There is a scar on my right knee.
I was sixteen, away from home at a university where I had applied to study. In this part of Nigeria, written exams are held at the school one applies to. So I had to travel from home alone and stay with my cousin for a few days. It was my first time in anything like a university setting.
I could not exactly contemplate a life with such freedom. I knew this world to be much bigger than the triangular school-church-house life I had in Lagos, but I thought, similarly, that there was a strict outline for how, as a young man, one was expected to behave.
And so even though, through all my six years in secondary school, I had only kicked a ball in the safety of our Lagos apartment with my brother, I joined the bigger boys in my cousin’s yard to play football.
I had firmly decided to die rather than tell my cousin what had happened.
I got the scar that evening. A bigger boy, in his mid-twenties, had rammed me against the hard cement floor after about thirty minutes of playing. For him, it had just been a push (as I found out people push a lot during football). For me, it was something else; my ego, just like my right knee, was bruised.
I could not tell my cousin about it. Not even a few days after when the sore worsened and I feared that I would die of tetanus. Not even when wearing my skinny jeans became labour. I had firmly decided to die rather than tell my cousin what had happened. I had decided to be a man, albeit a dead one.
This story about playing football is a cautionary tale: deadly things can happen when we choose to slot into narrow narratives rather than design our own. I had decided to be an African man. I thought it would give me freedom. But, as I’ve since found out, African masculinity limits us; it does not free us.
I grew up in the shallow mindedness that was/is Lagos. And so during my days in secondary school, I shoved novels deep in my bag because I did not want anyone to find them; because I knew the boys in my class would taunt me about being a girl or about why it wasn’t a ball and jersey lying in my bag instead.
It was not until I went to university after passing the exams, and spent time on social media that I started to meet boys like me.
I hid too when I had to borrow books from the girls, especially the harlequin ones with their emotional titles. I was not so manly anyway so I did not want to compromise the little manliness that I had. I hated that I loved books. I only found comfort reading them in my bedroom and talking about them with the only people who would not judge me: my mechanical engineer brother, who wasn’t interested in books and my pharmacist sister who was the same.
It was not until I went to university after passing the exams, and spent time on social media that I started to meet boys like me. Who read books and believed in them. The knowledge that I was not alone made me more confident. I started to hold books in public places, brag about them on social media and what not.
But it still feels like I am in a minority. My brother recently told me that a female university friend once said to him that every parent should give their sons ‘Girlfriend Money’. He asked what this money was; she said it was money for a boy to take care of his girlfriend. She explains in depth that this money should be different from regular pocket money; this money was meant to make his girlfriend’s hair, send her airtime, take her on dates. Her parents gave her brother ‘girlfriend money’.
As hilarious as this sounds, it is actually true. In Nigeria, boyfriends are always meant to be the providers. Women are meant to marry to liberate their poor family. And here I’ve got to make the very necessary point: I am not poor. Most African men believe that people who speak against these things are people who do not have money, inept men, people who cannot fit into the standards of masculinity.
African society has refused to understand that there is a marked difference between sex and gender.
Nigerians have coined the term ‘You no be correct man’ from Pidgin English to describe someone who does not meet these standards. But if we think we are men only after fulfilling certain characteristics, it leaves no space for contraries. African masculinity was born out of a society that is very particular about labels, a society that accepts only the things they have a name for.
African society has refused to understand that there is a marked difference between sex and gender. When we begin to understand that no one is born a man, that people are only born male or female; when we begin to recognise that people learn gender rather than are born with it, that what gender does is exactly what society says it should do; then we start to defeat it.
A lot of work needs to be done. I want to raise my kids in a society that does not suffocate their existence; that does not lay down a blueprint for their lives even before they are born. I do not want my male kids to think they were born only to love women, drink beer, run a family, play football and die. I want them to grow in a society that hands them a blank cheque and tells them to fill it out. By showing that there are different ways to be a man, I am slowly helping design this blank cheque.