By Sheila Gabeya
It is only if you have been born and bred in an African household that you fully understand the thin line African men walk while growing up between modernity and tradition. Your parents struggle and sacrifice to get you to school where you can acquire an education that is likely to turn you into an enlightened and liberal thinker while always warning you against acting so liberated that you consider options outside the ones they deem acceptable. Talk about laying down eggshells to walk on while somehow doing it without making them break!
The clamor to learn a different culture, but still “not be like them” is the norm in our families and this contradiction has affected the decision making of many educated men in Africa. While they may know what is ‘right’, they are tied down by the fear of disappointing their elders back home, which is why when even my most educated male friends hear of vasectomy, they are quick to shun the idea. To make matters worse, men are challenged to not express feelings; “You are a man, and you should never cry, show any ‘weak’ emotion, any reaction to pain or hurt, or even excessive excitement.”
These are the cardinal rules that African boys are taught to live by at the earliest ages. In a society where toughing out circumcision with just a blade and no anesthetic or better yet, fighting and killing a lion- with a poker face, is seen as being the ultimate man-meter, it is disappointing that loving your wife openly and taking responsibility for family planning is seen as weakness, unmanly and even an abomination.
As an African woman (in my culture, in fact, I am not a woman yet as I have neither husband nor children—so there we go again!), I am never meant to speak in a gathering of men. In fact, it’s assumed that while men publically discuss community issues, women are meant to be at home taking responsibility for personal matters such as family planning. Men are taught to believe that issues of the family are below them and over generations women have succumbed and together we have come to accept this notion as though it were a God sent commandment.
To make things even worse, over the years almost all of the major family planning campaigns that are funded by international donors and approved by our governments emphasize the same divide. Pictures of women and children or just women predominate and the funding and options available are all female focused. It is understandable that we’ve come to accept the disparity, but it is no longer right or acceptable. I understand that appealing to women may be more ‘cost-effective’ on a short-term basis, but the long-term impact of segregating men and women reinforces a divide that is unhealthy for the long term future of our society.
This past month in Kenya during the lead-up and celebration of World Vasectomy Day, we saw the seeds of something different; a new dialogue, a new conversation that was both respectful, challenging and inspiring. WVD asked men to rise up and be part of what we all know is the most important conversation of our lives and men responded in numbers we have never seen before. In addition, young men and women, far from a phase in their lives where a vasectomy is a considered option, still participated in heated and passionate dialogues about how to build families together. It is the beginning, but living proof that change is possible even if that change takes time.
In my generation of Africa men and women, there is a growing awareness that we can not afford to hold on to old ideas that no longer serve us well. It is up to us to do away with dogmatic thinking, to rise up and take responsibility and become trendsetters, not followers as we courageously take the road less traveled. World Vasectomy Day revealed that there are more heroes amongst us then we realize. We are not alone. We just need to raise our voices and state our plan and purpose ad let time and perseverance guide us on our life’s journey.
So please let’s put our pride and egos aside, let’s rise up and love our wives openly and unapologetically. Let’s thank our husbands and partners who stand alone when others fear to follow. We are of a generation that cannot accept that love is a weakness nor is showing emotion a strictly female quality. The time has come to think about ask our father’s what about your daughter’s future. Does he want us to be with a man who respects and loves us or a man who leaves all the responsibility on our shoulders? You are making it possible for us to be educated and we are changing rapidly. It is time for our men to join us as well.
Yes, I know it will be hard. There will be those who will sneer at you, or ridicule you, or maybe you’ll even be threatened with excommunication, but taking a stand will lead to a better future for both your sons and your daughters and we know you value that more than adherence to the past.
Imagine a nation where sons are not afraid to love or be loved, where daughters are not put down for their femininity but embraced by their husbands, where families are planned with both spouses involved and where the decision to have child or two makes it possible to for us to get a university degree and where small families are seen as the norm and not a curse.
It is not an easy path that lies ahead, but the goal, a healthier African society where women are celebrated instead of burdened and abused, and where families work together not apart, is not only possible but absolutely necessary if we’re to imagine and manifest a brighter future. So no, change is not easy nor is it fast, but our forefathers taught us not to give up even when the odds are long, and that “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” And yes, it may take a whole village to raise a child, but it shouldn’t take the whole village to be loving and fair to your wife.
So begin making the change today, take responsibility for your families, get a vasectomy when you family is complete, whatever you choose, make the choice with both you and your wife, become more present in your families lives and be the man the woman you love deserves! And while we’re at it, maybe we can all figure out a better manifestation for manhood and along with it a new man-meter!
I know it’s not easy, but I know it’s true because after all, I am an African woman!
Donate to build a sustainable vasectomy outreach program in Kenya! We’re looking for $35,000. Will you help? https://igg.me/at/rrp0V1ZxLSw
About the Author: Sheila Gabeya is a 25-year-old Ugandan writer and photographer living in Nairobi, Kenya. She will be documenting World Vasectomy Day triumphs and challenges through her pictures and storytelling.
Photo: Sheila Gabeya