Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Family Economic Dependence - The African’s Typical Burden

By Kufara Gwenzi

Published on March 20, 2007 (The Herald)

I do not fear death. It is inevitable. My physical life and death come only once.

What I fear most is my capital-based legacy or the lack of it. I fear most the family decisions about my children over my dead body. A background to this will assist the reader.

The assumption in the article is that both parents are alive. Allow me to be very candid with facts and prick your attention to things we take for granted in the family.

Many young urban professionals (yuppies) African men were born in peasant families of the same father and mother. They are likely to be from a family of double digit number of children. They had to struggle to earn a decent living today through a professional qualification. In many instances, the majority of these young men’s siblings are of lower average academic capacity.

As post-colonial Africans, we pride ourselves as members of the traditional family structure and the consequent burdensome social security system. One’s monthly earnings do not only to financially support the parents and siblings, but also the sisters’ children whose paternality is usually uncertain or do not financially care.

This is very ridiculous. Rural areas, themselves products of colonial impoverishment, produce nothing except perennial and wild source of people who are sent over into an unknown urban world. Our parents give up easily on the younger children expecting the older working children to be responsible for their upkeep and play the role of parents even before they become parents themselves. They will continue to do so even if when they have their own families and other nerve wrecking responsibilities.

Most of our parents have nothing to show for their ‘hardworking’ during their active days except for numerous children, a little village, some cattle, goats and chickens, a scotchcart, ox-drawn plough and a cultivator.

They retired without adequate savings or capital.

Subsistence agriculture is what sustained the parents to have the numerous children. The parents will expect the same groceries and agricultural inputs every month and every season, respectively, even if there are now fewer people in the home. They will not carefully spend the groceries so that fewer quantities are bought the following month to reduce the burden.

As they embark in the farming, they will not produce adequately and buy their own agricultural inputs for the next season, even if they sold enough produce to do so. What they will have earned from the subsistence farming is not ploughed back in farming nor is it used to reduce or minimize the groceries burden.

The rural areas are also a place where one goes back in a state of incapacity and/or burial. It has remained a place where no production takes place to adequately sustain a family. Productive earnings from the urban areas have to sustain life in the rural areas.

Due to the modest means, the means majority of siblings are at the level of the general hand or ordinary clerk at the workplace. The siblings, both those with or without families, look forward every month for consumptive financial assistance. This applies paternal and maternal grandparents too! The brothers, sisters’ and aunts’ husbands require assistance in the getting menial jobs and educating their children, who in most cases are too many. These and many other relatives expect ‘drink money’ when one meets them.

Imagine one attending to generations (generation 1 - paternal/maternal grandparents; generation 2 - parents and their relatives; and generation 3 - siblings and their children) which he did not create.

This all stems from the cultural practice where one is allowed to get into the orchard to help him/herself to fruits. This is further buttressed by the Shona sayings that go “muenzi haapedzi dura” (a visitor won’t leave you without food) and “chawawana idya nehama mutora ane hanganwa” (whatever you have, share with your relative, a stranger will easily forget) and “hukama igasva rinozazikiswa nekudya” (a relationship is like a gourd, it requires to be filled with food).

At the end of the day, one lives for the family not within it. Shortsighted and reckless decisions by the whole lot in the family that require finance, the benefactor is expected to wipe their shit and clean the vomit. The current African parents and their immediate parents have perpetuated, consciously or unconsciously, the current lack of initiative and desire for independence within the family, yet the early African family system before colonialism was based on repaying directly or indirectly what other members of the family have done for one.

If one receives nuts in a plate, he will sent back the same plate with grain. If one looked after a wife’s sister, he got what in Shona is called ‘chiredzwa’ at some point. On marrying, one’s father looked after his son while the mother-in-law grooms the wife for a season and soon after he got weaned off to their own home.

