Monday, August 15, 2011

The Father Factor

A report released several months ago by a religious organization showed that a huge majority of men in Kenyan jails grew up without their fathers, which emphasizes the role of the male parent in the family setup.

But long before this survey, experts had already observed that the father-son relationship is more often than not defined by bittersweet emotions. For instance lions and leopards are known to kill their he-cubs immediately after birth to avoid future territorial battles.

In human society this gender conflict has far reaching implications since it goes beyond individual friction to personality development. It’s not by coincidence that most dynasties are established and sustained through paternity rather than maternity.

A highly achieving father can be both a blessing and a curse rolled into one for his ambitious offspring. The constant comparison of the son’s endevours to the father’s achievement condemns the former to a perpetual shadow of perceived mediocrity, which can hinder progress.

“For the father to have gained prominence there might have been a price one of which might have included spending less time with their sons,” explains John Gacheru, a psychotherapist at Amani Counseling Centre. “This might have left the children with a “stay at home” mothers dumped their desires to be like their father”.

Mr. Gicheru adds that with the father’s accomplishments being used as a benchmark against which the children’s achievements are gauged, most often than not the son’s life is shrouded in a perpetual shadow of perceived mediocrity.

“The huge expectations on the off springs raises the bar too high for the children to attain the mark,” the psychotherapist explains.

A classic example is Bob Marley’s children who despite being gifted musicians have never attained the iconic status of their legendary father.

According to Hilda Oburu, a lecturer in early childhood psychology at the University of Nairobi, “the reason why people who attained godlike personalities like Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and Che Guevara never had a successor from their next of kin is either because of their dominant character or an inside knowledge”.

Inside knowledge refers to a trait the family knows about their father that might make them strive to distance themselves from his legacy. For instance children of Elvis Presley not wanting to be associated with their father due to his addiction to drugs.

To outshine the larger than life father figure, Oburu says, you have to beat the man at his own game or chose a different career path altogether. The first alternative entails being so efficient and successful that his legacy and personality is completely annihilated from the public mind.

Former American President George W. Bush was perceived as the family underdog from childhood due to his purportedly low intellectual abilities. But despite this supposed weaknesses, he managed to obliterate his father’s legacy by storming into the exclusive club of men who lasted two times in the White House.

Locally, the best example is Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Despite being born to a doyen of Kenyan opposition, Raila have managed to step out of his father’s shadow by displaying a legacy of political acumen and wittiness that would have made the older Odinga blue with envy.

On the other hand, the PM’s deputy and political rival Uhuru Kenyatta have a long way to go if at all he wants to outdo his famous father. Besides the Herculean task of having to ascend to the presidency Uhuru will also need a minor miracle to cultivate the assertive, authoritative and commanding personality that was Jomo’s trademark. Assuming that he somehow manages get these qualities, the Minister of Finance will never beat his father’s 12-year stay at State House due to a constitutional requirement limiting presidential terms to ten years.

Analysts claim that the easiest way to beat a highflying dad is by choosing a career path totally different from his. Bearing an easily recognizable surname will more often than not open new doors. Locally, its not uncommon to find sons and daughters of prominent people in politics and the corporate world thriving in the entertainment industry.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s grandson and President Zuma’s nephew came together last year to jointly start Aurora Empowerment Systems, an investment vehicle through which they hope to invest in African emerging markets. Realizing they would always be overshadowed by their father figure legacies if they ever ventured in politics the two young men have chosen a totally different career path.

Zondwa Mandela, 25, and Khulubuse Zuma, 39, say they are determined to convince the world that theirs is a serious business venture and not merely two scions of prominent families trading on a famous surname. The duo has already acquired two firms one of which is listed in the prestigious Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

“We want to find something, improve it, and expand on it,” Zondwa told Chairman King, a South African business magazine. “But we want to do something for Africa and empower its people”.

The young Mandela’s Pan-African vision somehow echoes with the idealism that led his famous grandfather to sacrifice the best of his years fighting apartheid. Apart from being backed by their prominent families and a group of Malaysian and United Arab Emirates businessmen, the duo’s powerful surnames will definitely play a huge role in the future success of Aurora Empowerment Systems.

However, Zondwa Mandela’s cousin Mandla seems hell-bent in the quest to inherit the most revered surname in South African politics if events in the recent past are anything to go by. The 36 year-old have been on a roll since being endorsed by Nelson Mandela as the chief of the Traditional Council in Mvezo, the birthplace of the iconic anti-apartheid.

Mandla was hugely involved with the bitterly contested 2009 presidential elections where he threw his behind ANC’s Jacob Zuma, the reward of which was a nomination to parliament. The legislator is said to wield so much influence on his grandfather that he managed to tag the old man to one of the ANC political rallies, defying a warning by the Nelson Mandela Foundation against dragging the nonagenarian into the highly divisive campaigns.

