The past few months have been one of those trying times in my life. Well, to be honest the past few years have really been trying and challenging. The first challenge came with a series of deaths in my family, which followed one after another. It was as if we were destined to mourn every year. Families have different ways of coping with adversities. Some get together and, sadly, some do not.
One of the joys of growing up was that the family I was born to did not have much really, in material terms, but it had an abundance of spirit, joy, humour, generosity and unity. All these were our staple diet. Whatever negative elements we were exposed to (or exposed ourselves to) in the outside world, we were always assured of a loving and accepting family environment. However lately as a family we seem to have lost all that.
I suppose things come in phases or waves. We have had our share of positively engulfing waves and, as tides turn, I suppose we get exposed to violent waves. These seem to have engulfed us and each and every one of us is trying to ride these waves as best as we can but the current is still too much for us. Our fingers are barely touching and the strong current is drowning and silencing our voices as we try to reach out and call to one another, just like we did as children. To write a series on family preservation and strong families is understandably a challenging task at this point in my life as I struggle to make sense of what is going on in what I have for almost all my life defined as my family.
Looking on the bright side, challenges are in fact opportunities for growth. A few weeks ago I had to rush home because my older brother was very sick. Driving home was not frustrating at all because I had this huge bag of goodies which filled me with joy and laughter as I thought about my family before the big bad wave. All the negative experiences we had endured” in recent years could not suppress the joys I personally had experienced throughout my childhood and adult life. This joy fuelled me to rush to my brother’s side with a smile on my face.
Luckily my brother recovered from a coma and we went home, home now being his little one-roomed tin house, sparsely furnished and with hardly any space to move around. We clustered together with his children, my sister and her children, and some friends who had come to support us. As we celebrated his recovery with a prayer and a meal, my brother had us in stitches with his sense of humour, mostly laughing at himself.
There was hardly space to sit, we literally sat on top of one another and enjoyed the best meal together in a long time. The laughter of children, the teasing, the warmth, the love just flowed through and at that point I realised the importance of what I always teach, that the strength of a family cannot be measured in material terms. It is not about money. It is about love, it is about those things that unite people who are not necessarily connected by Nood ties, but spiritual ties and a feeling of “being bound together by something that transcends blood ties”.
I looked around the little room and felt a wave of love and gratitude to all those who were in it. I felt humbled that in such material poverty, I had to find hope and fulfillment in being part of a family. A different form of family than the one I was raised in but a loving, caring, laughing family, nevertheless. As I left my brother, sister and their children as well as other caring friends my spirit was revived, I knew that what had sustained me as a member of a family and as an individual were the strengths in my family, which in turned helped me develop resilience.
One of the most important Family Preservation values is that of tapping into the strengths and resourcefulness of families. The Family Preservation approach to working with families emphasises looking beyond just “family deficits” or weaknesses. This does not mean that we have to pretend that there are no weaknesses in families, but to harp on them continuously does not usually yield any positive solutions. Instead, it becomes an endless cycle of problems. One of the ways of working with families in difficulties is to look at their strengths.
Family strengths are usually made up of the strengths of individual members as well as the connections they have with one another and with people outside the family. The strengths include:
Capacities – what families are capable of
Dreams and family vision – what family members aspire to for their future and that of the entire family
Talents and Skills of members
Ability to work together and with other people, and to communicate.
In Family Preservation, family strengths can be tapped into in the following areas:
Family’s cultural background, support systems, positive personalities, including their ability to cope with adversity. Participation in external activities or membership of other community groups is one important strength.
Family functions: This includes the degree to which family members fulfill their responsibilities. Mostly it is the degree to which they care for, protect and nurture one another.
Family interactions: This is about cohesion. The closeness that family members enjoy is a source of strength because it promotes communication, sharing of ideas and support for one another.
These are just a few ideas of where one can locate the strengths of the family. It is important that practitioners receive training in strength-based work. The tendency is to work from a deficit perspective and the strength approach requires a paradigm shift and change of attitude for workers. There are many tools that are available on strength assessment that are part of the training and experiential package. In conclusion, let me go back to my personal story. When I left my brother and his family, I kept thinking about all the difficulties we had experienced and survived. I know that there are individuals and families who have gone through worse than what we have seen and they go on to lead happy and successful lives. Call it individual or family resiliency, or plain personal and family strengths. Those are the things that push you higher and higher even when you feel like going under. For me and the people I defined earlier as my family, these are the strengths we used to keep our heads above water:
Family Behaviour: Caring and appreciation. We found ways to support one another. I never realised how much I loved my brother until the realisation that I was about to lose him hit me. When he recovered, I told him how much I loved and appreciated him. You know, most of us express our appreciation in deeds but not really in words. I will never forget how we helped my brother eat and dress up and even to express his appreciation. We were available at the time of greatest need. We gave ourselves time.
Commitment: One way that families express commitment is through practising family traditions. We were raised in a family where traditional practices of communicating with God and ancestors were as natural as breathing. When my brother opened his eyes briefly in hospital, he whispered “Zibuyile, you have to slaughter a white chicken, whether I live or die", we talked briefly about it. Luckily he lived to pick up the chicken and even to enjoy it. That was the significant part of the family dinner we happily shared. Praying and burning incense in thanksgiving brought us even more together. Hence the warmth and specialness of that dinner.
Communication: I do not think we have talked as much as we did during those times when we were facing the predicament of my brother’s illness. My sister, her children, our circle of friends, everybody who is part of our special family, networked, just talked. We talked not in anger or resignation but with hope, appreciation and love. We explained to the children what was happening with my brother. This also enabled the children to play their role in taking care of their uncle.
These are just some of the tools we made use of that demonstrate family strengths.
This feature: Buyi Mbambo (2004) How to ride a wave when the tide turns. ChildrenFirst Vol. 8 No. 57 Sept/ Oct 2004 pp39-40