Looking after one’s brother, sister or wife’s relative has not been the end in itself. These dependants will continue to hang around for more assistance and blame the benefactor for their lack of achievement. Since it is requested as moral issue or a ‘human right’, the benefactor is seen as if he is the custodian of the family treasure through an inheritance. All the earlier attempts to help them so that they stand on their feet become a futile exercise.

Show me one man who can easily boast among others that he looked after such dependants and he is free from any more responsibility. In fact, the more one demonstrates the ability to look after people, the more they come until one dies, because those who are helped tend to spread the word about how the benefactor is so accommodative and understanding. Some even say, ‘why don’t you look after or assist me the same way you did for X, Y and/or Z’.

Ironically, this has manifested itself in national politics. Our people got free land through the land reform programme. They have not stopped wanting agricultural inputs and agricultural equipment from the government.

It is this kind of political pronouncements or commitments of redistribution that appeals most to these people. Such pronouncements or commitments reduce members of a constituency to become wholesomely dependant on the benevolence of a politician, who himself has no control over resources and funds.

What is needed is the politics of opportunities not redistribution and donations.

A high social mobility is better than an equal society since disparities are tolerable if they are as a result of meritocracy and productivity. Social mobility is the degree to which, in a given society, an individual's social status can change in the course of his life (known as intra-generational mobility), or the degree to which that individual's offspring and subsequent generations move up the class system (inter-generational mobility).

The ability for an individual to become wealthy out of poverty exemplifies a situation when those who are born into working-class or peasant families achieve high socio-economic office in adult life through education and professional skills. Social mobility encourages entrepreneurism and innovation leading to a fairer society.

Culturally conscious Africans have no qualms with cultural rituals to be undertaken on the direction of the family elders.

There is a serious absurdity – the siblings and other members of the family of the deceased are the same people who are to conference and make far reaching economic decisions concerning his family upon his death, yet they are little means. Imagine your general hand or ordinary clerk at work deciding about the fate of your children yet in their day to day life they have to be managed and the standard of living is beyond their imagination.

As Africans, we have remained horizontal as compared to the vertically-minded Jewish, Indian and Japanese families, which are in the cultural sense more or less structured the same as those of Africans. While being highly Western, they are highly spiritually grounded and prosperous, as compared to Africans who are the only race in the world speaking officially foreign language and belonging to foreign religions in the majority and lying at the heap end of the economic ladder.

This horizontality of the African family system has destroyed owner-managed businesses (OMBs) upon the owner’s death. Such businesses have failed to survive beyond the founder or owner-manager.

Sources of earnings (the productive mechanism) and savings have been destroyed and spent, respectively, because of the level of dependence and need in the family – parents and siblings, alike.

Listening to funeral eulogies, one cannot help but be very afraid of the state of dependency and hopelessness when an economically endowed person passes on.

While the extended family was dependant on the breadwinner while he was still alive, it seems it will not mind if his nucleus family (children and spouse/s) fails to maintain the same earnings and standard of living after his death. They will prefer to see it in a state of dependency like others in the extended family network.

Very few African families sit down with the children and spouse(s) of the deceased so that the productive earnings continue to flow into the family coffers. Everything is distributed. The grass that feeds the dairy cow is burnt. In any case how can the family not do so when it is full of people who are mesmerized by the earnings, wealth generated and standard of living of the deceased. To them, this is chance to get into his ‘granary’.

Gradually, assets are sold to pay off debts and savings deteriorate. Medical aid, property insurance and funeral policies lapse due to non-payment of monthly premiums. Few months later, the children of the deceased will be living the life their father lived when he was growing up of deprivation. The cycle continues and will repeat itself later in the next generation.

The post colonial African family system, as currently structured, is a burden and a nuisance in the new economic order! Family-based ties have not made sense in business except the frequent coming together to consume or distribute that which be left for the upkeep of the widow and the children.

If Africans remain like this, we will remain uniformly poor and deprived. As a result, we will not access and control capital and resources.

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