Abusing African hospitality
| May 12th 2013
Many families have had to put up with relatives who visit in droves and refuse to leave, yet very few talk about it or even dare to kick these unwelcome guests out. DAVID ODONGO spoke to a few suffering hosts
Some relatives ask to visit, or even turn up unannounced, and ask to stay for a few days. The few days will turn into weeks, months, or even years. You have to bend backwards to accommodate them, putting a strain on your relationships, finances and privacy.
This is why Anne Nyokabi, a communications manager at a city college, never allows her husband’s relatives to visit. She says if she allows them to stay for just a day, they will overstay their welcome, and end up living in her house for weeks.
She tolerated this behaviour in the early days of their marriage but after three years, she sat her husband down and explained how she felt. Luckily for her, he understood her discomfort.
“They would come unannounced and spend a week or two in our house. I smiled politely, but I didn’t like it. It was my house, and I wanted to invite whoever I liked, and at my convenience,” Anne recalls.
Nowadays, whenever these relatives come to her house, she has them wait on the porch until her husband comes home.
“Since he is afraid of what the family will think of him, I told him to tell them I am the one who doesn’t want them here. I welcome the ones I like, and chase away the ones who I don’t like,” Anne says.
Many families have had to put up with relatives who visit in droves, and refuse to leave, yet few speak out against it. Probably all of us, at one time or another, have been visited by relatives who will not leave until forcibly evicted. The said relatives sometimes come with their friends and kin, contribute nothing to the household budget and yet expect to be treated like royalty.
What makes it even harder for the host is that our African culture makes it hard to speak against relatives. And typical of relatives who overstay their welcome, getting rid of them is not always easy.
Mary Awuor, a 53-year-old mother of four, says the term ‘African hospitality’ has been abused by lazy people who want to live off their relatives.
“Even in the olden days, you couldn’t just go to somebody’s house and expect to be treated like a king. The first rule when visiting was to carry a gift, be it a hen, a basket of millet or some cassava,” argues Awuor.
She says traditions have been twisted to suit people’s need, and points out that in African culture, a guest would rest for a day or two, but on the third day would be actively engaged in household or farm chores. Guests usually had to work harder than they did when they were in their own homes, and this is the reason why guests were pampered.
“Don’t visit someone empty-handed. When my son was in college, he lived with my brother-in-law. But every two weeks, I would deep-fry some fish and chicken and send them to Nairobi via courier. I would also send groundnuts, potatoes and other food stuffs. I even made sure my son always had money for fare so he didn’t have to ask his uncle for everything. The young man lived happily in that household for two years until he completed his diploma,” says Awuor.
And it is not only wives who are affected by relatives who overstay their welcome. Mother-in-law issues aside, it is hard for the average man to be comfortable when his wife’s mother is in the next bedroom, or, for that matter, in the same house, every single night for an extended period of time. Unless you live in a 127-room mega mansion like TV producer Aaron Spelling. Things change, and moods are altered, when there are guests in a home.
“My wife’s brother, his wife and three children once came to visit us for a weekend that was extended to one and a half weeks. I don’t care about the financial costs that were added to my budget, but there was no peace in my house during that time,” says George Morara, a corporate executive.
George’s children are all grown, so the last time a child broke a remote control or urinated on his sofa was ten years ago. He says he went through nine days of hell.
“That man’s wife wasn’t the clean type and the children were always dirty, climbing all over the seats and crying all the time. I found comfort in the pub, and only came home late in the night, before escaping very early in the morning,” he remembers.
“I realised it was even affecting me at work. By the time they were leaving, all our seats were stinking of urine, I had to buy new remotes, and they had also broken the plaque I was awarded at work.”
George is not alone in his lamenting. Amos Wangwana, a married father of three, welcomed his wife’s cousin into his house. The man had lost his job and his wife had left him. They were age-mates so they bonded pretty well in the first week.
“He had said he needed a place to stay for a week or two as he tied up some loose ends before relocating to the village. I couldn’t deny him that; he had suffered a lot already,” Amos explains his reasoning.
So, the first week, they would go to the pub to watch football together, and since Amos was the host, he would buy the drinks. However, in the second week, he noticed that his in-law was making no attempt to look for a job or move upcountry. In fact, he started sleeping with the house-help.
Amos adds that in many households, men have certain privileges. For instance, in his house, he has a sofa that no one else sits on. It is his vantage point from where he can watch television while keeping an eye on the gate. He also has a special mug that nobody else uses.
“Suddenly, I couldn’t sit in my chair or drink from my mug whenever I wanted to because I was sharing these things with my in-law. These might seem like small issues, but they matter to me. I felt like we were two husbands in that house,” he says.
“My wife wasn’t happy either, but she had no way of telling her cousin off. He used to stay in the house all day and only leave for an hour or two to sit outside an estate kinyozi.”
However, after two months, the man had crossed too many boundaries and the situation became unbearable.
“I came home one day to find him lounging on the couch, wearing my Arsenal T-shirt. That got me so upset that I immediately asked him to remove the shirt and give it to me. I then gave him a piece of my mind and he left the next day. We don’t talk to date, even if we meet at family functions. He ignores me, and I don’t really care,” Amos concludes.
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