Monday, July 27, 2009

Patronising fathers squeezes them out

It’s only a box of reusable nappies, but inside is something that, for me, paints a damning picture about society’s attitude toward fatherhood.

The nappies themselves are fairly straightforward, an outer layer and a cloth inner, which can be folded into an attractive fan shape, much like a display towel in a fancy hotel. Except the hotel towel isn’t expected to “trap liquid poo”. Unless Keith Richards is staying there.

Nonetheless, the instruction booklet is extensive and details just about everything mothers need to know about this particular product. Yes, what mothers need to know. No mention of fathers, or even the gender neutral “parents”. And here lies the problem.

I have been a father for three weeks now, but even before Charlotte came along, I had noticed how every book we read on pregnancy laid out the minimal role the father was supposed to play. Each pregnancy book contains a small section full of patronising advice for fathers. Let me summarise the key points in these books, to save any fathers from reading them:

1. Rein in your animalistic nature and don’t demand sex from your wife until at least six weeks after birth (although nobody advises frequent masturbation as a coping mechanism). Don’t sulk about it.

2. Boobs are now used at mealtime, not playtime. Deal with it.

3. Don’t go in a huff if your wife pays more attention to the baby than you.

4. If your wife is crying due to exhaustion/post-natal depression, don’t just turn up the TV to drown her out. Talk to her or something. Don’t tell her to “dry her eyes” and then go in a huff.

5. If you do make the mistake of trying to change a nappy and screw it up – which you will, because you are a man – don’t go in a huff when your wife shouts at you.

And there you have it. Apparently men are little more than big babies who have to realise they are now being supplanted by a small baby.

Then, as we started to buy baby products, it became clear that everything was geared toward how the mother was going to use the item. After all, a man couldn’t possibly tear himself away from his football/beer/porn mag habit to figure out how to use a steriliser, could he?

Now that Charlotte is here, the same attitudes have come into play from pretty much everyone we know. The assumption is that the father did little more than fire off some sperm nine months ago, probably in a drunken stupor after returning from the pub. Now he is sleeping happily through the night while the harassed mother, ravaged by the trauma of birth, struggles bleary-eyed with a screaming infant and considers throwing herself out the window.

Now, I’m sorry, but I am not that kind of father, and – given half a chance – I expect most men would not be either. I know other men who are as involved as I am: getting up in the night to bring the baby in for breastfeeds (sorry girls, but I can’t produce milk from my hairy ginger nipples, much as I would like to), changing nappies, rocking her when she’s upset, feeding expressed milk, making sure the mother is sleeping, and so on.

The message from friends comes both directly and indirectly: pretty much every single commiseration, gift and word of encouragement is directed exclusively toward the mother. Any kind of comment from the father about the stress or difficulties of the first weeks is treated like a man-flu whine (this is something I have been playing up on by joking about the scab on my hand from Natalie pinching me during labour). I am absolutely sure there are people who will treat this blog entry in much the same way. For these people, let me make it clear: I am in no way attempting to compare the experience of the father to the mother, who is recovering from serious physical and emotional trauma. But fathers are part of the equation all the same.

My point is pretty simple. How can we expect men to be more involved if every single message and cue from society is telling them that their early role is entirely peripheral? If we want fathers to do their bit for their infants, then we have to stop patronising them. As hard as it may be to believe, men can be responsible, emotional, loving and empathetic creatures. Treat them like adults, and you may just be surprised by the response you get.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Old Man and the Shoes

In a change from my recent carping about corruption, I want to recount a lovely exchange I had in an optician’s in Hurlingham yesterday while I was being fitted for contact lenses and having my glasses bent back into shape.

I was explaining to the owner of the shop that wearing glasses while playing football was not a great idea considering the number of elbows flying about, when an elderly Indian Kenyan waiting at the counter piped up: “Ah, you play football sir?”

I could immediately tell from his demeanour, his well-kept bushy white handlebar moustache and the gold chain attaching his spectacles to his face that he was something of a character. I indicated that yes, I did play football, if you can count petulantly clipping people’s ankles as they whizz past me as such.

