Sunday, 9 June 2013

Why Akua is looking for Little Kwaku’s Father (07-06-13

Why Akua is looking for Little Kwaku’s Father (07-06-13)

Kwaku is five years old but that is not his real name. His mother is Akua and that is not her real name either but they are real people and their story is real. Kwaku’s father has effectively abducted the child, but Akua does not know what to do or where to turn for help. This is Akua’s story.

She has two children both with the same man. They lived as man and wife although the man had not performed any rites. They come from adjoining villages in the same district and had known each other “back home” but their relationship had been formed in the hard setting of Accra’s unfriendly suburbs. Let us call the man Emmanuel; he is a tradesman having learnt carpentry and other crafts at various apprenticeships since he left school.

Emmanuel came to Accra in 2003 or 2004 to join his cousin who had arrived two years earlier and stayed at Ashiaman. Akua also arrived a year or so later but the two met and developed their friendship sometime in 2005. They had a daughter in 2006 and little Kwaku followed two years later in 2008. Their daughter, Amma is seven and the boy who is at the centre of this story’s main sub-plot is five. After months of quarrelling, usually over money, the two drifted apart with Akua unofficially but firmly and inevitably retaining custody of the two children.

Emmanuel was an on-off father for a few months after the on-off relationship kind of ended; he paid money for the partial upkeep of the children as and when he was harassed by Akua, especially after he was rumoured to have taken up with another woman. One day, or so it appears,  Emmanuel vanished from the lives of Akua and the children and he made sure to consign his mobile phone number to the garbage heap of history. But Akua is a determined woman and managed after months of hard detective work to get her hands on Emmanuel’s new telephone number.

He said he was living in Kumasi after receiving Akua’s surprise call. He explained that he had left Ashiaman under considerable financial pressure but had now found employment in Kumasi and promised to do his fatherly duty. Meanwhile, Akua’s mother had taken Amma with her to the village, so Emmanuel came up with a suggestion: since Amma was struggling to look after the boy, would it not be better if he took little Kwaku to live with him in Kumasi? Akua said a firm no. Emmanuel used the new idea as a bargaining chip. He would stop looking after the children altogether unless he Akua agreed to given custody of Kwaku to him. She reluctantly agreed because she did not want the entire clan blaming her if Emmanuel used her refusal as the excuse for not looking after their children. One day Emmanuel suddenly came to Accra to take the boy to Kumasi. That was the last time Akua saw her son or his father.

Three months ago, Emmanuel played a cruel trick on Akua who had been pleading with him to allow her to pay a visit to her son. He agreed to let her see him so Akua bought some nice things for Kwaku and set off for Kumasi. She got there in the evening but by then Emmanuel had done it again; his mobile phone had gone stone dead and has stayed dead up to this minute. Akua stayed at the bus station overnight and continued her futile search for her son the next day until she realised that Emmanuel had pointedly punished her for wanting to see her son. What could Akua do? She returned to Accra a dejected figure. No amount of cajoling and pleading with Emmanuel’s relatives and friends has given her even a morsel of comfort.

On the face of it, Akua could have recourse to the law and this is what I suggested when I got to know of her case. But she has spoken to people who have tried the police route and they have persuaded her to the view that it would be a waste of both money and time. She told me poignantly that “in Ghana poor people have no rights”.

Akua is not alone in her predicament. Just by looking around my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I am astounded at the high number of women who have been left by their children’s fathers to look after the children on their own. What is worse, it appears that this is a taboo subject which is hardly addressed publicly. It is a question of family honour, someone has suggested; families do not want to wash their dirty linen in public and so while they try to support such women if they can, in reality most of them have no real support and are on their own.

Emmanuel is not alone. The one good read reason Akua thinks she was so badly treated in the Kumasi fiasco is that Emmanuel is living with another woman, who if his relatives are to be believed, is also not his wife. Emmanuel has moved on, at least in his own mind. As he sees it, he is looking after Kwaku while Akua’s mother is looking after Amma in the village. That for him is the end of the matter.

There are hundreds of thousands of children in such “domestic limbo” who are denied full parental care by both parents; more importantly they are left in the care of these young women who themselves are barely making a living. These women feel trapped and do not know where to go. The Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit of the Police Service is often recommended to such women to report their AWOL menfolk but this unit is probably not the most appropriate institution for resolving such difficulties.

In many ways the Ghanaian state has abdicated its responsibilities in the social sector as if to say that there should be no or minimum public interference in people’s private lives. However, part of the social contract by which we are governed expressly expects the state to protect people even from their own weaknesses and follies.

The problem of fatherless children is an epidemic in our society and we can no longer pretend the phenomenon does not exist. At the same time it is neither correct nor enough to treat this as a moral issue in which young mothers burdened with bringing up these children are cast in the role of villains who “brought it on themselves”. Obviously the problem relates to several other causative factors including unregulated rural to urban migration, lack of proper educational opportunities, the need for decent accommodation for young people, sex education and general solidarity and fellow-feeling for one another in society. There are many causes of this problem and the government would do well to commission a formal study into the many dimensions of this problem. 

In the meantime, somewhere in Kumasi, or more likely in one of its suburban badlands, is a man who has effectively abducted his own son and denied the child’s mother visiting rights. We have called him Emmanuel but we could call him a hundred other names all of which he would answer to because there are so many of such fathers. We have to find and HELP them to do their duty, but where encouragement fails they have to be compelled by law.

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