Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fatherhood in Niger

On African Fathers and an American Dad
By Jennifer Margulis

(A version of this column was originally published last year on Literary Mama)

Soumana, a work colleague, called me to cancel.

He and his family couldn't come to lunch at our house, he explained, because his daughter was too sick. She had better days and bad days and this day was a bad day.

Last year she contracted cerebral malaria. Once a social, inquisitive, energetic little girl, now she can barely talk and walks with difficulty. The illness that got into her brain mangled her body and damaged her mind.

Soumana looks broken when he talks about it. His hair has more gray in it than when we first came to Niger eight months ago. He rarely smiles.

"I'm really attached to her," he explained quietly. "Well, the truth is I'm very attached to all of my children. But she's always been special."

A few months later Soumana invited us to his house. "I want you to meet my family," he said. "And this way you can see my daughter for yourself."

"I'm not sure I want to go," my husband said that Sunday. "I'm afraid it will make me too upset." James frowned his little boy frown, his brow a mat of worry lines.

"But just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there," I said. "Even if we never meet Soumana's daughter, it doesn't mean she isn't suffering."

"That's true," James said quietly.

One of James's biggest fears is that something like cerebral malaria will happen to one of our children. Another is that he won't live long enough to watch his children grow up. He thinks about dying a lot. He imagines a pain in his stomach is the bleeding ulcer that killed his grandfather, the wart on his foot a fast-growing cancer.

James's grandmother died when his mom was only nine. His aunt, his mom's oldest sister, choked on a piece of tenderloin while on a date with her husband. He had left the table to call the babysitter, to check on their five children and when he returned, his wife was already dead. She was only 33. So to James, when he was little every goodbye was forever. His mom often acted like she would never see him again and made a point of giving a long hug and lots of kisses, of saying goodbye with a lot of love.

Soumana picks us up in his jalopy and we bump our way over the sandy streets. The car rumbles so loudly we have to shout over what Soumana jokingly calls its "music."

Although city life is a little less restrictive, in Niger men and women pray separately, eat separately, and play very different and sharply defined roles in the life of the family. It's unheard of to have a joint bank account. (Why share your money with your husband when he could use it to pay for a second wife?) A man is expected to provide. A woman takes care of the children.

You seldom see a man carrying a baby in public. Fathers don't change diapers. They don't prepare food for their children. They don't take them to the park, or shopping.

My husband wasn't sure he wanted to do any of that either when we first met. He thought he would have "maybe one" child. He had never seen, let alone held, a newborn until our daughter was born. During our courtship I suggested he stay home with our future children while I work. He found the idea surprising but began to consider it.

When our first child was born we both fell in love. Before she was old enough to do anything but drool, my husband would hold her in his arms and sing to her, talk to her, and tell her elaborate stories about walking on a cobblestone road to Sleepy Castle. At first I worked and he stayed home, then after the birth of our second child he worked and I stayed home. He hated being away long hours as much as I did. It took a long time to get it right -- and our arrangement is far from perfect -- but we finally devised a schedule that allowed us both to work part time and be home.

At his compound Soumana is solicitous and hospitable. He introduces us to his three daughters, two nieces, nephew, wife, and housekeeper with obvious pride. The youngest climbs onto his lap and he absent-mindedly strokes her hair. His wife brings a big plate of chicken. She uses a fan to shoo the flies from the food. His oldest daughter, Chamsiya, is beautiful, with intelligent eyes and a bright smile. Grains of rice hang from her lower lip. The malaria has mangled her limbs and she can do little for herself. Soumana lifts a cup of water to her lips. Chamsiya grunts monosyllables -- she needs to go to the bathroom. He takes her by the hand, she shuffles one foot in front of the other, gripping her father tightly as he leads her to the outhouse.

Ask any Nigerien and he'll tell you that raising children is the responsibility of women. But in private, like at Soumana's house that Sunday, men are sometimes deeply engaged with their children. Ask James what accomplishment he's most proud of now and he'll point to our 7-year-old who has his chocolate brown eyes and keen sense of pride, our 6-year-old who inherited his broad brow and incredible talent for art, and our mischievous 3-year-old who makes trouble from daybreak to sunset.

Becoming a father means investing so much in a completely unknown world. Parenting is terrifying. It's also the most gratifying thing James and I have ever done.

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