“Let me tell you about my one time playing football,” he said. “I was at school in India when my father sent me from Kenya a fine pair of training shoes. I put them on and proudly walked about. Then somebody noticed that they were football shoes. In fact, they were the only proper football shoes for tens of kilometres around. Everyone decided I must be a footballer of some repute and invited me to play in a match.”

Now, normally when an old buffer starts banging on about the past, everyone around scarpers for cover, save for the poor person, in this case me, caught in the headlights. However, this old gent had such a fine storytelling voice and a mischievous glint in his eye that the two other staff members were drawn toward the counter and stood smiling as he talked.

“I turned up for the game, and people had come from villages around, drawn by the allure of these splendid football shoes they had heard so much about. I had never played football before, not even for one second, but I saw all of these players jumping around.”

He stopped to mime a warm-up session, picking his elbows up into the chicken-dance pose and kicking his legs out to the sides. If he had been wearing braces I am sure he would have hooked his thumbs into them.

“So, of course, I started to do the same thing. They put me in goal to start with, and for the first few minutes nothing happened. Then somebody can running toward the goal and thundered in a fierce shot. I didn't know what to do and was more interested in showing off my great shoes than saving the ball, so I just put my foot up so everyone could see them.”

He lifted his leg high and slightly to the side, waggling his foot to demonstrate how he presented the best possible view of his footwear to the ogling crowd.

“The ball hit me right in the midriff and knocked me over. My shoes and I were carried off the pitch. I never played football again.”

He laughed when I pointed out to him that he could say he had a 100% record as a goalkeeper – one shot, one save – then went on his way. It was only when I got home that I realised I should have asked him what happened to the shoes.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Corruption, poverty and society in Kenya

After being so smug and detailing how I avoided paying a bribe to a policeman, I am ashamed to admit I bribed a parking official in Nairobi’s Central Business District on Wednesday. I paid because my wife and newborn daughter were with me: to go through the dance to avoid paying or to go to City Hall to pay the fine would have taken a lot of time, and would have forced Natalie to take two-week-old Charlotte (and my mother-in-law) home in a taxi with no car-seat or on a bus or matatu. I didn’t want that.

My offence was for a parking violation, committed because I foolishly trusted one of the many self-appointed parking attendants that roam the CBD to keep an eye on the car while we ran a quick errand. When I returned, a few minutes ahead of Natalie and Charlotte, two council employees came gleefully sprinting across to clamp the car.

Regardless of the fact that one of the officials was wearing a bright yellow overall emblazoned with the legend “Corruption is Evil”, the non-uniformed gentleman made it clear that a bribe was required. We negotiated and I paid him, shuttling notes into his eager hands under the cover of the dashboard. He shooed away his assistant beforehand, presumably so he would not have to cut him in for very much. We then pretended to drive off toward City Hall. Before he jumped out the car round the corner, the official shook and kissed my hand and told me he often “helped” motorists in this way.

I felt pretty soiled for paying the bribe. I should have insisted we go through the official procedure and pay the fine. I should have done what little I could to fight the problem that is hamstringing Kenya. But I took the easy way out.

It is no secret that Kenya is mired in corruption. A recent study by Transparency International ranked Kenya as East Africa’s most corrupt nation. Corruption – which undermines virtually every system of governance put in place in Kenya - is the major symptom of the every-man-for-themselves attitude, much of it prompted by poverty. For the majority of Kenya's residents, much of everyday life is about the scrabble for money .

The scores of people who died near Molo earlier this year, when the overturned tanker they were collecting fuel from exploded, would not have been there had they been better off. Those people risked their lives for literally a few dollars. One high-ranking political buffoon blamed “greed” for the incident and several that have followed. He clearly doesn’t know what it is to be poor. For those scraping by in the slums of Kibera, Huruma or Kawangware, a few dollars can mean the difference between feeding your whole family that evening or just the select few. It can mean you have enough to pay the rent for another month or pay the school fees.

The struggle for survival is not good for Kenyan society, however, and the romantic notion of solidarity amongst the poor often doesn’t translate into reality. I have seen two security guards almost come to blows over a tip that was less than 50 cents.

