There’s a strange, confusing phrase mums and dads in Kenya use to rebuke tantrum-prone or tearful little boys — they order them to man up.
The bewildered little boy will grow up being told not to cry, not to wear pink, not to go into the kitchen, not to play with dolls, essentially not to do anything that would be deemed “girlie”. That would be deemed unmanly.
As the confused little boy transitions into his teens, he will keep hearing the "Man up" phrase not just from his parents but also from his teachers and peers.
“How can you let a girl beat you in class?” his teachers will ask him, inadvertently setting him up on an unfortunate path where he measures his manhood by how much he rises above his female peers.
The phrase will creep up and sit firmly in conversations like a third wheel as the bewildered boy tries to woo a fellow high-school girl who probably has the same source of income as he does in the form of pocket money from their respective parents. He will be expected to man up. To pay for their date and see to it that the girl gets home safe.
Nobody tells this boy that going Dutch is an option for a date.
There’s little regard for what happens if the boy does not have enough money for the date. Or about what he tells himself and his masculinity.
Should the two dewy-eyed teenagers decide to have consensual sex, the teenage boy will most likely be required to man up, to take responsibility for his actions, with people around him, including the law, forgetting he is just a child, too. The girl, too, will bear the full force of the stigma that comes with being a pregnant teenager.
The manning up phrase will continue to appear in the bewildered boy’s adult life. It will appear in university, at places of work and eventually in his marriage or relationship. Petty utterances about what it takes to be a man will follow him everywhere until it becomes his inescapable reality.
The imaginary Men’s Conference, marked this year between February 14 and 16, was a source of much amusement for most Kenyans but perhaps it was a pathway to understanding the amount of pressure men felt about manning up (read buying expensive treats for their loved ones) on Valentine’s Day.
But what does it really mean to man up?
A January 2019 advert by shaving company Gillette attempted to answer this question and it received as much vitriol as it did praise for its effort. Coming in the era of #MeToo, the advertisement titled “We believe: the best men can be” attempted to preach positive masculinity, asking men to stop or stand up against mansplaining, bullying, intimidation and harassment.
Manning up, Gillette-style, means men challenging themselves to do more to get closer to their best.
For me, it also means discarding gender stereotypes from the minute the boy child steps into the world.
Manning up does not mean raising one’s hand or voice when in disagreement with a woman but instead, it means listening to and respecting each other’s opinions. Anything less than that should be considered retrogressive.
Manning up does not only mean providing financial support but also providing moral, physical and emotional support to spouses, children and family. It means being sensitive, kind and considerate even when the circumstances make it difficult to do so. It means not making excuses like, “But look at what she was wearing” when sexual harassment happens. It means not making excuses like, “She provoked him” or “But she took his money” when a man axes a woman to death.
Manning up also means learning to take No for an answer. Because rejection does not erode manhood.
There have been many instances where we’ve ostracised men for being broke and called them unmanly. We have labelled men who dare show their sensitive side sissies. We have called men who’ve dared to stand up for women henpecked. And we should apologise to them because they are the brave ones who showed us what manning up is really about.
The writer is the editor, Living Magazine; [email protected]