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I’m My Fathers’ Daughter – Feature

The dynamics of the relationship between fathers and daughters has long dominated talk shows, newspapers and magazine columns. It has also formed a crucial part of parenting books from the most qualified in the field of child psychology and relationship experts. However, the relationship between the African father and his daughter seems to be an elusive subject on the world stage. What could be the reason for this disparity?

Father and daughterThe tears streamed down Nneka’s face the same way anyone who was reflecting on an esoteric moment would cry either in joy or sadness. But she was in tears because the discussion about African fathers and daughters reminded her of her own father who had passed away recently. A man she had a close relationship with and they shared a love for reading. Not surprising then that Nneka inherited his library which she says is very comforting because she feels close to him reading his books.

However, these kinds of stories are seldom when you talk to African women at home or in the diaspora, about their relationship with their father. While some have great stories to tell, you hear more negative stories than the positive ones that do exist. Aisha has never had a close relationship with her father. She says he is cold and though she loves him, she also knew from an early age that she would never be able to access any emotional feelings from him because he belongs to a generation of men who were brought up to be upstanding pillars in society but not emotional. The lack of communication in their relationship is evident and whenever she mentions him, there is no love lost. Though there is a huge contrast between Nneka and Aisha’s story, it mirrors that of many which goes unheard of.

There is no question about the influence a father has over his children and how it shapes their lives. There is no doubt about the importance of a father and for him to show an active role in his daughter’s life; his presence provides guidance, male authority and he serves as a good role model of what a good and trusting relationship with the opposite sex should be like. However, this fairytale is not always the ideal in many families including African families. Defining the African father/daughter relationship is an upheaval task. Mmatshilo Motsei is a South African author and gender consultant. She said, “It would be difficult to define or describe a universal African father/daughter relationship. Africans have become citizens of the world; they influence and are influenced by other people’s culture. The relationship also differs according to class, educational status and geographical location.”

Within the African culture, the family is one of the strongest institutions in society. However, there are elements which affect the relationship between African fathers and their daughters. Tradition and culture is accused of being one of the culprits which have impinged on the relationship between the African father and his daughter. Ato Quayson is the editor of Fathers & Daughters: An Anthology of Exploration, which examines the relationship between African fathers and daughters across the African continent. He said, “African societies are highly patriarchal and looking back at childhood, when an adolescent girl becomes unruly; the first fear is that she is going to bring pregnancy home. So, in trying to come to grips with her unruliness, forgetting that all adolescents are unruly, what’s applied to try and control them is to restrain their parameters. However, when a boy is expressing unruliness, it is a sign of him becoming a man and bold. The attitude reflected towards sons is different to the one shown to daughters. Daughters somehow have to be contained or controlled, which is bad.”

His point is shared by Abiola Irele, a professor of African and African American Studies and of Romance Languages and Literature atHarvardUniversityand a contributor to the same book. He believes culture and tradition shapes the African father and daughter relationship, “The cultural situation in Africa is usually ambivalent and what I mean by this is that generally, women occupy a lower position socially and there is gender inequality in the African society. Generally speaking, we don’t give women the kind of independence they need to flourish.

Over the years, relationship experts have made a career from telling us how communication enriches the quality of relationships we have with each other. However, the lack of communication also affects the quality of relationship between a father and his children. Where the African/daughter sensibility is concerned, Quayson says, “The traditional way children are brought up never mind daughters, the father is not communicative to his own children. So, the gap and distance is partly because of misunderstanding and in certain cultures, men and fathers are taught to be silent and stoical and much of what the father thinks or feels is channelled and related through the mother to the children – daughters and sons.”

In the arena of affection and emotional availability from the father to his daughter, he said, “Growing up, what I recall is that affection, where African men are concerned, they were not expressive of affection the way we have come to understand it. They express affection by taking very seriously, responsibility towards their children and being extra concerned about what their daughters are up to.”

