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  • Writer's pictureThe Old Farmyard Forceleap Farm

My musings on communal living

One of the fascinating things about our life here is seeing the boys come to terms with communal living. James and Martha's house is typical for Ghana. It is a compound house, which means the buildings are arranged around an enclosed central yard, with one main gate to access the compound from outside. It is always busy with people coming and going, as well as the donkeys, chickens, goats, sheep, dogs, and the cat with the wonky tail, wandering in and out all day, bickering with each other over scraps, as they negotiate the cooking area or washing line to get to their housing. As is extremely common across Africa, the house is also home to some extra members of the extended family, as well as James, Ma and their 3 children (Jeff, Morme and Kobe). Visitors might stay here for a week, or maybe for years, and it is really the indigenous system for providing a safety net for those who are facing difficulties. Although it can be quite exploitative in the wrong hands, James and Ma take their responsibilities as hosts very seriously. So, I can see it works well here as they create a safe environment for young people, who might be struggling and may otherwise have very few opportunities. For families living in poverty, without a benefits system, sending a child to live with a better off member of the extended family, is a practical way to lessen the number of mouths to feed at home. The family they are sent to, may get cheap or free labour, but they are duty bound to provide food, safe accommodation, and to support and guide them in their life in return for their labour. They are also expected to send them to school. This system is also used if a child is going off the rails. Their parents may decide to, “send them to the village,” for a while, for an aunt to put them straight, or at least get them away from a bad crowd.

Currently, we have several “extras” living in the house. There are a couple of teenage girls from Martha’s hometown who help Ma in the kitchen, do all the clothes washing, and look after the small kids. They do have to work hard, but in return they are looked after by Ma, and she teaches them to cook and manage a household. They also get to go to school, which would not have happened if they had stayed at home. Added to this, Ma is ferocious about keeping boys away from the girls, to protect them from early pregnancy. There is also James’s nephew, Ebenezer, who is in his early 20s. He has been living here for about 2 years since his father died. He wants to join the police and is relying on his uncle to help him get through, until his application has been accepted. In the meantime, he works in the school and fetches bulk water for the household in large barrels using a motorbike cart.

Then there is Kudus, who is 16 years old and a local farmer’s son. His main role is to look after all the animals, but he also does the dishes, sweeps the yard, collects water with Ebe and generally helps out, sewing shoes back together and plucking chickens for Ma. In return for his work, as well as the normal provisions, his father is paid 2 bags of maize a year for his labour. So, most nights, (if you include us), there are around 12 people sleeping in this household, but even more come to eat the evening meal! There are guests every night. Although I am pretty sure I still do not fully understand all the connections, I can see that quite a few of the guests also work for, or with, the family in some capacity. Maybe they are a colleague of James, or the mason working on their house or maybe a young guy James has taken under his wing who eats here regularly but also makes himself available for errands in return. Finally there may just be friends or visiting family or friends of friends. Some are regulars, but others are more ad-hoc. Added to the grownups, there seem to be a few kids from neighbouring households, who for whatever reason, eat here regularly or occasionally. I think they are mainly orphans who live with neighbours but are too far down the pecking order to get a decent meal at home. So, Ma usually feeds around 15-20 people every night! She just makes huge quantities of everything in large cauldrons and generally it is all consumed, with any leftovers being nobbled by the dogs or cat.

People don’t eat all together but once the food is served, people fall into various huddles to eat, in different parts of the yard. There is one group of kids, and they usually congregate around and on the donkey cart. The girls tend to perch on wooded stools close to the kitchen. They are usually up and down like yo-yos throughout the meal, getting another bowl, starting the washing up or serving an unexpected guest. Regular eaters, who are quite junior socially, eat with Ebe behind the mango tree or in the shadows of the veranda by the storeroom. One off guests or friends eat with James, and if he has company Ma will often sit with the girls, but if not, she sits with James. James's huddle usually sit on plastic chairs and eat off a small plastic side table. Everyone eats with their right hand and cutlery is rarely used in the evening meal. Watching my boys try to find their place within this house is interesting, and they tend to bounce in and out of it, sometimes feeling involved, sometimes rejected. On occasion, the girls set up a little plastic table and 2 stools for the boys, and other times they eat with the kids, but usually they retreat into our little veranda to eat with me. I am not so fool as to assume this is from any desire to be with Mum, but is largely to do with embarrassment that they can’t eat the same food as the other kids, as it is too peppery. Away from meals, they are more integrated with the other kids. At play time, they mainly hang out with Kobe and his friends in the yard, although some nights they do venture out to play football with the neighbour’s kids around the house. The footballs are getting very worn out and one of the skateboards wheels has fallen off.

