“In the heart of a boy there’s a lion and given a chance he roars effortlessly“J.W Njoroge- Founder, LeadGlobal Impact
(*This is the first of a series of articles that will address the subject: Raising Boys. )
In Kenya, a beautiful country in East Africa, society places a high premium on the boy child. This is reflective of how much being a boy or a man means to society and the individual. The society holds men to such a high standard that it cannot allow them to be anything less than what they claim to be: men. What does that mean?
Traditional society placed a lot of responsibility on the boy child from an early age. The traditional society perceived boys of modern-day school-going age; 8-10 years to be ‘men in the making’. Society expected boys to contribute to providing basic needs in the household. For instance, young boys would go hunting in bands or go hunting with adult male hunting parties. Traditional norms and beliefs socialized the boys to believe they were ‘men’ at an early age. They participated in decision-making in family matters. They also took part in the provision of basic household needs. These may seem like slim shoulders upon which to place such huge responsibilities. Yet, society had in place mechanisms to ease boys at every milestone, into their next role with ease. What guided the success of this? The existence of strong, structured socialization systems for the male gender. These systems included age-set systems, totems, and other societal norms and values.
Societal Norms and Values
Traditional society graduated into age sets or age groups. Age sets served to schoolboys to take up their responsibilities as men when the time was right. A boy would graduate from one age set to the next through rites of passage. A boy would then take up new roles as befitted his age set. Among the Maasai, one graduated to become a junior warrior or Moran upon killing a lion. The Il Moran age set constituted the tribal defense system or army. Upon graduation from the warrior age group, a boy became a senior warrior. He was fit to marry and take up administrative duties in society. So, there were strong support systems that served as guides for the boys. They helped them not feel overwhelmed by what society expected of them.
Children in Society
A child’s proper upbringing was everyone’s responsibility. A child belonged to society and had to listen to and follow guidelines given by adults. Any adult would correct and guide a wayward child. The adult would do so without the requisition of parental consent.
Different clans, sub-tribes, and tribes identified themselves using totems. This was a symbol of what the tribe stood for. Among the Luhya tribe of western Kenya, the Leopard ( Ingwe in Luhya languages) was the tribal totem. Boys and men mimicked and upheld the image of the leopard. Clansmen would model themselves after an essential attribute of the leopard. The attributes were bravery, courage, speed and dependability, wisdom. A totem reflected an individual’s attributes. Society inculcated these in boys as they grew. Boys internalized these and understood what their roles were in society. Many showed appreciation of their totems by addressing each other with praise names. Totems had scientific significance too. They served as a guide in marriage by guarding against incest. They ensured the continuation of society. This meant that courtship and marriage were subject to the approval of society. Totems also served a role in teaching the responsibility of protecting the environment.
The Essence of Bridewealth
Marriage is pivotal in African societies. The marriage gift or bridewealth lies at the center of all that marriage encompasses. It is symbolic in that it legitimizes a marriage. it establishes and cements a smooth relation between the family of the bride and that of the groom. It also serves as a token of gratitude by the groom’s family. The woman’s family and clan entrust her well-being to them. Legitimization of marriage confers a social relation on the children born of it. Social fatherhood is usually determined by marriage. Every community cherishes children. Through them, families, lineages, communities, and tribes continue to exist. Children also help keep memories of those gone b into the afterlife alive. So they must have a place in society. This is possible through their being born into a legitimate union. Thus, the recognition of a union between a man and a woman by society is of profound significance. A married woman is more than a wife to her husband. His clansmen refer to her as ‘their wife’. This is symbolic in that the clan will protect the woman’s legitimate position as the wife of their kin. They will hold a man accountable for the failure of his marriage. they will call him out for the perceived misery of his family. it was a crime for a man to live with a woman, whose family had not received the marriage gift from him. Only the clan can break this union. This it does upon the death of the woman. The clan receives a gift; symbolic of returning the bride’s wealth. The man or widower can then remarry again if he so wishes. All these measures were in place to uphold the sanctity of marriage. As a result, divorce, illegitimacy, and abandonment of children were almost unheard of.
Giving and acceptance of the bridewealth happened after necessary inquiries by families. This was to ensure both partners were suitable or legit. Giving and accepting of it meant a formal betrothal. It legitimized a marriage. This elevated the man to the position of husband. It also elevated the woman to the prestigious position of a wife. Formal authority over the bride by her father shifted to the bridegroom. This ensured a safe position for the man as a husband. The legitimization in turn conferred upon both spouses, conjugal rights, including sexual rights. Traditions encouraged married women to be sexually assertive. This right ensured sexual satisfaction for both partners. Only after the giving and accepting of the bridal wealth could a partner claim redress for abuse. These included the abuse of conjugal rights. In this case, that the bridal wealth set standards and established rights for both men and women.
