Memories of My African Family

A group of boys from the village gather for a photo opportunity.

by Joanne Wong

Living in the heart of an African village granted me an exclusive opportunity to experience the unique way of life and cultural traditions of locals, as well as view family structure and relationships with a new lens.

In the 14 months that I lived and worked in a small rural village in southern Mali, I learned to crack bean-eating jokes with my neighbors and friends. “Shodunna!”  Bean-eater. The implication of one’s flatulence elicits uproarious laughter from children and adults alike.  Joking, as I discovered, is used as a common ice-breaker.  A well-executed joked dissolves any barriers across family and ethnic lines.

My host family bestowed upon me my family name, and I became known as Sanaba Ouattara.  I happily embraced the name, for it meant another step towards community integration.  My new family name  made me an honorary member of the Senoufo ethnic minority and granted me the power to accuse others—my ‘joking cousins’— of being chronic bean-eaters.

Just as people of diverse cultures and ethnicities reside here in America, the same goes for communities in Africa.  No village is the same, and traditions, languages, ethnic minorities, and religions can vary greatly from one village to the next.

But what I observed from my experience in West Africa and throughout my travels in South and East Africa is that the family and community are central to African cultures and identity.  Elders are highly respected, and babies and children receive a lot of affection.

In Mali, greetings are an extremely important form of respect and courtesy.  One is expected to greet a passerby, even if s/he is a stranger.  A greeting is never complete without inquiring about the person, the person’s family and children.  When greeting a village chief or someone of authority, one must shake his/her hand and either give the respect arm (left hand touching right elbow) or return the hand to touch one’s heart.  After each meal, everyone is expected to say “Al Baraka” to his/her elders and wish them a good digestion.

Children as young as 4 or 5 years old begin taking care of their younger siblings by playing with them and giving them piggyback rides.  Infants are strapped to the back of their mothers with a piece of cloth, and the majority of their time is spent together, whether on the way to the fields or cooking and cleaning at home.  Fathers often times play with his children and keep them sleeping near on the plastic mats during the afternoon siestas.

Without the help of my host family, whose members graciously adopted me into their home, I would never have fully comprehended the family structure and its quirks.

I discovered that strong ties exist between extended family members, and no distinction is made between first, second, or third cousins—everyone is a brother or a sister.  No matter the relationship, everyone lends a helping hand when necessary.  Within my host family’s concession is four small huts that house the father (Bakary), his two wives (Barakisse and Awa), their six daughters and three sons.  Across the dirt path is the concession of Bakary’s brother, Adama, who has two wives and six children of his own.  All of Adama’s wives and children are considered to be Bakary’s as well.  The two families often times split household responsibilities and spend time playing together, especially on evenings with the full moon, which lights up the village.

The daily schedules differ between men, women, and children.  The remarkable women of the family rise at the break of dawn to start cooking and cleaning before heading to the rice fields, while the men make an early trek to the other agricultural fields, such as corn and cotton, to farm.  Children attend school in the mornings and enjoy an early afternoon siesta from 12 to 3PM.  During the break, children bring empty buckets to the water pump or wells to draw water and ensure that there is a sufficient amount for cooking , cleaning, and bathing for the entire family.

When the sun sets, the adults would return from the fields and the women would proceed to cook the evening meal.  Men would eat together from one communal bowl, women at another communal bowl, and the children at yet another.  Occasionally, we would eat dinner at my host uncle, Adama’s concession, where brothers and sisters gather to eat and chat under the star-lit sky.  As the children grow older, they are expected to take on more responsibilities and offer their mothers a slight reprieve.  Fatamata, the 17 year-old daughter, learned how to cook the evening meals for the family, and her younger sisters, Assana and Aisha, clean the dishes before going to bed. Depending on the season, the family would either sleep inside their huts in the rainy/cold seasons or outdoors in the hot season, when the heat and humidity make it unbearable to sleep indoors.

I was reminded of the importance of family during the two major Islamic holidays, Ramadan and Tabaski.  Evenings of the holy month of Ramadan are spent enjoying family and community meals.  During Tabaski, an animal is sacrificed, and the 3-day event is spent with family and friends.  Women, men and children dress in their finest clothes and accessories.  Adults bless one another for a good year.  Children walk around the village greeting and chanting “sambe sambe” to elders in hopes of obtaining candy or loose change.

The similarities of the customs of these Islamic holidays, as celebrated by my neighbors, to those of Asian holidays, especially New Year and August Moon are striking.  I remember the days when I donned my New Year’s clothes, paid visits to family friends, and greeted everyone “gong xi fa cai” in exchange for red envelopes. Evenings were spent dining on heaps of food with family, and consuming moon cakes in celebration.

Although the uniqueness of African cultures makes it seem like the peoples live in another world, the values of family transcend cultural and linguistic barriers.  It is these values that bind us all together, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomics, and politics.

This post is also available in: Chinese

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