Friday, June 4, 2010

Blessings and Burdens: Families in Zambia

Everywhere in the world, family is our source of comfort, nurture, and connection. (And, inevitably, also a source of some degree of aggravation!) Family is necessary for survival in places where there are few other resources. That is certainly the situation here in Zambia. Younger people are expected to care for their elders in the absence of something like our Social Security system. Children depend on parents and relatives to feed and clothe them and pay school fees.

When usual family structures fail on a large scale, as has happened because of deaths due to AIDS, people add distant relatives and even the children of neighbors or friends to their families. Such children are not always welcomed by the entire family and sometimes are treated as servants; other times they are integrated as additional and equal family members. But it is always challenging to accommodate the expense of additional family members you did not count on having.

Recently I observed several examples of the blessings and burdens of family among Zambians I have gotten to know. The first situation was that of Aaron, a 9th grade student living with his grandmother. He asked if I could help him with part of the bus fare to visit his mother in Lusaka. She is quite ill, and he had not seen her for a year. He had worked and earned half of the cost of a ticket, but the semester break was nearly over and he needed to go right away so as not to miss any school. I agreed to help and gave him the money. A few days later he came to see me, and I asked how the visit had been. He told me that he was very sorry, but he hadn't gone. When he had gotten home with the money, his grandmother saw it and told him she wasn't feeling well and wanted to visit the doctor. She said she would pay him back from what she earned in the market, but she has not. So he came to tell me that he knew I had given the money to him for a purpose, and since he hadn't used it that way, he wanted to tell me he would do yard work and pay me back. We were disappointed that he had not been able to see his mother.

Violet, who cleans house and does laundry for me, asked this week if she could have an advance against her salary. She was asking for a large sum, so I asked what was going on. Some relatives from a village had shown up on her doorstep, unannounced, expecting hospitality. Several weeks had passed, and she was having trouble feeding and caring for them in addition to her own boys. They told her they would return to their village if she could give them transport money. Hence, the request. They have now returned to their own home.

Finally, my friend Caroline, who is raising 12 orphans in addition to her own children, had a family setback. Her husband, a taxi driver, was hospitalized for a week with a severe case of malaria. Fortunately, he recovered, but with hospital bills and the loss of his salary, they could not manage. They had to move to a smaller, less expensive rental home in a different compound, at least temporarily. In order not to disrupt the education of the children, she had to ask various friends from her old neighborhood to take in the orphans temporarily. She continues to support them by giving food and school supplies to the families providing temporary care, and she is grateful that she was able to place all of them in good homes until she can resume caring for them.

On my personal family front: My ninth grandchild was born May 29, a few days after my return to Zambia. His first name, Matan, means "gift" in Hebrew, and his middle name is my late father's name, Loyal. Cathy and the baby are both doing well, as are Asher, the father, and Noa and El'ad, the sister and brother. I have been able to see Matan, live and in real time, on Skype--one of the marvels of modern technology.

Blessings to all of you and your families!

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