Sometimes when you ask someone how they are related to someone here they will say, “He is my brother.” If you know the person and know the one they are referring to can’t be there brother and ask again, they will usually say, “He is my cousin-brother”. From my conclusion, this seems to be their way of saying, “technically, this person is my cousin (or very distant cousin, or someone they grew up with), but you have to understand that they are much more like a brother to me than a cousin”.
When we first lived in Africa, this language bothered me. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t tell me how the person was actually related to them. I was annoyed that someone who I knew actually had 3 brothers would call about 15 people their “brothers”. However, the longer we’ve lived here, the more I have come to love this about African culture. Because of the community nature of life here, there is not much difference between family and the other people in your home. Typically, there are many people living in one home or homes very close together. They could all be related, or just be very close friends. Either way, all of them become “family” when you are explaining who they are to others.
What I love about this concept is the people we have lived around have also welcomed us into this mentality. When they see us struggle, they treat us as they would their own family and come to help us. The other day, I was alone with Ellie and trying to complete a load of laundry (because we have inconsistent power and its currently rainy season, doing laundry is very time-sensitive right now). I quickly tried to hang up the load of laundry while Ellie was content and sitting in a bouncer. Well, since she is still a baby and isn’t at all predictable (do they ever become predictable??), she started screaming pretty soon after I started. Our neighbor, Maggie, peeked over the fence and saw my struggle. She called out to me and asked if I needed help. When I said yes, she quickly ran over and grabbed Ellie from me so I could finish hanging the clothes. After I thanked her profusely, she said, “That’s what we are here for (referring to everyone in her home), anytime you need help, just holler over the fence and we’ll come help you!”.
Just yesterday, Will left early in the morning to head to Kampala to pick up his parents. He told our day guard, Moses, that he was going to Kampala and would be back tomorrow. Moses doesn’t speak much English, but Will could tell he understood what he was trying to say. Moses responded with, “No problem, I will be here”. At 6:00, when Moses usually leaves for the night, I went out to get the keys from him but he was no where to be seen. He came back a few minutes later with a bag full of warm clothes. I told him he could go and he (in very broken English) told me that he was staying the night. I told him it was okay and that I would be fine, but he pointed to Ellie and said, “But baby! ….Kampala!).” Meaning, “but I need to protect the baby because her dad is in Kampala!” So Moses slept outside the house all night long. He made rounds to make sure we were safe and greeted me happily this morning (after being here for over 24 hours!).
You see, to Maggie and Moses, we are not just neighbors or employers. We have chosen to live next to them and give them work, so we have become family to them. When they see family struggle, it’s in their nature to help. Just as my own brother and sister would have done the same things Maggie and Moses did, this is natural for them to treat us this way. This still makes me feel uncomfortable at time because I hate feeling like I’m inconveniencing other people and it’s awkward for people to see me in my times of need. However, when I chose to look at it from a cultural lens, it’s is such a beautiful concept! They don’t see me as an inconvenience, they see me as a family member in need of help. The most loving thing I can do in return is allow them to help- thus accepting their offer of allowing me into their family. In it all, we are learning to embrace our new neighbor-sister and worker-brother. And are so very grateful for the amazing people God has placed in our path and made our extended family!