DNA tests are about politics and economics, stupid! (Part I)

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.

What you need to know:

In Africa, as in countries like Uganda, the DNA craze wasn’t born out of a massive wave of male insecurity.

The DNA mania that swept Uganda recently, and had men flocking in droves to test centres to find out if  they were the fathers of their children, seems to be happening in other parts of the continent.  Kenyan men are doing paternity tests in increasing numbers, and in Nigeria some dramatic headlines last week followed the report by a Lagos testing centre that 26 per cent of Nigerian men weren’t the biological fathers of their children.

 In Uganda, where the media concentrated mostly on telling the stories of men who had been sold short by their wives and partners, it nearly turned into a political crisis. Female politicians, from the Vice President to Speaker of Parliament spoke alarmingly about how the hullabaloo threatened the safety of the republic, and urged calm and common sense. A ruling party politician all but claimed the tests were part of an anti-government plot. The government then introduced guidelines that clamped down on freewheeling DNA testing.

 In all the dust, there were still important insights about the impact of childbearing on national security, and the future existence of societies that depend on women to produce babies.  If you aren’t dispassionately scientific, don’t read beyond this point. For starters, the idea/practice of faithful husbands and wives as the ideal, marriage “until death do us part”, and marrying someone because you love them, have existed for the equivalent of a blink in the 300,000 years history of modern humans. Marrying for love and a premium on faithfulness, is barely 3,500 years old.

 Our ancestors had a very pragmatic approach to marriage. It served primarily two purposes. One was economic. People married to increase the labour pool through in-laws and children to work their fields and keep the family sustained. Then, they were political; to extend influence and form alliances that granted access to resources like more land, grazing pasture, or water. It is significant that even by 6BC, Joseph didn’t court Mary with flowers to have Jesus. God arranged that marriage.  Humans had arranged marriages longer than the modern version where people make their independent choices of partner. It didn’t make strategic sense for your son to marry into a village that didn’t have fertile lands. Because of these strategic considerations, men would form armies to raid other villages for wives (and labour/slaves). The continued practice of arranged marriages and bride kidnap, are residual features of this history.

 Marriage was among the first industries to be disrupted by technology. Humans got smarter, improved crop yields, and created primitive medicine that improved longevity. They started developing rudimentary technology – using domestic animals like cows to plough, and a steel hoe instead of a wooden one –leading for less demand for bodies to do work and keep the family fed. Additionally, enlightened ideas that drove civilisation;  of rule-governed and peaceful societies where you didn’t need to burn down the next settlement for their food, but instead trade for it, started to emerge.

 Love, then, is a product of technology and social innovation. It is natural yes, but, again, it’s only about 3,500 years ago when we started to marry for love. The development of property – and later capitalism – then led us down the last mile of being faithful to husband and wife. Fidelity in marriage was primarily to help solve the problem of which children got the property of the parents.  We have been there since. In Africa, as in countries like Uganda, the DNA craze wasn’t born out of a massive wave of male insecurity. It started decades ago when migration - and later visas for children - to the west required proof of biological parentage. These tests then revealed that far more children weren’t the biological offspring of the man married to their mother. Soon, hell broke loose.

 Some years ago, a report in the wonderful New Scientist explored the question of why husbands and wives tend to dislike their in-laws. It claimed that the parents of the wife usually have a more comfortable relationship with the grandchildren because they know the children are their daughter’s. The parents of the man, can’t be so sure, so there is some suspicion that fuels their resentment of their daughter-in-law, and they are more likely to encourage their son to cheat as a subconscious form of revenge.

 However, the article cited studies that had suggested that, despite this, the majority of men have historically known when they are not the biological parents. Going by this, we see that outside of immigration needs, the primary reason they do DNA tests is for domestic politics. They want hard proof (bwino) that can stand the test in court, for example, as a reason to divorce their wives, give them cover to cut some children out of their property, and, in difficult economic times, simply stop feeding many mouths.

 In the second part next week, we explain why all that is a fool’s errand.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3