May 17th 2006
The date remains burnt into my subconscious like a dodgy hairstyle that you thought was cool when you were about 13years, only to realize, as you grew older that you were horribly wrong. Unfortunately for you though, your mother managed to get a picture that she routinely wheels out whenever there are guests over to visit.
On May 17th 2006, Arsenal FC lost 2-1 in the champions league final to a Barcelona team that boasted the likes of Deco, Ronaldihno and the great Samuel Eto’ o. The game had it all!
A tragic red card for Arsenal’s Teutonic goal tender early in the match, a towering header from the formidable forehead of Sol Campbell to put Arsenal in the lead and cue a defensive display that would have been the envy of the 300 Spartans who stood against the Persians that fateful day.
Alas, like the back route that the Persians used to break the Spartan blockade, the arrival of the Swede Henrik Larson from the bench heralded the end for Arsenal as he supplied goals for Eto’ o and the Brazilian Juliano Belleti.
The moral of the story though came not from the game itself but from my reaction to the game. Having read many a time that an African man’s face is no place for tears to reside; it was much to my embarrassment that I felt those sodium laced droplets make their way down my face as the referee blew the final whistle. As I hastily wiped the tears away, I wondered to myself what my ancestors would say could they have seen such a display of unmanliness. It was upon recounting this story to my friends a few years later that I realized the ludicrousness of that whole thought process. How can tears make you any less of a man? Is being a man defined by what you are or by what you are seen to do ?
In essence, in the 21st century, has being an African man been reduced to a caricature, replete with expectations, demands and the like ? An abstract rubric against which one manliness could be qualified or found wanting ?
Confused ? Try this.
Get a piece of paper and on the left side, write down 5 things that you believe an African man should be. Ladies please feel free to play along as well.
On the right side, write down the 5 things that you believe makes you an African man. Ladies, place yourself in your brother, father, uncle, boyfriend or significant others feet and do the same from his standpoint.
Given my rather odd views, I asked a friend to help out and this is the list she came up with for the left side; Black, strong, aggressive, demanding and hardworking.
Feeling left out ?
Well, I then filled out the right hand side and this is the list that I came up with; Cultured, patient, intelligent, stubborn and grounded.
What you will find is that a lot of the things on the left are what you have been taught to expect of an African man. Whether it be from the media portrayal of what it means to be a man in Africa, or by the harassment of your friends when you do something “umanly” or even more likely by your elders as they read you the riot act.
I call the left side Shaka after Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the fabled Zulu king of the 18th century. Parodied and barely understood, he remains for the most part the first thing that comes to peoples mind when they think African man.
On the right side, you will find a lot of the qualities that go unremarked upon. The traits of character that make someone a whole being rather than a mock up of what a person should be.
I call this side Madiba after Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the revered former president of South Africa. Deeply respected by all, he remains to date the model by which African leaders are implored to aspire to. And yet, when someone says African man, his is not the first image that comes to mind.
The why of this discrepancy is probably better answered by a psychologist but I do want you to think about this as you answer the question “What does it mean to be and African man ?” for yourself.
For I believe that it is in the struggle and effort to define oneself through ones culture, beliefs, religion and life philosophy that the answer resides. Rather than being a box into which we fit or are packed into, our cultural background is, I believe, meant to give us the base from which to build out own interpretation of what it means to be African and a man.
Attempting to be Madiba or Shaka does not make you any more or less of a man if the sole purpose for you doing so is to get credit for being manly. Nor does crying make you any less of a man.
Just like the battle for emancipation of the African woman was waged as an inclusive battle to add different versions of what it meant to be an African woman to our traditional dictionary, so too does the battle to define African manliness in the 21st century.
It is in celebrating those qualities of individuals that make them African men rather than in the comparison to caricature that the answer lies.
Dare you to be your own man ?