If you ask individuals to define their family, you will find a variety of descriptions across a variety of backgrounds. Some may include close friends in their family, or members of their church. Within each individual culture, the structure of the family remains relatively consistent. In Zambia, the definition of “family” far extends the traditional American understanding of what defines a family.
Defining the American family
In the United States, there is a careful and organized layout of each family commonly referred to as a “family tree.” A family is typically divided in two categories: the immediate family and the distant relatives. There is no argument when it comes to your second cousin, once removed. That simply means that your mother’s cousin got married and eventually divorced your second cousin, once removed. In other words, this member would be a part of your extended family.
Defining the Zambian family
When it comes to the construction of the Zambian family, the lines are grayed and more simply defined. The definition of “brother” or “sister” is simply defined by whether or not the children have the same guardian. Because of the high rate of HIV/Aids that leaves children orphaned, the Zambian family takes on a new shape.
When all of the birth parents are still alive, there is an interesting dynamic that develops between what U.S. citizens would define as first cousins. If the children were born from sisters, they would not define themselves as cousins, instead they would be siblings. If the children were born from a brother of a sister, they would be cousins.
While working at Chikumbuso, the widows and orphans project in Lusaka, I noticed that even though the children were all orphaned, they talked about living with their “Momma.” The Zambian family takes on the form that it has to. The Mother is the woman that runs the home and a child’s brothers and sisters are the ones that share their beds and nshima (a meal called posho in English, which is made out of corn flour). The Zambian family is built on the concept of love and protection. The communities face the same pains brought on by the HIV/Aids epidemic and therefore create families of thousands.
Sara Rice is one of 18 students from Ohio University, studying abroad in Zambia over winter intercession, about media, society, and governance, through the Institute for International Journalism