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The hard choices that fathers have to make

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By PETER MUIRURI | June 15th 2014
 Musician Kidum (Jean Pierre Nimbona) with his daughters, Grace, Natalia and Naomi . [PHOTO: PETER MUIRURI/STANDARD]

Kenya: When asked what the most challenging part of being the leader of the most powerful nation on earth was, President Barrack Obama said being father to two young girls ranked as the most demanding part of his career. This is not an understatement for a man who grew up without the presence of his father.

Recognising the role fathers play in the lives of their children, Obama started the President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, an effort geared toward raising awareness on responsible fatherhood.

Research conducted around the world has shown that the more involved a father is in children affairs, the better they fare in society and the better their school grades.

“An involved father figure reads to his child, takes outings with his child, is interested in his child’s education, and takes a role equal to the mother’s in managing his child,” stated Eirine Flouri, a psychologist at Oxford University.

Interestingly, this attention need not come from the biological father; even an adoptive father,  stepfather or any male guardian in the home will do.

How, then, are Kenyan fathers fairing when it comes to mentoring their children in a rapidly changing world?

In these hard economic times, many fathers are finding it a challenge to make ends meet and investing time to be with the family. However, the fathers we interviewed say there can be no substitute to spending time with the family, especially children in their formative stages.

Indeed adverse circumstances should not stand in the way of a father giving young ones his time. Some fathers grew up in hostile situations but have become role models to their children. Take the case of Burudian-born musician Jean Pierre Nimbona, popularly known as Kidum. He ran away from his country to settle in Kenya where he has become a household name through his music.

IMPARTING VALUES

A father of five, Kidum still spends his free time with the children, some of who are still in their formative years. Any visitor to his home will not fail to see the close bond he has forged with his young ones.

He advises fathers to forge ahead even if they have had a rough upbringing: “Your will is your power, If you lack the will, you are dead though still alive.”

Dr Sam Thenya, the group chief executive of Nairobi Women’s Hospital, a family counsellor, and a father of two girls, says men must admit that there is a problem in mentoring young ones. He says this is partly an inherited problem. As an example, he says, is that his father never taught him how to shave “since no one taught him either”.

“That was the reason many men worked in the city while the rest of the family lived in the rural areas those days. Their role ended with providing materially,” Thenya says.

MENTORING CHILDREN

But despite that lack of imparting important values, Thenya says men are still expected to produce leadership in the family and corporate world, roles they are usually unprepared for. However, it is  better to confront the problem rather than rave and rant about the past.

“I had the same mentality that my father’s generation did; that if I provided for the family and took them on an occasional holiday, then my role was done. I even used to have what is erroneously called ‘quality time’, before I realised that the family needed more than that. Today, I make a deliberate effort to spend time discussing nothing and anything with the children alone, my wife alone and then the whole family together.”

Thenya says it is important for the family to know that the father is not perfect and will make mistakes. On the other hand, he too should admit the same, and even say ‘sorry’ to other family members when he errs, “though we are not accustomed to that mindset in the African set-up”.

Mike Macharia, chief executive of Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers and a father of three, says a father must buy time from other activities in order to be there for the family. He says the economic and social pressure to provide ought not to be a hindrance to a father mentoring his young children.

Men in Africa are still getting used to women sometimes being away from home, either at work or pursuing higher education, he adds. The reality that it is now common for both parents to earn a living should be accommodated.

“Regardless of the social or economic wind sweeping around the country, a father remains at the helm of his family and must be fully involved. I try to be home every evening save, for the period that duty takes me out of town. It is just a matter of creating opportunities as we all lead busy lives,” Macharia says.

Macharia adds that once the right moments are created, a father will be amazed at how children open up about things they will never tell an absentee father.

Sadly, Macharia says the current social set-up in our country is partly contributing to the detachment between fathers and children. As an example, he says the country’s development agenda during the 1970s made it possible for fathers to have regular interaction with their children, especially after school hours.

“The policy back then was that there had to be a school and a dispensary in every estate development. This meant that children would go to school in the same estate they lived. They could even dash home for lunch and get back to school on time for the afternoon lessons.

“This is no longer the case. Children are up by 4am, to crisscross the city on their way to school, and then get back home very late, tired and in no mood to engage,” Macharia says.

ALIENATES THEM

To ‘save’ their children from this agony, some parents send very young children to boarding schools, a move that alienates them further from their fathers.

Edwin Ooro, too, is a busy father. You probably know him as ‘Coach Edu’, the flexible choreographer of Tusker Project Fame and the Sarakasi Dance Troupe. His advice to fathers is simple and direct: “Be together and bond. Get away and create an instant vacuum.”

Edu is father to six-year-old Dwayne. So connected are the two that the young boy has already learned his father’s dance moves just by watching the ‘big man’. Dwayne is already doing school skits at his tender age. Edu does not leave his role of mentoring the young lad to chance.

“Whenever I am not working, I will be home. During weekends, I will be at home as well. That is the time to go out swimming. My son has an easy-going nature, and I’m glad our bond is getting stronger. He has become strong at an early age since we have not tried to spoil him either,” says Edu.

However, some men feel they have fulfilled their end of the bargain through the provision of material necessities to their families. When such needs are not met due to the changing economic climate, they are likely to go into depression that may even lead to alcoholism and other vices.

In addition, some men may have a problem adjusting to that fact that women have joined the workplace and may take a bigger paycheck home.

But according to Charity Katago-Kamau, wife, mother of two and an account director with Tell-Em, a public relations firm, a father’s role goes beyond this primary call of duty. Regardless of what a man brings home, he is still the head of his family and has a bigger role to play in keeping it stable.

Such men, she adds, ought to realise that the more girls are being educated, the more women there will be in the workplace. Rather than view this as competition or a source of pressure to perform, she advises men to look at the complimentary role such women play.

“Pressure is all over the family unit, not just on the father. A child joining school gets into a cutthroat education system; a teenage faces a more liberalised world with little recourse on discipline; and a woman has to balance the traditional feminine role of a mother and life in the corporate world. Such challenges are no justification for anyone to indulge in anti-social behaviour such as alcoholism,” Charity says.

Fathers, there you have it. You cannot bypass your primary role of being mentors to anyone else in society; neither can the changing social-economic landscape be an excuse for abdicating this role.

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