Martha Chinouya- Musoro

Challenges of African Families in the UK

Martha is a researcher on HIV/AIDS among African communities in England. She works extensively with Africans living with HIV and AIDS. She started the conference by speaking about African families and the challenges facing them in the UK.  African families include the biological family made of mother, father, brother and sister. Your family can be by marriage such as in-laws, or it could be a social family made up of friends, people who offer help to you or the people you help or extended family that include grandparents, uncles and aunts,  other are totem kin, Godparents and neighbours. The African families in Britain are made of first, second or third generations of migrants from Africa or the Caribbean. They are made of both adults and children.  The support system of aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbours, and community are sometimes not available. This puts strain and pressure on families.  She said African family has gone and is still going through changes. African families have to adjust to the new environment, dropping off some cultural values and taking on new ones.

The African family Structure in the UK

African families fall under the following categories.

  1. a)Nuclear Family –where you have father, mother and children living together, they are smaller and may have some the siblings still in Africa.
  2. b)Cohabiting family-This is where a man and woman decide to live together, without marriage. It is not generally an African culture but it is practised and it is on the increase. The reason for the increase is not very clear. It could be the greater freedom both men and women have here, away from their culture which would not have permitted this or because people have their spouses still in Africa and use cohabiting as a temporary solution for their sexual needs or the lack of trust in the relationship and therefore no commitment to marriage.
  3. c)Single parents– mainly women, some widows as a result of war, some separated from their partners still living in Africa, some separated from partners since arriving in the UK or separated from other children.
  4. d)Single men-include those with wives and children in Africa or separated from wives in the UK.  

These changes bring along with them problems

Migration has separated people from the familiar family unit. Some times migration has stretched our families to Africa, the United States, and the Middle East; creating a wide space. This expanse of locations put pressure and strain into the family relationship because there are communication and social breakdown, the greater expectation in support from some family members in this new dangerous space.

Am I still my brother’s keeper? Can I be my brother’s keeper when there is so much diversity in the family unit? Can I be my brother’s keeper when I am a migrant in a country that I do not have any immediate family member or I do not have the right to be in? Would you be a brother keeper when your children are somewhere else? Can I leave my child with my neighbour in this country? Can I call on my friends for emotional or social support when they too are going through some problems as myself? Is there a sense of family when husbands and wives are separated from each other or from their children who are left back in Africa?  The questions are endless.

Problems facing African Families in the UK

African communities tend to be young single highly educated with a high proportion of students living in flats. They also suffer from a high level of overcrowding and inadequate amenities than most other ethnic groups. In big cities, they are housed in inner cities where the building are old and run down amenities.

African community is among highly educated people, but unable to find work or work which reflect their qualifications and skills. Unemployment is high. Many tend to do two or three jobs to make ends meet. They work long hours. Women tend to do menial jobs and juggle childcare and work to keep their family. They work long hours, lack feel-good factors and all these put a strain in the relationship. The average earnings of Africans in the UK is about £7.42 an hour 2002

Many Africans support their extended families back in Africa. They send money to their children back in Africa who are staying with grandparents or other relatives. Many times this money never reaches the intended target that is the children; therefore the children are not looked after as they should be. Any money sent is used for the whole family included the extended family or diverted to other ventures.  The working parents feel grieved and worried about their children in Africa. The children are not allowed to join their parents. Sometimes parents lack the resources to go home or their immigration status is such that they cannot travel out of the UK and come back. All these produce mental anguish for many families.
In some cases, women were thought to have gained greater independence and economic freedom with increased employment, education opportunities and access to welfare benefits. There is a view that women find it easier to obtain employment than men, partly because of greater discrimination against men or because of the types of jobs available to people without qualification. Such jobs associated with women, for example, low paid care or cleaning jobs which African men think traditionally as women’s jobs and are not keen to accept them. On the other women argue against such myth because they are less educated, have a language barrier and are more isolated. They are also left with the children to look after, or to bring them up and to look after sick members of the family. They do not have access to good employment or training as such suffer more from poverty than men. Whatever the debate, Africans find it hard to find jobs that are suited to their qualifications and skills. Employed women carry the double burden of responsibility as chief carer and wage earner. There is a lack of cultural support system or cultural counselling which can help families.

