Yesterday morning, two School Series mentors were invited by One FM to the 1Breakfast show to discuss our programmes and what we do with a specific focus on how we are trying to tackle the problem of boys and young men being lost at sea. One of the main aims of the conversation was to give single mothers ideas on how they can raise their sons to be, as Lulu - one of the show's hosts - termed it, "men of substance". Thus the question "how can single mothers raise a boy into a man?" arose and was tweeted.
One of the responses we got and the conversation that followed provided food for thought.
The above conversation made us realize that we were using the term "being a man" without having ever explained what exactly we meant. The term "man" like the term "woman" is a heavily gendered term. It does not refer to a male person's sex but comes with expectations and ideas:
"Mwanaume ni effort!"
"Mwanaume ni wallet."
"Mwanaume ni gari"
These are phrases that are commonly thrown around in everyday conversations. They are often said in jest but the underlying idea still remains: there are certain criteria you must meet to be regarded as a "man". These criteria are usually material: money, a fancy house/apartment, land, a car (in some cases specific to make and model so Toyota Probox or Vitz and the like often fall short) fancy gadgets or a job. Sometimes though, they refer to qualities such as: ambition, one's ability to think ahead, and industriousness.
Consequently, this makes the phrase "being a man" a loaded one. It comes with connotations (usually patriarchal ones) and ideas that, if internalized, can be harmful to others and destructive to the person in question. For example, the idea that men must be macho and any show of emotion is a sign of weakness or the idea that men don't make mistakes. It creates the pressure to be perfect, which is impossible, thus forcing people to struggle to maintain an illusion of perfection. This problem is exacerbated about by the fact that men have lost a sense of identity and purpose. The role of men in society has changed in the last 100 years. As women got more empowered, traditional gender roles were shattered, which left men not knowing how to handle life and responsibility.
However, this doesn't have to be the case. "Being a man" doesn't have to mean the never ending pursuit of an unachievable and often unfulfilling goal. Like the African-American community did with the terms "negro" and "nigger", we can reclaim the phrase and re-coin it so that it means something else- something more positive. This is what we, as School Series, have chosen to do because short of creating a new term, there is no alternative to the predicament at hand.
So what is "being a man"?
To us, being a man is not about material things but rather about your character. It is therefore not about gender-roles, your bank balance, your career trajectory or where you're from. It's about who you are as a person. Being a man is about putting effort into developing positive habits that make you a better person. It's about your idea of self. How do you treat and think of yourself? Do you have a healthy relationship with yourself? Are you honest with yourself? Is your self-worth based on what others think: your likes on Instagram or Facebook, your retweets and followers on Twitter and other social media sites? Or is it based on values and the idea that you are intrinsically valuable by virtue of being human?
It's about developing healthy relationships with people who are important to you: your family (both biological and logical*), friends and significant others. Are you honest and respectful with them? Do you make gestures - whether big or small - to let them know they are important to you? It's also about learning to identify and bid farewell to irredeemable, toxic relationships. It's about cultivating a good work ethic. Do you dedicate yourself sufficiently to the things you ought to do? Are you punctual with delivery? Do you present work that is your own or do you sponge off others' effort? It's about taking responsibility for your life: making informed choices for yourself and dealing with the consequences of those choices as opposed to running away from them. Essentially, taking control of all the things in your life that in your sphere of influence (the things you can change).
Being a man is about being a grown-up which is a function of the mind more than it is a function of age. It's about mental and emotional maturity and the effort you put into developing these aspects of yourself. Yes, the law says you're a man at 18 but that only means that once you turn 18 you attract civil and criminal liability - it doesn't mean you're a decent person. To us, being a man is about being a decent person.
To be clear, being a man is effectively about being the best person that you can be, given your circumstances. That is being a good human being in general. This encompasses the qualities of self-awareness, resilience, being honest with yourself and others, knowing what flaws you have and constantly working to resolve said flaws. Thus whatever applies to being a good man applies to being a good woman. To us, It is all about human dignity separated from gender roles. We need to overcome stereotypes about what a man or a woman should do. For instance, learning to cook is a valuable skill because nutrition is important. Regardless of your gender, it is irresponsible to outsource your nutrition for the rest of your life. The same applies to tasks like cleaning up after yourself - this falls under hygiene and thus is also a principle that's gender neutral.
We hope the above post has clarified our definition of "Being a Man". This forms part of our ethos and based on the premise that being a man is not contingent on disempowering women or anyone else but on being the person described above.
*Logical Families: While it would be fantastic if all of us had great or even just a functioning family, that isn't the reality for everyone. This is why School Series embraces the concept that one has two families – your biological family and your logical family. Your Biological Family are the people who you are related to by blood. You cannot choose them and you are linked to them by that genetic relationship. On the other hand, your Logical Family are the people who you share values with. These are the people who move you forward, make you feel loved, appreciated, accept you for who you are, with whom the word "unconditional" resonates.