The conflict in raising boys and girls into responsible husbands and wives

Last month, the young, lovely editor of this magazine asked me a strange question: “How do we raise responsible boys who will grow into real men with strong traditional values; men who can keep a job or find an honest means of earning a living, not sissies who think the world owes them a living?”

I guessed where she was coming from. We were reeling from the Jowie saga; the handsome man with no known occupation or fixed abode who lived in his girlfriend’s house, drove her car and went clubbing on her business cards.

Three questions came to mind: Is this phenomenon a new thing? Is there a place today for a ‘real man with traditional values’? Is it possible or even necessary to raise such a man today?

As we debate the circumstances of the wayward boy child, we must first appreciate that we are the last of a passing generation, the children of Independence born of parents who were thrust by history into a rapidly changing society that they could barely comprehend.

Our grandfathers were polygamists, who ruled by fist and fiat and whose women provided the labour that sustained the family economy. But because cash crops and livestock belonged to men, they controlled the economy; a power that allowed them to decide which wife to sleep with and when. They educated their sons, but pulled their daughters out of school to maintain the status quo: “A woman’s place is in the kitchen.”

Traditional men were not necessarily better than today‘s slay king.

We may romanticise them today as “wise” but in reality, they were not necessarily smarter than our grandmas. It was a scam. Like colonialists, they simply had a good, crooked thing going. Truth is many of them were a bunch of lazy men who not only lived off women but subjugated them through violence, brainwashing and, in many communities, female circumcision. A clitoris, in my view, is an equivalent of a phallic symbol that gives women the right to, like men, enjoy sex, and select partners who satisfy them. As a control measure, our forefathers simply got rid of the damn thing.

That the traditional African man was responsible is therefore a figment of our imagination. There were, among them, lazy men whose wives cultivated the fields, milked the cows, raised children, kept house, and provided sexual pleasure when their polygamist husbands so demanded. That this nation is fed by an army of rural women who work their fingers to the bone while their husbands chew the cud at local markets and get intoxicated on local brew is hardly surprising.             

Is there a difference between our lazy, ‘traditional’ grandfathers and the errant men a judge memorably described as ‘woman eaters’? Nah. Middle class women are taking in these boys, feeding them, clothing, buying them booze and cars and giving them cash only to get surprised when these loafers cheat on them and beat them up in the manner of their crooked, lazy, polygamist great grandfathers. The mothers of my generation knew there was something twisted about the role men had created for themselves and the manner their mothers were treated and they grew up angry and scarred. So, even as they taught their daughters the science of the kitchen, they whispered to them again and again that they were as good as boys, or even better. As a result, we competed fiercely with our sisters who today hold powerful positions in government, academia, the NGO, corporate and business sectors.  

Meanwhile, something more intriguing was bubbling beneath the surface. Our mothers who got an education became teachers, nurses, secretaries, civil servants. Their income gave them the right to speak up but our fathers, in a bid to maintain status quo, fought this by insisting that they could not touch pesa ya mwanamke. They paid fees, bought meat, built homes, bought clothes for the kids and even gave our mothers money for the salon.

...And women quietly became men 

In rural areas, women were quietly becoming ‘men’. Most times, their husbands worked in distant towns, sending a little money home monthly and visiting occasionally. It is to these women that the duty of running homes and raising many of the people who call the shots in this country fell. This space gave them authority to make decisions such that when our fathers retired to the village 30 years later, they were shocked to discover that the ground had shifted; that their wives were deeply rooted, with powerful networks within the community. They were managing livestock and ‘men’s’ crops, dealing with the Vet, holding court with the assistant chief, building water tanks. A woman’s place had irrevocably moved from the kitchen.

Our fathers found this shift in power relations bewildering, and many are the couples who divorced acrimoniously in their late 40s and 50s when retirement forced them to cohabit. As a matter of fact, it is living apart that made our parents’ marriages last. Our mothers would never have withstood our fathers’ traditional ways, and the manner they fought bitterly against polygamy attests to this.

When we, their children, came of age and became parents, the line between genders became blurred. The women we married were educated. Our wives are surgeons, scholars, engineers, soldiers, journalists, politicians, corporate managers, morticians, carpenters and drivers. And unlike our fathers, the economic realities of the times do not allow us to scoff at pesa ya mwanamke. To survive, we keep joint bank accounts, help each other to pay fees, household bills, and mortgages, buy family cars, and make investments. That they are still willing to cook and serve us dinner is a miracle! But I guess it is because they were raised to do so.    

Yet in our households, we have no gender-specific roles for the children. Our sons and daughters wear trousers, cook, clean, do the dishes and rig up the TV without respect to gender. Our wives are inheriting ancestral land. Our sisters who are single mothers own homes, head families and circumcise their sons. We know that some of our daughters will never get married through circumstances or choice. It is a terrifying and confusing place for a young man who grew up seeing his mother serving his father dinner, but knows his sister will never serve her husband, yet still wants a wife who is like his mother.

In a span of 80 years, the woman has moved from a subservient position to one of authority and power. The ‘traditional’ place of the man is gone – for good – because our world no longer has a space for that kind of man. There are no tribal wars to fight, no cattle to steal, no traditional courts to preside over, no security to provide for the family and no harem of women to bark at and beat. That world ended when water started pouring through taps; firewood gave way to cooking gas; the hunting spear fell to university degrees and an ATM card; and men learnt to cook and change diapers because they had no choice.

The ‘woman eater’ of old and today’s slay king

There is, however, one fundamental difference between the ‘woman eater’ of old and today’s slay king. In my great grandfather’s time, if you didn’t own a hut or livestock, you simply didn’t get a wife, meaning loafers were craftily castrated and weeded out, living single, lonely, jigger-infested hungry lives in filthy hovels on the edge of the forest.

Not anymore. Today, successful women will pay their own bride price, fund weddings and build a useless chap a decent home and raise his children. Why they do so is the question we must face, and not how to raise a real man with traditional values.

Look, we are in this mess because we raise our daughters to out compete men, but teach our sons to marry women who are beneath them. We do so because we hunger for the traditional roles of old. We want our highly educated daughters to marry rich men, but expect our rich sons to marry women who are less-educated because they are ‘easier to control.’ So educated and successful men are steering clear of their peers and marrying empty-headed bimbos with big tits and bigger behinds, because they can whip and control them in the manner of their great grandfathers. What are the women to do when the same society demands that they get married, even if there are no decent prospects?

If we teach our sons that the traditional order is gone, that it is no longer useful or necessary to ‘sit’ on women, that it is okay to marry their peers; and if we teach our daughters that they are not defined by marriage, that it is okay to have a home and children without a husband, then the handsome, lazy gigolo will be stuck with the empty headed slay queen.

God knows they deserve each other.

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Raising boysGirlchild educationTraditional values