Ms Petronilla Mwihaki, a Nairobi business woman, has been hosting members of her extended family whenever they are in the city for a long time.
But when her children joined secondary school, the strain of playing host became too heavy. Like many urban dwellers, Ms Mwihaki admits that she has been too polite to ask her guests about their financial position when they visit.
She has, therefore, had to foot their transport bills back to their rural homes. However, when she did the maths, she was shocked to realise that at least one-third of her earnings every year were going to hosting relatives.
She has since put down her foot down and now asks her visitors when they expect to return home, and if they have fare for their return journey as soon as they land at her door.
“This has spread and now my extended family considers me to be anti-social,” she says. According to the businesswoman, the worst kind of visitor is the choosy job seeker who sojourns at his or her urban kin’s house with no idea of when he or she is going to move out, if at all.
“Often, such people shun all available stop-gap jobs that would help defray the cost of their stay in town and indulge in a few luxuries, expenses of which are passed on to their hosts,” she says.
The hardship many employed town dwellers suffer silently in hosting their rural relatives is never quantified or talked about loudly. According to Ndung’u Kang’oro, a Kinangop-based family life counsellor, this unspoken problem often causes marital strain if not faced frankly.
“A spouse may accuse the other of being a spendthrift when meeting the financial needs of his or her visiting relatives, who may have no prospects of ever reciprocating this sacrifice,” he says.
Mr Shaban Wandera, a city motor dealer, has been suffering in silence by hosting his relatives in town. Despite changing houses frequently, they still catch up with him.
“The tragedy is that some elderly visiting relatives would hold court in my house where people from my clan in town came to see them,” says Mr Wandera. The cost of this, he adds, is enormous.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when a clansman was admitted to a city hospital with a terminal condition. “Two of my clansmen relocated from up country to my house, which turned into an instant staging ground for daily visits to see the patient,” says Mr Wandera.
Over weekends, these “permanent guests” would ask him for airtime to invite other relatives scattered across the city for weekly prayers at his house.
“I went through financial hell during the three months the ordeal lasted,” he says. He estimates that he spent at least Sh50,000 on his relatives’ daily trips to hospital and hosting weekend worshippers at his house.
Upon this realisation, he pleaded with other relatives in town to bail him out by taking up the two guests for a while so that he could take a breather.
Let’s face it, some visiting relatives often stretch our African socialism too far and abuse their hosts’ good nature. Some come with tall tales of fabulous investments, if only someone can get them a start-up.
Their relative may not have the kind of money they need and so do the next best thing; give them anything between Sh3,000 and Sh10,000 to go and “just try something”, until the next visit and the charade repeats itself.
But Harry Kibara, a personal banker, advises against this piecemeal approach to helping relatives, arguing that it breeds dependence. “If you give such visiting relatives all the Sh50,000 they will cost you in one year at once, you may solve two problems at a go,” he says.
“This capital may just start a real business and stop them visiting and such kin will take many years before bothering you again if they squander the money,” he adds.
Mr Ndung’u Kang’oro says hosting one’s relatives is the hallmark of African generosity and may be here to stay. But its financial implications can be eased by making the rules and expectations clear from the onset.
“Be bold and courteous in telling your relatives and in-laws about your limitations in hosting them,” he says. He advises relatives visiting for a long period to be realistic and help with some chores to defray the costs that the hosts incur in hiring labour.
“If you are a job seeker, you can help the host by asking your friends for menial jobs, like washing cars and gardening to earn money for bus fare and phone calls,” says Mr Kang’oro.
He asks visitors to be sensitive about the financial and marital woes they may cause their hosts. “This can be done through radio, TV drama, and the pulpit,” he adds.
Ms Mwihaki concurs with Mr Kang’oro. “Since I started asking questions and revealing my financial limitations, most of my relatives only come to my place as a last resort when they are in the city,” she says.
Mr Kang’oro says it is bad manners for guests to bring their friends to their hosts’ houses, especially now when many homes operate on a shoestring budget.
*Note: due to the sensitivity of the subject, Petronilla Mwihaki and Shaban Wandera are not these subjects’ real names.