On Valentine’s Day last Thursday, all the usual videos, memes, jokes and forwards were and still are circulating. Some of these jokes speak of men going on a mandatory male conference on 14th February, others speak of being swallowed by a big fish like Jonah of the Bible on Valentine’s day while others speak of saving the environment by not indulging in the purchase of roses.
These are all funny and entertaining but I fear that behind them, is a very worrying trend about men in this city and in this country generally. They seem to be embarrassed by the fact that they are married and in some cases, do not want to be associated with their spouses or do not want to be known to be in a romantic relationship or all of the above.
Some years back, I was working at Wild_Law Africa and was supervising some young and not so young men and women. I noticed that the women were more involved with their families compared to the men. They would have photographs of their families on their desks or as their laptop screensavers and would talk about their spouses and children.
“My daughter is unwell today and I need to keep calling in to see how she is doing,” you would hear one woman say.
Another woman would proudly pronounce, “My husband has been appointed to work in the Office of the Auditor General.”
“My son has won a trophy for best athlete in his school,” another would announce.
We rarely heard anything about family from the men. We only knew that the few who wore wedding bands were married. However, for those who did not wear them, we were uncertain of their marital and/or family status. We were not being nosey but sometimes, in a work environment such as the one we were in, it helped to talk about family so that I as the supervisor would understand why you needed to come in late or why you needed a day off and so on.
In fact, during the school opening week, many of the women in the department who had children in school took a day or a half-day off to take their children back to school. Some took an hour off before or after lunch to dash to the bank and pay school fees. In the evenings, we usually had a mad dash by the women who needed to pick their children up from school or make sure they were available to pick up their children from the bus stops.
I rarely got requests from my male supervisees to take time off and handle family issues. I did not prompt or ask why.
As part of its expansion strategy, Wild_Law Africa opened an office in Juba, South Sudan. Management was looking to staff it from already existing staff members at the head office in Nairobi and each of us heads of department were asked to nominate an individual to staff the Juba office. I wrote a memo to all my staff asking if anyone had any reasons and or issues that prevented them from relocating to South Sudan since the position did not come with any salary increment. Most of the women with families wrote back and some came to see me personally to explain their family situations and why they would find it difficult to relocate. Out of the seven men in my department, only one came to tell me that he had young children and did not feel that he could relocate to another country.
Left with six men to choose from, I selected Wayne because his performance had always been above average and I knew he would deliver in a high-pressure position such as the one for which I was recommending him. Indeed, Wayne had always been a star performer since he joined us seven years earlier. He always had solutions to emerging problems and enjoyed mentoring new staff who joined our department.
About two weeks into letting Wayne know of the decision to send him to South Sudan, I noticed that his performance started dipping. Not only that, but his attitude changed and he was very negative about the organisation and his fellow staff. He kept talking about quitting and how his salary was peanuts and how we made him work like a donkey.
Concerned about what was happening, I summoned him for a meeting to discuss what I, as his supervisor, could do to help him improve his performance as well as to improve his experience in our company.
As soon as we started the meeting, Wayne became defensive and put up a mental and emotional barrier around himself so that I could not reach out to him.
“I am concerned about your performance because it has never been like this before,” I told him. “I think we need to find out the root cause of the problem and address it before things get worse.”
“Okay,” he responded shrugging his shoulders.
“Perhaps you could start by letting me know of anything that has changed that is impacting negatively on your work,” I continued.
“I’m okay,” he said.
The one-word answers were now frustrating me but I decided to be patient with him.
“Are you happy with your appointment to the Juba office?” I pressed.
“Well, I don’t mind,” he said.
I decided to change tack and approach the problem from a different angle.
“Where in Nairobi do you live?” I asked him. “Sometimes heavy traffic during your commute can be a stress factor.”
“I live in Nairobi West,” he said. “Traffic to the Central Business District is not so bad if I time my journeys to and from home correctly. Also, I ride a motorbike to work so traffic is not really a big issue for me.”
“Who do you live with?” I asked.
“My family,” he said being nonspecific.
“By family you mean you stay with your parents or what?” I prompted.
“I mean my wife and children,” he responded indifferently.