Also, responsibility and bridal wealth were interwoven. Bridewealth ‘compensated’ for the disruption of the bride’s kinship lineage. It would replace the daughter. How so? It would be the gift given for obtaining a wife for a member of the family, usually a brother of the bride. ‘This restored the temporary imbalance in the bride’s family. Boys understood the significance of bridewealth. The practice of giving the bridewealth instilled responsibility in men. A man understood his responsibility as a groom and husband.
Polygamy was widespread in the African traditional setting. Still, the rules that governed it were very strict. The polygamous home setting recognized the man‘s position and authority. Also, he was accountable for the wellbeing and unity of his home. Unity in a polygamous setting is intricate and of a delicate balance. For this reason, there were mechanisms to ensure cohesion in the home. Consider the plan of the polygamous homestead among the Luo of western Kenya. Everything about the homestead was within the context of a rich culture. Beliefs and customs influenced house construction. The circular shapes of the homestead and huts and their location were for identity. They also were for openness, transparency, cohesion, and peace. . The man’s hut at the centre of the homestead, with the granaries and livestock, sheds to his right. This signified his position and responsibility as the custodian of family wealth. The first wife’s house was the main hut. It faced the gate. The location of the main hut defined the location and stature of every other family member. In a polygamous homestead, the second wife’s hut was to the right of the first wife’s hut. If there was a third wife, her hut was to the left of the first wife’s hut. The fourth wife’s hut was to the right of the second wife’s hut, and so on. There was a pattern to the construction of these huts of the wives and those of their sons. All the wives recognized the first wife as the mother or queen mother of all. They respected her and sought her counsel and guidance. At mealtime, all the wives presented a meal to the man’s house, which he shared with all his children. So all the children ate with the father, usually in the evenings when the men were back from their duties. Mealtimes was also a time for bonding, counsel, conversation, and education. Boys bonded with their father. They learned to model their fathers through such interaction.
Children understood the position of their mothers as their father’s wives. \They respect as such. This taught respect as well as responsibility to the children. Boys grew up learning to respect, care for and protect women and children. They grew up knowing that the welfare of the home was a man’s responsibility. It was unacceptable that a man should neglect his wife and children. Any man who neglected his family became the subject of folklore. He served as a lesson to all young men who purposed to marry. A man who neglected his family also became the laughing stock of the community.
Traditional religion served to shape a society to uphold good morals and values.
Thus, society’s role was nurturing and raising boys to become men of substance. Culture elevated men to such high status in society. Girls were often the overlooked ones.
Today, society has shifted towards individualism. Many adults will watch a wayward boy and do nothing about it. Even those in authority, including teachers, do not take action on their own.
The family is the nurturing place of a child. All children learn from modeling what they live and see. Today, the family unit is an endangered entity. The absence of family denies a child the basic foundation upon which he should develop. The absence of a father denies boys a role model. Any level of violence or abuse in a family affects the way a child views human relationships. When boys lack role models, they seek affirmation outside the family. They seek it in substance abuse and violence.
Religion is no longer Centerfold in teaching morals and values. Thus, society has a deficit of basic foundations for raising responsible children. Religion is no longer the bedrock of morality in society. Religion in some cases is a tool of abuse and radicalization of the youth.
The Socialization of Men:
Statistics show that men are likely to commit suicide 3.5 times more than women. Evidence shows that men lack the kind of support systems that women have. There seems to be an assumption that men don’t need them, but women do. A man going through a divorce, for instance, may have few or no friends who walk with him. Women have a kaleidoscope of support systems, including the church and women’s groups. Women are adept at creating social support systems. These systems address every issue that concerns them. Society socializes men to believe that they are alright. It grooms them to believe that they can and should deal with their problems as individuals. Society has socialized men to believe that it is wrong to display their emotions. Real men don’t cry is a common adage. In crises, society is more accepting of women’s narratives than men’s. Generally, there seems to be less support for boys than girls. Who then speaks for the boys? Who will speak for the men? What happens to the boy or man that needs a platform for offloading his emotions? “We cry inside,’ one man says. When crying inside can no longer stem the pain, a man explodes. Hence the proliferation of cases of SGBV, homicides, and suicides today.
What Ails the Boy- Child?
Culture is not static. The symbolic meaning of cultural practices that guided society still manifest in new forms. For instance, many communities uphold bride wealth and circumcision as a rite of passage in varied forms. Yet, it is the consensus the world over, that the boy child lags. Boys have fallen back in the gender equality agenda. At the same time, statistics point to men as the greater perpetrators of SGBV. Something is not right. Overnight it seems, the male race has morphed. They no longer are providers and protectors. Instead, they wage war against their own. Where did society go wrong? As a mother of sons, how can you ensure that your sons do not fall into the same trap that so many youths fall into? What can we do to save our boys and raise them into the men of substance that society expects them to be? Future articles will address these and other questions.