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How does community work?

From the secrets of Kenyan communal life - crisis-proof?

There is no recipe for community life. For education neither. And yet we often think we know that our way is the only right one. Kenya's family and community life, which I initially perceived as "superficial" and "cold," today inspires deep admiration in me and proves - especially in this time of crisis - to be a role model.

Parents who give their children away?

Where I grew up, it is already assumed to be an extremely serious social case if a child does not grow up in its own family, but is 'shunted off' to relatives for years. And these new 'temporary parents' would be considered to have made a great sacrifice to raise a child that is not their own. In 'well protected' families, moreover, the child gets ample attention from the parents after the school day, a "how was school today?" is a must, and the child's dinner at the neighboring family's friend's house can only happen with advance planning and with the parents' agreement by phone. That, I learned, is how 'well-sheltered' goes....

Then I experienced Kenya, where countless families have a 'Cuckoo's Child' under their wing, where there is hardly a meal without spontaneous (especially small) guests, where most children go to boarding school as early as fourth grade - that is, live in boarding school-like structures at the school and only come home for the vacations, every 4 months. (You can find more about boarding schooling in my post "Dormitories at a school - what for?").

"Can this be parental love?"

No, not only parents love 'their' children, they love all children. A child does not have one loving mother, it has many.

Because in Kenya, to a large extent, the wonderful cultural laws of community (still) apply, which does not end at the edge of the nuclear family. Yes, of course, family ties exist. And how. Just a bit more decentralized: The family is the whole village. A whole village raises a child.

Each of the 44 tribes has its own laws. Among the Kikuyus, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, I experience it like this:

A "mama" is mama for many and is called so by all children of the age of her sons and daughters. For example, she takes in her sister's children for several years as a matter of course - perhaps because she has the better school in the neighborhood, or more financial means for schooling. One child more or less, it doesn't matter. One's own, not one's own - these are elastic terms here.

"Shosho" ("grandma") is any older woman st the age of a grandmother and she is also called so by all the children in the community, blood relation or not. And they don't just call her so, they also treat her so. You help and support as if she was your own, the grandmother of the large community to which you belong.

I have often wondered how many grandpas a child has who goes to "his grandpa's" funeral at regular intervals. But this is not about the father of their own parents. Any brother of grandfathers and any man of their age is "guka", is "grandpa". All women who are not yet mothers are "aunties", who - without anyone having to say it - feel responsible for their 'daughters' and 'sons', related or not.

"How many women here call me their daughter! How many peers who call me their sister! I am a daughter of this community and therefore automatically "aunt" of all the children who live in this community. These are not just titles, this is an honor that brings with it great responsibility and a sense of belonging."

Responsibility as a common task

This makes responsible for many. But at the same time, it takes away the burden of being solely responsible for the family. And in this I experience the outstanding difference to the kind of community I grew up in. We often believe ourselves independent because we no longer live in a house with grandparents, feed our own children, and have created a home where parenting and family life can take place in privacy. But therein lies at the same time the great dependence on our income to pay all bills, rent, insurance and loans ourselves. To face challenges on our own and to always have enough resources and strength to be there for the children, to cook, to take care of homework.... Fine, as long as it works. The current "crisis situation" has shown, it doesn't always work. And then?

How much courage it costs us to ask someone for financial help - and only outside the family! How indecent it is to ask the neighbor about his monthly salary. And how many people really know what assets we are saving in various bank accounts? Doesn't it become impertinent to ask the neighbor more than once in an emergency to spontaneously watch the child who has no care in homeschooling? In my experience, Corona has not weakened the vast majority of people here financially in the long term. Unlike in some cases in Germany. The network of the community has continued to support, the many have continued to support the individual, the own field has continued to be the basis for living. And even challenges such as the 9-month closure of schools were mastered here as a community. For child care is not worth mentioning in a village where there is no isolated life and an extended understanding of 'mine' and 'yours'.

Sharing as the law of community - a crisis-proof network

Experiencing the Corona time in Kenya has shown me in different places where this kind of lived community can be a model for us. No, most of them do not have much, but they have the network of community. Funerals, weddings, strokes of fate - for any expected or unexpected occasion where everyday bread cannot cover the cost, the community naturally steps in.

A funeral is never paid for out of the pocket of the deceased or his family. This is an unwritten law. The community gathers for days, forms a committee, organizes the funeral and holds a 'harambee', a fundraising event to which the whole village comes. Everyone brings what they can. The smallest contributions, whether a few shillings or a bag of rice, are welcome and leave no bill unpaid at the end.

Besides the religious community, there are many small subgroups. Each of my friends here is in several such networks. This can be, for example, a What's App group for teachers. Each member pays a few shillings if, for example, a child or parent of a member has a hospital bill to pay. The rules are clear, if you don't pay, you are kicked out of the group and also lose their support in your own emergency. Such groups have several hundreds or thousands of members - the people who pay in one's own emergency are therefore mostly unknown to one. This is insurance through trust and is only possible on the basis of the self-evident fact that life can only be mastered in a living community.

As long as the people here see themselves as a network and an extended family that holds together despite - or precisely because of - the unreliable government, their system will remain largely crisis-proof.

"In my experience, Corona has not permanently financially weakened the vast majority of people here."

This was different from the situation in Germany. The network of the community continued to support the many, the many continued to support the individual, the own farm continued to be the basis for life. And even challenges such as the 9-month closure of schools were mastered collectively here. For child care is not worth mentioning in a village where there is no isolated life and an extended understanding of 'mine' and 'yours'.

For more on the Kenyan community, check out the short video message by Br. Francis Macharia live from Kenya!


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