Every human society ever studied was based on the notion of “family”. While there were doubts of its existence during the “Stone Age” a burial site in Germany with two adults and two children genetically related suggest that even then, the nuclear family was present. Because humans are born with very few instincts and cannot immediately fend for themselves, the actions necessary for survival have to be taught; at least by the mother of children. Even bands of apes show tendencies of living as “families”.
While in the “hunting and gathering” stage small tribes might have been the dominant mode of organisation, “society” as we know it only arose as humans transitioned into a settled mode of living when they turned to farming for securing food supplies. At that stage, the earlier nuclear family structure with mother, father and children solidified as areas demarcated for farming would have been most effectively cultivated by families that needed a very minimal level of organisation.
This does not mean that modern “property relations” had to be present. In the Caribbean islands and in Guyana, before the coming of the Europeans, the farming plots were communally commingled and villagers would simply harvest for their daily needs. But the nuclear family was strong.
When individuals from Africa were captured and brought here as slaves, they also came from societies in which families were strong but with polygynous marriages – meaning one man had several wives. But in the Caribbean, those bonds were torn asunder as those who made themselves “owners of chattel” imposed social relations that were best for production of sugar. The plantation society reverted to one in which the mothers were the centre of the family and fathers had “visiting” relationships. The planters even “breaded” enslaved people to produce individuals they felt might be better workers.
This was the beginning of the destruction of the family unit in the African Guyanese community but with the inculcation of Christianity, the nuclear family ideal has been painstakingly recreated into the present where it remains a work in progress.
The other large community that was imported over 79 years (1838-1917) from India came from a society in which the extended family was the norm. This was changed on the plantations because of the scarcity of women brought into the colony during Indentureship and the allocation of living quarters in the “logees” to nuclear families.
While after the abolition of indentureship the Indians gradually recreated elements of their societal relations of village India, the extended family and the tight network of relationships that sustained such communities were never the same.
One of the major effects predicted when such bonds are sundered and the society becomes increasingly atomised is a feeling of “anomie” will develop in individuals and social pathologies such as higher rates of suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism become more prevalent. This is the reality in the Indian Guyanese community.
In 1993, recognising the importance of families to the maintenance of viable societies, the UN declared April 15, “International Day of Families”. The theme of this year’s observance focuses on Sustainable Development Goal 3 of the 17 to be achieved by 2030: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
While the form of the family may differ – nuclear, polygamous, extended, single family, same sex, etc. As the UN advises: “Families remain at the centre of social life ensuring the well-being of their members, educating and socialising children and youth and caring for young and old. From a policy perspective, taking families into account in the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals has a potential to speed up the achievements of many targets relating to individuals’ well-being.”
While the last exhortation may be directed at governments, ultimately it is the members of the society that have to seize the initiative to create stable families that can be the base of stable societies.