Research on African Models of Caring for Vulnerable Children in Traditional Communitie

Communities: Towards a Proposal for Caring for Vulnerable Children in Modern Communities

Introduction: The denunciation and denigration of African traditional wisdom and caring lifestyle through modernisation and departmentalisation of life is continually denying modern humanity of the wealth of models of caring especially for vulnerable children. Digging back into traditional African wisdom, in search of the relics of manners and customs of caring, is the task given for this continuing research. This document is a perpetual investigation for African model of care for vulnerable children. It is discovered that some reminiscent tokens of caring for vulnerable children in African communities have been insulated African proverbs and philosophy of life concerning children. The one difficult aspect of this exercise is the application and the implementation of such remains of traditional communities on caring in our modern society. And yet modern society is searching for caring models to vulnerable children. “Recalling that, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance”2

The African Family and Care of Vulnerable Children The Model 1:

The Notion of the Entire Community as Family Hardly a century ago, before the emergence of the city states of Kimberly (Diamond) Johannesburg (Gold), African society was not yet reduced to the social anthropological understanding which popularised the notion that it was composed of just extended families and polygamy. That the African family comprised of the entire village or community has been underplayed and undermined, and this has diminished the efficacy of the entire community as a caring community especially for vulnerable children and people. A person who had some form of vulnerability was called: Motho wa Modimo (a person of God). This person would also be called: Motho wa Kgobe (a person of God). At times not in a misunderstood diminutive sense, this person would be politely called: Segole (a cripple), a person to be cared for even when that person was not paraplegic (cripple) the word segole applied in a caring manner. This was one attitude that was practiced to a person from childhood up to adulthood. “Such a family comprised an entire village; the husband, his wife or wives (six or seven of them for those who could afford them) and his children. According to Laydevant (mentioned in Chihota 2003: 31), sometimes the children continued to live with their parents even after they got married, each having their own huts cattle and fields. However, they allowed people from other villages to join them and share their work, their feasts and funerals” (2003: 31)3

Communal responsibility in raising children is seen in Sukuma proverb, One knee does not bring up a child, and the Swahili proverb, One hand does not nurse a child. Everyone in the extended family participates, especially the older children, aunts and grandparents and even cousins. Children are considered a communal blessing from God” (Healey and Sybertz 1996: 114). One more Sukuma proverb: It takes the wholem village to raise a child “The family, nuclear or extended, provides shelter and a sense of belonging for members; gives legal rights and responsibilities; allows money and property to pass to next generation; teaches patterns of behaviour and traditions of culture; provides loving environment for children; provides loving environment for elderly; provides care for the sick people; controls sexual behaviour” (Windsor and Hughes 1991: 20)4

Caring for Children in African Proverbs and Philosophy of Life Vulnerable children, in physic, psychologically, parentally, because of illness and so on, had a special place in the heart of the African communities, traditional political and social institutions, in the family and among individuals, parents, relatives and friends. For ages this caring for vulnerable children has been expressed in African Wisdom texts (proverbs, customs, traditions, culture, philosophy, sayings, religion and law). Each of these wisdom expressions provided the African community and person with a model of caring especially for vulnerable children up to their adulthood. Proverbial Models:

The Model 2: The Mother Model

Intandane enhle ngu makhothwa ngunina

No African children must have no mother. No African child must have no family. No African child must have no food and shelter. And no African child must lack respect and discipline or someone to guide in the norms and values of respect and discipline.

The following proverb from IsiZulu has the potential to riddle and transpose those who have no socialisation touch of the inner idiom and codification of African linguistics. Some European employers in the modern capitalist city states such as Johannesburg have asked their African employees with amazement – how many mothers do you have; because some African people perhaps to the detriment of business have been away from work to bury their mothers. In an African setting, ideally everyone of the age of your parents, uncles, aunts, brothers or sisters is your parent and so on. This is even more so and strictly so within the family. When it comes to the caring and protection of vulnerable children it is said: Intandane enhle ngu makhothwa ngunina (lit. it might riddle more – A cute orphan is licked by its mother – better interpreted that an orphan has a special place of care and protection in the family). The African mother is extended to the entire community. An orphan may have no biological mother. But that orphan has aunts, grandmothers – people in and out of the family who have a responsibility to play a mother role especially to those who are vulnerable.

