I am Indeed a man

17 Apr

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By Wanjala Wafula:

At a recent talk show with students of the Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, one female student asked a very pertinent question that I wish to respond to here in this third rate column. I had just shared my vast life experience growing up in the villages near the Kenya Uganda border and the transformations that I went through to become what I am today. I shared with the students the pain I went through hearing women wailing all night from the battering. I informed the students about the devastation I encountered watching women literally serving as slaves in their own homes and to their own husbands. I shared with them the traditional definitions of masculinity and the roles that boys and men are assigned in various societies across Africa. I spoke about the preparations that I had to go through to become the ‘man” my community wanted. It is at this stage that an infuriated female student in her early twenties shot up on her feet and shouted “you are not a man”. The rest of the students and lecturers looked on in utter bewilderment but I was not deterred. At the end of the talk show, the now smiling young lady walked to the front where we were and murmured “I am sorry, help me find a friend just like you”.

The definition of manhood in many African societies is directly influenced by the communal nurturing of men premised on domination and safeguarded by archaic traditions and customs. It is through culture and the accompanying customs that the mindsets of men are set towards what it means to be a man. These beliefs about what it means to be a man/woman are formed so early. I grew up with my mother alone irrespective of the fact that I knew I had a father who occasionally visited. At a tender age, my mother began to engage and teach me about the experiences of women in a male dominated society. She taught me about domestic and sexual violence and the needed role that good men could play in ending it. Through these interactions with my mother and many of her friends who were all going through the same suffering, I began to pay close attention to issues associated with the collective socialization of men. Since the late 1990s, it’s been my life’s work and I have no regrets to report.

At The Coexist Initiative we work with boys from the age of eight. Regrettably, even at that early age, they have been already formatted to subscribe to the tenets of a world characterized by negative masculinity and the dominance of women and girls. I am often asked by men and women about how soon they should begin to have these discussions with their sons, we say, “Five is the age they start pre-school.” It’s at that age that others begin to teach and influence our sons. We tell them not to give others permission to teach and influence your sons. I train boys that being a man does not alienate oneself from undertaking duties and roles that they need. I tell them that washing dishes, doing laundry, going to the village market to do some shopping and cooking does not make me a lesser man. I tell boys and men that we are all defined by what we excel at not by what we stop others from being. Unlike the numerous programs working with men and boys, our approach extensively focuses on women as key players in the socialization of boys and the transformation of men.

We counsel women and girls to be direct but with love when talking to their sons, brothers, fathers, friends, boyfriends and husbands about manhood. We teach them to be engaging and not offensive. In addition, I always stress that the war against gender based violence can only be won if we went personal about it with men. It’s best initially to engage men regarding the women they love, mothers and daughters. I once asked a former convicted wife batterer to envision the world he wanted to see his daughters live in and he broke down in tears. I wanted him to tell me how he would want to see men acting and behaving in that world and his response was a tear in his eyes. I submit that men agonize when Gender based violence is personalized. How else would I justify the overall positive response that we get from men during our numerous discussions?

I was also recently asked about what I plan to do now that my daughter Becky is fourteen and in the bracket of what they call the danger spot. My answer is relevant to all parents. I continue to have a wide open door on communication hence allowing her to share with me all her experiences and guiding her through the turbulence of life without being judgmental. She loves journalism and music and I spend quality time with her preparing her for the eventualities that shall emerge. I support her in all her endeavors that don’t fit in traditional gender roles. I have open conversations with her close friends and their parents. One of my greatest moments in this struggle has been my realization that my deliverance as a man is attached to your deliverance as a woman.

I am happy that I’m still a man, enjoying many of the things that men like doing: soccer, adventure, a drink with my buddies and some backstreet politics. I am excited that I can do all of this and still support a world that’s safe for women and girls.

The writer is a Director/ Founder of The Coexist Initiative, a not for profit synergy of men and boys community-based organizations committed to eliminating all forms of Gender based violence, fostering HIV prevention and championing the rights of minority groups in Kenya. Visit http://www.coexistkenya.com or email Wafula@coexistkenya.com- facebook- wanjala Wafula- skype:coexist.initiative. Tel: +254712653322

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