Lesson in how culture develops from my son’s interest in my penis :iLIVE
What is permissible and what is forbidden in African tradition and culture has been in the news headlines a great deal in the last few weeks in South Africa.
Many a personal shame, prejudice and anxieties about bodies and raising children have been submitted as a defining part of African culture.
But beware of the modern African primitivists.
Even then, the space opened up by the row around Zuma’s exposed genitals penis has an upside. We can now talk again freely, I trust, and to a wider audience, about how we understand African traditions and culture.
My understanding is it some of the claims made by the traditionalists in the name of Africans and their bodies are just absurd. The unwitting or purposeful aim of these claims is to retribalise us in the fashion of colonial and Apartheid ideology.
My greatest and most recent lesson in the development of tradition and culture has not come from Cheikh Anta Diop, Cabral, Biko or the Africana encyclopedia.
I also didn’t get it on the internet, even though I find it a terribly absorbing thing the primitivists might find would immensely contribute to African cultures were they to appropriate it.
Actually, it’s my relationship with my son. More specifically, from his interest in his “doggie” and mine. That is a name I playfully used for a penis and he has not forgotten it, even though he has known from that first moment when he enquired that mama and girls have vaginas and dada and me have penises.
A few months after he was born and could touch himself I started to notice while changing his nappy that my son finds immense pleasure in touching his penis.
I know from studies of children that they do not merely need food and sleep and being taken care of. They actually find bodily pleasure in a host of things in their environment adults have long forgotten to find interesting at all. Using boxes as caves, eating dirt, jumping up and down, running around in circles, tasting their own snot, climbing trees for its own sake, are all part of the fun.
But it was still a surprise that sometime after he could walk and follow me around the house my son developed a wonderfully strange interest in my doggie.
He wants to know when he will be able to see the head of his penis. He follows me into the loo. He finds a good position to have a clear view while I urinated. What are you trying to see, I would ask him? His answer would come: I want to see. He was going for two.
This interest of a boy in his father’s penis is said to be disallowed by African tradition and culture, some have argued in the media and courts lately.
I am unable to confirm whether African tradition and culture discourages children learning about their bodies. I never missed that lesson.
My son’s interest in my penis has waned, although we bath together as often we can. But last week his mother informed that he asked her again when he might get to see his penis’ head.
The boy’s fascination with his penis and mine has immensely fascinated from the first moment. I think his fascination stems from observing a difference even though we both have a penis. Like all of the things he is interested in, and his growing competence and knowledge from one day to the next, I consider his learning about bodies as an opportunity for me to understand more about how as people we become the way we are.
I watched him learn to jump onto the grass from the first step of the stoep and moved to leaping from the top step. I remember I couldn’t wait to tell his mother and he could wait to show her.
I just can’t get enough of how he sits us down and makes us tea from his little tea set he got from his uncle.
I observed him, and was flabbergasted, in his preference for Cinderella over other stories, although from that too I learn how preferences get nourished and reinforced. Lately, he has taken to listening to stories on his mother’s phone, and I know that it is whole new world altogether when I see his little finger swipe the screen to page over.
Let’s play kung-fu dada, he says, and I have gotten to know far more than I ever could from empirical research on child development that, contrary to simply being rough play, when a boy and his father play sword-fight or boxing or any of the sort, the child is in the process of learning to control aggression and to know when he is hurting another person.
I feel privileged to me in the ringside seats to see each one of these small steps in his developing years. I take each one the moments I am around him as an unrepeatable moment for me to pass on something useful for him when I will not be around.
My mother says that when I was around three I saw my father’s penis. She also says he took a bath with me while we lived together. I have no memory of his bare body. That might because from some point there wasn’t any of him to see, let alone his nakedness while we bathed together. Consequently, there was forgettable tradition handed down from him to me from about whether or not seeing his penis was unSotho, circumstances about fathers and their offspring common to that of over two million African children in South Africa today.
However, I can’t say I have suffered very much for seeing my father's penis or taking a bath with him. I think things turned out well all, and I have been told I am, on the whole, pleasant company.
I know that I could have used some generative fathering when I needed to learn about homework and hormones. I know that many boys and girls can use some positive nourishing traditions about being rejected, dealing with anger, and self-esteem.
I would have liked my father to have been present to tell me before I started being interest in girls that it is cool not to rush things, to have feelings and be unnerved by them I would have saved myself and others a lot of unnecessary trouble of I had found out for myself well into my adulthood.
The open attention of a father, it seems to me from raising the boy and observing his curiosity about the world around him, especially when it comes to things like penises, is undeniably important.
Of course this is not the same things as saying children raised by single mothers or a lesbian couple will suffer because they have no immediate access to seeing real penises.
The father, to be sure, does not have to be biological. He doesn’t have to be married to the child’s mother. He doesn’t have to be gay or a president.
However, if a man wants to learn about intimacy and how it becomes part of family traditions and wider culture, especially one who didn’t have much of it from other men while growing up, there is nothing to beat availability to his child: open, vulnerable, consistent presence.
The traditions of intimacy I have in mind imply that a man has to be willing to prepare the bottle. It might not be non-stop fun, but if he sticks with it, a man who wipes the bum, changes nappies, and potty-trains soon realises how vital this stuff to learning about how you learn to be comfortable with your body.
He can grumble, in fact unless he is some kind of Gandhi he must complain, but waking up in the middle of the night to soothe and rock the child to sleep is all part of not just part of raising a healthy child, but also building traditions. Let’s not forget making time to take the child for his vaccination shots, it’s in there too.
Then there is the bit about reading to him, doing puzzles, taking him to the park, the football games, and going to the parties where you meet parents of his school-friends whom you would not choose to know if you had a choice.
Fatherhood, in a word, has its own traditions. Their defining paradoxical characteristic is their changeability and consistency. I have learned much from this about him, myself and culture. That lesson is that my son needs me to be consistently around; but his world as a growing boy is one of continual new things; and I better be prepared for that.
Fatherhood is about learning to fail – repeatedly. It’s about learning about your own limits of knowledge and skills. Learning that you don’t know about traditions or culture except what you got from your parents, and they got from their parents, and it can amount to not very much. It’s about failing to satisfy many of the child’s needs. About saying I don’t know how this works, I don’t know why, over and over again.
There is no mystery to differences in fatherhood in different cultures, then: it is daily practice, daily accidents, daily failures, daily little wins.
It is my view that the modern African primitivists, most of them in positions of power in government, universities, and what are called traditional communities, push the view tradition and culture prohibits children from learning from seeing their father’s or mother’s undressed bodies are doing an injustice to our lives.
Clothing themselves in the garbs of culture and tradition, but driven by repression, fear, miseducation, defeatism, racist wounding or God knows what, I think they suspect children will see that many of us are really small, existentially naked, and worse still, unworthy of just tad bit more than donating sperm and eggs.
Speaking as if they represent all of African tradition and culture, these retrogressive traditionalists want us to think that all Africans have disinclination to look at their bodies and call it tradition and culture. It is not true.
However, to be fair, perhaps the retribalisers have seen the rapidly changing society and can’t make head or tail of it. Or they just don’t like the look of it.
The problem is that instead of being open and saying, “I don’t know what the hell is going on, son, but let’s try to figure it out together”, they want to close the gates to the new and strange knowledge.
Professor Ratele is head of the Programme on Traditions and Transformation at the ISHS in UNISA