The term “patriarchy” has moved from academic spaces to the everyday conversations had on social media about gender and equality. Dominantly, this term is explored for the ways in which it disenfranchises women and the vulnerable in society, but we need to talk about its role in breaking men down to emotionless beings, obsessed with fulfilling physical whims to the detriment of wider society and also tragically, themselves.
In his book, “Mask Off: Masculinity Defined”, JJ Bola says of patriarchy, “It is a kind of double-edged sword, a poisonous panacea; that is to say, the same system that puts men at an advantage in society is essentially the same system that limits them, inhibits their growth and eventually leads to their breakdown.” This sentiment is no better exemplified than in the novel, A Man Who Is Not A Man, by South African author, Thando Mgqolozana, which is the story of a boy whose rite of passage into manhood – a circumcision – goes wrong, and the ensuing response of self and community to the incident.
Mgqolozana’s protagonist is not unlike many of us: he buys into societal ideas of gender to the detriment of the personhood, which has organically come about as he ages. We are introduced to the protagonist in his youth, meeting a rascal who also exhibits emotional intelligence and compassion. This compassion is best exemplified in the way that he treats Yanda, his love interest, who at a very young age has had five abortions. As a boy, Chris, the protagonist, is able to help Yanda come to terms with the shame and guilt she carries for these abortions and find a way to see herself as more than choices of her past. This moment in the novel, so touching, makes his later choice to watch his penis rot away rather than seek medical attention disheartening.
For Chris, circumcision is the chance to finally belong to something, a mysterious thing he is promised knowledge of, post circumcision – manhood. This is doubly important to him as he has been sent away by his father for his youthful transgressions and resides with his mother and maternal community. The desire to truly belong to the masculine side of the community he now resides, sees him shedding personhood for communal ideals, desperate to receive acceptance, no matter the cost. The cost coming in the form of near death and a mutilated penis.
The added trauma of Chris’s story is that he is 18 at the time he undertakes the ritual; one of the last in his circle of friends to get circumcised. In many countries, the very act of turning 18 makes one a legal adult, but there is a clear difference between the legal and the cultural. The reality of Chris’s setting means that he succumbs to traditions of the culture. Chris’s choice fits into Judith Butler’s summation that “gender is an identity tenuously constructed in time… through a stylised repetition of acts.” This circumcision comes about because of time, place and norm, rather than a lifelong desire or understanding of this as the sole path to “manhood”.
That this circumcision is botched, takes us back to Bola’s summation of patriarchy. The error occurs in part because rather than be attended by male elders as is custom, much of Chris’s care is undertaken by his younger, yet uncircumcised brother. This occurs because the family patriarch, in a drunken stupor, declares that he and no one else will attend to the boy; reasons for this unknown and never revealed. Despite customs dictating one thing, many choose to honour the words of a drunken man, thus failing a boy on the cusp of manhood and causing a situation that breaks his ability to mentally crush the threshold into manhood. It is not just that seeking medical help would have brought shame, but that the very act of catching an infection was touted as shameful and unmanly.
Chris, a cultural child, is left alone for eight days in a makeshift tent on a mountain with only undercooked maize for sustenance, in the care of a child with limited options for dealing with a quickly growing (or infected) crisis. At this point, his understanding is that getting to the other side and attaining manhood is contingent on his withstanding pain and avoiding all show of “weakness” even when his life and health are at stake. Patriarchal ideas of gender leave him between a rock and a hard place, limiting and carving very hard gender rules that go against his nature.
These rigid constructs of manhood exist not just in Chris’ world but in the everyday, where the “boys don’t cry” trope, ingrained into the male gender, creates emotionally stunted people that would rather suffer in silence than express and seek help for pain. This issue is why Nigeria is ranked as having the 56th highest rate of male suicide in the world, a figure that should concern us greatly. That both needing and seeking help is categorised as weakness creates a dystopian existence for me who are expected to be most powerful but become near helpless.
A prime example of this is the story of Zubairu Rakiya whose husband waits until he is on the deathbed to disclose his HIV status. The shame of falling ill keeps him from seeking treatment or even sharing the information with his partner who he of course infects. Undoubtedly, there is stigma around HIV diagnosis in Nigeria but records show that women seek help at a disproportionately higher rate than me. This means more men dying, a great deal in silence to protect this thing called masculinity.
And so Chris’ seeking help causes him to feel shame, particularly heightened by the way his grandfather treats him for needing medical attention. The lack of accountability from this patriarch is both audacious and doubly damaging, uncompromising in the face of the boy’s pain, focused instead on perceived notions of familial shame. Again here the patriarchy honours the collective idea of masculinity over individual pain. This as the immediate response to the botched circumcision, despite having men who step into his corner to fight for him creates a crisis of identity in Chris, one that even by the novel’s end remains unresolved.
The great tragedy of “A Man Who Is Not A Man” is that Chris loses, not self but confidence in himself because of eight days under the constraints of patriarchal ideals of manhood. The novel’s ending shows a man who is still struggling to come into the totality of self because of a circumcision foiled by a lack of communal care. That masculinity and penis power so closely tied is a broader conversation, one which I do not think is the focus of this story. What we focus on is the after effects of power inflicted trauma, one which can happen over a short time but have lifelong repercussions on an individual and society.