Parenting the African way: Fatherhood in Ireland is ‘most definitely different’
Two parents talk about raising their children with their own traditions in Ireland
Timi Martins from Nigeria with his Polish-born wife Jolanta and children Gabriella (10) and Rebecca (8).
You never thought it would happen – the moment the words directed at your children are coming out of your mouth, you realise: “I sound just like my mother . . . ”
That may not be a bad thing, depending on how you view your upbringing. But it’s a reminder that there is no clean slate at the beginning of parenthood. We can’t escape our own childhood and our parents as role models – for better or for worse.
Consciously, we like to think we follow their good examples and avoid repeating what we regard as their mistakes. Although our sub-conscious triggers some behaviour which over-rides intentions.
But what if you move a continent and a culture away from your childhood and start to raise a family in totally different circumstances from those of your parents? There’s much more than a generation gap then to test the template formed by nature and nurture.
When Kuxi Ghai had her first child, Ishaan, 3½ years ago, she was determined to be much the same kind of parent living here as she would have been in her native Kenya.
“I have tried very hard – it has been the thing I have been most committed to. There are things that are just in us, understanding on a cellular level what makes a good mother.”
For her, it is things such as breast-feeding and co-sleeping. “It is very much attachment parenting, following the rhythm of the child and the philosophy is that you are in a partnership,” she explains.
“My culture is Indian and African, so with us it is that you have been given this gift and your job is to journey with them until they can go it alone. It is not an authoritarian kind of thing, it is very baby-led.”
Having grown up in Nairobi, Ghai never intended leaving Kenya. But while working as a producer on assignment in Tanzania, meeting a man with Irish and English parents, who was raised in East Africa, eventually led her to Ireland.
“You meet someone and you go where your heart goes,” she says. They moved to Spain and her first visit to Ireland was for the Africa Day celebration in Dublin in 2014, at which her then husband was performing.
“I was pregnant but didn’t know it,” she says. So, as the African community here prepares for the annual event this weekend, “it will be mine and my son’s fourth Africa Day, even though he is only three”.
When you birth a child, you birth yourself as a mother and that is a completely different entity to anything you were before.”
This year Ghai has been chosen as a “champion” of the flagship event on May 27th in Farmleigh, in the Phoenix Park. Africa Day marks the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity on May 25th, 1963, but the Dublin celebration is held on the closest Sunday. The 2016 Census recorded 57,850 people living here as Black Irish or Black African.
Once Ishaan’s parents knew he was on the way, they decided to make Ireland their home. Keen to hold on to African culture, Ghai asked anybody from home who inquired if she needed anything to send “kangas” – brightly coloured pieces of fabric – and shea butter, “that’s what you can’t get here”.
She knows a lot of people here who “babywear” and have very expensive carriers but Africans just carry their babies in the cloths they use for everything, she explains. “I got lots of those and kind of stuck to the routine and the culture and the tradition.”
Personally, she finds it “heartbreaking” to see some mothers here having to go back to work within a couple of months of having a baby, due to financial pressures. “Rent is hideous – it’s a luxury to be able to stay at home with your child,” she acknowledges.
‘Cocooned’ after birth
In her culture “you’re cocooned” after birth. “For the first year, you don’t do anything – you have your mother, your mother-in-law, your sisters, cousins – literally any woman within a 200-metre radius will be in your house for the first year, doing the cooking, the cleaning, because the only thing you are supposed to do is nourish and nurture your child. Even your husband understands that you are there for your child.
“When you birth a child, you birth yourself as a mother and that is a completely different entity to anything you were before.”
Believing in the importance of the mother-child bond, Ghai started putting Ishaan into a Montessori school beside their home in Portmarnock, Co Dublin, just last month, for the free pre-school scheme.
“You know as much as people might say you are stifling them a little bit, I see just the independence because they are secure,” she says. But at this stage she thinks it is important for Ishaan to “to have something outside his dad and myself”.
Ghai has made sacrifices to stay at home with her son. “Financially I struggle but at the end of the day, I can struggle if it means I struggle for five years and he’s sorted for his life. That’s fine, that’s a very small price to pay.”
Up to recently she had her heart set on an Irish-speaking primary school for him but she has “a bit of an issue” with him having to be a baptised Catholic. “I am everything – Kenya is very mixed – we’re Christian, Muslim, Hindu and we will find any reason to have a party.”
She went to a convent school, where she remembers every Thursday having to sit for two hours alone in a classroom because she wasn’t baptised. She later went to an all-Indian school and then an international school.
