Joy limps towards her mother who is basking in the mid-morning sun outside their house. Her younger brother, Brian, is trailing behind her, wailing at the top of his voice.
Joy, too, is howling in pain and a closer look at the two children reveals bruises on their arms and knees. Their mother looks at them knowingly before inquiring from Joy what happened.
Amid sobs, Joy explains that they were playing outside when they fell on the ground and hurt themselves. This narration seems to trigger the pain on Kevin’s knee and his cries accelerate.
“Kevin, nyamaza. Si niliwakataza mchezo ya kukimbia? Hebu nyamaza. Boys huwa hawalii. Si wewe ni mwanaume? (Be quiet, Kevin. Didn’t I warn you against running? Chin up. Boys do not cry. Aren’t you a man)?” the mother admonishes the young boy.
Kevin muffles his cries and walks away, having learnt a lesson on what it means to be a man; real men do not cry.
With such remarks made to such a young boy, a skewed sense of masculinity is nurtured, a brand that is as misleading as it is toxic, and mind experts are worried.
NO FATHER FIGURE
According to Rev James Mbugua, a psychologist and counsellor at African Nazarene University, many young men are walking time-bombs, seething with accumulated anger borne of built-up emotions.
He says young men today are pushed into independence at quite an early age. Even worse are those growing up without an active father figure.
In turn, this anger and identity crisis has led to an alarming rate of mental illnesses, deviant behaviour and hopelessness being witnessed among young men today.
He adds that the same society pointing an accusatory finger towards today’s man, demanding them to man up, to act like men and to be strong, never taught them how to be men in the first place.
These unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a man feed toxic masculinity and the devastating effects are clear for all to see.
“Boys are being brought up by mothers only because of the problem of the absentee dad; physically and/or emotionally absent. At the end of the day, who is the role model for this boy? Forget the inspirational high and mighty lessons on success and career building, who is teaching this boy the everyday mundane roles of a man?
And yet, when he goes out of his mother’s house he mixes with other men out there and is expected to act manly. From whom did he learn to be manly, his mother?” he questions.
Some cultural norms have been attributed to fan toxic masculinity. Subtle but implicit messages such as “men do not show pain”, “men should not cry/smile” or “men should not be afraid” continue to be passed down generations.
Whereas traditions such as circumcision discouraged men from showing fear, the cut was mainly symbolic. During the rite of passage, values and life lessons were conveyed to the initiates that moulded them to be men. But today’s men have very limited confidants who mostly include the immediate family or peers.
“At two years, this girl is already in the kitchen with the mother being acquainted with some house chores like how to cook, wash dishes and generally take care of the house. She is being prepared for the task of motherhood.
Meanwhile, the boy is in the sitting room, remote control in hand, flipping through channels. Forgotten. Left to chart his own path and laden with premature independence because of an abstract idea of what it means to be a man without any actual guidance on the same. This confusion spurs identity crisis,” says the counsellor.
Rev Mbugua firmly says that the man of yesteryears was much more empowered and hardly a victim as opposed to the man of today.
He says that the man was a product of the community, refined in wholesome cultural norms and values. So, what changed?
“During my days as a young man, we had brothers, uncles and a society that cared. They listened and offered counsel. Today the fathers, brothers and uncles are stuck in the rat race of wealth creation, completely oblivious to the plight of young men in the house. Those who can offer guidance are simply not available,” he says.
We spoke to some men to get their views on the issue of toxic masculinity in today’s society.
MESHACK YOBBY, FREELANCE VIDEOGRAPHER
“Growing up, we had a househelp who often said that if we cooled our tea, we would turn out so weak that even our future children would beat us.
I learnt that being a man meant being invincible. To date, I find it hard to share my struggles with people.
Men impose toxic masculinity on fellow men perhaps aiming to belittle them. Some time back, I became very vocal online about regarding women as human beings and respecting them. I called out men for using a woman’s dress code to justify assault. Fellow men dismissively said that I was only looking to score points and get lucky with the ladies.”
HARRISON KARIUKI, IT SPECIALIST
“Toxic masculinity cannot exist or thrive without bloated egos. There are times I have been less empathetic to fellow men; considered them inadequate or not man enough, especially at the work place.
