First published Sunday Standard, June 18, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group
Of all the changes happening to Kenya, the most important is taking place within our families and personal relationships. A crisis is unfolding in our homes and we may not even know it. The sharpest edge of the crisis lies in the intense difficulties facing fatherhood.
Absentee fathers and female headed households are on the rise. One in three women who give birth today are single. Three in five women will remain single until the age of 45. One in five men on the other hand, will have had children with more than one mother. Nearly half of all Kenyan children have direct experience of violence or intimidation. Teenage alcoholism and suicide is spiking, yet fathers seem helpless.
Those that care have long turned inwards, closed the door to keep out the crisis. Others will justify their ineffectiveness with stories of childhood abuse, loss and pain. Their stories are often not spoken aloud. They are not dealt with and in burying them so deep, they have grown roots that strangle now their potential as fathers.
Acute gender inequality is both the cause and consequence of this modern crisis. As men, we have lost our ability to care for our families and this is beginning to haunt us. So, if we are not yet the best dads in the world, who are? Think past the Swedes and meet the 20,000 strong Aka people of the Central African Republic. Fathers and mothers have virtually no gender based restrictions on their behavior. Both look after cattle, hunt or prepare food for their children. Fathers have even been known to offer their breast to their babies to suckle. Okay, I struggled with this one but then also consider they tend to spend 47% of their time with their infant children.
The Aka make our attempts at fatherhood appear accidental and subject to chance not choice. Most of us struggled what to do with paternity leave. We held our infants only when they were clean and fed. We avoided our moody teens and only discovered they had their own thoughts when they dared to argue back.
A story is told of a couple who on retiring liquidated their pensions, bought and settled on a farm. Within a week their adult children arrived to berate them for making decisions with their inheritance without them. The elderly couple’s response was sharp and swift. The children were firmly advised that they had already received their inheritance. Had they not gone to the finest schools? Now the rest was up to them. The story reveals much of what we may be up against.
Sometime, somewhere, they missed that teachable moment in the supermarket. The one when your child discovers a thousand types of sweets and reaches to grab them all. Pulling the child away doesn’t help. They just wait until you are not looking. Showing children they are not entitled to grab everything and teaching the value of honest work and money would have saved this elderly couple. It would also save us all from the current frenzy of “grabbiosis”.
Whether social or biological fathers, fatherhood fundamentally matters to us. The only thing that matters more are fatherly conversations. Powerful conversations about self and identity, the power of giving our word and the humility to know we are kind of making it up as we go along.
Kids, don’t judge your dads too harshly, most of the fathers out there are just stuck on repeat play. Whether authoritarian, authoritative, overly permissive or completely uninvolved, most fathers replay what they saw their fathers do or not. The sooner we recognize our parenting styles and intentionally create the fathers our children need, the faster our homes and country will heal and grow. Fatherhood, as Oyunga Pala says, is too important to allow women to see men as only sperm donors, ATMs and recurring headaches.
It is too important to be limited to our own biological children either. Clifford Oluoch and Shamit Patel of Homeless Nairobi are two of my favorite Kenyans. They spend most of their evenings after work feeding and coaching homeless young men in Nairobi’s streets. In so doing, without needing to quote it, they breathe life into our Constitution’s bill of rights and our very nation.
It is these efforts and others that will give our children, the homes, communities and a nation they can be safe in, proud of and responsible for. Happy Father’s Day to all the men out there who rise above self to serve their families, neighbors and the country’s children.