The man’s words took me aback. There he was speaking to us, strangers, about his wayward son, the offspring of a well-heeled couple who had rejected privilege and college and ended up as a drifter in a big town, living precariously, on his own terms.
He cursed the boy. He was awfully harsh. Later that night, as I lullabied myself to sleep, I tried to imagine scenes from the boy’s early life. Big house, plenty to eat, good schools, examples all around him about the link between a good education and the good life.
What went wrong?
His outburst would have made more sense to me if he had blamed himself. That’s what we usually hear — parents regretting that they hadn’t done enough for their children, tortured by the unimaginative pastor who implies that children can be specially ordered, like tuxedos.
Then it occurred to me that this wasn’t really about the boy: It was about the dad’s dashed expectations. He was fuming about a failed investment.
To him, the perceived advantages of the privileges of the boy’s upbringing should have led him down a different, better path, like his. He should have been able to say to his drinking buddies that he, too, has a son at the law school.
In the old Kenya of my octogenarian father’s generation, men married women they hardly knew and had several offspring, whom they left largely to fend for themselves or to the care of others. They did not judge each other on how many children they had studying in Canada. Or how big a car they drove.
In our time, though men still marry women they hardly know they get fewer children, whom they fall into great debt to feed and educate. Even parents of modest means jump through hoops to send their children to expensive private schools in a bid to make a difference in their eventual material prospects.
But there is something today’s fathers will not acknowledge openly — they are not that different from my father’s generation in one respect. We may have fewer children but we are also leaving them to others to raise while we chase money and the fine things it can buy.
As long as we are paying the bills, we don’t see our being absent as a problem. If you ask us whether we are good fathers, many of us will dodge the question and tell you that we pay the bills, the greedy banks and schools get their money...
We of the post-independence generation were running away from the effects of our forebears’ ignorance, and we largely succeeded. We expect our sons — born in a world of previously unimaginable opportunities, given every advantage in life that we didn’t have — to do even better.
But, ignorant of Kenyan and family history, our sons are not wowed by what we think we have achieved. They are telling us indirectly that they don’t have to live like us, take the path we have taken.
Their role models are not their fathers but the hip-hop stars they watch on satellite TV with the nanny. The illiterate rapper’s embellished tale about rising from the slums of Dandora is apparently more seductive.