Coexist Kenya

The Unending Manhood Paradox

By Wanjala Wafula*


 have spent the last fifteen years championing a cause of non-violent versions of manhood across the African continent. On the other hand, I resolutely support elements of traditional socialization in Africa that promote non-violence, and ones that foster coexistence and the reduction of all forms of violence. Like other men across the African continent, I have wondered for many years about what really makes me a man apart from the physical manifestations which I hasten to mention are rather very apparent

I recently had a singular privilege of being part of a delegation to launch the One Million Fathers movement in Mombasa here in Kenya. For one week, we labored day and night to get the campaign going and in the process, I learned a few lessons.


I have awoken up to the realization that manhood as is defined in most African communities is a shaky social status that is both difficult to achieve and yet vaguely held. I now understand why numerous men across the globe are starting to realize just how profound the burden of being male is especially in the context of the effects of negative masculinity that many of us are socialized into.


I have learned that manhood must be earned and preserved through visibly demonstrable actions including violence, cultures/traditions, and economic deprivation of the “other” as well as sustained depravity of those we are made to believe are the “weaker” sex. I have established that manhood requires that men and boys behave and act in specific ways before one’s social group as well as the public. I have carried along with me the lessons in my childhood where we were taught the roles and duties of a man and woman. It’s sad to affirm that my age mates are perishing from HIV infection, STI’s, alcoholism, crime, poverty, illiteracy and the list remains endless. The double edged side of manhood is proving too cumbersome for some men and resulting to enormous effects to both individuals and families hence my lonely cry to all men and boys to shun the shackles of negative masculinity. Men and boys must avoid the entitlements of manhood as defined by harmful traditions and customs.


I have met a sundry of groups and I am left to struggle with the realism that men experience more anxiety over their gender status particularly when that status is uncertain or challenged by factors including poverty, displacement, ignorance and disease. Attaining manhood is effectively evaluated or adjudicated by other men and women. From the conversations that I have had with young men in various societal situations, many acknowledge that they habitually have a sense of being checked if they measure up to accepted outstanding description of manhood. In my view, the big brother side of manhood is driving many men and boys to the realization that negative masculinity is a burden that we all were socialized to accept and bear.

During one of those walks along the seashore, close to the treasured Fort Jesus in Mombasa, I met Ahmed who responded to my questions about manhood with enthusiasm. The common thing in his answers were the masculine stereotypes, depicting men and boys as uncouth, rough, dispassionate, and frightened by nothing. He swore a lot, was defensive and reflected anxiety, as if manhood itself is in danger. I realized that manhood as envisaged by traditions, customs and socialization processes remains vaguely defined and least understood by most men and boys.


I have been following the inclinations of the contemporary media which are challenging the apprehensive status of men and boys. Manhood, us understood is being challenged by the current societal drive toward being macho and illustrated by money, influence and stardom. To mitigate the push of the modern media and society in general, more and more men and boys are injection themselves the toxin of violence and entitlement as a justification of remaining relevant. In my view, cultures around Africa view manhood as a status that must be earned and that it can be lost if not safeguarded at all costs.

Wafula (in Red) moderating at an interfaith forum at the Red-Cross hall in Mombasa-Kenya

Over the years, I have met men from across the globe, yet a majority of them have vehemently argued that a strong manhood identity can only develop if boys adequately disconnect with the female caregiver and the feminine traits that she embodies. To achieve this, Initiation rites of passage, some of which include male circumcision are administered. Pundits have over the years pointed out that some of the initiation practices continue to transform boys into the aggressors that the same society is lamenting about. Sadly, sexual experience is frequently associated with initiation into manhood and achieving a socially recognized manhood status. Men are expected to be widely conversant, insistent, and skilled regarding sexuality yet the same exposes them to the risks of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.



Surveys from most parts of Africa reveal that there exists an inter-connection between manhood and a substantial level of financial independence as well as having a family. The reality is that unemployment rates are skyrocketing and the majority of men do not have the financial muscle they desire. Manhood is under siege in many places in Africa as many men and boys remain not socially recognized. The property bill passed by Parliament in Kenya goes to explain what happens when manhood is challenged and how men desperately defend that which they feel entitled to.


One fundamental observation that has evaded pundits in discussions around manhood is the role that women and girls play in formation and sustenance of manhood. I hasten to mention that gender functions are created and reconstructed. This means that they must be interrogated by both men and women. Girls and women enormously add to traditional, harmful versions of manhood, just as boys and men contribute to customary, restraining versions of womanhood. Factual and durable transformation in gender norms will only be realized when it is extensively accepted that gender is relational, that it is restricting to aspire to empower women without engaging men. I reiterate that it is also intricate if not impractical to change what manhood means without appealing to women and girls.

*The writer, Wanjala Wafula,  is  a  Founder  /  CEO  of  The  Coexist  Initiative,  a  not  for  profit  synergy  of  men  and  boys community‐based  organizations  committed  to  eliminating  all  forms  of  Gender  based  violence  in  Kenya. Visit    www.coexistkenya.com    or    email    Wafula@coexistkenya.com‐    facebook‐wanjala    Wafula‐ skype: coexist.initiative.  Tel:  +254712653322