By T Michael Mboya
There are news stories that fit so well into typical Kenyan beer bar talk you would think they were custom made for that.
Recent examples include the Andrew/Audrey sex change affair and the Tony Ogunda saga. No, it is not so much the ‘controversy’ value of the stories that makes them particularly suitable as subjects of discussion for people who – as my committed Christian friends would exclaim – are shamelessly drowning their lives in alcohol, in full public view! It is their being inscribed with matters gender.
For the Kenyan beer bar is an arena where myths of masculinity are constructed and reconstructed, produced and reproduced. Here, machismo is comprehensively celebrated.
If there is a television set in the bar then it will be almost permanently locked to a channel that broadcasts one masculine sport or another. In the beer bar the ogling of the female body is accepted so completely one can even say it is actively encouraged. And so is the circulation of boastful self-narratives of deeds that are taken to be markers of manly achievement in our country.
When Kenyan beer bar talk moves beyond the recounting of tales of masculine ‘personal’ adventure – a huge percentage of which are, to put it politely, most embellished at the very least – the gender inflection is carried into whatever topic comes under discussion. That explains why in beer bar talk political heroes are men and political villains are women. Thus the common praise for the astute woman politician: Huyo mama ni mwanaume! That also explains why in beer bar talk victory in sport is imaged in terms of the achievement of male fulfilment in coitus. Little wonder, then, that in the beer bar arguments are often settled in that most manly of ways: with fists.
But why should this be so? Why should the Kenyan beer bar be a site of masculine identity formation and consolidation? And why should Kenyan men be so enamoured of this space? To ask this last question as a majority of their women-folk would: Why do Kenyan men find it impossible to come out of the beer bar and spend time with their families? That ‘argument’ that men go to beer bars in search of business deals is a silly excuse. The answer, I think, majorly lies in the history of the beer bar in Kenya. The insertion of the peoples of this country into the modern economy was, generally, gendered.
The colonial system transformed the subjects of the colony into the cheap, unskilled labour that its economy initially needed. The thinking then, as now, was that the required brawn could best be provided by men. Once it had been procured, this largely male work force soon needed some structured ways of winding down, baada ya kazi. In came the beer bar.
The point was especially significant in light of the fact that the Kenyan man’s experience of colonialism and modernity was that it brutalised him by assaulting his traditional conceptions of masculinity. A consequence of the attack was the perception by the Kenyan man that he was being castrated. The Kenyan man’s love-hate interaction with modernity continues today. Modernity continues to modify gender definitions, roles and identities. In that sense, it continues to emasculate the Kenyan man.
That means that the pressure on the average Kenyan man to perform man-ness continues. And that in its turn means the motivation to frequent the beer bar is sustained. It should then be surprise that in our increasingly complex world the Kenyan man in a beer bar responds to the Andrew/Audrey sex change affair and the Tony Ogunda saga in ways that betray a nostalgia for the cruel simplicity of a bygone era when inter-sex individuals were summarily killed in their infancy and individuals that either could not or would not conform to gender expectations were ostracised.