Ugandan fathers in the lockdown

A conversation on fatherhood in the Kikaramoja slum, Jinja (December 2019). Credit: Anna Baral

There is a saying in Uganda: “omwana omubi, avumaganyisa nyina”, “an undisciplined child is a disgrace to the mother”. A friend from Kampala brought it to my attention, ironically observing that, according to another saying, “a good child is the father’s pride”. These adages hint to unequal recognition in the home, in a country where gender equality is interpreted as a threat to men1 and half of the women in their adult life have experience emotional and/or physical violence, perpetrated, in almost half of the cases, by a partner. The Covid19 pandemic and the preventive lockdowns have increased domestic violence on women and children in Uganda and around the world, as observed by UNFPA: “where movement is restricted, people are confined, and protection systems weaken, women and girls are at greater risk” . Father’s violence on children and husband’s violence on women became central in the Ugandan news and in the statements of government officials, diplomats, and traditional leaders during the Covid19 crisis. 

However, the pandemic has also opened up new possibilities for fatherhood, beyond violent outcomes. When President Museveni declared increasingly strict measures to contain the spread of Covid19 between March and May 2020, Ugandan men found themselves in an unusual place: their own home. Face to face with their kids on a daily basis, often for the first time since they were born, fathers had to face the ambivalences of their role. Will this short but intense moment of difficulty leave marks on how fatherhood is imagined and practiced in the country? What possibilities has the pandemic unearthed?

The ambivalence of “being there”

The lockdown threw many Ugandan men in panic. With no food supplies at home and no income, livelihoods were doomed. Economic strains were worsened by sudden isolation and by the forced cohabitation, which exposed the fragility of the breadwinners. During the lockdown, fatherhood emerged as a recurrent topic in the WhatsApp videocalls and chat conversations with old friends in Kampala and Jinja, where I have carried out research respectively on masculinity and morality and on marriage (within the IMAGENU project). Informal workers or unemployed, these interlocutors have shared their partnership stories with me for some years, disclosing the intricacies of cultivating intimacy and affect in a precarious economy, now further weakened by an unprecedented crisis.

“Husbands and wives are fighting because men fail to meet family needs”, said Moses, a mechanic in central Kampala. “Women fail to understand that this is a crisis, and they are putting pressure on the husbands”, Andrew, a taxi driver, echoed. Men’s testimonies from Uganda resonate with—and reinforce — a narrative on the crisis of the African man, disempowered by neoliberal reforms, labour informalisation and unemployment2 Frustration, men’s subsequent deresponsibilisation and violent outburst would then follow – a process that seems to have unfolded during the pandemic.

Spending time with children during the lockdown, Kampala (April 2020). Credit : Mr. Joel Kasule

However, while some men have used the lockdown as a chance to physically abandon their families and withdraw from their responsibilities, others have remained. “Being there” has become a physical and existential condition to be pondered. “We thought it could be fine to move together, to stay close, to monitor the child”, said Mark, a businessman in Kampala. “When you are together, you are forced to learn: we are learning each other”. Being together was initially strange and uncomfortable in families used to fathers being absent from morning to evening. Richard, unemployed in Jinja, blamed family fights to the novelty of co-presence: “now they [wife and kids] see you there every day: every day you are there”.

Co-presence invited for the recognition of important others, and opened to a change in fathers’ self-perception. The lockdown, with its inescapable “being there” (“every day you are there”), made the entanglement between subjectivity and intersubjectivity irrefutable. It entrapped men in an uncomfortable impotence and exposed their failures to involuntary witnesses. “The kids are watching”, a friend commented sternly about domestic violence. Forcefully present, men could no longer shun the children’s demanding gaze: “Corona was when many realized that they had more children than they can manage”. It was a painful gaze, which shattered men’s self-representation as breadwinners. “If you don’t provide them, they will cry, they ask for things… I feel myself becoming upset”, John said. “I used to give them things when they asked”, Andrew echoed, “but in the lockdown it has been impossible (…). This has demoted me as a father: this time I can’t provide, only promise”.

Besides being onlookers, children became however also actors, steering family dynamics. “In normal times you go home only to find the children asleep… Now you listen to their noise, they ask so many questions… as a father, you end up quarreling”, Mark explained. “You feel challenged by unstoppable fightings and reportings against each other (…) You get mad”, Andrew confirmed. Stressed by edgy interactions, children have “turned against their parents”, and, as Richard tells me, they have resorted to kill them and to use witchcraft against them – a punishment for withdrawing from their responsibilities: “As a father you have no excuse: you must carry your responsibilities, something which apparently you have failed to do”.

