Meet some of the men redefining masculinity in Kenya
While a crisis of masculinity is being witnessed the world over, it looks different in every region. In Kenya, a heady mix of influences – from urbanisation to religion, unemployment to gender development initiatives – are changing the face of what it means to be a man.
In this socially conservative and religious country, the traditional role of men is to protect and provide. But with the highest unemployment rate in East Africa, many men are unable to fulfil these expectations. At the same time, Kenyan women, particularly in cities, are increasingly redefining gender relations as they move from housework to politics, from childcare to business.
This has left men wondering what their role is in contemporary society. In some cases, men have responded to this predicament by resorting to violence as a means of reasserting traditional notions of manhood. But many others are seeking to redefine masculinity through their actions at home, at work, and in their communities.
Below are five men challenging traditional roles and actively reshaping what it means to be ‘Big Men’ in Kenya today.
Peter Kairu, youth worker
Having participated in Kenya’s 2007-8 electoral violence, Peter now works with Korogocho Youth Group to empower young people in his community. He focuses specifically on promoting peace, non-violence and positive masculinity.
“In our society, men are taught to be strong and courageous as the protector and provider of the house. But I believe that a man doesn’t need to be the only provider, and that this can be shared between the two – wife and husband. This brings about respect.
“When you are the breadwinner of the house, you can become so commanding towards your family. This can make you violent and because you are the sole provider of the house your family will do nothing.”
Tony Mwebia, activist
Tony campaigns to end female genital mutilation (FGM), working with communities in rural areas and engaging in online activism. He is pictured at Bena School, Kuria, Migori county, where he is training staff members on how to educate boys and girls about the dangers of FGM.
“Of course my friends make fun of me for my work campaigning against female genital mutilation. They call me ‘FGM’, but I don’t mind. I’m passionate about what I do and no one is about to stop me. Not involving men in the fight against FGM is like a doctor treating symptoms of a disease and ignoring the disease.”
Evans Campbell, artist
Evans is a Nairobi-based artist who was part of Deconstructing Masculinity, a 2016 collaborative project challenging sexist labels and specifically the fetishisation of the man as a brutish figure.
“We are looking at ourselves through a lens tainted with the oppression of what we have been raised to think; -isms, rules and values drown our ability to process the world independently. Society has overly sexualised the naked figure. A woman’s curves and contours are politicised in reactionary rhetoric. As a man, I feel the resistance to a change to this. We all want to cling to the implied safety of patriarchy, desperately trying to impress our images on the world.
“The expression of self that leaves me truly at ease is unnerving — being just me is so frightening that the thought alone makes my hopes recede. When shall I really be one with my self? When shall I stand as just free of all else? When I am naked and alone. When answers are my own, from a painful process of appraisal without fear of the unknown. But even the symbolisation of such proneness is detested. My ability to do anything is limited to what is on me and not that within. Mere existence is a contest against a world of presets — each as varied as the people that harbour them. So I become my sin. I become what you wish I wouldn’t be.”
Mutahi Chiira, architect
Mutahi lives in Nairobi with his wife Eva, a lawyer in the office of Solicitor General. An architect and photographer, Mutahi works from home and looks after their son TJ, their child from the couple’s second pregnancy, having lost their first at 28 weeks. Mutahi believes that men should be as responsible for childcare as women.
“For my wife and I, losing the first pregnancy was devastating, but we were able to get through that loss over time. So, when we were blessed with TJ earlier this year, we received some kind of redemption. Naturally, this gives me a special love for my son and I’m always happy to spend time with him when I get the chance whether it’s feeding him, changing him, playing with him or even putting him to sleep.
“I am intentional in how much time I set aside for him now so that we keep a strong bond through these early years, which then means we will have set a good foundation for a fulfilling father-son relationship. In short, I do it for the love.”
Victor Odhiambo, community educator
Victor is a community educator in Kibera, Nairobi, the largest urban informal settlement in Africa. Through his organisation, Garden of Hope Foundation, he runs workshops for boys and girls about menstruation.
“Three years ago I went to visit a children’s home and a girl asked me for half a dollar. Later I found out she needed the money for sanitary towels and someone had offered her the towels in exchange for sex. It was heartbreaking.
“I realised this was a problem isolated only to women; menstruation is a difficult topic for men to talk about. I wanted to do something about it, so each week we visit a school and conduct workshops with about 500 students. We call it breaking the silence. Now they call it menstruation, they call it period, and they call it blood. We want it to be a normal process that society can talk about.”
Photos by Kevin Ouma. Text by Alice McCool.