Saturday, 19 July 2014

Extending Family

When I came up to Oxford for university, our college (like many) had a parenting system, where pairs of freshers were linked up to pairs of students in the years above them, who would show them the ropes and be a first point of contact when they arrived. My college mum was a wonderfully bohemian classicist in the year above me who fed me lots of tea, helped me work out where everything was in college, and was a lovely listening ear for an end-of-term debrief when everything was getting a bit much (especially in my first term!) The parenting system also meant that you would 'marry' early on in your first year so that you could be parents the following year. It seems Oxford still upholds some traditional virtues, even if some of my friends' marriages had more than two participants...

Fresh-faced-freshers-week-freshers, the night
Tom asked me to be his college wife.
Sort of.
I ended up with a fun relationship with a 'College Mum', and a great friendship with a 'College Husband', who I will forever insist is the best college husband ever. He just was. His only flaw is that he never rugby-tackled another guy to "defend my honour" like a friend's college husband did, but I'm not going to hold that against him. (The fact that my husband, the tackler and the tackle-ee are very good friends and were housemates at the time should probably be factored into that story to tamper its impressiveness.)

Extending family at college is a great way to build friendships quickly, and give those relationships a different sense of depth and significance, even if how you're connected as parents and children is somewhat arbitrarily assigned. Family makes it stronger, somehow.

Within church culture, we also talk about spiritual mothers and fathers, or even grandmothers and grandfathers. There's this recognition that you don't have to be a biological relation to someone to be invested in them, for them to come to you for advice, guidance, comfort, prayer and counsel. Within our church in Oxford there are recognised people in those positions, who are wonderful parents to all; and then there are individual relationships where that mother-daughter/father-son link grows. I don't think communities can function without them, especially if you want people to grow.

While we were in Zambia, one thing that stood out to a lot of us was the sense of community and family that they model in ways we seem to lack in our culture. During the first week we stayed a couple of nights in the homestead of an extended family, just outside a village called Miloso. They opened up a clearing for us between their houses, and let this crazy group of English teenagers come and set up camp among them. The homestead consisted of the head-man and his wife in one house, then his five children and their spouses and children lived in the surrounding houses. The crops were divided up between the families; the dogs, chickens and sundry other animals they owned roamed between the houses; the cousins played together. You could see in his face that this man was delighted to be able to live there with all of his extended family. 
Jake and Sam playing catch with the kids,
between the houses, between piles of maize.

In contrast to our culture where it's so easy to disperse so far from our families, it seemed almost counter-cultural for everyone to be there. All involved, all chipping in together, in and out of each other's houses, family without walls.
The happiest man we've ever met

On the third day of our visit to Miloso we went out for the day with a home-based care team, visiting people who are chronically ill, who find it hard to get from their often quite isolated homes to see anyone. The second family we visited was home to a little girl called Hope, who is thirteen. A year ago, Hope was diagnosed with HIV. All three of her older siblings died of HIV/AIDS, as did both of her parents, by the time she was one. We sat around and spoke to her and her family through the interpretation of the pastor we were travelling with, learning of her struggles and her situation. We asked who takes care of her, and one lady replied, '"I do, we do, of course; she is my sister's daughter". 

Beautiful Hope
One of the staff leaned across to us. "We have no word for niece or nephew in Bemban [the local language]," he said quietly, "sons and daughters are sons and daughters of the whole family. Her mother and father might be dead, but her 'aunts and uncles' relate to her as if she were their own daughter. There is no question that they would look after her."

When we reflected on this later, that relational link stayed with us overwhelmingly. She might not have biological parents, but she is still seen as a daughter among that family, in that village. To not even have a word for niece or nephew, to be so intrinsically nuclear even in their extended family, was so striking.

They way they live as family makes me reconsider what it means to be family, and extended family, both naturally and otherwise.

Throughout the trip I found my own family extended too. Without the ability to join in actively, I found I had a lot of moments sat with ones and twos of the young people as other activities went on. We'd chat, we'd laugh, I'd ask them how things were going, and day by day started to get to know some of the amazing things going on in their lives, minds and hearts. 

The conclusion I came to is: this group of thirteen sixteen-year olds are truly phenomenal.
Everyone (including the head man!), just before we left the homestead
At the end of the fortnight, we as leaders handed out certificates to each student to acknowledge positive characteristics they had demonstrated on the trip. It was such a hard task to narrow it down to a few words each, when they'd shown such creativity, leadership, sensitivity, encouragement, etc. etc. etc. Sweetly, they'd gotten hold of certificates for us too, and presented me with one that simply says 'Everybody's Big Sister'.

A shared love of ice-cream
(photo credit to our cousin,
Kim Overbeck (the third sister))
Naturally, I'm not a big sister. I am very happily little sib to my pink-haired big sib. I don't have any of my own little-siblings, but have now inherited thirteen of them, who are eight years my junior, and in whom I am ridiculously invested, and ridiculously proud. In the quiet moments while they got on with things (particularly that one long quiet moment when they climbed a mountain all day and I didn't) I spent a lot of time praying for them, and hearing from God for them. It becomes impossible not to be invested, particularly when you chat with them about their fears and see them overcome them, see their hearts changed by the things they experience, and see them supporting each other through their challenging moments. 

I could write about each one of those students and how great they are individually, but there's not time or space for that. But, if you're one of them and you're reading this, know that you are incredibly impressive. If you are one of their parents reading this, know that your children are of utmost credit to you. And if you don't know them from Adam (he's the second one in from the left. Ba-dum-chh (no, really...)), know that teenagers deserve a lot more credit than they get. I haven't been more moved, or more entertained, by any group of people in a long time. They made me laugh until I cried and choked, which is quite some achievement.

Extending family, extended a little more.

Today's video is a bit of an in-joke, just because Jake can take this song off completely accurately and that made me laugh a bit too hard. It seems weird to me that the 'next generation' are into The Lonely Island now too, much as we were when we were freshers at university...It also brings memories of the morning Jake asked me, 'Are you sure you're a grown-up?'....'I'M AN *ADULT*!' 

(Obviously my answer was 'no?!')
I'm sure there's more Zambia tales still to come, but for today it's ciao for now. x

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