I’m a father!! March 9th my daughter was born, her name is Mellisa and she is beautiful. Sorry Mom I didn’t tell you sooner…I didn’t know until after she was born.
Now that I have your attention. At least based on Swazi culture I am now a Babe (ba-bay) (father). To most western cultures I am just a new uncle, my younger bhuti (brother) and his girlfriend just had their baby; in Swaziland I am a babe (father). This is just one aspect of many aspects of family structure in Swaziland that differs from what I am accustomed to in the US, which has led to a massive amount of confusion and frustration for me as a volunteer. It goes in line when meeting new people who introduce themselves to me as being my bhuti or sisi (brother or sister) yet I have never heard my parents mention them once. This post is to give you an understanding of the Swazi family structure and how it differs from western culture’s family structure.
Before I address the differences in how a person is related to extended family members you should know that my family is GIGANTIC. I sat down last week with my family to write out a ‘simple’ family tree. It only included my immediate family (my brothers, sisters, mom, and dad), my siblings’ children (my nieces and nephews), my parents’ immediate family (mom and dad’s siblings and their mom and dad), and the children of those siblings. For example: my mom’s sister’s children, which in America would be my cousins. That was it: my brothers and sisters, my mom and dad, my aunts and uncles, my grandma and grandpa, and my cousins. Should be pretty simple, right? Nope.
Here is a number breakdown for you. Note that I tell you my relation to each group based on western culture, not Swazi culture.
My make and babe have had a total of nine children, one has passed away.
My siblings have had a total of 18 children. These are my nieces and nephews.
My make has a total of ten siblings, three of them have passed away. These are my aunts and uncles.
Of my make’s siblings, they have a total of 45 children, three of them have passed away. Those 45 children are my cousins.
My babe has seven siblings, five of them have passed.
Of my babe’s siblings, they have a total of 35 children, five of them have passed away. These 35 children are my cousins.
For me, this means that I currently have eight brothers and sisters, 18 nieces and nephews, nine aunts and uncles, and 72 cousins. Again, this is based purely on western culture’s understanding of family structure, not Swazi. Can anyone blame me for not realizing I was sitting next to my cousin on the two-hour bus ride and only realizing it an hour into the trip?
So there is the whole dilemma of having a huge family which is extremely common in Swaziland. Now for the added curveball. To try to explain it is too difficult and would further confuse you at first. So I made a family tree for you to better visualize it and then I will summarize it as best as I can.
In essence, any of my father’s brothers are considered to also be my father. Any of my make’s sisters are considered to be my make. So, I actually have five mothers and two fathers. In America, both of these relatives would be considered my aunts and uncles but not in Swaziland. You address both of them as either Babe/Make Lomkhulu (older father/mother) or Babe/Make Lomncane (younger father/mother). These titles are dependent on if this person is older or younger than your babe or make. Since all of your father’s brothers are actually your fathers, and all of your mother’s sisters are your mothers, all of their children are actually your siblings. When those brothers and sisters of yours (who would be your cousins in America) have children, depending on your gender, they will either be considered your children or your nieces/nephews. If you’re a male: your brother’s children are your children and your sister’s children are your nieces/nephews. If you’re a female: your sister’s children are your children and your brother’s children are your nieces/nephews.
There are many reasons and advantages to having the family structure that the Swazis have, of which I don’t fully understand. However, one of the advantages of how the Swazi family is structured is in its ability to ensure a child is never abandoned. Should a child lose both his/her parents and become an orphan (a very common challenge Swazi youth face) they will most likely still have extended family for which they will be taken under their protection. Because a child views his father’s brother as his very own father and similarly with his mother’s sister being his own mother, there is almost always someone who will take care of the child. There are many other major cultural differences besides this but this is just one example.
I hope this hasn’t confused too many people. If it has, welcome to my life! In talking with many Swazis even they have a hard time keeping it straight sometimes.