Where a woman is married and she works, the husband becomes the childminder. He is left at home to look after children. Many men resent this role they are angry with this role reversal. They resent their wives; Martha illustrated this by the quotation from a frustrated man, who said,

Women are on top of men”

This is new…she (the wife) goes to work…She tells me to look after the children…change the nappies, clean the house…sometimes she does not come home she says she is working sleep-ins…I tried to work but this small girl, not educated at all told me to mop the floor…it is hard…what do my children think of me now?’  She is able to say this to me because I am helpless here”.

They see power usurped and a threat to their manhood. Their role as the head of the family and breadwinner is gone. The men do not want to do the menial role but the women are prepared to do them and put food on the table and take along the decision making in the house. In some families, this has given women some economic power and such that the man feels depressed and frustrated. Are we surprised that divorce is on the increase?

 Africans perceive the followings as obstacles to their employment they are immigration regulation, racism and childcare. Other barriers include housing, lack of skills transfer, and lack of training, language and health and negative portrayal of Africans as scroungers.

Barriers to getting the right job

Africans experience changes in their social status and self-esteem as a result of changes in the government of their home country. Many came to study and stayed on or as refugees and asylum seekers. Immigration regulation puts restrictions on employment confining individual and families into poverty. Immigration regulations separate families, wives separated from husbands or husbands separate from wives and some children separated from their parents. Immigration status keeps some families very poor because they can not engage in any economic activities. This confines many families to low self-esteem and poverty even though they have the qualification and ability to take on gainful employment here. Immigration regulations prevent people from forward planning due to the uncertainty of the future. People can’t plan anything if they don’t know their status or their status is not changed. It limits opportunities for employment and services. It creates tension and anxiety, it encourages exploitation as individuals cannot get or take gainful employment

African families are constantly under stress from within and from outside. Africans face racism in different forms every time. It comes from individuals on the streets or from institutions which continuously treat Africans less favourably in employment, housing, health, immigration, education, commerce etc

Contribution of Africans to the UK
Africans from Africa and the Caribbean make a tremendous contribution to the UK economy but focus from the media is immigration, people who use services but the realities are different, Martha quote the following to support the contribution of Africans to UK society.  “African workers in the UK are keeping us healthy – London’s health services and schools would collapse without them”, (The Economist, 2004).  In 1998 to 2000, Zimbabwe trained 340 nurses and in 2002, 382 Zimbabwean nurses joined the UK register. This is only in Zimbabwe, what about nurses from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Doctors from African countries working in the NHS?  What of other Africans working in social and care work?  Do they look like scroungers? They work very hard and are paid far below their skills and experience.

Africans and HIV/AIDS in the UK
Martha then dived into the issue of the day, which is Africans and HIV infections and how this disease is affecting individuals, families and the African communities. Martha shows how Africans form just 0.4% of the UK population but form more than 28% heterosexual infections of HIV in the UK are from Sub Saharan Africans. This high rate of infection within the community has stigmatised Africans in the UK. Martha shows the route of infection in Sub Saharan Africans as seen in the statistics.

Will African communities in the UK wake up and challenge this disease or pretend that these statistics are not true?

Africans have to understand the seriousness of this disease in its community and the impact it is having in the lives of individuals and the community especially in the lives of women and young people. Because of this increase in HIV; Africans are stigmatised. Many people discover that they are HIV Positive only when they become sick. Many are on there on here, they have come as student or refugees and only to discover, that they have HIV virus. Some are ashamed and do not want anybody to know about their HIV status. So they carry this burden on their own. Many suffer from poverty, poor housing, unemployment or too sick to work. People do not get tested until they are feeling sick; treatment can become less useful when the virus has developed to full-blown AIDS. Women suffer even more because some case their husbands leave them for some else when they discover their wives are HIV positive.  A sick woman is left with the children. There are HIV positive women who do not want their children to know about their diagnoses but at the same time worry about what would happen to their children when they die from AIDS. Due to the shame and stigma, some will not let people at home know either.

