Proverbs preserve beliefs, practices, and general truths ingrained in African cultures. Their brevity makes them easy to learn and retain in memory. They are authoritative, and even though viewed as dynamic, the general truths and advice they carry are deeply seated and takes generations to change. Among these are proverbs that characterise the nature of gender relations and expectations, and to an appreciable extent, perpetuate inequities and inequalities embodied in patriarchal cultures. Nowhere are these proverbs more pronounced than in customs that bind a woman’s worth on their ability to bear a child.
“A barren woman is like a leaking pot” (Akan, Ghana)
“A barren woman should not scold a bad child” (Minyanka, Burkina Faso)
“The woman whose sons have died is richer than a barren woman” (Gîkûyû, Kenya)
“A useless person is like a woman, both lazy and barren” (Buganda, Uganda)
“Totogiamoisekekieni, motogiemwana “or “Do not praise a woman for her beauty; praise her for her child” (Ekegusii, Kenya)
“Taabu mbaya duniani ni umaskini na utasa” or “The worst problems on earth are poverty and barrenness” (Swahili, Kenya).
These proverbs belittle, ridicule, criticise, and insult women. A woman’s glory is only crowned in childbirth. When a man marries, the clock for conception begins to tick and tock. The pressure to conceive is palpable. Menstruation is welcomed but not for long before husbands get tired of menstrual blood. Like the Akan proverb admonishes, the husband decries the continued leaking of blood. From in-laws to aunts, a brooding expectation of pregnancy peppers conversations. When are you bring me my grandchild? a mother-in-law quips, nonchalantly, in between strained conversations. The cultural expectation drives women to great lengths to conceive a child, to ward off an avalanche of soul-crushing ill-treatment.
A woman’s glory is only crowned in childbirth
Women who do not give birth are looked upon as social misfits and are openly ridiculed as not befitting the honour of womanhood. Failure to conceive and give birth is seen as not only a personal but societal failure. They have failed themselves, their husband and the society and are deemed undeserving of the privileges of marriage. They have failed to procreate and ensure the continued survival of the husband’s lineage.
In a traditional set-up where marriage allocates restrictive gender roles that if not attained, justifies women subordination. The inability to bear a child exposes women to wife beating and women killings. They are ostracised, face a higher risk of divorce, and can be expelled from their marital home. In some cultures, husbands are encouraged to marry additional wives should they suspect barrenness to assure their lineage.
While African cultures are awash with proverbs that castigate women for barrenness, proverbs on male infertility are conspicuously absent
Yet while African cultures are awash with proverbs that castigate women for barrenness and perpetuate customs that justify oppression and subjugation of women, proverbs on barrenness among men are conspicuously absent. Men are invisible in the fertility equation. The burden of barrenness is singularly loaded on the shoulders of women. Cultural production of knowledge maintains silence in explaining the causes and the repercussions for not bearing children when it comes to men.
Silence on male fertility
In modern terms, infertility, however, is not singularly a female issue. Infertility affects an estimated 15 percent of couples globally, and males are solely responsible for 20-30 percent of all infertility cases and contribute to 50% of cases overall.
The silence on male fertility and its exclusion in cultural production stems from how conventional masculinity has always been conceptualised. Male infertility is perceived as positing a threat to conventional masculinity, since it is conflated with impotence.
An infertile man is also seen as an impotent man. He has failed to live up to the ideals of masculinity. The silence protects men from thoughts and worries about infertility. The failure to conceive, as expected in marriage among heterosexual couples, is automatically blamed on the woman. The idea that the man might be the problem is perceived as far-fetched and rarely entertained. In other cases, where the man has been identified as the problem, there are customs that provide a pathway for women to get a child.
Male infertility is perceived as positing a threat to conventional masculinity, since it is conflated with impotence
A male body that is unable to father a child is seen as a failed entity, and a subordinated entity owing to its inability to measure up to the hegemonic ideals of masculinity. As Dolan and colleagues argued, infertility “takes a little bit of masculinity away from you”.
In my culture, among the Luo people of Kenya, the men who are unable to bear children are ascribed the moniker, “long lilo” meaning “empty trousers”. A man who is “long lilo” cannot achieve erection or orgasm, is unable to impregnate a woman, and occupy a lower social position among men. The conflation of male infertility and impotence underlies the propensity to delay help-seeking despite their desire for children.
A medical sociologist and ethnographer, Dr Liberty Barnes, in her book “Conceiving Masculinity”, observes that even though male infertility is responsible for half of the cases of infertility among couples, hundreds of years of misogynistic limelight on infertile women have left a categorical hole in medical systems. Dr Barnes views the invisibility of male infertility in infertility discussions as a culturally sanctioned suppression of dialogue, to an extent where men don’t consider themselves infertile and don’t seek medical treatment. She recommends approaching the problem from a medical standpoint:
“If you promote male infertility as a label to encourage more men to come forward treatment, you will have a harder time helping them pretend they’re not actually infertile.”
There’s a growing body of reproduction scholarship that calls attention to men’s bodies and experiences as a way of shedding greater light on the cultural, historical, and gendered dimensions of male infertility
Liberty Barnes’ book enriches the growing body of reproduction scholarship that calls attention to men’s bodies and experiences as a way of shedding greater light on the cultural, historical, and gendered dimensions of male infertility. Medical history has for decades ignored male infertility treatment, making it difficult for men to seek and find assistance.
Within cultural knowledge production, male infertility remains invisible, a socially sanctioned silence to avoid upsetting hegemonic masculinity. Stigma means that secrecy surrounds diagnosis and treatment among men who seek for help.
To remove the cloak of invisibility, there is a call to reevaluate masculine values that define what it means to be a man. Infertility is a medical problem in both men and women, and even though the woman’s body has historically been the site of study and treatment, a man’s body is also a site of study and treatment. Such healthcare services, unfortunately, remain few and costly, and out of the reach of many men. Open, genuine, and healthy public conversations around infertility can reduce the burden on women, erasing the silent shame that stereotypical masculine-looking but infertile men carry, while also promoting access to relevant healthcare solutions.