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Between a rock and a hard place, Kenyan family unit faces collapse

Fathers are usually missing the family dinner with only 9.2 per cent of urban families ever

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Career, technology and liberal attitudes are eating into the flesh of many families, and as the young romanticise the idea of single parenthood, the institution of marriage seems headed for doom

You are aged 40, married, father of two children and staying in Mlolongo. Every day you and your spouse leave home a few minutes before six in the morning to beat traffic on your way to work in town. Junior, your son, is never awake by the time you tip-toe out of the house, afraid you might wake him up. Neither is his sister.

You normally leave work at 5pm, but there are always errands to run, fundraisers to attend, football matches to watch, and drinks to drink.

By the time you get home, the children are normally already asleep, or dozing off. Because you get there quite tired, you do not have time to catch up with the children, and so you mouth a casual “good night” and head to your bedroom. Tomorrow is another day, you reason. Maybe you will have time to help Brandon with his homework.

On weekends, when you are expected to at least have a few hours and catch up with each other, individual pursuits stand in the way. Brandon is busy with his PlayStation, his sister just discovered Instagram, you have a football match to catch, and your wife has to go to the salon before catching up with her friends in the evening for the neighbourhood chama meeting.

From the outside, you have a happy family, but from inside the institution is falling apart. This is worrying you, but you are not alone, so you find comfort in numbers.

A 2014 University of Nairobi study by the Department of Sociology found that only 9.2 per cent of urban families ever have a family meal together in a week — fathers are the worse culprits for missing the family dinner, followed by their teenage children.

Women, though fairing better, were found to often miss out on important family times as they were faraway attending to corporate duty or, if in town, stuck in evening classes.

Modern life means more and more Kenyans, especially in urban centres, are leading really busy lives that are largely transactional, and that means they are failing to develop deep connections and relationships.

This unfortunate consequence of having hectic social and work lives, as well as children having school and sporting commitments, has made it difficult for families to be truly families.

ANNUAL GET-TOGETHER

Sociologist Gertrude Kamau thinks the problem is worse than most are willing to admit. “There are families that get together once a year, or by chance,” she says, “and that is if the father, who works in the city, travels up-country for Christmas or a funeral service forces them to meet.”

Gertrude explains that the spiraling cost of living and the need to make progress in life have dealt a deadly blow to the family unit as the traditional bond is sacrificed for economic, educational and professional growth.

“There are people who are at their workplaces for over 18 hours a day and only go home to sleep,” she observes.

Philip Amanda, a city lawyer, agrees with Gertrude’s observations, adding that nowadays the connection between children and their parents “is too shallow”, given that parents mostly get to see their offspring on weekends.

“For instance,” he says, “I get home at around 9pm and I leave before 8am. That means I only see my daughter twice or thrice a week, and on short periods.”

With the increasing need to be competent at certain jobs in order to remain relevant in the job market, or to make an extra coin just to remain afloat in a rapaciously capitalistic environment, many professionals now attend evening classes to further their academic qualifications, while many others are working overtime to make ends meet.

The house-helps back home, therefore, have become the de-facto mothers and fathers of the children since they are closer to them and can respond to their needs in time. Some children have ended up developing deeper relationships with their minders than their parents as they spend considerably more time with them, and therefore see them as more reliable constants in their lives.

Family expert Monicah Musau advises that as much as parents have busy schedules, they need to get close to their children because “if they do not, they are simply cooking a disaster”.

Children that are starved of parental attention may develop strange behaviours that the absentee parents may not notice early enough, she cautions.

As parental absenteeism threatens to tear families apart, electronic gadgets and the Internet have made the threat even more real. Teenagers have made WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter their most intimate friends, and so time that was previously spent interacting physically has been displaced by virtual reality.

A recent editorial in the Journal of theRoyal Society of Medicine made the timely point that social networking “encourages us to ignore the social networks that form in our non-virtual communities”, and that “the time we spend socialising electronically separates us from our physical networks”.

Dr Hana Noor, in the book Social Media: Usage and Impact, argues that “real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf”.

“Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction,” continues Dr Noor, painting a gory image of how virtual inter-connectedness has robbed humans of the bonds that make them human in the first place.

Doreen Mwenda, a youth who often uses social media to stay in touch with her friends, acknowledges the challenge as grave since it even affects growing relationships, especially for those dating, almost getting married, or are young and married.

“All that is required is a change of attitude, a commitment by parents and children to make the family meal a priority, an agreement to switch off all electronic devices when having quality family time, and some re-organisation of family timetables,” says Ms Mwenda.

IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES

“Much as it can be hard, nothing good comes without sacrifice.”
Perhaps it is these twin problems of chasing dreams and living a virtual life that have resulted in a worrying trend among married couples: divorce and separation have become commonplace, almost expected and no longer frowned upon by the community.

Records in Kenyan courts show that the rate of divorce in Kenya is on the rise, and that it would be higher were it not for the prohibitive legal costs associated with the process. Legal sources indicate that the cost of filing a divorce case could range from Sh200,000 to Sh500,000, and that the case could drag on in court for years.

