These fathers in Zimbabwe are redefining what it means to be a man

Syndon Samakute shares some fortified porridge with his son Charles, 2, as his wife Loice Chideye looks on. They participated in a nutrition training program together and say they have completely changed the way they produce food and feed their family. Photo: Brett Eloff/Oxfam

Oxfam's Gender Action Learning initiative works with families to examine gender roles and redistribute household tasks, including care-giving.

What appears to be plain porridge quickly takes on a new twist outside the home of Syndon Samakute on a hill looking over the lush Honde Valley in eastern Zimbabwe's Manicaland province.

It starts out as regular corn meal, but Samakute mixes in a raw egg for protein. Then he adds a bit of butternut squash, and two small scoops of peanut butter.

"It's easy to cook and very nutritious," he says. The result is tasty. The peanut butter and squash combine with the porridge for a sweet, buttery flavor.

Samakute took up cooking when his wife, Loice Chideye, invited him to a workshop on nutrition organized by a consortium of groups Oxfam is involved with called INSPIRE. Through the consortium, Oxfam is working in communities to promote gender equality and women's economic empowerment. Oxfam has a long tradition of tackling gender issues in Zimbabwe, from legal reforms to challenging harmful cultural practices.

The workshop is part of a program, run by the UN and funded by the British government, designed in part to improve food production and reduce persistent malnutrition among children in Manicaland. Samakute was the only husband in the area man enough to attend the all-women training.

INSPIRE encourages couples to re-examine the gender roles they play in their families through an initiative called Gender Action Learning, or GAL. Cooking is now one of the household duties Samakute and his wife share, which is rare in rural Zimbabwe, where patriarchal attitudes run deep.

Samakute and Chideye demonstrate how to make maize porridge fortified with protein from an egg and peanut butter. They say their children are healthier since they diversified their diet. Photo: Brett Eloff/Oxfam

"[Men] consider themselves the head of the household, and they don't cook," says Samakute. "I see men fighting new ideas, but their attitudes only lead us to underdevelopment. Men need to work with their wives."

"We have lost these old views," he adds firmly. "And we're happy. Our children are healthy."

Transforming families

The GAL program stretches across Zimbabwe and has reached 25,000 farmers. One of them is Cremio Kausiyo. When he first heard about GAL, he was suspicious.

"We thought they wanted to come and change some of our behavior, and what we are as men in our culture," he says, standing next to his wife, Deliwe Kakumura, on a windy, gray morning outside their home in northern Zimbabwe where they grown tobacco and corn.

But he also saw an opportunity: If men and women can have the same goals, and trust each other, they are likely to have fewer conflicts. He took the plunge and signed up for the training. It opened his eyes.

"I sat down with her [Kakumura] and discussed what we had learned together," says Kausiyo. "That was the first time I understood what my wife wanted and the things she did not want. And she understood what I wanted and did not want."

They made a plan for the year, which they drew in a notebook: They achieved their objective to acquire another cow, and a cart. The plan for 2017 is to enlarge their small home.

Kakumura says her husband has changed. Before, she says, "he kept his money in his pocket," never trusting her with any. Now that they have shared dreams, "I am the one who does the budget and plans what the household needs," she says. "Even when we sell our agricultural products, I am the one who goes to the market and he is the one who can stay here and take care of the family."

Cremio Kausiyo and his wife Deliwe Kakumura carry water from the village well to their home. They both agree that rethinking gender roles in their relationship has made them happier and more financially secure. Photo: Brett Eloff/Oxfam

Can culture change?

In many households in Africa, the father is powerful. He typically makes all the decisions, and expresses little emotion. All responsibility for the welfare of the family rests with him alone. For many fathers, it's a lonely and stressful life.

For Kausiyo and Kakumura, things are different now. On this morning, after Kausiyo has swept the yard, they both grab blue buckets and set off for the village well. Kausiyo pumps the water while Kakumura fills the buckets. Then they each hoist one on their heads and turn for home.

"It's a rare thing in my community for a man to do these things," says Kakumura.

Can men like Samakute and Kausiyo actually change African male culture? Kausiyo says, "About three-quarters of the men in this community have gone through GAL training," but not all are applying it at home. "The households that are working together are progressing more than the households that are not working together. That is attracting a lot of members of the community."

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This story was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of CloseUp. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+