Although, I love this communal approach to living, there is also a negative side. I see frustration overflow sometimes into fights and arguments, which can seem to me to be quite bitter at times. Jeff seemed particularly out of sorts the other day and when I asked if he was OK, he admitted he was stressed out. He just wanted to be left alone, “People in this house should just do their own business and let me rest, it is too much!” he complained. So, I guess he is wanting some privacy and not to be constantly called on to do things for the family. Another time, Ebe the nephew was caught giving a 16-year-old girl a sim card. This really upset Ma, as she wanted to know what he expected in return and

felt he was enroute to abusing his position in the house. Ma was fuming for days and she was explicit that if he was to behave that way he could not stay in the house. But as he is James nephew she had to leave it to James to talk to him or take any action. So, it is not perfect, but loneliness (a cancer in our society) just can’t really exist in this environment. Everyone must learn to live with each other. Where there is a problem, it might be a big drama at the time, but it just has to be dealt with and let go, so people can move on. You can’t really nurse a grievance against someone when you are rubbing shoulders with them every day. I think this teaches tolerance, an attribute that seems to be in short supply at home at the moment. I have certainly noticed that people in the UK generally seem to be becoming increasingly intolerant and angry over the most minor misdemeanour. I am not really sure why, as it does not make them (or the people around them) happy. I was telling Ma about the shocking rise in young people taking their own lives, and she replied by saying, she can’t think of anyone who has committed suicide, maybe someone did once in her village when she was a child, but it is pretty much unknown, something that is sadly not the case at home.

So, maybe we should consider the benefits of living more communally. In the UK many of our social problems come about from living in a broken homes (or tiny households) or in living in broken communities, or both. People often live alone or in small family households. On average UK households have just over 2 people in them. Many families are scattered and dispersed, and we often struggle with weak ties to the community alongside an increasing distrust of the outside world. This seems to me to be a formula to create loneliness. But why is it the case? My conclusion is to do with communal living. Over the last 70 years a measurable change has taken place with larger multi-generational households being replaced by smaller ones and a huge change has taken place with household spending. The proportion of our income we spend on food has halved and our spending on housing has doubled. This must reflect what we value in society, and I think the implication is that we have developed rather an exaggerated value of property ownership and place far too little on the value on food and eating as a family. Home ownership is the assumed ambition of many and tantamount to a national obsession, followed in a close second place by home improvement and gardening. Maybe this is a to do with the high cost of buying or renting a home in the UK or maybe the sentiment that "Our home is our cast le" is a national trait. But we seem too focused on the bricks and mortar, rather than managing how the humans within the household function socially. We are fixated by maintaining our own privacy and increasingly distrust the outside world. But erecting walls like this seems to generate so much anxiety. And this literally filters down to our children. We never allow them to take a risk, beseech them to be careful all the time, warn them incessantly about stranger danger and practice helicopter parenting to manage any possible issue they encounter, on their behalf. We might as well incessantly whisper in their ear, “Be afraid, be VERY afraid!”. No wonder they can’t stand on their own two feet when they grow up, and there is a wave of anxiety infiltrating their ranks! It is hard to see how this can change.

But maybe we should pause for thought, when we erect the 8ft panel garden fence so the neighbour can’t see in, or sit down to eat alone in front of the TV for the umpteenth night in a row, or spend all weekend on a DIY project in our house, but fail to make time for some community effort in the park, when we let kids spend hours on a screen, but don’t let them run free to play with other kids in the park or fields without their every move being closely monitored. I don’t think we are protecting our children this way. We are isolating them, insulating them from life and other people. Of course, there are dangers, but life is full of risk and how real are the dangers we fear so much? There are a lot more dangers here in Africa and although I often see kids driving motorbikes on the road, wielding machetes, handling cows, lighting fires, pulling water out of a well and crossing the road (which is a hair-raising experience for anyone on market day), I don’t hear endless stories of kids cutting their hands off, falling down wells, being trampled, burning themselves or being run over. They have learnt about the risks they face and how to manage them, We really need to remember we do live in the real world, which is full of risks and so we need to teach kids how to deal with dangerous situations and assess the risks around them. I am sure they cannot do that on a screen, or in school and they can only do it by facing these risks in the real world. I am quite sure it wont be tidy and they will screw it up from time to time, but (as long as they survive the experience) better for them to screw up than for me to pass on my fears and anxieties and screw them up!

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