What we can learn from the Aka people about caring for each other? Dr Jamie Saris writes for RTE's Brainstorm

Wednesday, April 26, 2023 - 15:00

Babies and toddlers in Bayaka (Ba'aka or Aka) society, a group found in the Equatorial Belt of Central Africa, might be handled by as many as 10 people outside of the nuclear family per hour. From the perspective of harried, isolated parents in suburban households, it seems genuinely (and strangely) blissful to have so many willing hands to lighten the childcare burden. This extraordinary statistics comes from a paper by Dr Nikhil Chaudhary, an anthropologist who has been working with the Aka for many years, and Dr Annie Swanepoel, a child psychiatrist.

In the academic paper, Chaudhary was at pains to point out that the Aka were not "living fossils", that they had experienced as much "History" as any other people. But in discussion around the subject, there is a real sense of something having been lost in contemplating how the Aka (and many other tribal peoples) raise their children.

Dr Saris has come to believe that this feeling is less one of nostalgia and more one of jealousy. The Aka come from larger, more complex societies than we inhabit in late capitalism. Furthermore, some aspects of their lives are desirable. To explain this seemingly nonsensical statement, we need to know a little more about the Aka.

The basic unit of Aka society is the lango ("camp"). This is a combination of families (from 1-15), numbering between low 20s and 60 individuals, who stay in a place for a time and move around their environment together. This level of Aka society is what generally attracts people's attention to the group, as this is what provides, for example, the density of willing and available hands to allow such a level of extra-parental care. The level of Aka society above the camp, though, is also interesting. Anthropologists call it "the exploration range". This is both a geographical area and a space of sociality in which one meets and gets to know between 500 to 700 distinct individuals.

This seems to be the very definition of a "small-scale society". For example, I live in a town of about 20,000 people, so "my" society could claim to be as much as 40 times larger than my Aka equivalent. On the other hand, I don’t really "know" 500-700 people, despite being a fairly social, somewhat loud man, who has been involved in a couple of local political movements in my town, and who has lived in my estate for more than a quarter century.

I’ve probably gotten to "know" a little over a hundred people, and, would "know to look at" (in that very useful Hiberno-English phrase) perhaps three times that. In a typical day I bump into far fewer people than I know, and generally fewer than in a typical Aka lango. And, even when I had a couple of them around the house, none of these folks would routinely handle my baby, or, alternatively hand theirs off to me to mind for a while. Whose social scale is, in reality, "smaller" and "less complex" then?Photo: Getty ImagesReflecting on the Aka has sharpened for me an issue in my own research on care and recovery, particularly, if not exclusively, around addiction. In this work, I have increasingly encountered terms like "social prescribing" and "recovery capital". Both of them are taken as innovations in the management of (especially) chronic conditions, and many of my colleagues in Psychology and Social Work see in these terms a formal recognition of social causality of disease, and a welcome pathway towards the better integration of health services around a person.

Social Prescribing is an innovation on the traditional medical prescription, to include various physical and social activities as part of a treatment plan. For example, recommending joining a knitting circle as part of a treatment plan for someone suffering from moderate depression. Meanwhile, the active volunteer sector in many places in Ireland is operationalising some of these ideas, providing spaces in which social prescription can work.Photo: Getty ImagesThese changes are based on solid epidemiological work showing that felt loneliness and exclusion are significant causal factors for disease. This is especially true in Gerontology: as populations in advanced industrial economies age, planners in various health systems see in social prescribing a means of keeping older people more integrated into their communities, delaying much more expensive care options. Thus, the HSE is now expressly committed to social prescribing as part of Slainte Care reforms.

Recovery Capital works on a similar logic in trying to understand who leaves addiction, especially to opiates, and how. I have researched around such topics for many years, including examining some of the debates between various recovery modalities, from 12-step-derived programmes through different substitution therapies, and I have observed a rapid rise in the use of this term in the recent past. A consistent observation across all treatment options is that some people succeed in all of them, while, at the same time, all these modalities fail others.

While stories of successful recovery can be very different, the unsuccessful ones share many similarities: lack of jobs, family support, friends, and social exclusion. In other words, lack of much of anything in their lives beyond rugs. For the last several years, researchers have assembled the positive aspects of life that seem to support leaving addiction, under the term "Recovery Capital," simultaneously developing different focus points for research and suggesting potential supports for clinical interventions.

But it seems to me that both of these terms - social prescribing and recovery capital - perform a peculiar alchemy: they turn social relationships into quasi-objects that can be accumulated by, or transferred between, individuals. This is where thinking about the Aka way of life might be helpful.

See the full article on RTE Brainstorm

The Aka approach to child-rearing is just a part of Aka social life. Babies might be handled regularly (indeed, they are reported never to touch the ground in their first year of life), but this density of social interactions and care is the norm: the Aka are present for one another in many other spheres of social life. In work and in play (even in their song tradition, which is choral and polyphonic), they share their lives with one another.

I have no desire to romanticise the Aka: like all peoples, they have their problems too. But our way of thinking constructs social relations as if they were things to be accumulated or transferred, rather than what they are: human experiences that are shared. Objectively, it is our way of life that stands out as highly unusual, even bizarre, against the wide sweep of human history. Not just in the regrettable and far too common cases where people "fall through the cracks", but in the routine ways that we have now grown used to thinking about our day-to-day lives.