For African men, success and suicide are near allied

Friday August 17 2018

Book cover Things Fall Apart

Like Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, these big African men start out promisingly. Okonkwo starts as a pillar of his community well on his way to wealth and power as an elder. But his rigidity and insistence on never showing what he considers weakness, his inability to compromise, lead him to commit suicide.  

ELSIE EYAKUZE
By ELSIE EYAKUZE
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Okonkwo was the man who first taught me about the mortal danger of male fragility and toxic masculinity.

There is a reason that Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was recently voted towards the top of World Literature List somewhere credible like Oxford maybe or UDSM: It is brilliant in its brevity and deceptive in its simplicity, which is why it is a canon in many African schools.

I bring this seminal work up to silence the obscurantists who claim that culture is static (by which they mean brutally patriarchal) and that issues of gender, mental health, violence and suicide are Western racist impositions.

Because (spoiler alert) the clueless Englishman in Things Fall Apart only shows up at the end to provide a devastating condemnation of colonial Europe’s pompous ignorance and subsequent inhumanity.

A pomposity and inhumanity that I see on the rise as totalitarianism in its various forms rears its ugly head in the region and around the world. We are slowly but surely being overrun by strongmen with a penchant for militaristic fashion and an inexplicable pride in their misogyny and corruption and exploitation of youth.

Like Okonkwo, these big men of ours start out promisingly. Generally presentable, sometimes even youthful and easy on the eye. Before predictably turning into monsters that cost us far too much blood and guts to get rid of – if we succeed at all.

I picked Okonkwo because he starts as a pillar of his community well on his way to wealth and power as an elder. But his rigidity and insistence on never showing what he considers weakness, his inability to compromise, lead him to commit suicide.

Not to scare you or anything, but the rates of suicide in Tanzania are alarmingly high up in the world rankings and seem to be still rising. Naturally, men are dying in far larger numbers than women.

I promised to issue a challenge to our jamii and to our collective fathers and uncles, partners and colleagues and peers on the idea of strength and success and how they are defined and celebrated in men.

The beauty of TFA is how it presents an antidote to the murderous “success” imperative that only accepts competition as the viable mode of relations between men. It is an exaggeration of course, but let is not underestimate how brutal the criteria are for men to develop a healthily balanced ego. They centre on money and hierarchy... And we encourage them in boys.

My challenge is: Knowing what you know as grown men, why are you still selecting critically flawed individuals as leaders, mistaking the ability to bully opponents for decision-making skill? If your sons see you kowtow to men who lack character, what are you raising them to value? Do you really need any more explanation as to why African youth are angry?

My radical proposition to start tackling this conundrum we have fallen into is simple: Feminism. Give our boys the same attention to their particular needs as girls are beginning to get.

Celebrate them not for their sex but for their achievements. Make them read books and explore their creativity.

Tell them that money can’t buy you the love of a good woman, for heaven's sake, and that changing nappies and being a competent cook are bare minimums for adulthood.

We need to find some common ground to talk about leadership and character and finally dispense with those who distract us from their non-performance by buying expensive toys and blaming everything on multiparty democracy.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for the Mikocheni Report. E-mail: [email protected]

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