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Young people unfamiliar with their relatives could end up dating them

By Brian Guserwa | October 23rd 2021

What do you call your father’s brother’s daughter’s son? What about your mother’s step-sister’s son? Most young people will tell you that the answer is always ‘cousin’, ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, depending on their age.

It may be because family dynamics have become increasingly complex, and more families now comprise two different families coming together. Or it could be because the English language has never been able to cope with the multi-layered nature of a true, extended African family.

Either way, we are now a generation that calls every male family friend an uncle, and every woman with any ties to one’s parents is ‘Aunty’. It can be easy to forget that these are not actual family members.


Cousins who aren't cousins

Take the case of Ivy Wamuyu, an IT student in Eldoret. Like a lot of young people, Ivy has more than ten ‘cousins’ whose relationship to her parents is unclear.

“My father only has one sister, and I know all her children,” says Ivy.

“Those are the relatives who fit the strict definition of cousins. But there are so many others, around my age, who share some grandparent, or a common relative here and there… it’s very hard to trace!”

The fact that the cousins are spread out all over the country means it is not easy to get them all under one roof and exchange family trees.

“We have met from time to time, when there is a big family event. It has to be a big event, though, otherwise not everyone will show up, like a wedding or funeral. Those are the few times we have met and interacted, and even then it wasn’t always easy to trace how we were related,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter,” she insists. “Family is family at the end of the day. It’s just a bit scary to think that there could be someone I’m related to out there and I don’t know them, or that there are people I call cousins who have no connection to me.”

Ivy’s is an experience that feels familiar to many. In the rare event one does know enough of their relatives, they probably don’t know how they are related, choosing to simply refer to them as cousins or distant uncles.

Edwin Wasike, a media student at the University of Nairobi, happens to know all his relatives. At least 90% of them, he insists.

“I’m a firstborn in a big family,” he explains. “Our grandfather was old-school, he had more than one family, which we slowly came to know about as we got older. I made a point of getting to know as many of my relatives as possible, out of personal initiative.”

What really helped, though, was the funeral of the family patriarch, their grandfather, a few years back. Being one of the more tech-savvy kids, it was up to Wasike to bring all the children and grandchildren together.


Keeping tabs through WhatsApp

“It started with a WhatsApp group,” he goes on. “It was the best way to bring us all together under one roof. It was practical, because we could then pool resources together. But there was a social aspect to it, too. I asked everyone to introduce themselves, say who their parents and immediate relatives were, and where they were. On that first day, we made a lot of discoveries we did not previously know about.”

He didn’t let it end there, either. “Afterwards, I insisted on keeping the group alive. I asked people not to leave, made them promise that we would keep each other updated on major milestones in each other’s lives. It wasn’t easy, to be honest. Some people complained about too many notifications, some didn’t want to be active in the group, but we have stayed connected and that’s what matters.”

Just before the pandemic, they were meeting every six months or so. The frequency has gone down, unavoidably, but the connection is still strong.

An unspoken concern for both Ivy and Wasike, and a natural consequence of the unfamiliarity with one’s relatives, is the very real possibility of dating a relative.

Incest is a taboo subject in most African households, and particularly in Kenya. It is strictly forbidden to get into any intimate relationship with anyone you are related to, no matter how loose or distant the connection is.

The consequences are dire. The stigma is very real. This in a world where you may not know who your relatives are outside the odd funeral or wedding.



“In situations where we see cousins getting intimate or married, the basis for the ensuing stigma is the lack of socialization between family members,” says Beverly Nicole Adhiambo, a sociologist.

“Individualism is the new norm. And because people are more focused on ‘self’, young people lack the communal interaction with relatives. Young people do not know their family tree and most even directions to their ancestral homes. There’s no education on who are the relatives and what boundaries exist.”

It is imperative that young people make the effort to learn their family members, says Beverly.

“Today, visiting rural homes and interacting with rural areas is not perceived as cool. Young people are not comfortable with travelling to possibly remote areas, with the probability of poor network connection or lack of electricity just to spend time with extended family members or their parents.”

“Even so, young people should take time to learn where they come from, their relatives and ancestors. They should take the time to interact with their relatives and learn as much as possible about their origin and heritage. These are the lessons and stories that they will one day pass on to their children.”

Families, on their part, need to socialize their kids better. And a good way of doing this is by making sure the link between grandparents and their grandkids remains open.

“Growing up, grandparents were the source of learning about our food, culture, songs, discipline and even gender roles. These were important lessons and experiences that have kept many of us grounded today.”

“It is important that kids interact and have relationships with their grandparents. Grandparents are not only possible guardians in the event of death, but also a source of education.”

Ultimately, however, the best way of preventing incestuous relationships is to take back our culture.


Urbanization part of the problem

Shiroko Shirenje is the Secretary General of the Butsoso Council of Elders. A proud member of his community, he sees a return to the old communal values as the only solution to the problem.

“We have been running away from our culture,” he says. “When someone gets a new job, they run away to urban centers. They enrol their kids in private schools. When they eat, they do so behind closed doors. This is not how people do it in the village. We eat outside so that we can invite neighbours to share our meals. We used to come together a lot, not only for the holidays, and not just for funerals. Nowadays people contribute to a funeral and that is the extent of their involvement.”

“We also need to think about how we name our children. Name them after their forefathers. To use an example of my own name, my son is named Shiroko, just like me.

“When a name passes down the family line like this, anyone who interacts with that person gets to know where they come from. It would be much harder to mistakenly date a relative when you know their background. But people would much rather take American names, or they are ashamed to use their African names.”

“Go back to your culture,” he advises. “I encourage communities to celebrate their cultures. In my community, we have an annual event where we have a teacher who educates young people about our cultural norms. Do this, and this knowledge will pass down through the generations.”

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