“He (Mr. Mandela) gave his life to the party and he decides for himself,” Mandla told the Mail & Guardian newspaper. “And who is Jakes Gerwel (chairman of the board of trustees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation) to tell me where to take my grandfather?”.

However, Peter Vale, who lectured Mandla at South Africa’s Rhodes University, says it would be mission impossible for the ambitious youngman to go far politically due to old Mandela’s shadow.

“This is not like the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty in India. There was sort of a tradition there that the children will follow,” the don told the Daily Mail during an interview. “I don’t think that will happen (in South Africa). The ANC is too contested”.

Whether Mandla will manage to rise above his grandfather’s legendary legacy remains to be seen.

Research has proven that an individual’s potential is hugely influenced by the socializing that they undergoes in childhood. For boys, the absence of fathers at this critical age implies that they are bound to miss some vital lessons on some aspects of manhood which in turn affects their self actualization as adults.

According to the Eriksonian theory of social analysis an individual’s development entails eight stages. The most important one is said to be the initiative stage which occurs between six and 11 years when the ego, self-esteem and the qualities of undertaking and planning are built and nurtured.

This is also the stage where dreams of early childhood are developed and attached to goals of an active life. Children start saying they would like to be this or that when they grow up, which more often than not is a reflection of the parent of the same sex. In the absence of a father figure in the family a boy experiences what experts call “gender role confusion” where he may easily project his identity towards farfetched characters like movie stars, story heroes or a popular figure in society.

“Fathers have a good degree of influence when it comes to the boys sense of confidence,” explains Florence Mueni, a psychologist at Amani Counseling Centre. “From about two years male children show the tendency to identify with and imitate male figures in manners like walking, talking, dressing and even mimicking shaving”.

The father figure influence over the child begins in subtle ways long before the parents embark on deliberate efforts to influence their off springs, hence, according to Mueni, children who grow up without a father might miss a very crucial stage in human development.

But the situation could also be to the advantage of the children, experts argue, because besides not having a legacy to safeguard individuals from such backgrounds could be spurred to excellence by an inner desire to prove a point to their abdicating fathers and over-compensate for what they lacked in childhood.

In Dreams From My Father, a book inspired by “a boy’s search for his father”, US President Barack Obama spends many pages explaining how the mystery of his absent father fueled his quest for self-actualization.

“At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man…I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told,” President Obama writes. “It was only many years later, after I had sat at my father’s grave and spoken to him through Africa’s red soil, that I could circle back and evaluate these early stories for myself”.

Abuse of a child at this critical stage of growth might spearhead the development of dangerous character, a factor some psychologists attribute to criminals, murderers and dictators. Many historians have concluded that Hitler suffered psychological distress partly brought by an unhappy childhood, notably his relationship with his father, a domineering and at times cruel man.

“A father’s contribution is seen more in the cognitive development of children like influencing the way of thinking and reasoning as well as academic achievement as opposed to the mother’s role which is more on emotional aspects of child development”, Mueni says.

Fathers tend to insist more on pushing children, especially the boy child, to take risks, to achieve the impossible while mothers are more cautious in their goading. When it comes to career choices daddies play a huge part since they are the role models of masculinity, a trait associated with resilience and determination.

“Though fathers do not spend a lot of time with their children when they interact with them it is about specific things like careers and achievements,” Mueni explains. “Fathers do take the role of family disciplinarian which provide the necessary self control for the boy child to achieve his goal”.

The psychologists allegations are confirmed by a research conducted recently by a religious organization which indicates that 78 percent of inmates in two Kenyan Prisons, Kamiti and Industrial Area, grew up in fatherless homes.

But the Amani counselor insists that “boys tend to want to be like fathers especially if that father figure is someone they like, respect, admire and have a warm relationship with. It is the quality of the father-son relationship and not masculinity that influences ambition and career choices”.

John F. Kennedy, the charismatic former US President whose popularity and influence have been compared to Obama’s, is one of the best examples where a son career is molded around the father’s dreams. After realizing he won’t achieve his political ambitions his father Joseph Kennedy successfully embarked on an aggressive plan to have his son elected to the White House.

On the other hand, the mother figure, just like the Madonna, is said to symbolize love, protection, posterity and freedom of self-expression which perhaps explains why most famous artists, both performing and non-performing, are products of single mother households.

Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, Lucky Dube, Mariah Carey, Brenda Fassie and 50 Cent are some of the shining examples. Others are Frederic Bartholdi, the designer of Statue of Liberty, and Leonardo da Vinci, the great thinker of the Renaissance and the painter of the famous Mona Lisa portrait.

As a testimony to the attachment they had for their mothers many of these distinguished artists have produced prominent works glorifying the female entity.

In The Concise 48 Laws of Power Renowned author Robert Green apparently confirms the so-called huge father-figure theory by saying “only after the father-figure has been properly done away with will you have the necessary space to create and establish a new order”.

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