A Real Man?

From the Curator’s Desk

Greetings, friends:
This week’s newsletter is continuing the tradition of inviting members of our community to write From The Curator’s Desk, and for this edition, I’m happy to hand it over to Eddy Ashioya, a writer and journalist.
Please send your guest writing pitches for this section to chris@barazalab.com  if you’re interested in being our guest curator on the newsletter, and you have something of interest to share to our community — a trend you’ve noticed or something you’d like us to think about.
~ Christine


There are many things we don’t agree on as a country. Is it maze or manze? Weuh! or wueh! But more pertinently, mwanaume or mwanamume—who is the real man? I have been thinking about my masculinity recently. It seems there is never a lack of someone, anyone, everyone—telling me how to be a man. Or more importantly how not to be a woman — YouTube especially is a goldmine, or landmine.
I grew up in Lutonyi Village, deep in the armpits of Kakamega, and there I saw what it meant to be a man, a certain kind of man. The testosterone was so abundant it had its own isimba in the compound. I carry a version of it everywhere I go as a service to all the doubters, in the doomed but evangelical spirit of a Jehovah’s Witness handing out pamphlets on Ngong Rd. 

In my teenage years, I thought to be a man was to be like the Marlboro Man, the one with a cigar in his mouth and a devil-may-care bravura and a hot lady or two or three dangling dangerously from his Harley-Davidson bike. And then I thought it was Michael Power, and the drop of greatness in every man. I had a small stint with Tiger Power too, the strongest Kenyan man that ever lived. In my mid-twenties I had an unholy tryst with The Godfather, identifying with Michael Corleone, a Mafia Don, a man among men. I wanted to be an American Gangster, but in a Kenyan way, the kind of man you’d find standing with a brown envelope at the corner of City Hall Way.

It says a lot about me that in my effigies of masculinity, my heroes were villains and criminals. Bad boys. Perhaps, when you sense something shadowy about yourself, you start looking in the shadows for understanding, or at least meaning of some kind.

The concept of “real man” has been sold to me my entire life. I have bought the superficial, fake tough guy masculinity, the perfumed deodorant for insecure men. Peel the scab, however, and you reveal a deeper, hidden social force. The sense of a loss of identity and need for men to reassure themselves that they belong and are in sync with a group—I am part of the tribe and I know the rules. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it “liquid modernity”—the unnerving feeling of “fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.” Uncertain of what is cool or unpopular, en vogue or archaic, respectful or bigoted, we toe the line, fearing being separated and scapegoated, which is humanity’s foolproof device to achieve social cohesion through exclusion.

Some days, I do feel inauthentic—not fully man, not quite a boy. And then I remember Calvo Mistari’s “Mwanaume ni ee, mwanume ni eehh, mwanume ni effort.” A nod to my workaholism, because what is man without work?  For we live in a socially conservative and religious country where the traditional role of men is to protect and provide. But with the highest unemployment rate in East Africa, many men are unable to fulfill these expectations—leading to an impasse: financially, socially and in regards to their relationships with women.

And yet, I still fell in love and got my ass handed back to me, because Nairobi is for business, conmen, and memes. I approached one of the masculinity coaches to rest my sadness in. He gave me a curt reply: “You are weak!” as though my broken heart had insulted his very manhood. I rummaged through YouTube again, had a stint with Twitter and they all said the same things, and I wondered who copied whose homework: “Go to the gym!” “Be high value!” “Focus on your purpose and chase the bag!” “Take a cold shower!” The first was okay, the second and third were considerable and the last option was out of the question. Have you seen the weather?! Because wueh!
I developed a theory: that you are never man enough, neither enough man. It seemed that manhood and performative masculinity itself are partners, giving birth to the very same needy, unstable, and dare I say sad machismo that is all about attention: “Hey look at me, I am more man than you will ever be.” What’s that thing Tywin Lannister said? Any man who must say ‘I am king’ is no true king.  Maybe one day the all-knowing AI will tell us the truth, because the word masculinity is now seldom mentioned without toxic as its modifier.

I’m a little older now. I don’t know if I’m wiser, but I’ve learned a few things. Never be afraid or proud to ask for help. Show up for friends and family. Be kind. Because even now I don’t know who a man is, what a man is, manze. Sometimes that disconnect gives me a rootless feeling: an odd vertigo I can’t quite nail down.

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: 50 Years Later, is There Anything Left of Hip Hop? An excerpt: “[It] can’t be denied that a distinctly black American counterculture has made the transit to mainstream, and in the process erased significant parts of itself and its history.”

What We’re Watching: Free Money on Netflix, filmed over five years, delves deep into the largest and longest-running universal basic income experiment in the country by NGO GiveDirectly. What if someone offered you money, no strings attached, for 12 years? CNN’s Larry Madowo serves as the documentary’s skeptical observer, questioning the long-term consequences of such an initiative. 

What We’re Listening to: Tell Them to Make Noise, an absolute banger by former Gabon Prez Omar Bongo. Seems like he’s getting the smash hit he always wanted — did you know he was a disco funk musician before being elevated to president?

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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