Even the idea of doing a simple favour for somebody out of human kindness has been compromised. If you drop your hat and somebody returns it, chances are they aren’t doing it out of goodwill. They are doing it in the hope that you will give them something. The first time this happened to me, a man chased me to say I had left a bottle of wine on the ground. I went back for it and thanked him, thinking how nice it was to meet somebody honest. He then asked me for money for doing something that should be a basic courtesy. Again I can understand this, although it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The people involved in such incidents have invariably been clearly in need of the money, and there have also been moments where people have done me genuine favours.

So the poor have an excuse. But what about those who are better off? What about the middle classes? What about the politicians who have a seemingly insatiable appetite for more money and no concern for how they accumulate it, even if it means diverting subsidised maize intended to feed people suffering from a famine? What about middle-ranking public servants, judges or police chiefs, all of whom can be bought for the right price?

Most Kenyans will tell you corruption is evil, but – like me – they will pay that bribe to dodge a ticket, avoid that large tax bill or get that job. They will vote for the guy they think can scoop the most money for their community or tribe, even if that guy is clearly bent. And they will take that bribe themselves given a chance. What many Kenyans mean is that corruption which doesn’t benefit them is evil.

I can’t explain all the factors that have created the “take what you can get” culture. But I do know that society suffers as a result. When the majority is doing little else than chase the dollar, people don’t have time to look out for each other. You just need to look at the chaos on Nairobi’s roads to see this in action: the majority of drivers won’t even pull over for an ambulance, something I have witnessed on many occasions. Why should they when they could just bribe a cop a few hundred shillings if they were pulled over for not giving way? Equally, few people will stop to help a stranded motorist or person in distress late at night, as it could well be a trap laid by carjackers.

I don't want to live this way.

Unfortunately, by paying the bribe to that parking official I am accepting a system that values doing what is right for yourself rather than what is right. Living in Nairobi, amid a culture thoroughly saturated with corruption and a relentless thirst for money, changes you. And that worries me deeply.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The hunt for a vaccine

As a journalist working in the developing world, I often find myself writing about creaking healthcare systems, but I have never been personally affected. Until now.

My wife Natalie last week gave birth to our first child, Charlotte Elizabeth. We are lucky enough to be able to afford to got to a private hospital for the delivery, but this did not help us when it came to getting a BCG vaccine, for there were no doses available.

Kenya has the 13th-highest prevalence of Tubercolosis in the world. The WHO reported 140,000 new cases in 2008. Yet it has now been suffering a shortgage of the BCG vaccine for around three months, putting tens of thousands of infants, including my daughter, at risk.

The vaccine is now the holy grail for parents, who are scouring Nairobi looking for it. Favours are being called in and rumours exchanged via text message. Gangs of furtive parents are lurking in doorways outside hospitals and offering wads of cash to passing doctors.

I was told that a private clinic was selling it for 20 euros - shameless profiteering since the vaccine is supposed to be free in Kenya. Nonetheless, I went there ready to pay. When I asked, the receptionist appeared to glance furtively around the room and announced loudly that she had no vaccine. However, she then had me write down my name and number and said she would call if any came in. I couldn't help but wonder if she was being clandestine since they are probably selling vaccine obtained through government channels in a corrupt manner. She hasn't called yet.

I now have another lead, which I am chasing up on. I can only hope that I get there before the other parents who would no doubt elbow me over a high railing or drop kick Charlotte over a fence to make sure they got the vaccine for their child. And who can blame them?

The question has to be asked why there is no vaccine in the country when donors have been pouring money into anti-TB programmes. The answer could lie in incompetence - which would not be a great surprise to anyone who has dealt with Kenyan government officials - or the old problem of corruption. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has in the past suspended funding to Kenya for disappearing millions of dollars intended to buy ARVs through fraudulent NGOs, and that wasn't even considered a big corruption scandal.

I have been too busy changing nappies and trying to get the vaccine for Charlotte to look into it properly yet, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that somebody is putting children at risk in order to fill their pockets.