"Noaberschap" or the value of good neighbors

When our first son was born, the neighbors treated us to a huge stork, balloons and other baby decorations that they put up in our garden as a surprise. A week later, all the ladies came to see the little guy at an event specific to the Twente region, called "kroamschudden", which is pretty much like a baby shower. Since I am not from this part of the country, all this was new to me. Later I learned that this tradition is a remnant of what is called "noaberschap".

"Noaberschap" was used to refer to a tight community of neighbors, mostly in rural areas. The members of such a community were called "naobers" and they all shared a community commitment called "noaberplicht" (neighbor duty). This "noaberplicht" obliged you to help other members of the community when they were in need. "Noabers" would help out at births, weddings and deaths, for example. They would report a death or a birth to the authorities, arrange festivities for the married couple, take care of each others' home when someone had to leave town for a while, etcetera.

Living in a community did not automatically make you a member of the "naoberschap". Once settled in their home, newcomers were expected to invite all neighbors they could see from their home and offer them to become mutual "noabers". This offer could be accepted or rejected, for example if it was clear that you could not get along or because somebody already had accepted too many "noabers" to realistically be able to comply to the duties.

The person living closest to you usually became your most important "noaber", and was therefore called "noaste noaber". This would be your first contact in times of need. They would watch your home when you were not around, report your child's birth to the authorities, make arrangements for funerals, etcetera. And you of course, would do the same thing for them.

Moving town did not relief you of your "noaber" duties if you did not explicitly terminate the agreement with all of your "noabers".  Some people kept their "noabers" even from far away, not so much out of practical reasons but because of the symbolic value of it. After all, a "noaber" was one of the few persons that you could rely on and often they became very close friends.

Today, "noaberschap" is rare and only occurs in remote towns of the northeastern parts of the Netherlands. However, in the 1700s and 1800s it was very common in these rural areas. This is not surprising when considering the deplorable state of the roads at that time and the lack of social security offered by the government.

Up until the 1850s the Netherlands' only roads were dirt roads. Much of the country lies below sea level or was occupied by large swamps. Once the wet weather would set in (usually from September until March), most roads became useless. The western part of the country relied heavily on towing barges in the wet months, as long as the canals were not frozen. The northern and eastern part of the country, however, did not have a network of towing barges. As a result, most villages were cut off from other towns in the wet months. During that time, the communities had to rely primarily on themselves. "Noaberschap" was an excellent way to ensure that the poor, the elderly, the sick and anyone else in distress was properly looked after in a time when the government offered little to no help.

Sometimes, you can see traces of "noaberschap" on Dutch vital records. When you come across a birth or death reported to somebody other than a close relative, chances are they were a "noaber"...