The little secrets and politics of being a modern African man

Friday December 09 2011

My mother (bless her soul) was a great storyteller. When we were little, we lived for her endless stories of the clever Mr Hare, Mr Rabbit, and all that.

Later, she regaled us with stories of eccentric relatives. There was my great grandfather, a warrior of his time and leading cattle owner in the village.

He worked on the assumption that every heifer born in the surrounding villages and resembled any of them bulls in his kraal could only have been sired by one of his bulls. So he would seize and add them to his collection.

Then there was the story of one of our aunts, a woman of great spirit. One dark night she was walking home along the village path.

Relaxed in the cool wind of the night, she broke wind. Unknown to her, one of the men in the village was walking behind her. The man scolded her: “What kind of woman are you who fouls the air as you walk?” suggesting she had failed the standard of being a lady.

My quick-witted aunt shot back: “What kind of man are you who walks at night without whistling?” Her point being that if he had whistled, she would have known he was there and been more modest. The fact that he didn’t, meant he was a coward who feared the darkness.


This reality that there are things that society expects women to do, and those that men are duty-bound to observe, will always be with us. The only things that change are the basket of items that they are allowed or expected to do.

In old conservative times, African women were not expected to ride bicycles or wear trousers. That is history.

What society allowed and what it didn’t might, on the face of it, be considered culture. It wasn’t. It was very political and determined who wielded power.

Take bicycle riding. A bicycle allowed two things. First, it enabled rural Africans to cover distances more quickly. That meant that men, who were allowed to ride, travelled more efficiently and had time to spare for other activities.

Women, who travelled similar distances on foot, spent a lot of time on the road, and had little “me” time left for themselves to pursue other interests. This led to more male than female innovators.

Bicycles also took people beyond their villages, and widened their knowledge and horizons. This knowledge, in turn, conferred power. Thus men, who were free to ride far, broadened their knowledge more than women who couldn’t.

Thus when it came to the election of a chief, men would always take the job because they were considered “wiser”. That was wrong, because while society thought that “wisdom” was a measure of a man’s ability, it was actually a measure of his opportunity.

The same thing happens with possessions. There are things that were gender specific. A “real” African man, for example, was incomplete if he did not own a spear or a cow.

And an African woman of old was not quite a woman if she didn’t own beads or an earth pot.

Question then is, what about the modern African, nay, East African, man? What must he have in his “male toolbox” for him to be one of the boys? What do these things say about him? Or, better still, why should he own some of them?

My understanding of the political economy of being an East African man today tells me one needs to own AT LEAST THREE of the following props:

1. A small Swiss army knife: A Swiss army knife suggests that you were a Scout once, a man of the outdoors.

Secondly, it implies that you have the skills to use one of its many elements — in other words you are a Do It Yourself (DIY) kind of guy. It is the equivalent of our grandfathers’ spear, but more suited to the modern human rights age.

It is more difficult to kill a fellow man with a small Swiss knife in an argument in the bar over the woman or a Manchester United vs. Chelsea match, than if you used a gun, dagger, sword, or spear.

In short, a small Swiss Army knife allows you fake being a macho man, while not getting in the trouble that comes with it. (My wife gave me my Swiss knife as a birthday gift well before we got married 21 years ago. I still have it. This is important because an aged-look gives it pedigree).

2. A wallet: If your daughter or sister ever asks what type of man she should never marry, and you were allowed only one answer, tell her: “One who doesn’t carry/own a wallet”.

A wallet is a sign of organisation, or at least a desire to be organised. Through a wallet, a man sends the vibe that he can put together and manage his worth.

A wallet also does something else; it functions as a brake. It tells you that when you have run out of money and you are in a pub, go home. It is a border line between responsible and reckless citizenship.

3.An old school, university, or club tie, club badge: History defines us as human beings; the history of our societies, of our families, and our countries. But those histories are thrust upon you. You don’t choose them.

Any worthy man needs to have a history that he has constructed himself. That will happen while you are in school; while you are on your hobby (e.g. climbing mountains); or during leisure (e.g. at a place like Parklands Club).

Thus a man must ensure he has something from his school (a tie or sweater), from his hobby (a Rotary badge or Darts trophy); or from his recreation life (a club tie, or club polo or T-shirt).

These things serve two functions. A true man does not need to speak for himself every time. A club tie or trophy speaks for you. Secondly, you need to communicate that you are good enough to belong to something other than your family (hence the club tie).

4. A white shirt: It is impossible to regularly wear a white shirt in Africa. The heat makes you sweaty and white will show stains very quickly. But the white shirt’s biggest enemy is the African dust.

