New Internationalist

The Less You Have, The More You Share

Issue 160

new internationalist
issue 160 - June 1986

A festival in the Peruvian countryside.
Patrick Knight / Camera Press
The less you have,
the more you share
You may dream of living in the countryside, surrounded by your
family and friends. But in Peru, as Jo Boyden shows, life in the town
can be much happier than life in the country. Because city folk know
there's more to sharing than just living with your relatives.

IN the central Peruvian highlands most people live in small nuclear households: just parents and children under the same roof. Insofar as there are extended families in this part of Peru, they are a loose collection of people who share the same surname. They are often geographically scattered. Few can account for their ancestors beyond their grandparents.

The independence of the domestic group is important and newly-weds prefer to build their own home or even move into rented accommodation rather than live with their parents. Each household has a small herd of animals - sheep, llamas and cattle - and rents enough land from the community to be self-sufficient.

Close family members - like brothers and sisters - are frequently in fierce competition over land and do not co-operate much. But members from the wider group do work quite closely together. During the harvest and at sowing time most households work for their kin on an exchange basis. Families living at high altitudes make alliances with relatives living at the valley-bottom and barter the goods that they have produced. Hides, cheeses and potatoes are exchanged for maize and sugar. Many also have help from relatives in house-building.

Arrangements between members of the extended family are pragmatic and the element of calculation is always present. A loan of labour or goods must be returned sometime, and an alliance between kin is sustained only so long as it is expedient. This pragmatism extends to romance too: should two people from the same extended family fall in love, one of them will change their name so that they can marry.

Competition between relatives over property rights is so intense that many people prefer to choose allies from those who aren't related to them by blood: friends, neighbours, local trades people or in-laws. The most important allies of all are cornpadres (co-godparents), who are usually selected with great care. Some people even have their children baptised twice. This practice - which is frowned upon by the Catholic Church - enables ambitious parents to cement new alliances that they consider potentially more advantageous than the old ones.

Having seen the lack of co-operation in the extended family in the country, I expected such relationships would disintegrate in the cities. The apparent complexity of friendships, and the mixtures of people found in towns gives the impression that only the nuclear family remains. In fact, the growing numbers of female-headed, single-parent households, or even households consisting entirely of children, have led to the idea of city-life becoming degenerate and chaotic.

But extended families do not disappear in urban areas. True, nuclear families or individuals tend to migrate independently. But people going to the cities don't face it alone. Most already have relatives there and will seek to move into the same street or house. They can live with their relatives for months - or even years - until they have found somewhere of their own. Apart from squatting on public land, sharing is one of the main ways of overcoming the housing shortage. Over 40 per cent of urban households have relatives outside the immediate family staying with them.

Strangely enough, despite the hostile environment of the barrios (urban squatter slums) people in extended families are far more likely to help one another than in rural areas. Brothers and sisters in the city often meet socially and frequently run joint enterprises, sharing market stalls, for example, or helping each other with child-care.

Urban families also retain strong ties with their relatives in the country. They send money and gifts in return for regular supplies of fresh vegetables, cheeses and meat. Those who can afford it return to visit their family each year on their village's Patron Saint's Day. Many urban families join clubs that are linked to the area in the countryside that they came from. They participate in festivals commemorating their home town and fund-raising activities to help with local projects.

Concern runs deeper than blood ties in the shanty towns. A system of caring - a welfare safety-net - has been woven by city women. There are now more than 800 communal soup kitchens run by women in Lima alone. These provide an important subsidy for the family, saving shopping-time, food preparation and cooking. They also reduce the cost of food by enabling wholesale purchase. Many soup kitchens give special support to widows and single mothers, offering free food rations for extended periods.

The caring done in households in the shanty-towns of Lima extends beyond blood relatives to the neighbourhood as well. And that can't be bad.

Jo Boyden has just completed a report on children's rights, available from the Minority Rights Group, 29 Craven Street, London WC2, UK.

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