Dear reader, this came as a great surprise to me. Wayne had joined us fresh out of university at twenty-three years of age. He had been my supervisee for seven good years and never in that time had I ever heard of his getting married or having children. I knew at one point when he joined us that he was dating. His colleagues teased him about him breaking many hearts in the office and he equally teased them back about their being married, single, or dating. However, after those stories, I did not hear anything further about Wayne’s personal life.
Every December we had a Secret Santa where we exchanged gifts anonymously. The previous year, I had decided to change the tradition in my department a little by telling people to anonymously submit the name of their significant other who would then be gifted by the secret Santa. There were some complaints by the single people in the group and I decided that if one did not have a significant other, they could submit the name of a parent or sibling or close friend and failing all these, they could nominate someone in the office.
Wayne, if I remembered correctly, had nominated a female a colleague from the Finance Department. His nomination had raised eyebrows and he had been teased about not settling down all these years and turning the office into his hunting ground. He simply laughed and took the teasing good-naturedly.
I got over my surprise and forced my mind back to the present.
“Great!” I said. “I didn’t know you were married.”
“It’s just one of those things one has to do in life,” he said nonchalantly.
“When did you get married?” I asked.
“In 2009,” he said.
That, Dear Reader, is only one year after his joining our organisation.
“Interesting that I never knew this,” I said. “And how many kids do you have now?
“I have three kids,” he said.
“Cool,” I responded. “What are their names? Are any of them in school?”
“Amy the first born is five years old and in kindergarten,” he responded, his eyes lighting up. “Roy the second born is three years old and in play school and Wayne Junior or Lil’ Wayne as we call him is one month old.”
“One month old!” I exclaimed. “I did not see any application for paternity leave from you!”
“That is because he was born during the Christmas break and I did not see the need to come and ask for paternity leave as I was already on leave,” he responded.
“So I take it your wife is still on maternity leave? Does she work?” I asked.
“Yes,” he responded. “She is a top children’s rights advocate in the country. Her name is Patty Mudimu.”
I could tell he was proud of his wife and her achievements. What I did not understand was why he had kept her or the fact that he was married a secret.
“Wow, I have heard of Patty Mudimu,” I said. “She is frequently on TV explaining children’s right issues. Isn’t she the one who helped to burst the child trafficking ring in Eastleigh?”
“She is,” he said with a broad smile. “She also fought for the heavy penalties for child traffickers.”
“Yes, I remember,” I said. “She was outside parliament with a group of activists for almost one month before the MPs caved in and enacted the Bill.”
“True,” he said. “I used to cook for the kids those days. She would come home hungry and exhausted!”
He laughed and I joined in his laughter.
“So you must be having sleepless nights now with the little one waking up often to feed,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “He is worse than the others. At that age, my two older kids used to wake up only twice or thrice at night, but Lil’ Wayne can wake up six times every night. It’s exhausting!”
“Do you think that the interrupted sleep is stressing you out?” I asked. “Do you feel that you need to come in an hour later and leave and hour early just to make sure that you get enough rest?”
“Is that allowed?” he asked doubting.
“Yes”, I confirmed to him. “New parents here are given a bit of flexibility in their hours because we know that they need the extra time to adjust to the new addition to their family, and most importantly, to rest.”
“I didn’t know that,” he said.
“That is why it is important to talk about your family sometimes,” I told him. “You get to take advantage of these privileges that may not be in the employee handbook but are given consideration by HR.”
He was silent for some time.
“I will cancel your transfer to the Juba office,” I said. “I don’t think that now is the time to leave your wife and relocate to a different country. She needs your support. I hope that you don’t feel that this will take you a step back in your career. There will be other opportunities even better than this.”
“I wish you would have told me about your new baby before I made the decision to transfer you,” I told him.
“As you indicated, I felt that I would be missing a chance to grow in my career and expand my CV,” he said.
“Family should always come first I suppose,” I told him encouragingly.
“True,” he confirmed. “I think that raises a big burden from my conscience. It was my belief that if I grew my career, it would be for their good. I didn’t consider what my absence may mean for them, especially my wife who would have to take care of a new baby plus the two older kids on her own.”
I must report that Wayne’s performance not only improved, but also went beyond my expectations after this little talk. However, I have never unravelled the mystery as to why he kept his family a secret.