When I was a kid, I learned to read with this ideal family – Father, Mother, Dick, Jane, Sally, and the dog, Spot. At that time, the beginning reader, “Dick and Jane”, considered the nuclear family to be the ideal American family.

My son, Tommy, recently sent me an article from The Atlantic titled “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake” by David Brooks. You can read it here. The nuclear family is defined as a two-generation family of two parents and their children. To briefly summarize the article, it was only from 1950 to 1965 that the nuclear family was the dominate arrangement in the United States. In 1960, 77.5% of the families consisted of parents and their biological children. Prior to this, the norm had been the extended family with three generations living together plus perhaps other close or even distant relatives. Today the nuclear family in the US comprises only 30% of the families, meaning that 70% of families are something else. This is due to many changes in American culture: the rise of single parents, divorce, blended families, gay and lesbian families, single people living alone  (particularly, the elderly), young families moving back into their parents’ home due to student loans and economic necessity, mass incarceration of fathers, and the rise of consumer individualism. I encourage you to read the whole article.

A large, Kenyan, extended family.

In Kenya the nuclear family has never been the reality or the ideal. The vast majority of families in Kenya are more similar to the extended families of pre-World War II in the United States.

After the Britain first started colonizing Kenya in 1895, the British White settlers needed labor to work on their vast estates. They had confiscated about half of the arable farmland which became known as the White Highlands. The Africans at that time were doing well themselves in their traditional lifestyle and had no real interest in going to work for the British settlers. In order to force them to work for the White settlers, the settlers lobbied the British colonial government to implement a “hut tax” on every African household. They set the rate so high that one male needed to work for half the year for the White farmers in order to pay the tax. Since the White farmers did not want to feed and take care of their African laborers’ wife and children, they did not allow them to live on their farms. This led to the development of migrant labor where the employee left his family for most of the year and only returned home for the annual month of leave.

On a side personal note, my former wife, Rodah Zarembka, is a Kamba from east of Nairobi. She had a paternal uncle who refused to pay the hut tax and was jailed each year for six months for his failure to pay the tax. This was fine with him because, as he said, the government fed him and took care of him. Rodah’s maternal grandfather moved away from a densely population part of Ukambani to a remote area where he was able to escape the hut tax.

This migrant labor relationship continued after independence. It has even been legalized as government, non-government, and even commercial employers, give employees a housing allowance in addition to normal wages. Employees, particularly for the government, can be moved from one area to another in the course of their employment, so they are unable to establish a home base at their place of work. Rather employees rent one-room apartments which rent for $20 per month here in Lumakanda. In some cases those with higher salaries and housing allowances bring their wives and children to live with them.

Nonetheless most employees return to their paternal homestead, build houses, and usually leave their wife and children there. In these days when the wife may also work outside the homestead of her husband, she may leave her children with the grandparents or other relatives.

Since the custom is for the newly-wed wife to move to the homestead of her husband, she enters a neighborhood full of her husband’s family. It means a large extended family of brothers, uncles, great-uncles, and so on together with their wives and children. Sometimes Gladys will introduce me to a relative and she has difficulty explaining the relationship to me or rather I have difficulty following the intricacies of the relationship.

Vihiga County where Gladys comes from is the most densely populated county in Kenya. People have very small plots of land. As a result many relatives from her home village, Wamage, have bought land and migrated elsewhere. We moved to Lumakanda because of the many others from her village who live nearby. These include one sister, two older cousins, and two other relatives from her village. Moreover her son, Douglas, who lives in Nairobi, has bought two acres of land near us and a nephew, Duncan, has bought another acre. Since Lumakanda is part of the Million Acre resettlement scheme after independence in Kenya, most of the people we know, for example, at Lumakanda Friends Church, have migrated here like we have. Nonetheless the large extended family stays intact even when they move to other areas.

Whenever there is a wedding or funeral back in Gladys’ home village, we often go and often carry other extended family members in our vehicle. Just two weeks ago we went to visit Wamage (a two hour drive each way) because Gladys wanted to visit her relatives; we took three bags of maize (corn) there to divide up among her relatives.

This all has an economic underpinning. In a middle-income country with little support from government, this large extended family is the bedrock of security for it members. Moreover the extended family is what promotes development of its members. When family members do secure well paid employment in Kenya or overseas, the larger family benefits from the financial help and remittances.

In the Kenyan context, the nuclear family is too small, too fragile, too vulnerable to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” to be sustainable. It is only the larger extended family that can give prosperity and security to its members.

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David Zarembka

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