By TOM ODHIAMBO
It has become fashionable these days for all manner of interest groups, stakeholders or those concerned to raise hullabaloo over all kinds of issues.
A most intriguing topic these days is the debate over the subject of the state of manhood. Or the status of men. Or, when put in alarmist tones, the “increasing marginalisation of men” in today’s society. That sounds like a worthwhile academic topic, doesn’t it?
Yet it is not only academics, with their proclivity for abstract theorisation of and over even mundane things as “being or not being a man”, who are mesmerised by this subject. Remember Maendeleo ya Wanaume? What was it all about? Was it to counter or complement Maendeleo ya Wanawake?
Are, or were, Kenyan men so threatened that they really needed an association to speak for them? But speak for them to who? And why? With what end in mind?
It may be true that men are losing out to women in schools, the job market, offices, at home and in society in general. But what exactly are they losing? Power? Wealth? Status? Image? Is losing these attributes really loss of manhood?
And how do we define manhood in a society such as ours with competing cultural, racial, religious and educational backgrounds? Is manhood among the Maasai to be compared with manhood among the Iteso?
Does a man who was born and brought up in Nairobi, educated in London and Singapore, is a Muslim, works for a multinational in Lagos and whose wife lives in Nairobi have the same sense of manhood as a Christian man born, bred, works and has lived all his life in Turkana? I suppose not.
It is this difference in the ways we see, imagine, act out or live the sense of manhood that makes reading To Be a Man (published by Kwani Trust and launched last Wednesday) intriguing.
The anthology of poetry resulted from a competition for Kenyan poets that ran in 2007. It has poems from the young and old, women and men.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Sitawa Namwalie and Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, easily recognisable female writers, mix with Samuel Munene and Mbugua Ng’ang’a in the collection. Ndanu Mung’ala’s poem, Breaking Through, was the winner.
Breaking Through deconstructs the notion of manhood by presenting the “speaker” as just wanting “to be me”, to be himself, rather than the socially constructed man.
He wonders why he cannot be allowed to make choices, such as inviting his sister (or any girl for that matter) to join him and the “boys” in play.
Can a boy/man freely “express his feelings”? Is there something wrong with “crying or showing uncertainty” if one is a man? He wonders if being forced to undergo circumcision, “at the break of dawn/covered in ash”, is really the way to become a man.
The irony of how it is the sister who tells him what it means to be man is most apt. She tells him: Believe in yourself/work hard. Respect others. Never lift a hand in fury/against a woman, man or child.
Always rise/even if life overwhelms. Love fully. Believe in good and God. And always/brush your shoes. To be a man is to be a person with the capacity: to love others and oneself, to respect others, for industry, and for moral uprightness.
Thus manhood is a very personal attribute which should not be enforced by others. It is an identity to be discovered and nurtured by the individual, at least in the interpretation offered in Breaking Through.
This refusal to subscribe to the ideas of man and manhood defines most of the poems in the collection. In fact, many of the poems stridently mock how society has turned men into creatures that are perpetually (and hopelessly so) in pursuit of the elusive elixir of manhood.
It is as if for many men life would cease if they woke up and were told that manhood has been murdered! Samuel Munene’s satirical poem, Mercy, don’t you understand that I am a man? is also telling about how easy it is to assume that being a man is a licence for debauchery.
Yet, in the conversation between Fred and Mercy, one senses that Fred’s impulses to behave “manly” may also be driven by forces beyond his control such as the expectation that men should fend for the family, network with friends to guarantee access to opportunity and wealth, not attend to domestic chores.
Isn’t it women who admonish men who tend to “hang around the kitchen and the home?” Many poor men – or even those who are just trying to earn an honest living but from which they will never be rich – often live in fear of their wives’ or girlfriends’ tongues about “not being clever or industrious enough” to be rich.
In school, boys are taught that it is demeaning for a girl to beat you in class. Is it any wonder, therefore, that men have been shedding tears in silence; enough tears as to be witnessed publicly and possibly motivate Kwani? to call for poetry on ‘To be a man’!
Well, you read the poems in this anthology and judge for yourself whether it is true that men are an endangered species, as many activists and alarmists out there would have us believe. The anthology is available in local bookshops.