According to the Internet source Wikipedia, the famous African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child!’ originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture and proverb ‘Oran a azu nwa’, which means it takes a community or village to raise a child. The Igbo’s also name their children ‘Nwa ora’ which means child of the community.
The same sentiment is echoed in proverbs of various other African cultures, such as the Swahili proverb “One hand does not nurse a child”, the Sudanese proverb “A child is a child of everyone” and the Tanzanian proverb “One knee does not bring up a child”.
The Afrikaans proverb ‘Jou kind sal sy geleerdheid nog by die skool agterlaat; sy opvoeding sal hom vergesel tot in die graf’ by the famous Langenhoven, reflects not exactly the same sentiment, but it also affirms the lasting impact of a good upbringing and the role of the family and community in educating a child. However it is the IsiXhosa proverb ‘Umuntu ngumntu ngabantu’ meaning: ‘A person is a person because of other people’ that truly echoes the spirit of collectivism so aptly envisioned by the proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.
This profound wisdom, commitment, compassion, considerateness and caring of each others children prevailed over centuries in many African villages. Through unsophisticated and simple traditions and teachings, generation upon generation was raised with values, skills, knowledge and wisdom to survive and prosper, but more importantly to reap from and to live in harmony with nature. In this regard indigenous knowledge attained over many centuries, played a critical role to discern between harmful or best practices and to inform what action to follow to survive the often harsh conditions during a drought or a flood.
This however would not have been possible without a sense of interdependency, generosity, cohesion and mutual support of each other and the community within they lived. And in many African villages it truly existed.
The following writings by European travellers who dared to venture into the South African hinterland, confirm it.
Through his travels between 1772 and 1776, the young Swede, Anders Sparrman wrote the following after visiting a mixed Khoi and Xhosa community who lived at the Little Sundays-river: “We announced ourselves… and were received by them with a friendly simplicity and homely freedom, which, however, by no means lessened them in our thoughts as men. They presented us with milk and danced at our request…”.
Augusta de Mist, teenage daughter of Commissary-General J.A. de Mist of the Batavian Republic, on a journey in 1803, wrote the following: “Love and friendship, those soft bands woven by nature for the happiness of mankind, link all members of the same family amongst the IsiXhosa. The mutual attachment of blood relations amongst them deserves no small praise and can be held as an example to more than one European nation”.
An American trader by the name Gerald McKiernan who operated in Namibia during the years 1847 to 1870, wrote the following regarding the San people: “I have found true native politeness amongst Bushmen. They were very fond of squatting about the tent and looking at the objects that were strange to them, but when food was brought, they almost invariably retired to a distance; very often when they were half starved too”.
In the writings of Olfert Dapper  and others we are also introduced to the organized and prosperous life of the Kochoquas. This they wrote: “The Kochoquas are called Saldanhars by our country¬men, because, they have always dwelt mostly near and in the valleys of Saldanha Bay. They settled in fifteen or sixteen different villages, about a quarter of an hour’s distance from one another. Each village consisted of thirty, thirty-six, forty or fifty huts, all placed in a circle a little distance apart. The Saldanhars for safety kept their cattle in the centre of the village at night. They also owned a large collection of cattle, well over a hundred thousand in number and about two hundred thousand sheep, which instead of wool have longish coloured hair on the body”.
These impressions serve as an affirmation of the innate goodness and unselfishness of African people in general, the respect they have shown to foreigners and their organised and prosperous way of life.
It is also within this context or ‘village’ that children were reared and values such as respect, manners, good conduct, friendliness, generosity, modesty, caring and love for each other were instilled. A spirit of collectivism and a long term vision thus prevailed.
Sadly however, in modern day Africa the spirit of collectivism is undermined by a culture of individualism, selfishness, lack of care and instant gratification. Values such as respect, friendliness, generosity and modesty that were observed and recorded by various foreigners gradually made way for disrespect, hostility, greediness and arrogance.
Practices, such as profiteering, racketeering, alcohol and drug smuggling, child and women trafficking, exploitation of natural resources, killing of endangered species and stupid political power play are now at play. This has resulted in the African ‘village’ becoming a very risky and dangerous place to raise a child. Horror stories are doing the round of innocent children falling victim and being exposed to these activities on a daily basis. They eventually grow up accepting it as the only way of life.
This however, cannot go uncontested and although it poses a tremendous challenge to the few safe havens in the ‘village’, such as schools, places of worship, governmental departments and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), the focus should be on the alternative, which seeks to empower our children with sound values, skills and knowledge.
In addition a Guinean proverb teaches us that ‘Knowledge without wisdom is like water in the sand’. Wisdom is entrenched in the wise application of knowledge for the common good. Our children should therefore be constantly reminded that when knowledge is used to advance oneself at the expense of others or to disadvantaged others, it inevitably leads to conflict and anarchy.
Hence it is important to restore the spirit of collectivism and goodness that prevailed in the African village of yester year. For this to happen we need to get schools, places of worship, governmental departments and NGOs to work together and to network in order to rise above the seemingly insurmountable.
A Nigerian proverb states that ‘in the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams’. In other words, it is through interacting with each other and not isolating ourselves, it is through sharing of resources and skills and not keeping it to ourselves, it is through learning from each other and not disrespecting each other, it is through doing everything as best we can and not looking for excuses to shirk our responsibilities, that we overcome any crisis.
This we can do without sacrificing our unique cultural heritages, which include our languages and cultural practices. All it requires is to widen the bridges or pathways to enhance interaction between communities and always to stay true to the ideals of our newly founded democracy.
In this regard Langenhoven had the following to say in Afrikaans: “Ek het baie paaie geloop op dié ou wêreld en ek weet van meer wat ander mense probeer het; maar op die ou end weet ek nié van 'n ligter pad as die regte een nie”. Let us therefore lighten our burden by following the right path. Hopefully it will help us to recreate a true African village of hope and equality, a village of peace and harmony, a village of friendliness and hospitality, but most important of all a village of mutual respect and human dignity.
Indeed it takes a village to raise a child and to be successful. However, if the ‘village’ fails them, they will fail and fail us too!
- Christo van der Rheede is Chief Executive Officer at Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans
i Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Takes_a_Village
ii African Proverb of the Month. November, 1998 at http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-proverb-of-the-month/23-1998pr...
iii Anders Sparrman. Travels in the Cape 1772–1776. Volumes I and II at http://www.vanriebeecksociety.co.za/docs/sparrman.htm
ivTanya Barben. 2004. Umntu Ngumntu Ngabantu: ‘a person is a person because of other persons’: at http://www.lib.uct.ac.za/rarebks/umntu.htm
v The Narrative and Journal of Gerald McKiernan in South-West Africa during the years 1847-70 at http://www.vanriebeecksociety.co.za/docs/mckiernan.htm
vi The early Cape Hottentots. Described in the writings of Olfert Dapper , William Ten Rhyne  and Johannes Guilielmus de Grevenbroek  at http://www.vanriebeecksociety.co.za/docs/ech.htm