Should every newborn baby be subjected to a DNA test?

By Denis Jjuuko

In some African cultures, when a baby was born, the parents took it to its patronal grandparents to be given a clan name.

It was never a big event even though the birth of a child has always been a cause for celebration in this part of the world. The grandfather of the newborn baby would summon his sisters to come to the naming event.

It was the duty of the sisters, the baby’s paternal aunties or Sengas in Luganda to look for body marks that confirmed that the child belonged to their family or not. They checked the ears, the fingers, the toes, any birth marks that would give any clue. They would pass on the results to their brother, the grandfather of the child.

If they doubted that the child belonged to their nephew, the grandfather would give the child a universal name that doesn’t necessarily belong to any clan. In some rare cases, grandfathers outright refused to give the child any names. But this usually caused havoc; so, many avoided it.

In many families, “paternity-doubted” children were known to exist. But divorce was rare so people carried on with their lives and kept what they thought were family secrets. The Baganda even coined a saying that you would be sure of your biological father after the death of your mother. As long as you mother lived, she could at any one time introduce you to another man as your biological father. And her word was final.

Women many times introduced adult children to other men they had had casual or secret sexual relationships with as the biological fathers. In such cases, some children changed names and acquired those of the new clans where they now belonged.

Advancements in technology led to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), cheekily written in full by many today as Ddala Nze Amuzaala? to literally ask if you are the biological parent of the child. In Uganda, the stories started largely by some local TV stations providing this as a service where two men or more claimed to be the fathers of the child.

Some of these stations created popular programs where a series of late night shows were done, interviewing the claimants and the mother. The TV stations ended up paying for the samples to be ferried to South Africa to establish the paternity of the child. In one famous example, DNA samples showed that a pair of twins belonged to two brothers.

Eventually, technology got here and labs were established in Kampala that offer DNA tests at a fraction of what was being charged by the labs in Johannesburg.

Today, many people who doubt the paternity of the children take samples so they could establish whether they are the biological parents or not. But it wasn’t just parents, also siblings in bitter quarrels of how to manage their late parents’ estates frequent these labs.

This has led to increased stories of DNA tests and some people have argued that the results will lead to breakdown of families and a dysfunctional society as children are subjected to severe psychological effects. And in a country where psychological support is almost aliens, one could understand the argument.

But decreasing resources also dictate that most people wouldn’t want to take care of other people’s responsibilities. In the years gone by, children especially in rural areas contributed to their school fees by working on their parents’ coffee shambas or matooke gardens. Some elements of social welfare worked.

But as Uganda continues to urbanize, it becomes increasingly difficult for many people to look after children. So the burden, the argument goes, should go to the biological parents or people should know which child belongs to them and decide to either look after them or not.

Some women on social media have argued that they have been looking after children that aren’t biologically theirs and, therefore, men shouldn’t complain today. The difference, however, is that women get to know that the children men bring to their homes sired outside marriage aren’t presented as their own.

For the men it is different, the children are presented as biological children of the man until doubts either emerge or through some misunderstanding the facts start presenting themselves. DNA tests are then done to confirm or deny the allegations.

So, if we want to protect the psychological well-being of the children, shouldn’t it be better that every baby born is subjected to a DNA test before the mother is discharged from the maternity ward? This would also help in addressing cases where a baby could accidently be switched by health workers during birth.

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.

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