Most are back to work after the December holiday, the period in which many families hold reunions with relatives they have not seen since the beginning of the year.
But how do you have a joyous get-together with someone you do not really know, the only similarity between the two of you being that you are are related to the same ancestor?
Family is one of the major institutions in the world, whose functions and structure have been visibly affected by urbanisation and its twin sister, modernisation.
According to Dr James Kariuki a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi, due to the changing societal dynamics, such as the fact that people are no longer confined to the home as was in the past when the household was the central production unit, many have moved and settled away from the home.
“People move in search of education or jobs and end up settling elsewhere,” says Dr Kariuki, pointing out that this dispersal has made it difficult for individuals to know their extended family or even meet them.
He notes that even as the family changes and even though he agrees that the changing realities have a direct impact on what the family looks like and how members relate, he believes that there should be deliberate effort to stay connected with one’s extended family because they still have a role to play in one’s life.
This week, we speak to five young people who reflect how time and distance have affected their relationship with their relatives, and how, in their individual capacities, they are relearning associations and functions of the extended family.
Dickens Sumba, 24
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Dickens knows just a handful of his relatives, those he grew up with, visited their homes often and went to school with. He does not really know the rest though, which is not helped by the fact that the meetings between them are far apart.
“I spent a big part of my childhood in my ancestral home, so I got to know the relatives that lived around. After I left for high school however, and later for college, the ties started to weaken, mostly because there was nothing concrete to connect us anymore,” he says.
While we blame young people for not knowing who their relatives are, Dickens believes that it is actually the role of grandparents and parents to introduce their children to their extended family. It is also the role of this extended family, he says, to be present in the lives of the children so that as they grow up, they can easily forge connections.
“It is really difficult to get into the life of someone who is already an adult,” he argues, pointing out that in his case, it is not practical to expect regular meetings with his family since his relatives are spread across different counties. This is not all that keeps them apart.
“While there are phones with which to communicate, regular communication requires a prior bond, which in most cases, does not exist,” he says.
Thankfully, he is not completely alienated from his family. “When I moved to Nairobi, I was first hosted by an uncle who has remained a father figure to me to date.
He treated me like he did one of his children, and I got to know my other cousins, his children, with whom I formed meaningful bonds with,” he says, adding that he has friends who were mistreated by relatives and want nothing to do with those relatives.
“It is easy to gauge how close relatives are from the enthusiasm that people have about visiting one another. If your child is not keen about visiting certain relatives now, don’t expect them to in future,” he says.
He lists time constraint as another of the factors relatives hardly meet.
“With a 8am to 5pm daily hustle and weekend commitments, it is understandable when someone only has time for what is most important to them.”
Three or four years ago, one of his uncle’s decided to invite all cousins to a family together. He first formed a WhatsApp group and all seemed to be going fine.
A meet up was eventually arranged but the turnout was devastatingly low. Majority of those who turned up were those that live close to the venue, the others did not bother to turn up. The fact that he has never met all his cousins worries him:
“My worst fear is taking a girl I intend to marry home and then finding out that we are somehow related. This is one of the reasons I strictly date from outside my tribe,” he says.
Steffie Awuor, 20
Student, Kenya School of Revenue
Steffie does not have any member of her extended family on her regular contact list, and the only time they communicate is during events such as burials.
“I was raised in a very nuclear setting, away from my ancestral home. Coupled with the nature of my father’s job, which required regularly moving from one place to another, I really did not have any proper chance to know my relatives,” she explains.
She feels that it is the role of parents and grandparents to introduce their children to the extended family.
“I also heard things about certain relatives, and in some instances, I was outrightly told to avoid certain relatives because they had undesired traits,” she says.
She points out that she and her siblings were born into certain preexisting rivalries within the larger family, therefore long before they got a chance to see whether they got along with some relatives or not, they had already taken sides. Such matters, she feels, complicate relationships with extended family. This state of affairs sometimes makes her wistful.
"When I hear my friends talk about get-togethers with their extended families, I wish I had bonds with my cousins because I would have such stories to tell,” she says.
But it is not for lack of trying. Steffie once set up a WhatsApp group made up of her cousins, but even that did not achieve the intended purpose. Little communication took place, and now the platform is as good as dead.
“I think it is important that we get introduced to our relatives when we are young, and as we grow up, have regular meetings and consistent communication. Even more important, family feuds should be resolved without dragging in the children. Animosity between the older generations should not seep into the relationship the younger generation has with one another."
Now that she is older, she makes attempts to communicate with her relatives, but sometimes the effort ends up becoming one-sided, and so she eventually abandons these efforts.
