When my father was working, he was one of the best fathers in the world. He spent lavishly on his family; wherever your brain took you, Daddy gladly paid the tuition fees. I boast about attending some of the most prestigious schools in Uganda. Daddy never bought anything in bits – it was usually a sack of, a tin of, a box of, a grate of, a tray of…in short, we grew up in plenty despite our lower middle class status. Daddy always came home with the latest story books and newspapers. I still remember how I beamed when I first learnt how to read in English; the story was of David and Mary from the Oxford English Book 2. From a young age I knew that a parent had to duly provide for his or her children. That is why when my father lost his job I felt it was my moral duty to stand in, to support the family, to give my mother and siblings the illusion that all was well, that their lifestyle would remain unaltered and intact.
Just like many Africans, my father did not plan for his retirement. It caught him unawares. At the time I had just gotten a low-paying, civil servant job after graduating from university the previous year, my elder sister had just been laid to rest, my immediate younger sister was in her last year at the university, the eldest of my brothers was starting at the university later that year and my last two brothers were in secondary school. To say my family was financially strained would be a huge understatement.
I never experienced the excitement that comes with having a first job, the foolishness of throwing away your first salary to youthful luxuries. Instead, here I was trying to make ends meet – feeding a family of eight, paying tuition for five siblings and utility bills. Everyone shunned us, even the two uncles whose education my father paid for and who were financially well placed. I had to grow up. Do you know what it means to donate every cent that swings your way and it still not be enough to take care of your family? Do you know what it means to give your all and your family still yearns for more? Growing up double slapped me on the face.
During a workshop I recently facilitated, my co-facilitator (a lady in the evening of her career, probably in her fifties) and I talked. On our stroll home, we were joined by two of our trainees. We discussed many things: life, marriage, children (only one of us younger women had two girls and was expecting a third). I asked the co-facilitator if she had children and she said “Yes!” with a lot of vigor. When I mentioned I didn’t have any she began to lecture me: “remember you’re a woman”, “your biological clock is ticking”, blah, blah, blah. One of the other ladies concluded that a child is the only thing that belongs to a woman in this world. “I don’t think so,” I retorted, “and a child belongs to two people, not you alone!” But the lectures continued, I literally blocked my ears and just laughed it off because to me, having children in my twenties has never been a priority, circumstances had predetermined my fate.
The next morning that same lady walked up to me at the training venue and whispered, “By the way, I do not have any children, I just did not want the whole world to know, hence avoiding their unsolicited opinions.” She went on to explain: her brother had died leaving behind five orphaned children, right when she had just become a licensed nurse. She had to step in to support her ailing mother and her late brother’s children. She was entangled in the web of inherited responsibility. Naturally she was denied a chance to dream of her own children because she was already overwhelmed with the demands of her nieces and nephews. She was speaking right to my soul. I understood her, our reasons for childlessness were one and the same – sacrifice! However, unlike her, having to support young nieces and nephews for the foreseeable future, most of my siblings are finished with their formal education. Perhaps, when I do not have the excuse of inherited responsibility anymore, I will rethink my stand on having children. At 29, I am proud to announce to the world that I do not need a biological child to validate my womanhood!
When I see people living in a viscous cycle of poverty, I want to slap them, I get angry! What do I mean? Imagine that your grandparents married young and reproduced to fill the world, your mom married your father shortly after seeing her first menstrual period, she’s still breastfeeding your youngest sibling to date and you, who is the first born, unable to pursue a formal education because of your background, you marry as soon as puberty kicks in and start having children. Or imagine being a young husband whose mom’s antenatal visits are scheduled together with his wife’s and he has to escort both to the clinic. Tell me how you will escape from poverty, even if the government implemented all the welfare programs it’s promised?
Your story could be a bit different. Imagine yourself, the first born of your family, defying the norm and getting formal training, which leads to a great job. After acquiring a house and a car next in line is a spouse. You marry young and start a family. You give into the demands of the modern corporate class and forget where you came from. You may escape poverty but your siblings probably won’t. What if you held out a little longer before creating your own responsibilities and supported a sibling or two financially? Isn’t that a better model for escaping the viscous cycle of poverty?
Like Steve Jobs advised, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward; you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” In the beginning I cried, cursed, broke down, hated and sunk into depression. Time has healed me though, and I can laugh and share my story. Looking backwards is one of the best decisions I have made. You do not have to be a hero, you just have to be human!