The Family Meeting

by Zahra Mohammed

A couple of years ago I wrote about the Extended Family, and how having relatives stay in your home could sometimes cause conflicts which would have to be resolved at a Family Meeting.

To tie in that piece, let’s assume your cousin’s son who was staying with you had some very annoying habits, including rummaging through the fridge and tampering with the stew in the middle of the night. You (boldly) expressed your displeasure and, teenagers being what they are, he scurried off home to report to his parents.

Now the youngster’s parents will not approach you to discuss the Stew Matter; don’t ask me why but in African culture the thinking tends to be “why resolve the matter quietly and peacefully between the parties concerned, when you could involve the whole village and make it a jamboree?”

In line with this, your cousin will contact prominent family members to sit in on a Family Meeting and all arrangements would have been concluded before you are invited.

You might think that the aim of the Family Meeting is to resolve the matter between you and your cousin, but its true purpose is to remind you of the power and importance of the African family structure as demonstrated by the haughty manner in which you are informed of the Meeting and your role as defendant. It is made *very* clear to you that the ‘invitation’ to attend is more of a summons than a polite request for your presence.

The day of a Family Meeting is also the day family members unearth buried grudges and resentments under the guise of mediating in a dispute.

This brings me to the make-up of the mediators, aka the Council – the panel of family members who issue the summons, preside over the meetings and dispense judgement at the end of it. Council members are usually older aunts, uncles or grandparents whose grey hairs and many years of wisdom are enough of a reason for them to ask for your head on a platter.

There might be some differences in the way Family Meetings are conducted around Nigeria, but as the differences can’t be that many I have compiled a general list of what to expect at a typical Nigerian Family Meeting. It just might come in handy the next time you receive a summons…

1. Clear your schedule and dedicate a full day to the Meeting. Remember that for some family members this is an eagerly anticipated social event, so don’t expect to be done in two hours. No one particularly cares about your four o’clock appointment.

2. It is advisable to be conservatively dressed. Now is not the time to drift into the meeting venue draped in rich fabrics, dripping flashy jewellery and reeking of expensive perfume as this might trigger unwanted discussions about your finances. (Unless of course this is a deliberate diversionary tactic)

3. If you arrive late, you will be accused of being disrespectful. If you are richly dressed and float in on a cloud of perfume, you will be accused of being disrespectful. If you protest any false accusations you will be accused of being disrespectful. In fact on that day if you cough, sneeze or even breathe, you will be accused of being disrespectful.

4. Don’t be too surprised if the Meeting turns out to be about a totally unrelated matter (For instance, instead of meeting to discuss The Incident With Your Cousin’s Son, it turns out to be about You Not Greeting Aunty O Properly Last Year). You can take solace in the fact that your cousin – who initiated the meeting – will be just as shocked as you are at the turn of events (particularly as she’s paying for the drinks)

5. Expect to be reminded of every sin, crime and wrongdoing you have committed since the age of ten. Do not look shocked at the fact that someone has apparently been keeping a careful catalogue of all your misdeeds. At this point you are expected to hang your head and look ashamed.

6. When in the course of the meeting, a relative digresses and/or gets into a long-winded argument with another, please refrain from calling them to order and reminding them that this meeting is about you. Don’t roll your eyes in exasperation or look at your watch, no matter how strong the urge.

7. Remember that anything you say or do will be used against you for the rest of your life.

8. However much you dislike Uncle A, remember that he is, on this particular day, a member of a Supreme Council and rudeness to him will be interpreted as rudeness to the entire Council. See point 7.

9. Focus! Focus! Focus! Now is not the time to let your thoughts drift away. Look alert and be prepared to answer any questions that may be thrown your way. Do not whip out your organiser to rearrange your schedule. You may think no-one’s watching but…see point 7.

10. When the time comes for you to recount your version of the story, brace yourself for a full dose of theatrics and high drama. Someone will let out a high-pitched wail, calculated to distract you from the point you are about to make. There will also be quite a bit of arm-waving, raised voices and crying. Ignore it all and forge ahead. Just remember Point 3 – protesting a false accusation could earn you an accusation of disrespect. If you do decide to protest vigorously, once again see point 7.

11. There will be several attempts to foist a guilt complex on you. (E.g. “the youngster could be your son! How could you be angry with him for something as minor as dipping a dirty hand into your pot of stew at 2 a.m.?”) Refuse to accept this emotional blackmail. If your cousin’s son broke one of your House Rules, stand firm and refuse to bow down. (In other words, ignore point 7)

12. Remember that at the end of it all, you will be expected to apologise and thank the Council for their wise judgement. If the judgement is not in your favour – you apologise. If it is – you apologise. Even if there’s no judgement – you apologise.

13. Before the Meeting finally ends there will be the Grand Reconciliation, whereby you and your cousin are reminded that you are ‘one’, you are enjoined to accept your cousin’s son back in your home and everyone is ordered to live in peace.

At this point the Meeting is officially over and everyone breaks up into cliques and clusters to discuss the outcome and in some cases, plan another Meeting to address rude behaviour observed at this one.

And you? You drift out on a cloud of perfume.

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Lara December 4, 2007 - 8:59 am

FlashBack! i have sat through several of the these meetings. You forgot to metion the fact that through out all the drama and theatrics, Junior some how goes unpunished. no one scolds him, no one explains to him why his actions are wrong.

GREAT Article.

Lucy Opene July 16, 2007 - 8:17 am

Though hilarious, but truly african. I have witnessed quite a few of these " summons" as well.

enit July 15, 2007 - 1:57 pm

I love the way you touched humorously on the African seniority system that was intended to be used by WISE elders–those who have lived long enough to gain wisdom from their experiences over a long period of living– to bring peace and order to the community. This system like many others has somehow deteriorated into a Seniority palava system–gray power play–weapon of age oppression– cronyism –a shameless injustice mechanism and the source of much trouble in our society. It is such a long established system that defies western thinking and results in the failure of many a foreign development plan for Africa. As we laugh at the foibles of our elders let us think about the issue of fairness as we get older. I ma indeed grateful to that occasional elder who speaks fairly. Fairness has nothing to do with illiteracy-it speaks to values.

Mike July 13, 2007 - 2:33 am

Hilarious- I have sat through meetings like this

Patricia July 12, 2007 - 5:34 pm

I enjoyed reading this. It was very enlightening, interesting, and comical. I think similaries of these types of gatherings are in every culture. I know I have experienced something similiar a time or two in my own family in the past.

Good article.

Reply July 12, 2007 - 12:19 pm

wow, This, I believe is the experience of this writer. This is a typical African judgement. And suffix it that illiteracy is responsible for it because those aunts and uncles who would preside over the matter see things from the 'ordained' Africa man's point of view. And that is why a lot of people do not come home again from the town.Well, time shall change all these

MIKE July 11, 2007 - 4:42 pm

u forgot to add one unintended consequence of the meeting is the diabolical plotting of the death of one attendee before the next meeting is summoned.hmm AFrica!

Rosie July 11, 2007 - 2:26 pm

Funny piece. Yet true.


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