“In spite of this, I believe it is important to know your extended family because sometimes things happen and the people that will stick with you to the end are blood relatives. If my cousins and I knew one another and had a close relationship, we probably might have a functional chama, enabling us to invest together, and if not, we would certainly have learned from one another’s life experiences. I think I would be steps ahead if this were the case.”
Anthony Ashioya, 27
Anthony was born and raised in Nairobi and he was 23 years old when he first visited his ancestral home.
“When I was younger, my parents did not really take us to the village, a factor that set the stage for how much interaction I would have with my extended family.”
I only knew about a few aunts and uncles who my parents spoke to on phone or mentioned in conversations,” he says.
By the time he met most of his extended family, his opinions and perceptions, such as his fashion sense, the things he believed, were already formed, and this was the first source of conflict.
“Even when I try, I find it difficult to relate to some of my cousins because we have grown up differently and everyone might try to impose their way of doing things on the others, which has only led to wrangles. And then I have cousins who are way older than me, so even if we wanted to form a close relationship, we would not succeed because our lives are just too different.”
He would not really say that he is taking any particular steps to connect with his extended family because sometimes the bigger the group, the bigger the differences.
“I believe it is our parents’ role to introduce us to our extended family because it is them that know them (the extended family).”
While it is important to be connected to one’s relatives, Anthony says that when he gets children, he will only introduce them to relatives that he is comfortable with and with whom his children can form honest connections.
Norrah Ndonye, 32
Norrah’s current relationship with her extended family can easily be summed up as “weird”, but it has not always been like that.
“Before my grandfather died, we all met often. We, the cousins, played together and it was nice: we cooked together, ate together and proper introductions took place. To be honest, these meetings were initiated when it was discovered that two cousins, (they had no idea they were related) were dating.”
“After the death of my grandfather, there was no one to carry on the tradition, and so it died. As we got older, some members of the family started moving away and class difference crept in - I think that is how we started losing the love we had for one another, eventually growing apart,” she explains.
She believes that how a child is treated by someone when young stays with them forever, and influences how he or she relates to this person.
“I also think that when people look at the reasons relatives are not necessarily excited about being together, they have to be honest about certain things and be willing to interrogate the reasons, otherwise, we will keep on pretending that all is well when in fact we are pursuing hollow relationships,” she says.
She also cites busy schedules as one of the reasons relatives are only able to meet say, during burials.
“Coherence in the extended family should begin with the parents because I think they have the power to even enforce certain meetings to ensure that cousins meet and get to know each other.”
“The segments that exist among family members – those with money and those without and how this then affects how they relate, should also be gotten rid of. This is one of the factors that build resentment and as children grow older, they find that they have scores to settle, and choose to distance themselves from some members of the extended family.”
All said, Norrah believes strongly in the centrality of the family unit because at the end of the day, blood trumps all.
“There are efforts by an older uncle to bring us back together through WhatsApp, but so far this has proved to be a difficult task because no one really even talks in the group while some do not even understand why they are in that group in the first place,” she says.
Cleopatra Chite, 26
Cleopatra meets her extended family quite regularly, something that has happened from her childhood.
“We always have elaborate family gatherings after events such as weddings or burials. Normally, an uncle will sit everyone down and introduce every branch of the family in detail, explaining who they are, who their children are, where they live and what they do - we deliberately take some time to know one another,” she says.
In Cleo’s case, this regular interaction with her extended family when she was younger meant that even the younger generation was familiar with one another. By the time they were teenagers, the cousins were close enough to start forging their own networks.
“We have two very active family WhatsApp groups where we regularly touch base with one another. We also interact on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, call one another and sometimes those who live in the same town meet,” she says.
But this is not to say that she knows and interacts with all her relatives. If she were to put a percentage on those she knows, then it would be just a little over 60.
“The extended family is important. I get a lot of moral support from my family. It is also through them that I get to learn my family history. For example, I learn a lot about my great-grandfather (who I did not get to meet) from older relatives. In a way, this knowledge grounds me. I also get a lot of advice from them and consider them role models,” she says.
One of the reasons that might have contributed to Cleo’s familiarity with her extended family could also be the fact that her immediate family spent part of her childhood in her ancestral home. This means that her earliest memories are tied to them. Later on, factors such as distance made it impossible for her to meet all of them regularly.
“I have relatives who live abroad, and even though we sometimes interact on social media, I have never met them. Our communication is impersonal though, which is understandable because what would we really talk about?” she wonders.
She feels that to maintain extended family ties, all should make an effort to meet without being prompted by events such as burials or weddings.
“Just plan the meetings in advance and commit to be there. The best place to meet would be at your grandparents’ place. For those who are unable to meet, engage with one another via video calls once in a while,” she says.
Her advise? “Don’t neglect your larger family just because you moved to the city. Family should always come first.”