Malawian in-laws and especially one group, aunties, have been responsible for Malawi's exponential population growth for centuries because of their love for making marriages churn out babies. A newlywed couple will hear nothing after their wedding day other than the rhetorical and very nagging, “when are you having a baby?” Although a couple may envision a future in which the patter of little feet is inevitable, it’s not hard to see that their reproduction serves powers besides the two people crucial to the mechanics of baby making.
But the singular, most prevalent mentality that underlies many of the baby nudges is the one where the woman is expected by culture, tradition and convention to provide those offspring for her man. Society socially, and almost naturally, imposes the responsibility of childbearing on the woman while the man’s role for providing the seed is a foregone conclusion. It is considered an accomplishment already cut out for him. Done deal. Once the man makes his prized delivery, the rest is left to the woman to transform the receipts into new life and posterity.
Alas! Not all such prized deliveries materialize into the patter of little feet around the house. In Malawi, the phenomenon of infertile couples is becoming more apparent as it is taking couples longer to make babies, if they are lucky to litter at all. With it come society’s prying eyes, which resolutely point to one direction in the dichotomous spectrum between the sexes, which is almost unilaterally towards the female. And usually, by the time a discovery is made that points to the male, the female will have already been made to take all sorts of medications, undergone numerous screenings and gulped concoctions cooked at the village by some talented herbalist who claims to master in the miracle of fertilization.
Yet, if and when the man’s delivery is “not prized”, it is crucial to give it prime attention and perhaps save the woman from preventable torture. In Malawi’s modern age, our society is slowly waking up to seeing more men being diagnosed as clinically infertile, an occurrence that can only result from men understanding their potential to fail to deliver. At the societal level, however, our societies are still too slow to appreciate the gravity of the ‘male’ problem as much as we do female infertility.
There could be important, mainly cultural, factors that could explain this. An important driver could be that stories of male infertility are well-protected by society, which is why they become bombshell news when they come out because we aren’t accustomed to seeing a man “shooting empty shells.” When the story of Michael Ngwira broke at the beginning of March 2018, the ‘paternal fraud’ story was broadcast on Malawian Watchdog, All Africa, Nyasatimes, and many others. Zambian online paper, The Zambian Observer, dubbed the scandal DNAGate. And Malawian social media was stirred up. In cases as Mr. Ngwira’s, it is not hard to read the undertones in the banter that display as much curiosity in the sterility as much as the general feeling that was projected at empathy. Men such as him will eventually be taken less seriously no matter what they are worth in spheres outside of procreation.
Another scenario is where many people will never realize that a sterile man is raising another man’s child(ren), the center of Mr. Ngwira’s story, especially when the woman confirms the husband’s condition and courts another man. Traditionally, the aunties are perhaps the only group that will usually be privileged to know. Women will do this for many reasons, including to avoid the familial embarrassment or to keep her man’s ego warm and alive. These situations can be more complex than they seem. For instance, it can be hard, truly hard, for a woman to accept a life in which she never experienced childbirth in a community that ascribes labels for a woman who doesn’t do so, lessons society has received since time immemorial. Even seemingly pious women as Mirriam Ngwira, Mr. Nwgira’s wife at the time DNAGate broke, can surprise us when they go to unfathomable lengths.
Yet we continue to NOT talk about male infertility with as much rigor as we do a female’s, although there could be a lot going on for a man to be infertile. One cause could be environmental. As we continue to interact with many factors in our lived environment, changes in a man’s biological makeup can affect sperm count or even the quality of sperm itself. One major contributor to such phenomena are elements such as bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates, industrial chemicals commonly found in the plastics surrounding our lives on an everyday basis. Prolonged intake of steroids, which pump into men’s bodies synthetic testosterone, can also dramatically reduce sperm count. Sportsmen, beware! And sometimes, it could just be heavy use of insecticides.
The minimal level of a healthy sperm count in adult males is about 40 million. However, fertility scientists seem to believe that environmental influences may be largely responsible for the observed reduction in sperm count from approximately 100 million (1973) to 47 million (2011) and is believed to continue to decline, as results from a 50-country study show. It is possible to observe absolutely zero traces of sperm in some men because of environmental or biological reasons, reducing their chances of fertilizing an egg to nil. Yet, for some men, one or multiple blockages in sperm ducts can restrain sperm from “accessing transport” when the event calls for it. The sperm keep dying pretty much the way a vasectomy works. Left unchecked, a man could live his life believing he were never fertile his whole life even when a simple surgical procedure could have been performed to clear the way.
For reasons such as these, it’s important that men quickly consider themselves as viable contributors to a couple’s infertility.
There’s absolutely everything under the sun that could limit a man’s ability to reproduce and the factors could be as many as those affecting women. Yet the community and household politics of handling infertility are usually applied by assigning blame on the female sex because the art of childbirth has been conceived as a power issue – a gender role – just as much as washing dishes has. Failure to deliver this basic social requirement can be treated almost as a threat to a family or an entire clan, which means the one to blame for it is usually subjected to so much malevolence from those that count on the expectation.
Men need not think that they are a failure when they can’t father a child. Neither should they expect they have a duty to do for the world, which they will have not fulfilled due to a natural predicament beyond their control.
And, more importantly, it’s crucial that societies don’t synonymize all infertility with female infertility as soon as a fertility problem hits the waves because Mr. Ngwira’s happens to be only one among many cases.