Intentionally present

However, children’s pleads also elicited empathetic reactions. Sometimes it was sadness for what they had to bear: “I feel sorry for them, which makes me sad. Eating one type of food which you don’t even want is difficult…”. Sometimes it was amusement for their effervescence: John, who could not afford anything, laughed at how his daughter “over-asked” about why “pockets are not happy as [they] used [to be]”. “Children make you talk when you don’t want”, Andrew observed, convinced that children saved him from depression. “Friends say that the boredom is killing them, they wish they had kids”.  

Fathers engaged in activities and made schedules to combat children’s idleness: homework, cartoons, dance, reading, cooking, health check, physical exercise. Spending time with kids allowed fathers to understand their “capabilities”, one said. Comforted by the attention received by the fathers, children responded positively, feeling progressively at ease. “The kids feel more free than before: we have not developed any quarrel… this has created a good bond”, said Richard, father of three.

Fathers softened, in return: “Fatherhood in Uganda means to use your powers to dictate, without being questioned”, Andrew wrote in an SMS. However, authoritative fatherhood has bent to exceptional circumstances. “I tried to take the TV away from them [but] they all moved out of the house. To keep them inside [in order to respect the curfew] I had to let them watch cartoons all the time. In other words, I had to endure the pain”.

By shifting attention to children’s needs and personalities, some fathers seemed to find an orientation in otherwise disorienting times. While their manhood used to be validated through individual, uncontested authority, they now subscribed (albeit not easily) to fatherhood as an intersubjective project. This gave them a direction: bodies with bodies in locked-down households, their self-perception tuned to the image returned by their children. “Being there” morphed from a forced condition to a willful presence, an intentional orientation towards subjects of affection, whose demands started making sense. Orienting themselves towards the children, men managed to “avoid [the] nullification” threatened by the failure of their breadwinner role, and to “achieve some sense of governing their own fate”, as Jackson (1998: 19) famously described, from a phenomenological perspective, the search for meaning and control on one’s life3.

Father and son showing the fruits of their garden, Makenke Village, Jinja (February 2020). Credit: Anna Baral

New fatherhood?

The situation of Ugandan fathers is not unique: the intense co-presence with children during the pandemic has felt unfamiliar, to different degrees, for men the world over. However, the patterns emerging during the Covid19 crisis are particularly interesting in an African country, for the way they resonate with global, and politically non-neutral, discourses on masculinity and fatherhood. In Uganda as elsewhere, organisations working for gender equality and against domestic violence increasingly engage fathers, insisting on the importance of being present(( The Global Programme “MenCare”, or the large survey of Promundo on domestic violence in Central Uganda (IMAGE) here quoted, and the Fatherhood Project funded by Human Sciences Research Council South Africa are some example.)). An invitation to “being there” informs the document “Parenting guidelines to offer guidance on roles and responsibilities of all family members”, published by the Minister of State for Gender and Cultural Affairs in Uganda in 2018, and revitalised in May. During the Ugandan lockdown, the Embassy of Sweden, a country notably on the forefront of gender interventions, has organised the photo competition “Ugandan Dads – Quarantine Edition”, a remake of a 2016 event promoting “caring male role models”. Fathers were invited to send photos portraying their activities with kids: they documented cooking, playing, studying, potty-training or dissecting a chicken (in the winner photo).

As a result, caring fatherhood, explicitly articulated by NGOs, is often perceived as a western import. In a conversation around tantrums, a friend dismissed my suggestion to talk to the child as a “thing for bazungu [whites]”. All this love we show our kids…we learn from bazungu”, another said. There seems to be an implicit belief that “the men’s only task is to give basic needs to his family: showing love, care, and pampering kids is something new”.

Organisations’ interventions are more or less explicitly inspired by “new fatherhood”, a concept consolidated between the end of 1990s and the 2000s in research on fatherhood in the Nordic countries, which describes “greater paternal involvement at home… lesser engagement in paid work… [and] a more egalitarian sharing of caring responsibilities within the household”4. Indeed, by taking up childcare, my interlocutors became also aware of the uneven division of labour even in normal times. Could this, then, be “new fatherhood” in Uganda?