HIV Mother to Child Transmission

How many women know that they could transmit this virus from themselves to a child through breastfeeding? There is an increase in mother to child transmission. It is not just safe to say young people are free; they are born with the virus and have to keep taking the cocktail of medicine to live.  Those mothers that have not told their children find it really hard to explain to their children, why they (the children) are sick or why they are taking these medicines. Parents or mothers feel ashamed to explain how they (the mothers) got the disease. It is difficult to tell a child you have got HIV or to tell a child I am the one that made you have these terrible diseases. The pain is unbearable.

 Children looking after sick parents

 In some cases, the children end up looking after their sick mother. This disrupts the child’s schooling and childhood. Martha gave the example of a child Ngone and her mum.  Ngone is the little girl who looks after her HIV/AIDS mother. The mother depends on Ngone for many things in the house. Ask if she called her mother from school?

Ngone: Yes, I call her from school, I stayed away from school because I want to care and look after her.

Ngone: I still feel guilty (silence leaving her on her own, not being around in case she needs me.  By going to school I feel guilty because I am not sure how she is coping at home and I call every time to find out if she is fine.

Mum; “I am my daughters’ child”.

 Africans diagnosed with HIV/ will not go back to Africa because of the cost of treatment; some have no money to go back. Some are too ashamed to go back, some too sick to go back and facing sickness and death on their own.

 What do we do to protect our children from this infection? Do our children have rights? How do the rights conflict with our culture of respect for elders? Martha went on to find out from the children if they think they have rights to information and the right to be told the truth in order for them to protect themselves.

Below is Martha’s study with some young children about their right

Concepts of children’s rights to information and to be heard were largely unknown:

Martha: Do you think you have a right to be heard in this house?

Ngoni: No. I don’t at all. I just see myself as a normal child.

Martha: What is a normal child?

Ngoni: One with respect for their parents. I do not believe in these rights. When those

people hear about their rights they answer back to their parents and lose respect

      Girl 7: Not speaking to your parents when they are telling you … (interjecting: if you speak         back that’s not respect).

     Girl 4: Whether they are right or wrong you just have to sit quietly and listen.

      Girl 2: Don’t look into their eyes when they speak to you (interjection: if you look into their     eyes that are lack of respect. All the girls speaking at the same time … British kids have no         respect … 194)

      Martha: … children have rights.

      Girls: Who said that?

      Martha The Children Act…

     Girls: We have never heard of it.

      Girl: What Act?

     Girl: Martha said it’s the children one.

      Girl: Never heard of it! (216).

 The children have the right to information. Where can they get the information from whom? Is it parents, school, social workers, doctors or hospital?  How much of sexual health information should they have? What about our culture of silence is respect for elders. It is right to keep quiet and let our children die or let the whole community be stigmatised because we do not want to deal with this sensitive issue. If we do not talk about it now when are we going to? How many more people will be infected, how many more will die.  What should we do with the culture of ours as quoted below?


We do not talk about sex

Being a Muganda men means knowing your duties as a have your father’s name to preserve…in our culture you do not sit your children down and tell them about HIV (silence) or sex. If you want to teach your children about sex…your sister the aunt does it…why should I start now when I am ill?  From a Father

 Children have these rights of the rights.

      Children have ‘…many of the rights that protect children (e.g. non-discrimination…liberty)

  ‘The freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds and the right to   education…to receive all HIV-related information needed to avoid infection and to cope with  their status if infected,

  If you as parents can tell them how to protect themselves from this disease then they have a right to seek the information somewhere else. It will be wrong to let our children die of ignorance because our culture dictates so.

   Have a right to HIV related information

 Parents to tell children that they are affected by HIV

 What are the Challenges for African Families in the UK?

The challenge is that we as a community must do something and what we should do is put succinctly:

“doing something means that the African Community has to play a large role in changing the attitude and get over the stigma, stand up and speak the truth, get tested, provide a safe place for open discussion, help nurture the community and create a sense of help.

“Unless we create a sense for help and nurturing in our community, people will continue to do things in the dark and not talk about it and not get the support and treatment they need.  They will go infecting people and then go away and die”

  by Charles Whitaker

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