“Apart from the high costs, couples with irreconcilable differences are often discouraged from the court process by personal reasons, religious factors, family influence or even mutual agreement,” says Naftali Manoa, a divorce lawyer.

A total of 404 divorce cases were filed at the Milimani Commercial Courts last year, just a tiny indicator of what goes on in other courts in Nairobi and the rest of the country. According to statistics from Nairobi High Court’s family division, although 163 cases were filed in 2005, last year 183 cases were registered. Most are yet to be concluded.

While divorce cases filed at the Nairobi High Court are largely of civil marriages, those filed at Milimani are drawn from Christian marriages. In 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, the number of divorce cases filed at Milimani were 101, 115, 206, 296 and 295, respectively. In 2012 and 2013, the numbers were at 427 and 466, respectively.

The number of children affected directly by divorce has risen over the past few decades, from about 82,000 in 1997 to 208,000 in 2011.

These numbers indicate that there is a growing problem in many Kenyan homes today, and that the Kenyan child is today at a higher risk of growing up in a dysfunctional or broken home than, say, 20 years ago. It is difficult to say exactly how many cohabiting couples with children separate, but the number is likely to be substantial. That is because as many as 30 per cent of all births in Kenya in 2010 were to unmarried parents living at the same address, many of whom may have been cohabiting.

Yet cohabiting couples, says Dr William Doherty, a marriage scholar and therapist, are more likely to split up, and one in three cohabiting parents separate before their child’s fifth birthday, compared to about one in ten who are married.

The visiting scholar at Kenyatta University asserts that, “considering these facts, the total number of children who are affected by the separation of their biological parents is likely to be much greater than the number affected by divorce alone”.

Divorced city businesswoman Maryanne Njoki believes this trend is fuelled more by the quest for status and power within the family unit than anything else. When men realise their wives have jumped the gender inequality hurdle and are doing better than them, she argues, they get scared.

“We had to divorce with my former husband because he could not allow me to run my gold and diamond business, which was more lucrative than his line of business,” she explains.

Divorce, she argues, is both an indicator of, and force behind, social changes that have improved prospects for women, reduced gender inequality, and fuelled development. “A divorce can spawn a sense of empowerment and greater pursuit for economic and professional opportunities,” she asserts.

WORSE OUTCOMES

But while partners may get relieved of commitments after divorce, Catholic priest Chrisantus Chuma thinks otherwise. The partners are not separated at all in religious and Biblical sense, he argues, as “when they take the oath of ‘until death do us part’, it means, much as legal laws can formalise their divorce, they are still man and wife before God”.

Therefore, continues Fr Chrisantus, they are wrong in not taking care of their partners, in good times and bad, as they promised each other at the altar.

In When Couples part: Understanding the Consequences for Adults and Children,relationships writer James Mandiberg points out that “children whose biological parents have split up have worse outcomes in terms of social, emotional and cognitive development, on average”.

“This association remains regardless of whether the parents were married or cohabiting when the child was born,” says Mandiberg, who argues that a child’s psychological and physical health can suffer as a consequence of the separation of its parents.

“Children of separated parents are also more likely to have behavioural problems, exhibit anti-social behaviour, and take part in substance misuse. The parents, too, cannot have peace of mind when they know the children are suffering because of the effects of the divorce, or separation.”

Perhaps it is because of the dwindling fortunes of married life that the youth no longer romanticise the concept of settling down in matrimony. The attractiveness of marriage has also been fainted by the extension of schooling beyond the early 20s, the liberalisation of sexuality, the availability of reliable methods of contraception, changing gender roles, and the sentimentalisation of single parenthood.

While it faces many challenges, the family, as Pope Francis recently said in a Papal address, is still the “most basic, sacred and defining institution that impacts on every part of our lives”.

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GRIM NUMBERS

404

Number of divorce cases filed at the Milimani Commercial Courts last year. This is just a tiny indicator of what goes on in other courts in Nairobi and the rest of the country. According to statistics from Nairobi High Court’s family division, although 163 cases were filed in 2005, last year 183 cases were registered. While divorce cases filed at the Nairobi High Court are largely of civil marriages, those filed at Milimani are drawn from Christian marriages. In 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, the number of divorce cases filed at Milimani were 101, 115, 206, 296 and 295, respectively. In 2012 and 2013, the numbers were at 427 and 466, respectively.

208,000 

Estimated number of children affected directly by divorce in 2011, up from about 82,000 in 1997. In When Couples part: Understanding the Consequences for Adults and Children, relationships writer James Mandiberg points out that “children whose biological parents have split up have worse outcomes in terms of social, emotional and cognitive development, on average”. This association remains regardless of whether the parents were married or cohabiting when the child was born.

Real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction

 

Dr Hana Noor, in the book Social Media: Usage and Impact, as she paints a gory image of how virtual inter-connectedness has robbed humans of the bonds that make them human in the first place

-Nation.co.ke

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