No fathers spend more time alone with their children than the average Aka, now given the title 'Best Dads in the World' by Fathers Direct, a British national information centre on fatherhood. The Aka, who live in the border forests of Congo Brazzaville and the Central African Republic, are a hunting and gathering people.
On average, Aka father hold or are within arms' reach of their infants 47 per cent of the time - almost as much as Aka mothers. This, according to Fathers Direct, is the current world record. Only Northern European countries with high gender equality standards are now closing on to Aka fathers. In Sweden, an average father now takes care of 45 per cent of parental childcare.
The results of the worldwide study by Fathers Direct were recently published in the centre's journal, FatherWorld. The study included 156 cultures around the world and found that fathering had a low status in most countries. Only 20 per cent of the cultures studied promote men's close relationships with infants, and only five per cent with young children.
Not so among the Congolese and Central African Akas, however. An Aka daddy uses every opportunity to be in close contact with his infant. Aka fathers often take the child along when they go drinking palm wine or during other social activities. They may hold the baby close to their bodies for a couple of hours at a time, says the report.
The study highlights findings by Barry Hewlett, an American anthropologist, who has studied the Aka people for more than 20 years. The dads, rather than mums, are often the ones who settle the babies if they wake at night, Barry also found.
The inevitable question for most non-Aka parents is how can a father take care of a baby still needing mother's milk for hours and hours. Surely, not even an Aka father can breast-feed his hungry baby. Well, he can, almost. His nipple at least will tranquillise the baby. 'A father's nipple is perfectly suited to soothing a crying baby until it can be fed,' according to the British report.
Researcher Caroline Flint commented that she had earlier come across cases of dads doing this. 'It is not a case of the man saying to the baby, 'Here you are, have my boobie,' but usually of the baby snuffling along the father's chest, finding the nipple and sucking. The men are usually very surprised, but the babies seem content. They love to snuggle up to their dads,' Flint explained.
Offering their nipple to a hungry baby "could be a big challenge" to most non-Aka males, the researchers however confess. Maybe one should take a group of European dads and their babies out to the Congo for a couple of weeks "to meet the Aka Pygmies and see what our dads can manage," one proposed. Aka fathering could become an export commodity - or at least a source of pride for Congolese and Central Africans.
* See also 'Dads for Kids' (The-Latest, Interview section)