Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
A rich community is not built by seeking only like-minded people, but rather seeking a diversity of traits which brighten and deepen your own
In over twenty years of teaching English as a Second Language, my students have shared the hardships they experienced in their journeys, from surviving war and famine to being smuggled across borders and fleeing gang violence. Their stories inspire me and usually do not shock me anymore… until this one.
I was recently rendered speechless when a student told me that babysitters were not a thing in their community in South Africa. Instead, children as young as 5 or 6 would be left home alone to care for their younger siblings. The student said that children play outside all day, and the mother leaves meals to feed them. The neighbors in the tight-knit community watch each other’s children as if they were their own. They are even free to discipline them.
I was shocked. Yet, I immediately realized that I was trying to project my American views onto different culture and practice.
The famous African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child!’, popularized in the U.S. by Hilary Clinton, originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture and the proverb ‘Oran a azu nwa.’ This same sentiment is repeated in many different African cultures, albeit with different terms.
I had heard and used the phrase flippantly when I or someone I knew needed assistance. Even today, my mom often tells me in a half-cajoling tone that I need a village to raise me. I used to take it as an insult that she did not think I could negotiate life independently. But that was because I did not fully understand what the saying meant and the fantastic benefits of having a village — a community — and knowing you need them.
Let’s use the analogy of making a quilt. Recently, my sister, who was blessed with the artistic genes in the family, was beginning to make a quilt for a bridal shower. She previewed the different fabrics for me by placing each bolt of fabric in the order that it would appear. At first, glance, although it looked beautiful, I looked at the whole of the patterns instead of each one. My sister explained that, to create a harmonious design, the way you arrange your materials is to find the dominant (boldest and brightest) color pattern in a swatch, and then find another piece of fabric that uses a similar color to sew adjacently. At first glance, they might not seem to fit, but on further examination, they can enhance the quilt’s richness, and you can see their collective value.
We should use the quilt image to build our village. Of course, ours won’t be exactly like the type you would find in Africa because villages are often tied together by religion, culture, and family. So, a village would inherently have similar ethical principles, more so than most friends or neighbors. But our village will be built on similar values and beliefs.
Choose people whose dominant traits brighten and deepen your own. The result will be a beautiful complement of personalities and colors.
None of us are omniscient. We do not know what the future will hold and what particular mental and emotional trials you might encounter. So, the only way to stay afloat is to surround yourself with people that can fill in the gaps where you might falter. This is called social capital, the connections, shared values, and belief in society that allow people to trust each other and work together. I am not talking about a friend to run an errand for you or to pick up the kids; anyone can do that. I am talking about the people who stand by you, support you, and most importantly, care enough to be brutally honest.
So, let’s start with how a village would have helped in raising our children. Each time you introduce a new person into your circle, this is an opportunity to bring in a new perspective or a new lesson learned. How much broader will our children’s experiences be when they enter school if they had information from not just us?
I admit that I thought I was a good mom. I exposed my children to their grandparents and my friends, allowing different opinions to infiltrate their being. But having them discipline my kids is where I drew the line. Mothers want that control which comes from establishing rules and order. I thought that was a mom-only job. How can I allow another person to take my place?
That is where I may have been wrong.
Another person might deal with it differently, but that can only open your child’s eyes to the fact that each person does things a bit differently. Not wrong; just different. But thinking about it, taking direction and discipline from others better prepares them to enter the world. These kids will need to listen to diverse teachers, friends, and eventually even bosses throughout their lives.
Being raised by many may make the transition from a sheltered home to the real world much smoother.
Not only does your child need to see and learn from others, but parents also often benefit from an outside perspective. A village with cultural and ethno-ancestral diversity adds color and richness to your family’s world.
Think of it as a painting. The primary colors come together to form the main image. These are small groups of family or friends. They influence you and make you who you are. But the other colors that are added for accent, trigger emotional responses and deepen the experience of the whole. Each person’s perspective can open doors to the person you might want to be. These colors and people challenge you. They hold you in check. They push you out of your comfort zone.
Although I try to surround myself with a diverse group of people, my village is so much more than a way to diversify my world. Marriage. Kids. Career. Life. It is hard. (There, I said it.) There is no way that I can successfully navigate it all. And the African proverb tells me that is a good thing. I am pretty capable alone, but taking a friend’s offerings for help makes things easier — and often even better.
Use the quilt strategy when building your community, your village. Of course, you don’t want all the people in your group to have the same attitude (colors). We’re not necessarily seeking consenting opinions. Sometimes, when we see a person, just like the material for a quilt, we look at the whole person instead of seeking out the part that makes them extraordinary. It is this extraordinary trait that will enhance your village and make it grow.
So, the next time someone uses the phrase, “It takes a village,” don’t think of it as a commentary on your limited ability to survive alone; instead respond with, “Yes, it does, and isn’t that wonderful.”
You may also enjoy reading The Importance of Community Service in Shaping the Values of Our Children by Judy Marano