A closer look at these instances shows that I was not empathetic to their plight. Instead, I was fixated on how much adequate, competent and, yes, more manly they were. Nobody wants to be around someone who thinks they are better than everyone else.
“Together with my wife, we have created a safe space for the children to express themselves freely. I have taught my son, Wesley, to ask questions confidently. We are teaching them to be proud of whom they are even as they grow.”
ERIC KINAGA,SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR
“I watched my dad and his actions taught me a lot. I could see him bring home some meat every evening. From that, I learnt to never go back to my own home empty-handed. When I first saw him hit my mother, I vowed never to lay a hand on my wife, regardless of the situation.
I want my son to grow up confident in his own skin, and empathetic to people of both gender. I want him to be open-minded and emotionally expressive. That way, he will not be scared by a wife who’s more learned or earns more than him. Toxic masculinity would have him feeling threatened, weak and inadequate. If we raise emotionally balanced men, cases of depression among men and problems affecting women such as violence would become non-issues.”
LIALI JOSEPH, BLOGGER/ PREACHER
“I’ve subtly imposed toxic masculinity on other men and this is something I’m not proud of. When I was in Form One, I had this desire to fit in. I wanted to be the trendsetter of the crew. I tried to dictate to other boys what it meant to be a man.
“This often took the form of making them think they had to do some bad thing or be dating to be cool. I’m wiser now. I see how it could have hurt them, made them insecure and caused them to hurt others.
“Now that I have a son, Keith, I aspire to do things differently. I hope to inspire him into knowing Christ and making Him his all. I feel that, that is the genesis of everything else. It is important that he learns to be mindful of others, especially now when our society is becoming more selfish with the trending ‘do you’ attitude.
“I pray he will learn how to acknowledge his personal struggles both before God and helpful people around him. I sincerely hope that he will learn, early enough, that to be a better man he must not hide his worst flaws but instead have them openly acknowledged and purged.”
JOSHUA MUTISYA, DATA ANALYST
“In a world where a man’s strength is determined by the loudness of their voice and crudeness of their actions, my father taught me how to handle pressure.
He taught me hard work which should result in providing for those in your care.
My grandfather taught me humility, and ability to resolve issues in a calm and thoughtful way, traits he obviously passed down to his son.
Hard work and humility are values I intend to pass to my children.”
Empowering women should not be at the expense of men
According to Rev James Mbugua, the society got carried away while empowering girl and totally forgot boys. The boy child is constantly being pushed to play catch-up. This, he says, should not be the case. We should quit compartmentalising and slapping labels on children.
"If we are going to have any positive change, we need to go back to basics, which is human rights. We need to treat that boy and girl; that man and woman, as human beings. All these tags and labels are simply sideshows which unfortunately are doing more harm than good. Instead of talking about toxic masculinity or toxic feminism, can we instead talk about toxic competitiveness?" he poses.
He adds that it is pointless for one gender to try and prove its superiority over the other because both are inherently different; physically and psychologically. He believes that we would have a more productive society if we focused on empowering human beings to reach their highest potential as opposed to empowering one gender to dominate the other.
Currently, some milk is already split but Rev Mbugua says there is still hope. He proposes that men can break free from toxic masculinity and other factors hampering their development by
accepting and owning their masculinity. External factors such as money, spiteful opinions of others and even past failures should not be allowed to emasculate men. If they purpose to provide for their families, they should do it wholeheartedly, regardless of who is bringing more to the table.
Adopting an "I" language as opposed to a "You" language to express their emotions. The "You" language is accusatory and deflective. Expressive language such as "I am hurting", "I was not happy about", is a show of strength and healthy masculinity. It also prevents provocation which often results in violence.
Taking care of themselves physically through healthy eating and exercise. Being fit and healthy promotes confidence, and the opposite is true. Inferiority complex increases men’s vulnerability to toxic masculinity. They will either impose it on others or be victims of it.
"We still have a long way to go before society can embrace the bigger picture of humanity before gender. Policy makers, for instance, have come up with laws that are defeatist to today’s man. So many odds are against our young men. Many girls even state car ownership as a prerequisite for dating young men. Mark you, the young men are fresh from campus and struggling to land their first job. One day, young men will be empowered enough to unflinchingly respond, "Go and buy your own car". One day.