Relationships: The Heart of African Life
by Richard Chowning
Who you know and who you are related to are the most important links one can have in life. Most Africans take that fact as second nature. They believe in the power of relationships and they do everything they can to cultivate them, weather that means using brute, muscular force, intellect, or unseen spirits.
Looking at some of the names for relationships can be a window into the worldview of those who use them. Botum (bo-tume) is a word for a male, circumcision mate. All young men who went through the traditional circumcision rite of passage among the Kipsigis people, who live in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya, call each other Botum. Literally, it means “of the circumcision rite.” Young men between thirteen teen eighteen are not only physically circumcised during this rite of passage into adulthood, on top of that they live communally, in forest seclusion, for thirty days. There is a bond formed around their mutual experiences and a formal pledge to protect each other. They are Botum for life.
In many African languages there are variations of the word “father” that are used for uncles. An uncle is, in fact, in many ways a father to the children of his brother. He advises them during crucial times of their lives. He may even speak on behalf the biological father. If his brother dies, he inherits his children. He may help in their training, by supplementing school fees, or even teaching them a trade.
To be one of “our people” is to be part of the extended family, either by marriage or birth. The Kipsigis people of Kenya call them, Manyon. This literally means “those with whom we share the fire,” referring to the family gathering around the fire at night, where stories are told and news is shared.
These relationships, though still honored, are of less importance in the cities of Africa than the village. There are a multiplicity of relationships available for the choosing, in the cities. Employees of the same company, graduates of the same university, and frequenters of the same bar often form bonds that bring mutual benefit.
Relationships really matter. Often when two people meet for the first time, they will question each other to see if there is someone they know in common. Depending upon the type of relationship each has with him, the reputation of this common connection is often reflected back upon those just meeting.
Probably the most extensive, traditional relationship analysis takes place in discussions leading up to a marriage. Prearranged or not, marriage only occurs after an examination of the family of their child’s intended. The examiners, normally the father and elder brother, are looking for two types of relationships in the future in-laws child’s beloved’s . There are strong incest rules, they must be absolutely positive that they are not related. Secondly, if there are perpetrators of evil (murder or theft) or possessors of large sums of money or high degree of education in their family, that will weigh heavily in granting permission and determining the amount and make up of a bride price.
African forums are full of the newest trends in relationship building and modern African romance. Dating sites abound.
Africa is changing rapidly. The strong fabric of relationships has survived and even expanded. It is at the heart of being African.