Our family now: standing left to right grandnephew Calton (11 years old), grandniece Imali (19), grandniece Trinah (6), Salome, (19 who is called “auntie” as she helps take care of the children), granddaughter Faith (6). On left swing, grandson Brian (6) and on right swing, grandnephew Griffin (11) and granddaughter Rembo (3).

Perhaps there is no greater difference between Kenya and the United States than the concept of family. In the United States family is defined both culturally and legally as the nuclear family of grandparents, children, and grandchildren. If one wants to broaden this definition to include other people one is related to, then one has to use the terminology “extended family.” In Kenya the idea of “extended family” does not exist because the definition of “family” includes everyone a person is related to. Here I will give some examples.

Right now we are taking care of six children, granddaughters, Faith (6 years old) and Rembo (3), grandson, Brian, (6) grandniece, Trinah, (5), and grandnephews, Griffin and Calton (both 11). We are taking care of all these grandchildren mostly because their parents are away seeking their fortunes in Nairobi, Kakamega, and elsewhere including until recently Jordan. One of the children was sent to us because he was doing really badly in school. I am happy to report that after one and a half years with us, he is improving in his school work. This is not unusual. All of Gladys’ five sisters also take care of one or more grandchildren.

If the parent does have a regular paying job such as teacher or police officer, he or she can be posted in any part of the country and, particularly when young, likely to be transferred from one place to another. If so, the person then rents a one room apartment, but still considers home to be the place where he came from (if male) or the place where she is married (if female). It is inconvenient or even impossible for the employed person to have a child with him or her. So a grandparent or some older family member takes care of the children.

All these children and others in the family call me guka which in the local language means “grandfather.” Note that even the grandnieces and grandnephews call me this even though I am not technically their grandfather. Moreover other children whose family we are close with whom Gladys has no family relationship at all, also call me guka. Part of this is that the custom here is to call a person by his/her relationship rather than by name. At first I had difficulty adjusting to the fact that people rarely called me by my name. We employ a young woman, Salome, to help take care of all these children and they all call her “auntie” even though she is not related. At one time we had a real “auntie” living with us who was also called “auntie” and the younger children didn’t really distinguish between the biological auntie and the other auntie.

In the United States, since my two children are half Kenyan and half white American, many Americans cannot understand how I could be related to them. Once when I gave a talk to a Quaker gathering with my daughter, Joy, she was introduced as my daughter and has the same last name. Nonetheless Joy overheard some of the Quakers in attendance questioning why Joy was with me since they couldn’t comprehend that she was my daughter. Even though I am related to these grandchildren only by marriage, only once in twelve and a half years here in Kenya has anyone questioned how I could be guka to these grandchildren. The reason is that family is broadly defined so that people are easily accepted and slotted into their appropriate role.

Our end of school term outing at Spring Park Motel in nearby Turbo.

 One incident, that still amazes me on how different American and Kenyan concepts are, occurred a number of years ago shortly after we moved to Kenya. Our then four year old niece, Gloria, came to stay with us during the school vacation to play with the two grandsons who were staying with us during the vacation. After about a week the mother, Josephine, Gladys’ sister, came by and asked Gloria if she wanted to go home. She responded that she wanted to stay with us. The mother didn’t seem a bit upset by what her daughter wanted to do and agreed. It seems to me that an American mother would never allow a four year old to make the decision if she wanted to stay with her aunt and uncle.

Mudavadi is the man who is responsible for our cows, chickens, and gardening. He is related to Gladys. His great-great-grandfather and Gladys’ grandfather were brothers. Can any reader define that relationship in English for me? In addition though, Mudavadi’s great-great-grandfather died when his great-grandfather was a child so Gladys grandfather is the one who raised him. This illustrates that this concept of the larger family is a traditional concept that has been handed down from before the British made Kenya into a colony.

Once when we were not home, Trinah got sick. Mudavadi immediately carried her to the hospital in Lumakanda. There was no bureaucratic hassle as there would have been in the United States concerning his “authority” to bring the child to the hospital. There were also no issues of health insurance or who was going to pay the deductable because Kenya (being a poor country!!!) gives free health care to all children under five years old. 

Twice we have had women – one was a daughter-in-law and the other a niece – stay with us during the last four or five months of their pregnancy and then the first nine to twelve months while the child was still nursing. I not only drove both women to the hospital in the middle of the night when they went into labor, but brought them home after the delivery. I was fun to play with the babies – if one began to cry, I gave him (both were boys) back to his mother to deal with the situation.

I thought it best to give my own experiences with the larger family in Kenya because I know it best. Nonetheless as I have observed Kenyan culture during the total of seventeen years I have been in Kenya, what I have experienced is not unique, but common as this is the way the family is structured in Kenya.


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David Zarembka

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