A Family Portrait
Simon is a thoughtful, well spoken, 34-year-old secondary school science and math teacher. He is uncommon in that he has a university degree. He lives in a traditional wattle and daub house, but his new home—a permanent structure—is nearing completion. A second, smaller, permanent structure will house his widowed mother. He is married to a primary school teacher and they have four children under the age of six. As the youngest son, he inherited his deceased father’s homestead. In addition to his mother he looks after an unmarried younger sister. All these things are as they ought to be, hallmarks of a family developing in a straight line.
Less common is his responsibility for four of the five orphaned children of an older brother, who along with his wife, died from HIV/AIDS related complications. One of their children lives in Simon’s home, another with his oldest brother in a market town nearby. The three others live in their mother’s house, adjacent to Simon’s. Their grandmother takes care of them, providing food with help from Simon and his wife. She expects the orphans to farm, preventing them from attending school regularly. The uncle responsible for the girl has ten children of his own, so his niece regularly misses more than half the school term while he saves money to pay the fees.
Simon says there are no other choices. It is his duty to look after the orphans as best he can—a duty that fell to him before he was earning an income and that he continued to uphold when he married and began his own family.
The Kuria Setting
In Kuria district in southwestern Kenya, families like Simon’s are experiencing and being shaped in response to numerous forces of change, from HIV/AIDS to demographic and economic transitions. How is the Kuria domestic group changing in response to these pressures? Based on survey research repeated in the same communities four times over twenty years, the aim was to document changes over time in domestic group size and structure using basic criteria (homestead size, demographic composition, family type and development cycle stage). Collecting qualitative data helped elucidate concepts of what/who constitutes family, under what circumstances, and the corresponding expectations and obligations among members. One of the most important resources in this patrilineal, patrilocal society—land—is made available on the basis of membership within the domestic unit. Land scarcity influences family decisions and options for work and livelihood. Both modernization and marginalization are well established and people aspire to be progressive. They lack the infrastructure of modern Kenya, but are tightly interconnected with the rest of the country via attendance at boarding schools, the export of maize and tobacco, and employment in the armed forces, police, the flourishing security industry as well as migrant farm labor. In the past they were virtually cut off by a lack of paved roads, but currently people connect to their kin and to information and knowledge through widespread use of mobile phone technology.
Sources of Social Change: Education, Employment, Business and Income
Education has been the biggest catalyst of change, with its introduction of new ideas, disciplines, horizons and aspirations. For each category of persons, the influx into schools has been remarkable. In 1988, 53% of homestead heads had no formal education, 82% of their wives, 14% of their sons and 42% of their daughters were uneducated. Over twenty years, the percentage of uneducated heads declined 37% and the percentage of uneducated wives by 47%. Fewer than 4% of sons and 6% of daughters of school age are not in school. More people are going to school and more are completing secondary and post secondary education with each survey. Yet there is not a sharp rise in the proportion of people working off farm, despite the general regard for education as the principal way to get ahead economically and gain access to worlds beyond the rural countryside. Yet, their educational attainment is below the national average and, perhaps consequently, employment levels are lower as well. Or this may be a reflection of the long term general stagnation of the national economy during the survey decades, and the lag in job creation.
Over the course of twenty years, the majority of adults, (male and female, employed off-farm or not) continues to farm. Surprising also is a remarkable stability in the proportion of people working off farm. Divided by kinship category, 40% of homestead heads pursue off-farm endeavors, 16% of wives, 15% of sons, and 4% of daughters. With only slight fluctuation, this holds true from 1988 through 2007. Both male heads and their wives favor petty entrepreneurial activities that allow them to continue their farm work within the communities. Sons and especially daughters often find their employment outside of the research area.
The greatest change has taken place in the lives of children and youths. In their early years, they are still being socialized separately, boys and girls training for the gender specific tasks still seen as their primary labor: animal husbandry and domestic duties. But when reaching school age, studying becomes the primary responsibility regardless of gender. At the same time, having their contribution to the economic life of the homestead greatly reduced impacts the decisions made on homestead priorities. For example, keeping cattle—the primary wealth repository and status marker of the past—is being eroded as boys are unavailable as herders and youthful warriors to protect them from thieves. This has implications regarding bridewealth, and the authority and control exercised by elders who were the recipients, owners and circulators of this wealth.
The survey communities grew from 233 homesteads and 2,162 people in 1988 to 574 homesteads and 4,461 individuals in 2007. Yet as measured by the four formal parameters—the number of inhabitants, demographic composition, family type and stage in the development cycle—domestic groups overwhelmingly showed continuity, not change. The most apparent difference is a decline (from 9.3 to 7.8 persons) in the number of people living in the homestead, most often in the number of children under the age of 15. The demographic composition of domestic groups, as well as distribution of family types by development cycle remained, despite some fluctuation, unchanged over two decades.
Opportunities for employment have not improved over the course of the two decades, while education has become less of a predictor of employment than it had been previously. Despite their educational credentials, most people continue to sustain themselves through small-scale agricultural production. Fertility remains high, and the domestic groups follow the same patterns from one survey to the next. The one clear change—the reduction in the size of the domestic group—seems to be less intentional and more result of rising mortality, connected with declining economic prosperity experienced in the countryside, unrest associated with large scale in-migration from nearby squatter settlements in the Rift Valley, and the spread of epidemic disease.
The empirical and quantitative measures used in this longitudinal study to assess the extent of change within domestic groups confirm that life in this rural area of Kenya exhibits many continuities. Despite almost a century of efforts at transformation by missionaries, government officials, educators, and NGOs, people continue to organize their production and consumption activities in units familiar over time. Traditional vectors of inequality: age, gender and wealth in cattle have been exacerbated and in some instances, replaced by values associated with education and income. But security rests with the family.
The risks of innovation are mitigated by the maintenance of the customary social structure in which economic life is based on the familial unit. Simon’s mother encourages her son and daughter-in-law to focus on their teaching careers while she provides food for the family, in return for their meeting her cash needs. The multigenerational family brings together the fruits of the labor of various skills and orientations, to be redistributed in the domestic group, which thus continues to maintain its importance as the basic social and economic unit within the society.
Miroslava Prazak, anthropology professor at Bennington College, has conducted research in southwestern Kenya over the past 27 years on a number of aspects of economic development and cultural change, including reproduction and family formation, inequality, education, globalization, sexuality, and the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on rural communities.