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Originally written back in March 2008 in the wake of Kenya’s post-election crisis, Bhekinkosi Moyo offers some points of reflection on the apparent ease with which citizens’ rights can be manipulated and abused for political ends. Weighing up the emotional difficulty of being a non-resident parent, Moyo reconsiders some of the negative ideas around the supposed callousness of men willing to leave their families for business trips, and decides that there is perhaps ultimately little difference between absent fathers and those chained to their desks at the office.

The agony of a non-resident father is one that may not be easily tolerated, yet a number of men are locked up in this phenomenon. The same is true of the few women who are also absent mothers. This piece, though, is about an absent father and how his sick son compels him to take a journey to converse with his emotional side.

A few years back I got acquainted with the expressions ‘visiting fathers’, ‘non-resident fathers’ and ‘absent fathers’ in one of my readings on feminist and gender studies. This was something with which I was familiar from my own environment and that of my friends; our fathers either worked away from home or were in polygamous relationships. We grew up in these environments and, for us, this was not just theory, it was real.

However, I knew the meaning of these concepts; I failed to comprehend the emotional dimension of being an absent parent, in particular the agony that absent fathers suffer. In retrospect, I think these concepts and the arguments associated with them appealed very much to the intellectual and not to the emotional me. I think I know today that ideas fascinate me, but emotions move me to connect with my self.

This week I intended writing about the Islamic conference of heads of state taking place in Dakar. I was also going to introduce briefly some aspects of my analysis on elections in Africa, drawing particularly from the recent case of Kenya. I was going to look at the implications of the brokered deal between Kibaki and Odinga on democracy and what it means for both the opposition and the ruling party to be in government in terms of the implementation of the agreement. What is the price on democracy and on the principles of accountability? Could it be that Kofi Annan has created a monster that is going to haunt governance in Africa?

However, I cannot write about this.

Wednesday 5 March 2008: It’s in the middle of the week and, as always, it is very hot in Dakar. There is a lot of movement in and around town. People are rushing to fill up their petrol tanks and others are stocking gas for their cookers. Apparently word on the vine is that most petrol stations will be closed and gas will not be sold during the week of the Islamic conference. All this for security reasons, just in case some lunatic decides to blow up Dakar. A number of main roads have been closed. I have also been reliably advised that ordinary people should keep away from the streets after 10pm.

I am caught up in these thoughts, particularly on how easy it is to trample on citizens’ rights for political expediency, when my phone suddenly flashes and I am interrupted by a loud SMS ringtone. ‘They are admitting Bobo’, reads the SMS.

I knew my son had been coughing and had been taken to the doctor. I never imagined he would be hospitalised.

I have always dreaded getting news of this nature while I am away. I read the SMS several times as if I do not understand its contents.

By now I am sweating and I call frantically to establish the seriousness of my small boy’s condition. The doctor says: ‘It is not something major … we will monitor him for about three to five days; you don’t have to come all the way.’ I want to get on the next available flight.

The thought of being away from my sick son kills me. I imagine all sorts of things. I can hear him in the background crying while the nurses attend to him. He cannot speak to me however (or should I say he does not want to speak to me?). I interpret this to mean many things, some of which have kept me awake for the past days. I am helpless and scared, but above all, I am angry with myself for the fact that I cannot do anything for him at the moment when he probably needs me most. I also worry about how my family, in its totality, is affected.

It goes without saying that I have not been productive in these past days.

Days go by and he is still in hospital, but he is ‘much better’, they keep telling me. I also begin to calm down, but this whole episode has left scars in my heart.

In case you are wondering what this is about, I am like my father, now a non-resident parent. I experience daily what it means to be an absent parent. As an absent father, one always dreads to answer a phone call from home. And when one eventually answers it, one is immediately rendered helpless if it demands physical presence. No matter how connected one is emotionally or spiritually with one’s family, nothing substitutes for physicality. One is always in perpetual anxiety.

The paradox is that an absent parent always wants to be in frequent touch with what is happening with the family and yet, when calls come in, such a parent is gripped by fear of the unknown.

As I write this, I am certain to be out of touch with my family for a couple of hours. I am en route to Kenya from Dakar via Bamako. I will spend a few days in Kenya and Tanzania, before proceeding to Zimbabwe for elections. I will be tormented by not knowing what is happening back home, but at the same time I am temporarily saved by non-connectivity.

In this flight, I see many men, on business trips I suppose. Very few are with their wives and children. I also see very few women on their own. However, there is a big group of women with children. It is at this moment that I see the sadness hidden behind these well-achieving men. It is the sadness of leaving their families behind.

Some years back I edited a book on child maintenance. One of the main areas that we dealt with was the issue of men who refused to support their children. I was always surprised at the callousness of such behaviour. Today, I think, though, that these men are prisoners to emotions.

I realise that what I have written about is not so much about my son and myself as it is about many men and women in the prime of their careers. They spend very little time at home. In fact, there are men I know who sleep at home but live in the office. How different are these guys from absent fathers? The professionalisation of the family has come at a heavy price. We see very little of our families and still claim that we are good parents. I realise that most men’s hearts bleed when they are away from home.

Although no survey has been conducted on the number of non-resident fathers, I am convinced that there are many out there, and a sizable portion of them are good fathers. Although their name has been tainted over the years by the bad ones, the need to transform the negativity associated with non-residency is perhaps provided by the increasing phenomenon of absent parents. There is an increasing number of women who are absent mothers as well.

A contribution from a non-resident mother would be helpful.

* Bhekinkosi Moyo is an analyst trained in political science and currently based in West Africa. He is currently with a pan-African foundation, TrustAfrica, whose interests are peace and security, regional integration, and citizenship and identity. His latest book is Africa in Global Power Play (2007).
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