Justice Mumbi Ngugi is going down the annals of history as a hero to many single mothers and children born out of wedlock as well as to men who get locked out of their children’s lives because they did not put a ring on it. Yet many other men and women will be seeking to lynch her should they meet her at a dark corner for upsetting a very fragile cart – of paternity and children born out of marriage.
Activism aside, Justice Ngugi’s ruling that every child has a right to have the name of his or her father on the birth certificate should have been common sense. After all, it takes to tango. The women cannot delude themselves that they self-propagated like a sweet potato vine to bring forth offspring. They also should not tell themselves that their children are better off without that deadbeat’s name in their faces because they aren’t. The choice to omit a father’s name from the birth certificate, unless in cases of rape or rampant promiscuity where paternity identity is unknown, is always up to the mother or father, in the past with the support of the law.
I once tried having a talk with a woman who wondered whether to include the name of the deadbeat father in the child’s birth certificate. She was in college, the man had jumped ship and she wondered why the loser should live to mark her life and that of her child. I gave her several reasons: because he is the father, because his blood flows through that child’s veins, because the child may one day want to know and identify herself with the man who sired her, because she cannot change reality by ignoring it, because it may one day be medically important to connect the child and the other family. Most women advised her not to put the man’s name. After all he walked; let him keep walking. No one thought of it from the child’s perspective – that they deserve to now who sired them, deadbeat or not; that a father gives identity and denying a child that was setting them up for identity issues as they grew up.
Many of those opposed to the latest verdict from the courts are doing so from a financial point of view. The men do not want to be attached to a child or woman they have no interest in for the next 18 years. They say some cunning women will use the law to extort money for childcare. They say the woman knew what she was getting herself into from the very beginning—she should now not be seeking back door into the man’s life after their what, one night stand? But what about that child? Isn’t he/she man’s offspring, planned or not, wanted or not? A man should realise that whether he provides or not, that child will eat and drink and dress at someone else’s cost, whether the single mother, the grandmother, community or children’s home. Mtoto huja na sahani yake, Sauti Sol sang.
I don’t think financial provision was Justice Mumbi’s point; nor is it for many kids who go about seeking to find their roots. Neither is it about seeking to be “fathered”. It is almost always about seeking to know who they are, looking back to look forward. Look at the way President Barack Obama puts it in his book, Dreams from my Father, about what he feltl when he found his father’s family: “For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son’. No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand.”
That’s the power a father’s name gives.
A law that bars children from knowing who fathered them despite the marital status is discriminatory. Leaving this space blank is deceptive because no woman conceived a child alone.
A parent who hides this information for whatever reasons is being unfair to the child because this is information that the child will seek to know and whose absence can cause a long lasting shadow in their life as they battle with questions of who they are, where they come from, why they are the way they are, nature vs nurture. If nature triumphs, whose genes are coursing through their veins, whose chromosomes are they passing along to their own children? Are there any diseases flowing in the bloodline that they need to watch out for? Do people there get bad at 22? Does obesity run in the family? Are they related to that stranger on the street? How do their other siblings look like? Is their “other” family as crazy or as awesome?
Sometimes a man does not know he has fathered a child. Sometimes he has too many issues to be a dad anyway. May be he is not ready to be a father to that child or be in that woman’s life. Yes, he never ever wants to see that woman again or be mentioned in the same space as her. Perhaps the mother does not want the man to be in the child’s life reasons best known to her. Notice all these reasons are about the two adults in the relationship, forgetting the rights of the little person who did not ask to be part of the heavy plot but is anyway. Justice Mumbi is defending the rights of this person whom most people do not pause to think about in an unselfish manner.
Of course some have raised concerns about the effect of that deadbeat name on the birth certificate on the future of the child. I know a girl who wouldn’t get a passport because her father was not bothered enough to come out from the woodwork long enough to provide the needed documents for her to do so. I have heard that it can become hard for the mother to travel with the child outside the country without the father’s consent. He may refuse to provide his documents for the child to get a national ID. All valid concerns. Should they trounce the child’s rights to a name instead of a ghost named XXXXXX on the birth certificate?
Justice Mumbi is trying to prevent children from discrimination and from emotional and psychological turmoil, from fighting ghosts of faithlessness. Justice Mumbi is denying men the right to forget. The chickens do come home to roost.