The uniqueness of African hospitality

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

My family tree is unruly. It would challenge even the most fastidious genealogist. I have more aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins than I can count. Some are blood relatives, our connection woven so deeply into our DNA that distance fails to sever our connection. Should they choose to cross the ocean that separates us, our home will become their home.

Many are relatives by adoption. We choose to bestow familial titles upon each other out of mutual affection and love. We are fixtures in each other’s lives, both in memory and in the current rhythms of life. This broadened experience of family is just one facet of the hospitable nature at the heart of African identity.

In the Western world, hospitality is often an event or behaviour, contained within the boundaries of time and place. Hospitality in this context begins with an invitation, is facilitated by a host and received by a guest. In contrast, hospitality in the African context is interwoven into nearly every aspect of life.

As Dr. Julius Gathogo, senior lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, writes, “By nature Africans are hospitable. This contributes to its uniqueness.” He goes on to define African hospitality as “the willingness to give, to help, to assist, to love and to carry one another’s burden without necessarily profit or reward as the driving force.”

Africa is not a monolith. The continent is home to thousands of ethnic groups and tribes with varying customs and practices. Hospitality looks different in each context but its centrality as a way of life is a unifying thread. African hospitality is not superior to Western hospitality, but its uniqueness offers a vital contribution to the global church. More specifically, African hospitality models the gospel’s call to the sharing of communal responsibility, material possessions, and seasons of mourning and celebration.

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” is encoded in many languages and dialects throughout the African continent. Originating with the Igbo and Yoruba tribes of Nigeria, the saying reflects the belief that the nuclear family is not a private entity but a unit that serves and is served by the larger community.

My parents often talk about being reprimanded by neighbours or family friends when they were caught misbehaving in public as children. Encouragement, protection, and correction are responsibilities shared by all elders for the benefit of the younger generation. In return, the young carry the responsibility of offering respect, obedience, and honour to the elders.

For the matriarchs of my family, the joys and burdens of motherhood were not limited to their biological children. My paternal grandmother raised nine biological children and seven non-biological children. My maternal grandmother raised seven biological children and eight non-biological children. When parents are unable to care for their children, family members, friends, and neighbours fill the gap. When adult children and are unable to care for their aging parents, the community again provides what is needed.

This practice of communal care is present throughout Scripture. Perhaps it’s most poignantly shown by Jesus Christ when He entrusted His mother to His disciple John moments before His death. Jesus had other half-brothers that could have taken care of Mary, but the kinship forged by faith and fellowship made John a fitting recipient for the responsibility of caring for Jesus’s mother.

I can’t remember a period of my childhood or adolescence where we didn’t have an extended family member or friend living with us.

Some stayed with us while on vacation; others came to study before establishing their own lives in Canada. In jest, I often referred to our house as “Hotel Nwabuike.”

My parents were unfazed by the consistent sharing of our home and resources. My dad often recalls eating from the same plate as his siblings, sharing clothes and shoes without complaint or hesitation. But, growing up in a Western society that prizes personal space and individualism, my own preferences were challenged. When I questioned the depth of their hospitality, my parents responded with the question from 1 John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17, NRSV).

One of our core needs as human beings is fellowship. We are designed to be both witnesses and participants in each other’s stories. To rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Celebration and mourning are often private affairs in North America. Only the inner circle of close family and friends are invited to important functions like weddings, funerals, and birthday parties.

For Africans, life’s ceremonies are less guarded. A funeral may be attended by a passerby that has only a vague knowledge of the deceased. A wedding honours the union of the bride and groom while also serving as a wider celebration of life. When a student graduates, the community shares in the accomplishments of “their” child. As a Nigerian proverb states, “Because friendship is pleasant, we partake of our friend’s entertainment; not because we have not enough to eat in our own house.”

African hospitality is not static. Globalization and economic and political instability have put a strain on the relational quality of African peoples and societies. But by the grace of God, a spirit of openness and generosity endures. That hospitable spirit continues to make room for the advancement of the gospel, equipping the African Church to be a powerful force of hope and healing throughout the world.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.