Reflections: The village is not obsolete. It’s vital.

Randall Cobb
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Let me begin by saying that I was somewhat reluctant to accept this task and at the same time deeply honored and humbled to have been asked to contribute to such a noteworthy project.     

I first thought to myself, what is the origin of this proverb, and I then considered what is the meaning of this proverb. As I researched, I found that this proverb, as most of us are aware, has been attributed to African cultures. The exact origin cannot be pinpointed, but many academics say the proverb embodies the spirit of several African cultures.

Examples of African societies with proverbs that translate to “It takes a village…” include the following, according to NPR:

  • In Lunyoro (Bunyoro) there is a proverb that says “Omwana takuliola nju emoi” whose literal translation is “A child does not grow up only in a single home.”
  • In Kihaya (Bahaya) there is a saying, “Omwana taba womoi,” which translates as “A child belongs not to one parent or home.”
  • Kijita (Wajita) has the proverb, “Omwana ni wa bhone,” meaning regardless of a child’s biological parents, its upbringing belongs to the community.
  • In Swahili, the proverb “Asiye funzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu” means roughly the same: “Whomsoever is not taught by the mother will be taught by the world.”

What wisdom and understanding was held by our ancestors! They were fully aware of the necessity and responsibility of rearing our children as a responsibility of the entire community, not solely individuals. They understood that not only did mothers and fathers have a role to play in the rearing of children, but the entire community was responsible for positively impacting a child’s life. They realized that everyone had a role to play.

Growing up, I may not have been aware of the proverb, but I experienced the concept. I grew up during a time when the idea of community was still viable. I lived in close proximity to my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins and can remember always being surrounded by a strong support group. Not only did our families live near each other, but we also had access to a host of neighbors and friends. 

In the community we all knew one another, and everyone took responsibility for one another. It was not uncommon for me to receive  redirection not only from other relatives, but also from neighbors and friends. There were numerous instances where I received chastisement for the same infraction from several people. I was spoken to by those who witnessed the behavior and by the time I got home, a phone call had been made to my parents detailing the situation. 

We were all responsible for one another. There was no need for adoption agencies. It was common practice for children to be “raised by” extended family or other people in the community, when the circumstances of life led to parental absences. There was always someone available to assume the responsibility of raising and nurturing a child. 

About Reflections on the Village

For generations, Black neighborhoods were communal. Everyone had a role to play, and everyone understood the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. They also understood that their neighborhood, like African American communities across the country, was a village bound by their African ancestry and the bloodline that begat them.

Can you imagine this happening today?

We asked a spectrum of commentators to weigh in, using this prompt: 

Has the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child become irrelevant and obsolete in today’s world? Why? Or why not? And what can we as African Americans do to ensure that our Black children succeed against the odds?

Ruth Foote, collection editor

The sense of community also transferred to the school system. When I grew up, not only did the educators know my parents, but all the parents knew one another. Parents did not have to wait nine weeks to find out what was happening with their children in the school system. They knew what was going on and could redirect quickly. But, as mentioned in this series’ introduction, “controversies about corporal punishment aside,” the intent evolved from a place of community. Not only did I receive immediate correction at school, I also had to face it at home because the lines of communication were always open. Everyone involved in my life understood the idea of “It takes a village…”

Back in the day, community living was a given. Dating back many years, our people lived in communities for safety, socialization, the sharing of resources, and for moral support, according to the Exchange Family Center. We are now living in a time where families no longer live intergenerationally as they once did, and with the loss of our elders, families often “fracture and live further and further apart.” Gone is our sense of community, and with this loss is the absence of the advantage of shared resources among families — the small things such as sharing meals or having someone trustworthy to leave our children with. Too many times in today’s world we are left to “go it alone.”

Is the adage “It takes a village…” in today’s world obsolete? Absolutely not. We need to understand as a people that if we continue to ignore the ideals of our ancestors, we are doomed to continue to fail collectively as a people. It is absolutely imperative that we get back to the sense of community that we once had, understanding that “united we stand, divided we fall.”  As Jesus noted in Mark 3:25: “And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  

It’s time that we come together as a people, utilizing our collective resources with each of us doing our part to ensure that our children are successful given the odds that are against them.