Fostering: Caregiving The African Way


Back in graduate school I wrote a paper on caregiving in the African context that got me an A. Walking back from church I saw these Chadean child beggars that have plagued Ghanaian streets (yes they are in Tamale too). One such Chadean family lives in my neighborhood in Tamale and I noticed that for once the children were without their parents. I think I have noticed it before on a Sunday too but didn’t pay it much attention. It seems that on Sundays the adults stay at home whilst the children go out to town alone to do the begging and then get to keep the money they make.

These children are always under strict supervision by their mothers or sometimes the fathers who are very vigilant and will sit in a shade nearby chatting away or smoking a cigarette. An observant person will notice that even when the child gets a coin, (s)he walks straight to whoever the supervising adult is, male or female and hands it over and goes back to begging. But on this Sunday, the children were alone. The only supervisor was an older one among them who happened to be a girl. She modulated their movements and monitored their pacing on the streets. Afterwards she organized a taxi for them to take home paid for from their ‘earnings’.

This reminded me so much of fostering in the African system and caregiving in the extended family system. This is especially true where older children are trained to babysit younger siblings whilst parents go about their duties of the day. They practically act as babysitters and it is an informal training ground not only on interpersonal relationships but also gives these usually young girls the experience of taking care of children even before they become adults.

Examining this in a broader context of the extended family system we realize that these children are not necessarily biological children of the parents but rather extended family relatives such as nephews and nieces who are brought up under one roof and taken care of by a single relative on the surface, but are in reality the responsibility of the whole family. What this points out is that bringing children up in Africa is a collective responsibility of the whole family.

To understand this concept best I always use my family as an example. My mother is the first of a family of five; four women and a man and they half a half-sister who was older (God rest her soul). Each person in the family went their different ways with their different careers and professions. However when my grandpa died they had to come to an agreement to cater for their aged mother. It was agreed that since grandma will not leave the village, gradually developed into a town, it was imperative that somebody stay home to take care of her.

It was agreed among the sisters then that one of them should stay with grandma and provide her every need. This meant that she had to quit her profession and be at the old lady’s beck and call. It was also agreed that her children will be a shared responsibility among the other sisters and brother. They will all pitch in and take care of their upbringing until a time when these children were adults and could take care of themselves. Thus it was a win-win situation for everybody. We children got our grandma to pamper us and we also got to mingle with our cousins any time they stayed over. It was one big happy family.

Even before this system was established, our grandpa made sure that at every year’s end, the whole family gathered together (like in a family cookout type) where any grievances against other family members and even outsiders were aired out and settled. For a formal illiterate gentleman my grandpa called it ‘mente-ness’ (maintenance). At such gatherings there were closed door meetings that we children didn’t understand but now as adults we do.

Along the line my brothers and I grew up with 2 older female cousins who practically raised us and I am eternally grateful to Sister Comfort who now lives in Canada with her own family for the discipline and moral guidance she gave us. She was strict to a fault and there were times we even preferred our mother’s punishment to hers. She was our friend and confidant but I wished she had taught us more in the ways of girls so we would have been prepared for our interactions with the opposite sex. It was quite uncomfortable and embarrassing getting those lessons on female anatomy from your mother who is a senior nursing officer, sometimes too graphic for our shy selves.

In today’s cosmopolitan world, Africans are losing touch of our African values and systems. We are becoming more nuclear family oriented and fostering is long disappeared. Instead of going to take a niece to help raise children of corporate women, they would rather go to agencies specialized in provision of ‘househelps’. When did this one too start? Our aged are neglected and left in rooms all day with no one particularly paying any attention to them. Some people are sending our aged to expensive old people’s homes (an European concept that is fast growing in Africa). It is more like we are just waiting for them to die so we can have an elaborate funeral to show our opulence and sense of individual achievement.

Other countries are trying to blend the African system of caregiving into their systems and we are fast getting rid of them. In Obama’s proposed Health Bill that was passed amidst lots of protest, he proposes that funding to Old folks Homes be reduced so that families be encouraged to take care of their aged at home where they can stay with the people they love around them and enjoy their last days on earth being around family. The money should instead be given to the caregivers who take care of this aged so they don’t lose out on any income. How different is this from the caregiving system my family is practicing now?

Africans need to stop copying blindly from western concepts but rather since we are in a fast growing and changing world, we should be able to blend the good and progressive to what we already have. Instead of just trying to be blindly cosmopolitan, let us strive to be Afropolitan: blend the African systems with the cosmopolitan.

Like I always say, it begins with YOU!!


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6 Responses to “Fostering: Caregiving The African Way”

  1. Salomey Abraham Says:

    hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm..this is some deep thought eerrhh but why you so opposed to old people home cos what aba only children who are yet breadwinners. Anyways we should all find a way around our daily lives to make our old people feel loved.

    • Sally you answered your own question in the second part of your submission. “we should all find a way around our daily lives to make our old people feel loved”

      i am not opposed to old people’s homes but i think the sacrifices our older generation made for us should motivate us enough to ensure that their last days are spent around the people they love. if in an old people’s home they are going to be near their contemporaries and feel among age mates why not.

      let’s not forget too that it is kinda depressing watching your contemporaries die on after the other and you know that very soon it will be your turn. such depressing thoughts mar the whole idea of happiness in an old people’s home alo?
      at least that’s what i think.

  2. “It was quite uncomfortable and embarrassing getting those lessons on female anatomy from your mother who is a senior nursing officer, sometimes too graphic for our shy selves.” hehehehe

    Solid article my friend! Good thoughts! Thanks for the background. I believe extended family is good – just gotta get more used to the concept. Living in the states, invariably, unless there are major factors, you end up being more comfortable with small family units if not just you.

    Thanks again for the illumination.

  3. I grew up experiencing fully the care of my extended family…i stayed with my great-grandma, my uncle, my grandfather+mother+grandmother. The concept of family is never lost on me. It is also worthy to note that the extended family can also be a bane sometimes. We do have some selfish relatives….as the saying goes…”there is a mensah in every home”.

    Loved the post. Kudos

    OLA NU 😀

    • the concept of family should not be lost on any African. i must say it is true that some family members are selfish but then that is a foreign concept they pick up at sometime in their lives..

      thanks for the support Freddy!

  4. Nana Kofi Tsiboe-Darko Says:

    Mind transforming article.

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