How men and boys can be masculine without being toxic
Three isolated occurrences this week can only fuel an already lively national debate on masculinity and the so-called “boy-child”. Brian Bera, the University student who was shot scaling State House security walls with a pen knife, was released to his family as the Human Rights Watch published their report documenting the summary and systemic execution of suspects. Across the nation’s capital, families and survivors also gathered to discuss how to stop violent policing and violent crimes that are wrecking homes and communities ahead of the Saba Saba March for Our Lives tomorrow.
Brian Bera Kibet sat and passed all his engineering degree units in March. Barely four months later, he caused a national stir as he was shot and injured by the Presidential Guard jumping over State House Gate B armed with a knife. At the time, public opinion was radically divided over what form of madness this was. Was he mentally ill or just very angry at the national leadership for corruption? This week, he was released on a light bail of Kshs 100,000 into the custody of his father George Bera on the understanding he has a history of mentally illness.
Not all have been as lucky as Brian. Human Rights Watch and Missing Voices have documented seventeen cases of unlawful killings in just two Nairobi neighbourhoods, Dandora and Mathare over the last ten months. They include men like scrap metal shop owner Alex Githuku Macharia (34), Davis Tekei (21) Githuku’s employee, Jacob Chege Kaberi (24), Fredrick Ochieng (22) and matatu conductor Vincent Mandu Oduor (29). Before she was killed in February, the late human rights defender Caroline Mwatha had extensively documented their case. Media reports suggest that the police killed 101 people in Nairobi and 180 people across Kenya over the same period.
These figures factually contradict public assurances by the Interior Cabinet Secretary and the Police Inspector General that there is no policy of extra-judicial killings and individual officers will be held liable. The inconvenient truth is that excessive and unlawful force continues to be used in informal settlements. Commanders at Kinyago and Pangani station have acknowledged the killings but have yet to submit reports to the Police Inspector General, Internal Affairs Unit or the Independent Policing Oversight Authority as required by law. In the absence of decisive action, official investigations have begun to stall as witnesses withdraw under the weight of threats of more violence.
Social justice activists working with communities have had no option but to continue drawing national attention to the lawlessness that soils our new police uniforms and the majority of our brave and committed policer officers who do uphold the law. Tomorrow, hundreds of affected communities will hold the annual Saba Saba March for our Lives to raise awareness and seek an end to the violence.
Dealing with the violence is only the tip of this mountain. We have to start asking whether toxic masculinity is also at the base of the crisis. Often forgotten, there is very little difference between the ages of most Police Officers, Brian Bera and the late Githuku Macharia. Further, vigilante cops, criminals and people who are mentally unstable and violent are almost always victims of some past trauma. Walking wounded, hurt people hurt others.
Toxic masculinity currently leaves little room for men unable to express themselves emotionally and experience vulnerability to any form of rejection or indignity without lashing out. In this context, Chimamanda Ngozi’s words, "by far the worst thing we do to males is to make them so hard that they have fragile egos" needs public dialogue. Perhaps it is the wisdom of the young that will free us.
Renee told me the story of her daughter Kenia (8) who challenged her teachers for refusing her male students to play netball this week. Her brother Miriye (12) had a different perspective, “If girls can play football, wear trousers and hold hands, why can’t boys play netball, wear dresses and hold hands without being called gay?” Fixed gender stereotypes are as much a human rights issue for boys and men as they are for women and girls.
How can men and boys be masculine without being toxic? How about not cheating ourselves we are entitled to the bodies and affection of women and girls? How about insisting on a YES before being sexually intimate? How about giving ourselves license to be emotionally vulnerable and publicly expressive about it? Simply, we need more public and private discussions on being boys, manhood and healthy masculinity.
First published Saturday Standard, July 6, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group