“An inspiring Sukuma proverb on sacrifice and self denial is: The hen with chicks doesn’t swallow the worm. Its main theme is “Parental Care”. The mother hen thinks of her children’s needs first. The proverb portrays a mother’s self-sacrificing love (see Is 49: 15 – 165). The proverb is used of parents who take very good care of their children – providing them with food, clothing, and other needs” (Healey and Sybertz 1996: 113).6 The Lord God of Israel uses a metaphor of a woman to explain, love caring and protection. Following is some more enlightening African wisdom on caring for children. “When a woman is hungry she says: “Roast something for children that they may eat” (Akan, Ghana) (Ibid. 113) “No matter how skinny, the son always belongs to his father (Galla, Ethiopia)(Ibid. 113)

The Model 3: Unity and Sharing

Caring and sharing, and the recognition of the humanity of special people such as vulnerable children cannot escape a traditional African setting which values, humanity, nature, children, the elderly, respect, unity, sharing and divinity. The African traditional community is characterised by the sanctity of humanity, unity and sharing. African cosmology7 is anthropocentric8 (Kamalu 1990: 14; Ngoetjana 2002:169). Humans9 are dynamically engaged in the world. Humans are completely absorbed and embedded within the world. Humans and nature are one and are in harmony (Bediako 1995: 212). Nature cares for humans and humans mutually care for it (Setiloane 1976). African cosmology is monistic10 and this monistic experience and human survival depends on the maintenance of an equilibrium or harmony in relationship with other life-forms.

One other saying about vulnerable children and adults goes: Ke motho (Is human – according to the inner nuances of African linguistics this phrase carries a special  meaning when applied to vulnerable children/ people) and Ke motho wa badimo (He or she belongs to the ancestors). In application to vulnerable children, as: ‘they are humans’ – remember how much African communities value humanity. Humanity is respected to an extent that humans are said to be divine. In a monistic and holistic cosmology there is no divide between the divine and the mundane. All humans are by nature divine. The whole of creation is by nature also divine. The human community is also extended to the ancestors. Remember ancestors were held with awe and respect in traditional communities and so will be people such as some vulnerable children who were believed that they are people of ancestors and to some it was also believed that they were possessed of ancestors.

“In Sotho-Tswana experience, society consists not only of men, women and children organised in hierarchical groupings. It consists of badimo, the living dead, whose intimate involvement in the details of daily life is taken as much for granted as that of an all-pervasive central government in a contemporary welfare state (Setiloane 1976: 20).

Following is some more proverbs on unity, cooperation, sharing: Unity is strength, division is weakness, sharing is wealth: (A Swahili proverb). I wonder how much of this proverbs could have been influenced by modern philological11 expressions. It is very common in modern societies to hear about unity and strength in political circles especially of the liberationist type. One finger does not kill a louse(Common in East and Central Africa) or One finger nail does not crush a louse (Ganda). Or One finder does not kill a flea (Maasai, Kenya/ Tanzania) (Ibid. 114).

The Model 4: Inclusion of Vulnerable Children in African Initiation Institution

“The ancient Basotho, initiation rites were among the most complicated rituals and ceremonies. They marked the transition from childhood to adulthood with formal course of instruction. Separate institutions existed for both boys and girls. However, it is not easy to take up a study about them because of the secrecy that surrounds their celebration. … Basotho believed that people who had not undergone rites of initiation were not capable of performing rational acts in life. … The Basotho, like the Xhosa people, believe that the initiation school makes men out of boys and women out of girls” (Casalis 1993: 326 – 327 paraphrased by Chihota 2003: 32).

Vulnerable children would not be exempted nor excluded from participation in African institutions of passage. Besides the semblance of the romantisisation of African traditional communities, though there was a level of marginalisation and negligence of vulnerable children on the part of some, it was not the norm. Vulnerable children in African stories are portrayed as saviours and heroes of their people12. “Those who evaded initiation school lacked knowledge of the mysteries of life, human production and the implication of conjugal life. …those who evaded Lebollo/initiation School were forbidden from getting married. The mystery of the sacred was one of the motives for initiation because it introduced the candidates of initiation into the zone of the holy. Therefore, boys and girls who evaded initiation school, received psychological persecution and were looked down upon until they joined the school” (Manyeli 1966: 68, paraphrased by Chihota 2003: 32).

