashed like an irate gnat on a hot plate.
Screaming and threatening to tell my mother only infuriated her more. When she was spent, she held me by the ears and, pinching hard, swore with venom she would cut off those ears if she ever saw me with any of those wretches, as she called the boys who had scampered away. When she let me go I ran off bawling but soon dried up afraid that whatever made her give me such a beating would make my no-nonsense mother flay me if she got wind of the incident. I do not know if the neighbor ever mentioned it to my parents, but none of them ever asked me about it, neither did I tell.
We also learned lessons through play. Since we had no day care services, our parent left us in the care of relations who were home while they went to work or farm. At such times we recited native poems, performed narratives and danced our traditional lore. If a child had an infection such as measles or chicken pox that was likely to spread in the community, other children were taken to that family so that they could catch it and develop immunity to the disease. Group bonding meant team spirit, collectivity and communality.
Through it I learned the taboos, folk values, norms, mores and family history orally handed for generations. I got to know, for instance, how my grandfather became a diviner. He had had a deadly infection which demanded he be quarantined. Left to die in a hut, he was one day was visited by spirits who healed and initiated him into herbal lore as the sick man later revealed. Folks were shocked when the old man returned home healthy. His interview with the spirits, like the sanctity of the group, was sacred and never to be taken lightly. So was the charge to be our brothers’ keeper.
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