July 7, 2008

Being a guy

Astute readers will have no doubt realized long ago that many of the people I write about are women. Many of the people I see on a daily basis are female and my experience of Itipini is coloured by this fact. At least two people have asked, “where are all the men?” and it is an excellent question, one that gets to the heart of a lot of the issues confronting this society. I won’t be pretend to be able to answer it fully but let me begin to sketch out an answer. The ideas in this post are based on my own experience but also conversations with others and some reading I have done in my time here.

I should first say that there are many women in Itipini whom I deeply admire for their commitment to their families, the hard work they put in every single day, and their numerous sacrifices. Unfortunately, the list of men I admire is much shorter; indeed, I’m hard-pressed to come up with more than a name or two right now. I find it very easy to get extremely aggravated very quickly when I interact with men here. Many women have opened their lives to me here but I regret I don’t know enough men well enough (because my frustration gets in the way of the relationship) to know as much about their lives. Changing this is one of my goals for my second year.

A good starting point is to acknowledge is that the role of men in Xhosa society has changed dramatically in the last few generations. No longer is it possible to aspire to be a patriarch of a large family, with a kraal with several rondavels, and a herd of cows. Rural life is evapourating (as it is all over the world) and the experience of apartheid and the need for male labour in the mines near Johannesburg drained the region of its men. Nelson Mandela describes the vibrant village life he witnessed as a child in his autobiography. I doubt that children growing up today have that same experience.

(The jobs women do have not changed much at all - babies still need to be tended, food prepared, water hauled, and clothes cleaned.)

As one possible future for men has dissolved, at least one other has risen to take its place. This has been facilitated by the rise of a common culture, disseminated through everyone’s television screens. It centres on men being providers for their family, and manly men, and tough men. Children here love watching American wrestling shows, for instance. (Yes, there are even television screens in Itipini, run off car batteries.)

The trouble is that at the same time this future has become the goal, the actual means of achieving it have become harder to achieve. Jobs are scarcer. The education needed to get those jobs is more expensive and more limited. Even when people do get education, they often can’t find jobs with their new qualifications. A number of things - I would include the democratic transition and contemporary capitalism on that list - have combined to hold up an aspiration on one hand but also put it just out of reach. (It’s amazing how the Frankfurt School critiques of capitalism I read in school ring true here.)

The result is that young men look for other ways to assert their masculinity. One alternative is crime and statistics make it clear that far too many young men are choosing this option. (South Africa has the second-highest murder rate in the world after Colombia, I believe.) Crime is rampant in this country and has apparently exploded since 1994. Boys want to grow up to be tsotsis (thugs) and it’s hard to see how going to school furthers that aim. (And if your teacher doesn’t show up to school or you don’t have the necessary supplies, why would you make a priority of education, particularly if your parents aren’t educated?)

Underlying all this is the ready availability of alcohol. A liter of cheap, Xhosa beer costs approximately 50-cents and people down those like water it seems. I always see men sitting around in front of the shebeens (unlicensed bars) all day, while the woman work around them. If there’s nothing to work for, why not spend your day drinking? A few weeks ago, I was trying to sort out care for a sick woman and asked my friend Noxolo, “Where all the men? Why can’t they help with this situation?” She said, “The men don’t want to help. They just want to sit in the shebeens all day.” I walked into a shack the other day where a (drunk) man had just been stabbed in the chest in a fight (it was safe). There were about a half-dozen men sitting around watching a grainy TV, smoking something, and drinking… at about 11 in the morning. This was how they were going to spend their whole day.

About the only other way men can assert their masculinity is through sex. Combine this with HIV and the result is mass tragedy. I recommended the book Three-Letter Plague a while back (and still do) and this passage from it has stayed with me since:

“When there is nothing else to do, when, for instance, one cannot give expression to one’s manhood by becoming a household patriarch or careerist, the whole of manhood becomes endowed in sexual performance. It is made to do too much work; it is a source of anxiety.”
Women here have told me that men refuse to wear condoms because - in addition to the age-old, “you don’t really love me if you make me wear a condom” - some say, “You don’t eat a sweet with the wrapper on.” But since sex is also the vector by which HIV is transmitted, the one source of power remaining to men is also what is resulting in the sickness and death of their generation.

On my drive in to Itipini, I see a few young men pushing carts into town, hoping to make a few rand (for beer) that way. They are only 18 or 20 and I wonder how they would reply if they were asked - as I was at that age - “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I realize future-thinking is a luxury of the financially secure but it is hard for me to see how the path they are on is a positive one. They have little education and few employable skills. Having something to look forward to, I’ve realized, is a great gift. What do they have?

Women keep on keepin’ on it seems. As men spiral into nothingness, women still keep the household running by whatever means they can. In so doing, they are building up their own skills and their own reservoir of power. Men don’t realize it now but they’re going to look up some day and realize any social status they once had has completely dissipated.


Anonymous said...

Ah, how very interesting...=).