I have perhaps mentioned before that many “brothers” and “sisters” in the Gambia are not actually brothers and sisters… in fact many are not even blood related. Some are just very close family friends, or have some marital connection, or they grew up in the same compound… some are the product of something I affectionately call Child Tossing. None of this might make sense to you, the reader, but I will try my best to explain. Then again, I don't get it so I don't know how in the world you will.
In its simplest form Child Tossing is when the child of one family, generally a girl, is removed from their nuclear family and sent to live with a neighbor, aunt, uncle, brother, former employer, family friend, business partner, wealthier acquaintance, community leader, namesake, or someone they know within their same ethnic group. The namesake aspect is when someone you know, or don’t know, who respects you or is acquainted with your family names their child after you. You in turn have a lifelong obligation to the child that bears your name. Similar to a god-mother or father, but with more strings attached. The child, once tossed, is forever that family’s responsibility. They in all respects become that child’s caregivers and parents.
The reasons for child tossing have almost as much range as who they can be tossed too. Sometimes, due to the very large family size in the Gambia (families range from one husband and one wife with 3 kids to a husband with 4 wives with 25 kids) Parents will frequently toss their children to wealthier relatives who in this society have no right to deny the child. They can also toss the child to relatives with less money, but who have fewer children. A child can also be tossed because of the ratio of female to male children or age. For instance, our caretaker’s wife, Haddy, was tossed to her biological aunt when she was 4 because her aunt had 3 boys who had grown up and gotten married and she needed a girl around the house to help with familial duties. Haddy’s biological sister, Senabu, stayed with her nuclear family in her village. When Haddy married Mohammed several years ago, Senabu was tossed to Mohammed because he could provide for her school fees. Haddy and Senabu, while they are biological sisters, have never known each other until 2 years ago. This may sound rare, and unusual, but I have literally given up trying to understand the family dynamic of my Gambian friends because not only are their families massive, but they are not necessarily related to their family members. In one instance a friend of Club Toubob (the name we have assigned our home of Americans and Swedes) had 2 siblings we knew of. He, his brother and sister, had all or do attend college or university. They all have jobs, computers, phones and bright futures. He has a biological sister who at a young age went to go live with an aunt. She has never seen the inside of a classroom.
Gambians consider strangers to be family in one way or another. Everyone is mandated not only culturally, but from God (aka Allah), to take care of one another. It is a built in safety net, with no savings account or 401K required. You are in some way responsible for someone else and someone is responsible for you. Families live in compounds with 20 or more people and sometimes only one or two members of that family is working, but they are responsible for everyone. If you are the son who is lucky enough to be sent to school, you are forever responsible to whoever scrimped and saved to send you. If a man marries a woman, he is now responsible for that woman’s entire extended family. No objections can be made, because in this web of relationships, when one persons leaves it weakens the entire structure. This is a level of interdependence, and complexity that I am pretty sure no one in American can fully wrap their head around. Even other West Africans don’t get the pervasiveness of the Child Tossing that Gambians employ, but it serves a purpose. It keeps families and communities undeniably intertwined. How can you fight with a neighboring village when they have 7 of your children? How can you deny a man a place to stay when he is your cousin’s neighbor’s second son? How can you say no to the daughter of your former employee’s sister? The answer is you can’t. You just can’t say no and no one can say no to you.
At the end of the day, I am still a bit put-off with Child tossing and in a state of confusion I just really wanted it too all make sense. I wanted Child Tossing to have an ultimate good, something that would seem logical to my western mind, something rational and solid. Maybe something written down in formal legal terms that would make it somehow more official instead of kids just moving away at the age of 4 never to return home…. Nope. I didn’t get my answer; my reassurance that cultural relativity would somehow lead me to understanding of these people and this culture did not rest well with me. I sat baffled by what I felt was potentially a very cruel practice, but what I did get was this.
Me:“Don’t parents miss their children when they send them away? Don’t they miss their kids? How can they just let them go?”
Mohammed: “To be honest, I don’t think they do. This is just what they do… we are one community, no child belongs to one person, and no person belongs to themselves so there is no one to miss.”