The Riddle of Modern African Masculinities


African men are presented as a riddle at best and a problem at worst.  Whether in the crude stereotypes in the media, where African men are portrayed as angry rebels obsessed with machine guns and rape, or in the more refined scholarly debates, that see modern expressions of African Masculinities as either logical conclusions to a patriarchal culture or a deviation from what used to be a more equal culture.  In all of these presentations, evaluations and reevaluations, one thing remains clear; African Masculinity has become a riddle, similar to that of the chicken or the egg.   The only difference is that in recent years the egg, which is African Masculinity, has had a big fall  and has shattered into a mess of civil wars,  a feminized epidemic and gender based violence.   And all the gender theorist and African leaders seem not to be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  Key to solving riddles ( African riddles particularly) is the retelling of the story that leads to the riddle and then asking the not so obvious question.  In our case, with the riddle of African masculinities, it would be wise to take this approach and hear two stories that are critical in understanding the riddle; the story of colonialism and the story of African independence.  Because there is no identical experiences with colonialism and African independence between nations, I will tell a particular story of a particular nation

1st Story: The “Discovered” land
Once upon a time, long ago in a time when racism was scientifically justified and colonialism was a “civilizing” mission, a young European explorer, by the name David Livingstone, ‘discovered’ a land beside a beautiful lake.   David fell in love with this land and upon returning to Europe he persuaded entrepreneurs, Church leaders and Administrators that the land he had ‘discovered’ had potential for Christianity and commerce.   Following this appeal, entrepreneurs, missionaries and administrators flocked to this ‘discovered’ land quickly and set up shop.  The entrepreneurs set up farms and plantations, the missionaries set up churches and schools and the administrators set up a government and laws.  All of this was carried out with the enthusiasm of a “civilizing” mission and in no time the ‘discovered’ land resembled a civilized society in its emphasis on a wage economy that could be taxed.   Key to this transformation was Sir Harry Johnston, the Dutch Reformed Church and of course the entrepreneurs that made a wage economy possible.

Sir Harry Johnston was a typical renaissance man, commanding several skills and talents.  Apart from being an Administrator, he was a painter, a soldier and an anthropologist (yes! that curious group of colonial government anthropologist that Kwame Anthony Appiah warns us to be wary of). When he was not governing the ‘discovered’ land, Sir Harry took time out to document the people and culture of the ‘discovered’ land.  In his documentation, Sir Harry was preoccupied with the classification and sub-classification of people; attributing braveness to this tribe of people and duplicity to that tribe of people.  Johnston, in keeping with physical anthropology of his time, displayed a particular fixation with the African man as a sexual animal and even went to length of providing measurements of African male genetalia in his publications.  This was not so different from the missionary position.  Missionaries were obsessed with reordering each and every aspect of the life of the people of the ‘discovered’ land; from how they order their society to how they have sex.

The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) particularly illustrates this well.  The DRC missionaries established their mission station in the central region of the ‘discovered’ land; a region known for its matrilineal culture.  The matrilineal culture of the people of the central region, prior to the coming of the DRC missionaries, gave relatively more power to women (lineages were traced through the mother, women controlled the shrines of their religious system and upon marriage it was the husband that relocated to the wife’s homeland).  However after the arrival of the DRC missionary there was a power shift; marriages had to be ‘christened’ with the man’s name (with the title Mr and Mrs before the his surname ), only men could presume religious leadership (according to their interpretation of 1 Timothy 2: 8 -15) and boys were prioritized over girls in the missionary schools.

Now riddle me this.  What is being ‘discovered’ in this story; is it the land next to a beautiful lake that has potential for Christianity and commerce, a new people that have to be classified and sub-classified for the anthropology enterprise or  rather the reshaping of masculinities under the forces of certain expressions of Christianity, capitalism and anthropology?

2nd Story: The Return

Once upon a time, not so long ago, when independence was the war cry of African people and the wind of nationalism was sweeping across the continent, an old African doctor, by the name of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, returned to his homeland.  Banda had been trained in the United States of America and was practicing medicine in England when his countrymen invited him to return home and serve as a symbol and leader of independence.  He accepted the invitation and became the first prime minister of this independent state.  Kamuzu Banda castigated the colonial administration and called for the ‘return’ to the people’s traditional culture.  In his speeches he emphasized the respect of the elderly and the celebration of traditional dances.   In his administration this translated into the consolidation of power around himself and the reducing of women’s political participation to mere dancers at political functions. 

Banda’s economy mainly depended onhim providing the then South African Apartheid government with cheap labor.  Young men were encouraged to leave their homeland and travel to South Africa to work in mines without returning home for long periods of time.   Meanwhile older men were given positions of power and influence, regardless of their lack of education and experience.  Women were encouraged to follow Banda around, dancing for him at his political rallies and representing a ‘return’ to traditional culture.   The arrangement between Kamuzu Banda and the South African government didn’t last long and soon the young migrant labors returned home only to gerontocracy.

Now riddle me this.  What is being ‘returned’ to is in this story; is it Banda’s homeland, the young migrant labors homeland, the traditional culture or rather the same type of system that saw only a few privileged men ruling and benefiting from a large number of men and women in the colonial era?




In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass a high-minded and arrogant Humpty Dumpty is engaged in an argument with Alice.  When Alice questions Humpty Dumpty’s usage of a particular word, he is quick to point out that whenever he uses a word it means whatever he chooses it to mean and that he can load so much meaning into one word.  I think Humpty Dumpty shares this attitude and approach with the colonialist administrators who believed they had “discovered” new lands and the African fathers of the nations who preached a ‘return’ to the traditional culture.  Sir Harry Johnston (and other anthropologist like him) in his scholarly enthusiasm was not just classifying African men but rather he was giving them an identity in the new imperial order.   And Kamuzu Banda (and other Post-colonial dictators like him), in his romanticizing the past, was not calling for a return but rather reshaping notions of being a man.

So what of African Masculinities now? Are they like the grass after elephants fight, victims of forces way bigger than them?  I can’t say for sure, but I think the answer is similar to the Hausa riddle: Me ya sa mutum na kamar borkonu? (Why is a man like pepper?) Answer:  Idan ba ka gwada shi ba, ba za ka iya gaya yadda karfin sa yake ba (Until you have tested him, you can’t tell how strong he is).  I believe the strength of African men is in their willingness to move away from being victims of forces and agendas and becoming agents in reshaping African masculinities positively

The author, Wamisala Waku Mbazo, is a street philosopher, you can find him at Zumba local market arguing and debating with traders.

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