In less than an hour, it can appear that you have worn the shirt three times without a wash. However, having a white shirt signals that you are not afraid to tackle the elements.

But most importantly, that you have sufficient competence to keep it white. One white shirt is enough to make this point.

5. A pair of shorts: When most men grow older, their legs generally become ugly and terrible to look at. If, in addition, they also have the custom pot-belly, they look even more unsightly in shorts. You would think then that no man over 30 should ever wear shorts in public.

Wrong. When a man with terrible legs wears shorts, he is telling all that there is more to him than his appearance — and that if we looked closer, we will find serious substance in him.

A man who wears shorts, is like a woman who is confident enough to go out with natural hair and no make up at the same time.

6. Open sandals: We live in the humid tropics, so at first you would think that it makes sense to have sandals because they are more comfortable than closed shoes.

Yes, but there is something else. For some unknown reason, many women get really upset at the sight of men wearing open sandals with socks — particularly if you bang on socks with them.

So sandals (worn with socks) are very good for a man if he wants to annoy his mother, sisters, girlfriend, wife, or female colleagues at the office, without seeming that it is your intention to do so.

If things get thick, and your wife gives you an ultimatum, it is easy to remove the socks before you are killed. And, beside, they are not as bad as the two male fashion items that can even break a marriage — brown shoes worn with a yellow suit!

7. A leather jacket: If I had to pick, I would put the leather jacket among the top three must-have male props, up there with the Swiss Army knife and wallet. It expands a man’s “interpretation canvas” dramatically.

Depending on the type of leather jacket, people might consider you a biker. A pilot. An army officer. A sailor. A rich farmer. A cool musician. A radical environmentalist. A naturalist professor. A nerd.

Whatever your thing, a leather jacket says that you are a well-settled in member of the vast male universe out there.

8. A hand-me-down from Daddy or Grandpa: Now though boys might play tough, still they all need to be loved.

So we men value something handed down by senior men in the family out of affection, but mostly because they think we are solid enough to be trusted to carry on the family’s great traditions.

It does not have to be a big thing. It can be a stained hat, an old clock or watch, the precious 40-year-old marvellously beaten leather bag, a pipe, or tobacco/snuff box that your grandfather brought back from World War II.

My father still has a brush that I found when I was born. The wood has a shiny rich patina I have never seen on another wood. It must be over 60 years old. Even at this age, my eyes would mist over if he gave it to me.

9. A private collection: We men used to be hunters and gatherers. We went out to kill the animal, brought it home, and the women engineered it into food for the table.

This gathering side is still very much part of our identity. Some African men, of course, gather wives. But that is a bit old-fashioned and our women are too educated and powerful to allow that nonsense.

So we have been reduced to safe: A man must have a CD (or better still vinyl LP) collection, a coin/currency collection, paint collection; book collection; or tie collection. The important thing is to collect.

10. Over the years, I have found one thing on which the women of Africa, Asia, America, Europe, Latin America agree on — they get freaked out by men who are too neat and orderly.

They suspect such men are psychos, closet murderers, cannibals, or even cross-dressers. Men know this, and they have at least two devices to comfort women — holed old socks or T-shirts.

Torn shirts are important because they make a man look primitive and disorganised, thus giving your girlfriend or wife an easy entrance point into “organising” you by throwing or burning them.

But there is something else; like the old leather bag, your grandfather’s pipe, they are wonderful connection to the ancestors, to things past.

11. There will always be a moment when a man who went to school must make an impression or prove it. A time will come when you have to reveal your favourite book; when you have to quote something from a great book.

This is a tricky one, but the last 60 years have largely settled that matter. An African man of substance must have (or be able to cite) either George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

There are few conversations an African man will ever be involved in where they will not make an impression by flinging in an Orwell, Achebe, or Shakespeare line. If you can’t, you are beyond help.

12A man needs paper: By paper, I mean a document that places you somewhere or ascribes ownership of something, however small, to you. This can be a birth certificate; a college or university degree, a share certificate, a land title, a discharge letter from the Army or Police, or even a firing letter from your last job. A man who doesn’t have paper is probably an alien from Mars.

13. Finally, a great overcoat: This is mostly for married men who have a reputation to protect with their in-laws.

Every so often, an African man will have to attend a funeral vigil in the home of his in-laws. This is the time when you need to look strong, so be prepared to spend the night outside sitting at the campfire or curled up manfully on a verandah.

For this you need a stoic overcoat to keep you warm. Never ever go to a funeral at your in-laws in something that might look like your wife’s shawl, or a throwaway blanket that you grabbed from the home sofa.

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