Mother and DaughterAdd the traditional practice of polygamy into an already emotionally charged environment; daughters are inclined to be closer to their mothers than they are their father which creates more distance in the relationship. Quayson explains ““I think the main problem with the polygamous environment is that the women may grow up not actually trusting men. There is no polygamist who is not a liar and of course, it then sips down into the universe of the children and for the girl, what they learn is that you cannot trust a man because they have not had a paternal role model who allows them to see that a man can be trusted. So, a lot of women then learn early in life, to bond more and to trust more closely other women rather than men.”

Motsei argues that the African society still prefers the ‘male child’ to a ‘female child.’ But there are times when this could work in the favour of a daughter whose father always wanted a son but didn’t get his wish. Quayson says such fathers have the tendency to treat their daughters like sons, which can “Be advantageous because growing up, the girls have the best of both worlds. They can be feminine and can be masculine if they want because they have absorbed both attitudes. That’s one positive aspect of it. But sometimes, it can be negative in the sense that the women will grow up always thinking they are failed men.”

Trevor Davies is the director of Africa Fathers Initiative based in Zimbabwe, a group which provides support for fathers and mothers and aims to enlighten the international community with a better understanding of fatherhood in Africa. Davies has two daughters and he agrees that there are indeed limited challenging narratives on the African father/daughter relationship despite there been stories that are worth celebrating. Motsei says the lack of narrative is due to the fact that “A lot of the available material on Africans is one that seems to highlight some form of pathology or abnormality and the very fact that Africans themselves are not yet in charge of documenting their own stories.” While Quayson adds that the platform for discussing the relationship between the African father and daughter has never really been provided.

Quayson and Davies believe this can be changed, starting with a change in attitude from fathers. Davies said, “Self examination of our own male prejudices and the way we are socialised to exercise power through violence is essential for any transformation of relationships with our daughters. Releasing ourselves from stereotypes that demand we be autocratic, that we not show our feelings as men needs to stop and  we need to ensure that our daughters share in the educational and other life opportunities through more equal treatment.

“Emotional involvement with our daughters is crucial, being supportive and loving and providing them with role models of how good men should behave can be life changing.” Quayson added, “We need to find forums where we can talk about our fathers and parenting openly. But first and foremost, we must admit that parenting is a great mystery and a great opportunity.  But you cannot understand it without talking about it candidly. We have to be open about our vulnerabilities and strengths as parents and about parents. And just like we have alcoholics anonymous, that is the same way we need parents anonymous.” They believe by doing this, we will begin to see more on the subject of the African father and his daughter on the world stage.

Names have been changed in this article.  Nneka and Aisha are pseudonyms for the purpose of identity.

Images are for Illustration.

This feature was first published in the New African Woman magazine, Edition 3, 2009.


10 Responses to “I’m My Fathers’ Daughter – Feature”

  1. Ogochukwu says:

    “Emotional involvement with our daughters is crucial, being supportive and loving and providing them with role models of how good men should behave can be life changing.”

    That make for an emotionally balanced woman…a woman who’s not looking out for anybody to show her love (any kind of love)…a woman who has a high esteem of herself…a woman that understands her worth…because her father already set the standards on how men should treat her…

    Men…una don hear?

    Great work, B!

  2. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks Ogo

  3. Myne Whitman says:

    Great write-up Belinda.

  4. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks Myne

  5. I loved reading this write-up. I agree with the view that a typical African man is not “emotional” so to speak, and that translates into his relationship with his daughter. It’s true that fathers are the first role models that the daughter looks up to, and this shapes her view of relationships with the opposite sex. So fathers do need to connect more with their children, both male and female.

  6. kartenlegen per mail says:

    like always an informative post, thanks.

  7. […] his daughter does not get him? It was only a few months ago that I wrote an article titled my father’s daughter. Truth be told, I was talking about myself in the piece though it was as relevant to anyone out […]

  8. Stasia Farone says:

    I feel like I’m often looking for interesting things to read about a variety of subjects, but I manage to include your blog among my reads every day because you have honest entries that I look forward to. Here’s hoping there’s a lot more great material coming!

  9. Tsietsi T says:

    I am beginning to see the crux of the challenge I have in bonding with my precious girlie. U r a star Belinda.

  10. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks for reading Tsietsi and dropping a comment

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