While it is productive to observe what “new” the pandemic has produced, we should however not neglect historical continuities. Research shows that in sub-Saharan Africa it is far from uncommon for fathers to recognise the importance of being financially, physically, and emotionally present for the material and psychological wellbeing of their children. Absent fathers often feel to be a failure for not living up to social, and personal ideals good fatherhood5. Along the same line, a large survey in Uganda has shown that “most respondents… believe men spend too little time with their children” and “there is a strong desire for men” to improve6. Moreover, if one of the tenets of “new fatherhood” is the father’s presence, his “being there”, it may be noticed that in central Uganda “being there” (okubeerawo) is a routine way of expressing wellbeing and connectedness: the reply to “how are you” is “gye ndi”, “I am there”7. In Uganda, I have been told for years that the youth’s “moral crisis” is caused by the absence of fathers8. Educational camps like the Ekisakaate teach youth “traditional culture”, focusing on knowledge transfer between generations. In the city, kojja (maternal uncles, traditionally in charge of counselling boys and now offering their service for money) offer a remedy to such absence, showing at the same time the primacy of social roles on biological ties for the youth’s wellbeing. The value of presence for wellbeing is thus not newly imported, but rather well engrained in local moralities.

Post-lockdown fathers

The fatherhood emerging from the lockdown is a hybrid of globally travelling images and long-standing local considerations. If being breadwinners has represented for long time the only way to “be there” (in antithesis to the “new”, empathetic fatherhood portrayed by Nordic models), the stall imposed by the pandemic has oriented men towards a “new” experience of fatherhood, constructed however in continuity with the past, and on Ugandan terms.

My interlocutors expressed a desire for these changes to last. “The task [of raising children] is no longer on mothers only. This was a major positive change in this lockdown”, one admitted. “We are no longer fathers and mothers who leave early in the morning for work and come back late very tired at night”, another reflected, defining the pandemic as a “time of reconciliation”. They expressed the hope that men will “realise how good it is to give children time”. Beyond the tragic stories of gender based violence, therefore, lay some opportunities, paradoxically encouraged by a disorienting crisis:  “Spending more time with my kids and the mother has made me feel like I know them more, and I believe that inside them, they have known me better than they used to. Thanks to Corona virus.”

  1. Vlahovicova, K., Spindler, E., Levtov R. and Hakobyan, L. (2019). Evolving Perspectives: Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in Central Uganda. Washington, DC: Promundo-US and International Center for Research on Women. []
  2. See for example: Groes-Green, C. (2009). “Hegemonic and Subordinated Masculinities: Class, Violence and Sexual Performance among Young Mozambican Men.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 18 (4): 286–304 and Silberschmidt, M. (2004). “Masculinities, Sexuality and Socio-Economic Change in Rural and Urban East Africa.” In Arnfed, S. (ed.) Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa, 233–250. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute. []
  3. Jackson, M. (1998). Minima  Ethnographica:  Intersubjectivity  and  the Anthropological Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 19. []
  4. Gregory, A. and S. Milner. 2011. “What is “New” about Fatherhood?: The Social Construction of Fatherhood in France and the UK”. Men and Masculinities, 14(5), 588–606., p. 601. []
  5. See for ex. Mavungu, E. (2013). “Provider Expectations and Father Involvement: Learning from Experiences of Poor ‘Absent Fathers’ in Gauteng, South Africa”. African Sociological Review, 17 (1): 65-78; Morrell, R. and L. Richter (2004). “The Fatherhood Project: Confronting Issues of Masculinity and Sexuality”. Agenda 18 (62): 36-44; Nkwake, A. (2009). “Mothers’ and Fathers’ Perceptions of Paternal Involvement in Child Care in Uganda.” Childhood in Africa 1 (1). []

  6. Vlahovicova et al., Evolving Perspectives cit.: 43. []
  7. McConnachie, S. 2016. Wellbeing in Buganda: The Pursuit of a Good Life in Two Ugandan Villages, Doctoral Dissertation in Social Anthropology, The University of Edinburgh, p. 57 []
  8. Baral, A. 2018. Bad Guys, Good Life: an Ethnography of Morality and Change in Kisekka Market (Kampala, Uganda)”. PhD dissertation. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Uppsaliensis. []

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