Under an overcast sky in rural Zambia, Lembani, 31, cradles his 3-year-old son, Dalisto, in his arms.
The child looks slightly confused. Up until recently, his father rarely engaged with him in such an affectionate way. “He is not yet used to being hugged by me or playing with me,” Lembani explains. “But I’m not giving up. I have seen we are getting somewhere, and we will soon be best of friends.”
Lembani recently participated in a ChildFund Zambia training to encourage male involvement in caregiving, especially during the first 1,000 days of children’s lives. While fathers, grandfathers and other men play an important role in Zambian families, very few of them participate much in the day-to-day tasks of caring for babies and young children — tasks that traditionally fall to women.
“I have always thought that taking care of infants and small children is my wife’s role,” says Lembani. “I thought mine was just to provide food for the family and discipline children when they make mistakes.
“In my time, we could not share anything with our fathers for fear of being beaten up,” he continues. “I also started behaving the same way toward my children. My first two children are really scared of me, and I now see that we have no meaningful relationship.”
In the trainings, amid discussions on responsive parenting and videos on baby talk, he learned that a father’s deep involvement in a child’s life can play a critical role in brain development. Children who have loving, healthy relationships with their fathers grow up to be more caring, kinder to younger children and more likely to succeed in school. “I want my children to be kind and, above all, I want us to have a relationship that will make it easier for them to be free and share anything with me,” Lembani says. “I thank ChildFund because this is now my turning point toward being a father.”
But it’s more than a turning point for dads and their kids. Another father, Kondwani, said that his newfound dedication to being more involved at home has helped reduce his wife’s stress levels.
“In the past, my wife would be looking after the baby, cooking and cleaning while I was just seated, waiting for her to serve the meals,” he says. “Now that I have been trained, I take the time when I am home to bond with the baby.
“Seeing the smile is a very rewarding feeling,” he says. “Very few men in my village appreciate this.”