“Jikaze Bwana, wee mtoto wa kiume”
The Dilemma of the African Man and Mental Health
Hilda C. Tizeba
Living Inside the Bubble
As a woman, I never once imagined that there would be a day that I find myself writing anything that relates to the man’s experience, yet here I am. As a woman, I just could not relate. There are so many things about men that I could and still do not understand, and as a result, I rarely thought about them. Besides, I thought to myself, I not being a man, would I ever be able to capture his experience in a way that truly does him justice? Probably not, so I let it be.
Until one day after a series of deeply soul awakening events, I realized I was wrong. I finally discovered the missing piece of the puzzle. Throughout my life, I had witnessed several men alienate themselves, destroy themselves, their families and drown their sorrows in bottle after bottle, simply because they did not know how to utter two very important words, “HELP ME”. As a woman, I just could not understand how that could ever be so. Asking for help or talking to a friend about a bad day that I had encountered or traumatic experience that I was going through was almost second nature to me. It came to me so easily to the point that I took for granted that this may not be the case for everyone else.
I now realize that I was misguided for thinking that just because I am a woman, and would probably never understand nor grasp the full depth of a man’s experiences then I should just sit back and let someone else who could “relate” do the job. Sometimes, everyone needs someone to speak for them, not because they do not have a mouth to speak, but maybe because they do not have the words. So today, as a woman, let me address the issue regarding men’s mental health not because they do not have mouths to speak, but maybe because after being so used to battling their sorrows in silence, need a little help with the words…
The Dilemma of the African Man and Mental Health
Lately, the conversation regarding men’s mental health and the need for men to be more expressive has been on the rise, but I ask myself, how effective will it be? It’s one thing to talk about something; it’s another to actually accept it. These days, men are encouraged to express their feelings and they are told that it’s okay to be vulnerable. But why aren’t things really changing for men in terms of their mental health? Surveys from around the world show that men everywhere find it difficult to open up about mental health. More men than women are still prone to suicide, depression, alcohol and substance abuse. Men’s mental health challenges also manifest themselves through violence and aggression. As the heads of families and key figures in positions of leadership, mental health problems faced by the African man extend from the individual, to the family and ultimately, the society at large.
Well for one thing, time. Change needs time. From the time he is a little boy, the African man is bombarded with messages such as “ boys don’t cry”, “wee mtoto wa kiume bwana jikaze”. Even when men are encouraged to be vulnerable and express themselves, not many people are actually ready to see and accept that part of them. So you may be telling men one thing, but intuitively men sense the contrast between the overt invitations for openness and the inner sentiments and attitudes lying underneath. I now understand that part of the reason why expressing myself as a woman and opening up about my mental health comes so easy to me is because society has allowed me to do so, something which isn’t afforded to men.
The Man Box
You see, with patriarchy comes the man box. In this man box, you’ll find all the attributes of what the typical man is supposed to be like. Strong, successful, unemotional, logical, ambitious, and athletic and so many other things, but here’s what’s not included in that box; sensitivity, expressiveness, being emotional and desiring of intimacy or vulnerability. According to the WHO report of 2018, cultural stigma surrounding mental health is one of the biggest obstacles towards men admitting that they are struggling or in need of help.
The African man has been groomed from childhood to man up and be tough to prepare him for his future role as the head and provider of the family. Men are expected to be the pillars of strength and support system for everyone else, whether it is in their families or even within intimate relationships. While the man box contains some great attributes for a man to have, the problem arises when the African man does not live up to those expectations.
How is he treated and how does he FEEL when he isn’t as successful? When he’s not as ambitious as people expect him to be or when he doesn’t necessarily enjoy the usual hobbies and activities that the typical man is supposed to be interested in? Even those men who are considered to be successful and fit into the designated man box “perfectly,” they too have to put on a mask of bravery and togetherness all the time, lest society perceives them as weak. It’s almost as if society values what the African man does and not who he is.
A Cry for Help
So this begs the question what can we do as a society to help? How do we strike a balance between helping men become more open about their mental health concerns without it feeling like an attack on their masculinity? And how can men learn how to be vulnerable and release their repressed emotions in a healthy manner without them feeling like they’re divorcing a part of their manliness? In an attempt to preserve the parts of masculinity that we love so much, we ended up destroying them by clinging on too tightly to unreasonable standards of emotional strength until it turned toxic.
The conversation about the importance of men’s mental health is a great start, but we need to go a step further and devise mechanisms that men can relate to in expressing their mental health concerns in a way that does not seem forced or alien to them.
Perhaps community based approaches and support groups to help men and boys connect on a more personal level are the way to go? Stigma fades when men see resilience and mental health self-care modeled by their fathers, brothers, teachers and friends. Or maybe creative strategies to make men view seeking mental help as contributing to a much bigger picture. In that way, seeking help becomes a two-way street, rather than the current depiction where seeking mental health support is associated with just sitting around and talking about feelings, something which just isn’t as appealing to the majority of men. Or perhaps modifying the language used in mental health spaces amongst men to incorporate a bit of humor that men can find more relatable as opposed to language that is perceived as “touchy feely” might do some good? After all, men and women express themselves differently.
As Guided Path Tanzania, these are just a few of our suggestions; as an organization that is dedicated to promoting the right to mental health, we hope that we’ve piqued enough of your interest for you to generate more ideas on how to curb this social conundrum. The more, the merrier. We invite you all to take this opportunity to step in, engage and come up with innovative solutions to improve men’s mental health. Our stability as a society depends on it.
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