What is a Family For

It is intended that the family provides a stable background. It helps people cope with problems. It prepares children for adult life. In the family children are taught the ways in which society expects them to behave. This is called ‘socialization’. A family should cater for all its members. This includes bringing up children and looking after their spiritual and emotional needs as well as physical needs. A strong relationship between the married adults results in a more loving environment for children. This means that everyone is able to develop their talents and interests and to find their place both in the family and in society” (Windsor and Hughes 1991: 21).

When Things Go Wrong

“Ideally a family provides support for all its members. Sadly, things can go badly wrong. When this happens it is often the children who suffer most. Family frustrations are sometimes taken out on the children. This can result in child abuse, especially when the adults involved were abused as children themselves. The abuse may take the form of physical violence, physical and emotional neglect, or sometimes emotional and sexual abuse” (Windsor and Hughes 1991: 21). “When marriages break down the children are likely to suffer. However carefully the parents explain what is happening, children can be confused. Many of them feel it is their fault that things have gone wrong. Sometimes they are very good at hiding their feelings. They seem to cope well and people fail to give them the support they need during the crisis. For example, they may be torn by loyalty to one parent or another, and need a great deal of understanding. Sometimes the problems are to do with money. Courts do their best to ensure the financial support of the children, but sometimes the parent who takes on the care of children is left with little more than state benefit. Sometimes the other partner may have to pay so much to support the children that he or she is left hardly able to cope” (Windsor and Hughes 1991: 24 – 25).

The Biblical View Point

“Jesus grew up in a family (Lk. 2: 39); children are taught about God in the family (Dt. 6: 4 – 7); family life is created by God (Mk. 10: 6 – 9); families must love each other (I Tim. 5: 8); obligations for parents and children (are clearly stated in the scriptures) (Eph. 6: 1 – 4); special privileges (are) given to newly weds to help them become an established social unit (Dt. 24: 5); laws protected older family members (Dt. 25: 5 – 6)” (Windsor and Hughes 1991: 22).

Needs of Vulnerable Children

Freedom; Discipline and Love (Windsor and Hughes 1991: 22)

Vulnerable Children in Refugee Camps

Article 19; 22 says children in refugee camps must be protected from all forms of violence and must assume refugee status.

Vulnerable Children and Education; Leisure

Article 28; 29; 31says that primary education must be free and compulsory for all children. The education of children must be directed to their holistic development. Children must be afforded the right to rest and leisure.

Vulnerable Children and Employment; Unemployment; Housing; Water, Health and Land

Article 24; 26; 32; 33 says, children must enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and facilities for treatment. They must be given the right to benefit from social security. They must be protected from economic exploitation and must have protection from illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.

Vulnerable Children and Racism; Peace and War

Article 38 says children must be protected from racism and engagement in armed conflict.

Vulnerable Children and the Right to life

Article 6, 23 says children have an inherent right to life and that there must be decent life for all of them – disabled or mentally disturbed.

Vulnerable Children and Sexual Abuse – Violence

Article 34; 35; 36; 37 says children must be protected from sexual exploitation and abuse. Abduction, sale and traffic in children must be prevented. Children must be protected from any form of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of their welfare and that there must be no torture, cruelty and inhuman degrading treatment or punishment meted out to them. Children must have access to legal assistance.

Conclusion: Research continues.


1.The definition of vulnerability in this research seeks to include the physical, the psychological, the spiritual and sociological aspects. Should there be other relevant aspects of vulnerability, this research will endeavour to include them, more so as they relate to vulnerable children.

2. _157.html, 1989, Convention of the Rights of the Children.

3. Chihota, D. T. 2003. Funeral Rituals Among the Basuto: A Study of the Encounter Between Christianity and Basotho Traditional Religion. Unpublished Masters Thesis: University of Natal.

4. Windsor, G and J. Hughes. 1991. Exploring Christianity: Christian Life, Personal and Social Issues. Oxford: Heinemann Education.

5. Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for her child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See I have inscribed you in the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.

6. Healey, J (MM) and D. Sybertz (MM). 1996. Towards an African Narrative Theology. Faith and culture Series. New York: Orbis Books.

7. Worldview

8. Human centred

9. Humans include vulnerable children as well.

10. As opposed to dualism – the division between this world and the other.

11. Philology is the science and study of the source or origin of languages or words.

12. Conversation with Dr. D. Dziva, Programmes Director of the KwaZulu Natal Christian Council on the 01st March 2005. The researcher is looking out for such African stories on vulnerable children.

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