Papa Was A Rolling Stone

“Sometimes the poorest man leaves his children the richest inheritance”.

Ruth Runkel

I do not have kids of my own…none that I know of at least. On that score alone, I am the most ill suited to give advice on fatherhood. What do I know about midnight runs to the chemist and the pressure of paying school fees or the agony of a teacher’s strike?

But this article is about transitioning into manhood and why it is important for boys to be mentored into mature men. In Drivers of Violence- a study on Male Disempowerment in The African Context, Kenyan author Anzetse Were makes a strong appeal for concerted Male empowerment.

“African men in particular must make a deliberate point to acquire knowledge and actively seek mentors to help them transition into manhood. Once those in our generation evolve into men, the future generations will be better off. For their children will have mature men to guide and encourage their transition into manhood.”

Even though my own father passed on when I was in my puberty years I have never lacked fathers. Traditionally, I was brought up to understand that anyone who was of my father’s generation was a father.

Many assigned themselves to me, many others I adopted along the way. I quickly learnt that fatherhood is not limited to a biological link. Fathers come in all shapes and sizes. All one has to do is pay attention.

At home, several uncles stepped in to break me into manhood. I learnt how to swim in a fast flowing river, throw a decent punch and compose witty opening lines that took the stress off learning the ropes of courtship. In school, there was always the teacher who urged one to work hard and harness one’s potential.

At work, older colleagues showed me the ropes and who not to piss off. On the sports field, experienced players mentored me and picked me up when I was down. I can declare that it took a village to bring me up. In the end, I turned out, okay, I think.

Fathering a child is largely accidental for most men. One moment you are hanging out with a girlfriend and the next instance you are staring at a swollen stomach, the miracle of genetic engineering. The child pops out, he posts a picture on Facebook, lights a cigar with his mates to celebrate and reverts back to playing single.

The assumption is that so long as a man provides for the child’s upkeep, he can play. No wonder, young men these days believe they have to secure a fortune to sustain a child. They just never had enough great examples to manage fatherhood differently.

Fatherhood is a man’s most important life’s work and for that very reason, it cannot be limited to bringing up your own offspring.

Kids unfortunately need a lot more than a regular meal and a proper formal education. They need attention but not the kind that is secured in exchange for an ice cream cone.  They need constant reminder of the values that count and not just glamorous birthday parties.

They need guidance, love and importantly adults around them who they can believe in and trust. Someone has to prepare them for vagaries of life. It is those we trust that educate us.

On the flipside, is Over parenting, that prolongs many offspring’s infantile patterns. They are not given a chance to exhibit the adult behavior required. The attachment is driven by fear. It is a harsh world out there. We are getting to that place where is it almost impossible to find trustworthy adults to leave children with.

The onus falls on those closest to the child, irrespective of a biological link. Sometimes it can become a thankless task. Take consolation though. You cannot always get a medal for every good deed you do.

Fatherhood is a man’s most important life’s work and for that very reason, it cannot be limited to bringing up your own offspring. Men can be extremely maternal but we are cultured to look down on that trait as a weakness.  In our society fathers continued to be consigned to sperm donors, cash dispensers or recurring headaches.

Stereo-typically good fathers are an exception, absent fathers the norm.  The underlying message is that it is okay for men to horse around. Women on the other hand have to be responsible. As a result, the presence of men is not been felt, in the one place where it is most crucial; the marital front.

You tell a man’s behavior and worth by how he talks about his father. You judge a man’s character by how he describes his parent.

There is no way around it. We simply have to be the men that we want our sons to be.

PS: This article is from the OP archives. Originally published in Adam magazine 2009.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Edu Nyachwaya

    Mr. Pala,
    Thank God you mentioned that this article had been published before in the Adam magazine. I was about to call you out because I happen to have read it and I have a pretty good memory.
    All in all, I’m not a father to but I like to bestow upon myself the title “designated cool uncle” to my one and only beautiful niece, Mya, and the kids that my pals have. I think that counts as a semi father, ama?
    The boy child is slowly being pushed to the back in the society in terms of being guided. Girl child this girl child that. I’m not saying that the girl child is having it smooth but we shouldn’t be so engaged in the issues affecting them that we forget the ” XY” chromosomed. I could rant like a Swede about this matter & be laballed a chauvinist but i’ll leave it. Man of a few words like my father…hehehehe.
    Great piece as always. Big fan of your work. Oh! I want to buy a wrist watch for myself. Any pointers?

    • Edu,

      Thanks. It takes a village and you play your part. About a wristwatch, you are on your own. Timex, Rolex, try google.

  2. Amimo Kwambo

    “…and when he died, all he left us was alone”

    Focusing on sons; maybe not being a perfect father is good enough. Some actually choose to be absent fathers. Well, well to each his own. I believe that in whatever situation, God does not slumber. It does make it any easier to deal with the realities of life but eventually acceptance and clarity should settle in.

    No child should be in the position of being the adult and having to set the pace for the absent parent but it happens and life goes on. Children are not stones and time does not stand still. No son should ever feel ‘left alone’ but if that is the case then may God lift that son, divinely inspire, bless with uncommon favour and set him apart. Miracles happens.

  3. Dayvee vuvu

    You so damn true about the point “You tell a man’s behavior and worth by how he talks about his father. ” it doesn’t have to be biological but you do tell a lot. If a man talks “west” about his bigger man well let’s say we have a small error (PC), the whole thing of emancipation of the girl child has left our young pals (no pun intended), without a sense of direction or even worth. It has not been lost from us that Einsteins theory purposefully states for every action an equal and opposite counter must be, no wonder the whole metro-sexual man thing going round, the boys seem to get all “fem” as the girls get all masculine and “miss independent”. Not the right way.

  4. What a great read. It has given me an insight on what to expect and also what is is expected of me when I become a father.

  5. Men do need direction from there fathers but I don’t think it is the focus on the girl child that has made fathers not focus on their sons. Absent or aloof fathers will be that way whether the child is a boy or a girl . . . and girls also need their fathers. This piece is a nice follow-up to the one on lad culture. The picture out there may look grim but I believe there are still a few good men out there. In the end we all have a responsibility to expose our boys to the right kind of people to ensure they will pick up the traits we desire for them

  6. Enough said…

  7. Dear Oyunga,

    Thanks for the article. I wish all of us can read it, circulate, and keep it for reference. I became a dad by default.. and had to learn pretty fast to be one. My issue was further complicated by the fact that I became a dad in a foreign land where I had no support system of aunts, uncles or Kukhu (gogo). I do credit my dad (God rest his soul) by then he was still alive..although miles away… I could consult him on the phone and ..believe me his advice worked always. ..I can cite the naming of my child after many sleepless nights with a crying toddler…my dad advised me on what to do and guess what..the African naming ceremony is real. It worked instant miracles…kudos Pala

  8. Agree on the point that “Fatherhood is a man’s most important life’s work “… many more men need to see this and not run away from their “most important life’s work”

  9. A great read. Published six years ago but still awesomely very relevant

  10. Caroline M

    good message. You got me thinking, many may not talk about their fathers because they are absent…Go easy on that statement of ‘you will tell a lot about a man, by how he talks about his father.’ Believe you me, there are homes where there is no father figure…and at times those who talk about God the father; coz that’s all they know about a father, are looked at skeptically.

    • The other half of that narrative is that fathers are not limited to a biological connection. Even where a father figure is present, men choice to seek their influences outside the home.

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