“I believe in God but I don’t believe in organised religion – although I have nothing against it.”
Ghai says she has been made feel very welcome in Ireland and has experienced no racism apart from on the Luas Red Line which, she says, is notorious for such incidents. One man on it asked her if she was raising her son to be like Isis. “He had been drinking – it was nothing within his control,” she says in his defence. “They say hurt people hurt people.”
Africa Day is her favourite festival of the year and she would encourage Irish families to attend the celebrations.
“Although I am not at home and I have a new home, I’m with home. I’m with people who look like, smell like and sound like my childhood. It is always a joy for me and it is a joy that I can bring my son and we eat chapattis and ugali and listen to the music.
“I love it because I can walk around the whole of Phoenix Park just speaking Swahili.” She sees it as a way for the African community to say “thank you for welcoming us into your culture and we would like to welcome you into ours – even if it is just for a day”.
Like Ghai, Nigerian father-of-two Timi Martins looks forward to bringing his daughters to the Farmleigh event, where he will be co-ordinating activities on one of three music stages. But for him living in Ireland has “most definitely” meant a different kind of fatherhood than if he had remained in Lagos.
For a start, his wife, Jolanta, is from Poland so their parenting style at home in Drogheda, Co Louth, derives from two very different backgrounds.
“We have to balance it out,” he says. They try to take the good from both cultures, “and do what we can for the girls” – Gabriella (10) and Rebecca (8).
They can actually feel and understand what it is really about rather than just looking at the books or watching a Concern ad”
Compared to Nigeria, “there are more child protection laws over here, which affects how you bring up the children”, he points out. The education system there is different too, with more emphasis on study even at primary school. Here it is more “study with play”, he says.
“In Nigeria, learning through play is like you’re having a laugh,” he says, “but it actually helps. I see the merit in it but it’s not completely foolproof.”
He likes to tell his daughters that they don’t how lucky they are. At school he had to be “prim and proper every day and never make a mistake”. But “the kind of child I was I always made mistakes and was never prim and proper”, so got into “quite a bit of trouble”, he recalls with a laugh.
Life over here is good for his daughters, he says. “They are growing up secure and with everything they need – and more.”
Respect for elders
Respect for elders – “for anybody even one minute older than you” – is ingrained in African culture and it is one thing he is trying to pass on to his daughters. For instance, at the start of the day he will tell them: “You can’t just wake up and say ‘hi’ to me and walk away. You have to say ‘good morning Dad’.”
His wife’s culture has more of a bearing on their household because Jolanta, he says, does “all the traditions you can think of that Poland has”. For example, the girls celebrate their name days as well as their birthdays.
Martins arrived in Ireland at the age of 16, when he went straight from Dublin Airport to Castleknock College, where he boarded for the next two years. Although English is his first language, the speaking of it here was a bit of a shock.
Yoruba is his traditional language – “I understand it, but we’ll leave it there,” he laughs. He is trying to teach some to his daughters “but the blind can’t lead the blind”. However, the girls speak Polish fluently as his wife uses it with them at home.
“I didn’t like it at first,” he admits, “but now I don’t mind.” While he wonders what use it will be to them in the future, he concedes it will improve their language skills.
Martins grew up as a Christian and attends the African church in Drogheda every Sunday, while his wife and daughters attend a Catholic church. A graduate of the Dublin Business School and Griffith College, with a masters in web design, he runs his own business, GoodLife Promotions.
Active within the local African community, he does what he can to help those who struggle here to find work. Unlike other migrants who have established thriving ethnic food outlets in Ireland, many Africans find bureaucracy and compliance difficult to cope with, he says.
Having arrived in Ireland on the cusp of the boom 22 years ago, he has seen a country transformed both structurally and socially. Racism was very blatant when he first came but now he believes people are more understanding.
This Sunday’s family day out is a chance for children, whether they are of African or Irish origin, to experience the food, music, colours, excitement and ambience that Africa has to offer
“That saturation of information going through their eyes, going through their brains,” Martins adds, means “they can actually feel and understand what it is really about rather than just looking at the books or watching a Concern ad.”
Africa Day is an annual celebration around the world of the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity (now called the African Union) on May 25th, 1963.
Irish Aid at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is the driving force behind the celebrations in this country
The flagship family day out in Dublin, which was started in 2008, is held on the Sunday closest to May 25th – this year that falls on the 27th and the venue is Farmleigh Estate in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, 11am to 6pm.
There will be Africa Day celebrations elsewhere in Ireland before, on, or after May 25th, in Cork, Galway, Limerick Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford and Co Meath. (see africaday.ie)