“This ancient African proverb teaches eternal truth….” I read somewhere. And somewhere else: This proverb exists in different forms in many African languages. The basic meaning is that child upbringing is a communal effort. The responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger family (sometimes called the extended family). Everyone in the family participates, especially the older children, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even cousins. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods with their grandparents or aunts or uncles. Even the wider community gets involved such as neighbours and friends. Children are considered a blessing from God for the whole community. Inspiring, isn’t it, African wisdom?
Take Synthia, for example. Eleven years old. Only just starting to become a bit self-conscious about the tiny growths which have begun to appear on her chest. Yes, she is reaching the age of particular vulnerability. So, when we heard from her mother that she had now already twice tried to run away, we immediately began to worry. Synthia wasn’t living at home with her mother. But with an aunt, the sister of Synthia’s father, who had died when his daughter was but a toddler. Indeed, ‘it is not unusual for African children’ to stay for long periods with closer or more distant relatives, sometimes loved, sometimes exploited as little servants, sometimes abused in all the ways you can imagine. We had once visited the household where Synthia was staying: various family members and apprentices and vague hangers-on around Synthia’s aunt, whose tailor-shop at Azove provides the breadwinning. Why would a young girl start running away, if she is happy and safe there, we wondered?
What was she actually doing there to begin with, you wonder. Well, when Synthia’s father died, leaving his wife a widow with three young children, Synthia’s mother lost her home as well. African wisdom suggests that an official marriage is not really that necessary. Which means that the mother, in this case, had not actually become part of the family. And the house, built in their village by the father, was not hers but theirs. Even as he lay in hospital dying, they had arrived to begin removing the furniture. And after he was dead, the house was taken. Synthia’s mother had the good fortune that she soon found a job with Médecins Sans Frontières, so she was able to keep the children. But then her job became redundant. And there is no unemployment insurance or welfare in Benin. Stefan, the oldest, went to live in Dogbo, with his maternal grandmother. Louis, the second, went to Bohicon, to a great-aunt on his father’s side. And Synthia was taken in by the aunt in Azove. Synthia’s mother found a home too, in Lokossa. A man, already married, took her in. For services rendered. Services which soon left her pregnant, in conflict with the man’s first wife, and trapped. Exaucé was born: God has heard my prayers, his name was meant to say.
But not all her prayers. Bad news came from Bohicon. The paternal great-aunt there had succumbed to a stroke. The family blamed Louis. He had begun running away, staying away two, three nights and then reappearing without much of an explanation. He’d been with friends, he would say. One of those friends died. Or rather, was killed. Particularly gruesomely. His body is still at the morgue to this day, two years later, Louis’ mother told us. Only his body. Not his head. That had been taken by the murderers, criminals who specialize in the sale of body parts. No, not for transplanting. But for voodoo practices. A young boy’s head has particular power and is therefore worth a lot of money. You will understand that the great-aunt worried, each time that Louis was gone. Is he coming back? All of him? And then she had a stroke. Louis’ fault, the family said. And his mother actually thinks so too. So he was sent away from Bohicon. By default, back to his mother in Lokossa. Another mouth to feed. Another body to clothe. Another contribution to pay at the local school. Another reason for the first wife to take offense.
Synthia’s mother stayed in Lokossa for about five years, until earlier this year, at last, she found a dwelling in Dogbo. A job she already had, part time. House help, four mornings in the week. Enough, just enough, to start dreaming of life as a real family again.
The first to come home was Stefan. 18 years old, almost a man. He actually moved in before his mother did. Because moving away, for her, was more difficult than you might think. Though she was but a concubine, Exaucé’s father was her man, her protector, her sometime provider. To leave, to burn this bridge behind her, rickety as it was, in the hope that she would be able to make it on her own, not just now, but until the children were raised…? But the conflicts continued, her dreams and hopes grew, and the new house, where she spent more and more nights away from Lokossa, felt more and more like home. A few months ago, after a particularly nasty argument with the first wife, and the discovery that their mutual husband had been seeing yet someone else as well, she came to a decision. After the summer holidays she and Louis and Exaucé would join Stefan in Dogbo permanently. She would find a solution for the increased expenses, she would economize wherever possible, and at least most of them would be together. Not Synthia, but all of the others.
No sooner had she decided that, than a creeping suspicion grew. How long had it been since her last period? No, that one time… ? Yes, that one time… Pregnant again. And still she persisted. She would manage, God willing. And she did. Stefan could continue at his old school, Louis was enrolled there as well with a bit of help from us for the inscription fees, and for Exaucé a kindergarten nearby was found.
And then came the news that Synthia was in trouble. Running away. Being brought home by the police. The Bohicon nightmare loomed again. What if something like that happened again? No, Synthia’s mother did not say, what if Synthia is kidnapped (although of course this was a very real fear). She said: I do not want another one of my children to be the reason someone has a stroke. Take a moment to reflect on that. Here is at least a little chink in the armour of the village that raises the African child. Not the well-being of the child, but the possible effect on the well-being of the village is what counts.
Synthia’s mother worried. Her own mother said: bring her here to live with me, in Dogbo. I need someone to help me with the housekeeping. Jocelyn, the girl I have now, is starting to look at boys, and is getting more and more disrespectful by the day. Jocelyn, another story. A distant relative, taken in by grandmother a few years ago. Fed and clothed and sent to school, but in fact there as an unpaid domestic. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods… Synthia’s mother didn’t see that as a good alternative. If she’s going anywhere, it is to be with us, where she belongs. But how to make that work? Louis’ new school, a public school, was not working out at all. Two weeks now he had been leaving home each morning, and each day he had been sent to wait under the trees in the schoolyard while the teacher and the group to which he was assigned that day tried to find a classroom in which to work. To no avail. Even with 80 or more children crowded into a single classroom, there was not enough room for all the grades, and Louis, as a newcomer, was always in the wrong group. How long can this go on? his mother asked. And what am I going to do about Synthia?
There are times when you discover that there is only one right thing to do. It is not possible to take all of the world’s problems and injustices on your shoulders. But here was a situation that needed more than an occasional hand-out on our part. We said to Synthia’s mother: if you are ready to bring Synthia home, we will commit ourselves to the education of all your children. Stefan is in the final year and doing fine. Let’s see if we can find a place for the others at the local private schools. We’ll pay for the uniforms, the school fees, the books and school supplies. You be a mother as well as you can, raise your children with your heart and soul, and trust God to do the rest.
Synthia came home last Sunday. Not without difficulty. She wanted to come, but her aunt didn’t want to let her go at first. It took us some time to grasp the intricacies. Synthia’s mother didn’t just go and take her. She negotiated. She asked permission. Not just of the aunt. But also of the aunt’s husband. One of the factors, she explained to us, is this. The girl is mine, she said. But her value is theirs. She’s eleven now, and it won’t be long before a marriage can be arranged. And when the time comes for that, the bride price goes to the family, which has raised her. That’s the bottom line. A girl is raised by the village. Not necessarily for love. Money counts double.
It takes a village to raise a child. Sounds good. Everyone gets involved. Everyone is responsible. But sometimes that means no-one takes responsibility in the way the child deserves. And no-one gets involved unless there´s something in it for them. We’ve seen too many examples already. Of lonely children who do not know what really belonging means. Who only know what they’re running away from, not what they could be coming home to. Of lonely mothers who are powerless to do what mothers are for, constrained by poverty, unjust power structures within the family, and the almighty draw of self-interest. I hope and pray our small contribution will make a difference.