Oct 22, 2010

The man question

Becca has a smart post on gender in South Africa:
Here in South Africa, you can say that there are issues of gender inequity and there certainly are. The rape rate is extremely high. The HIV prevalence rate is higher in women then men (partially for biological reasons as women have more Langerhans cells in their vagina than men who have been circumsized do on their penis). It is difficult for women to exert control over their sexual lives – to say no or to say to use a condom. Transactional sex is also an issue.

That being said, I know many more formally employed women than men in our village. Of course, many men who are employed live outside of our village, but among those who do stay in the village and those who come to our village to work – teachers, nurses, etc – there are more women then men. Of the men who stay in our village, many are employed informally in different types of labor. Some of these men and some who are not employed at all spend a good amount of their days drinking at informal bars. So the children of our village can choose male role models who are unemployed and suffer from alcoholism or female role models who are teachers or retired women who are busy taking care of their households and grandchildren. [...]

These boys need role models, and there is only so much we can do to encourage them. We know a few young men who are acting in this way for them, but in a culture (like that of rural America) where success is equated with getting out, these successful young men are mostly in Jo'burg. But one thing is for sure, these boys need to be educated and motivated to see a different future for themselves if people want to see change in the future of South Africa. Ironically, as I type this, I am watching a rerun of Oprah (we get them a few months late here) where she signed the One Goal petition that was happening during the World Cup and declares that we should educate our girls. Oprah, of course, has a boarding school for girls here in South Africa. Though her school presents a great opportunity for those girls, I would argue that what South Africa needs is the opposite. We must educate and empower the boys to live productive and healthy lives.
This is something I've mentioned before. Some weeks back I made some rather halfhearted investigations about the viability of some kind of boy's club, and there was precisely zero interest. The boys and male teachers said that was the kind of thing that was for women only, "like being a nurse," and besides, most of them work on their farms after school and on the weekends (or drink themselves into a coma).

I gave up far too easily.  If I had leaned on people, I probably could have gotten something going.  The truth is that I also have zero interest in leading a boy's club.  I freely admit to being a giant hypocrite, but I feel almost completely useless when it comes to teaching boys to be men, particularly here.  I don't play soccer, and my favorite activity is reading.  For boys here, soccer is the breath of life, and most of them can't read English at all.  Besides, the larger question—how do you become a healthy, productive man?—is not one I've answered for to my own satisfaction.  I don't regard myself as even approaching role model material.

More than that, it's a question of leadership.  I don't mean leadership in the bloodless, focus group, MBA sense of the term, by the way.  (The word "leadership" is—with the possible exception of "passion"—the most abused and diluted word in English.)  I mean leadership in the old sense: the ability to manipulate and control others to your own ends.  Like Bismarck.  If that sounds cynical, I don't mean it to be.  Even most of the staggering volume of leadership theory just cushions that definition with a bunch of support-group jargon.  Example: Leadership is a "process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task."  Despite our obnoxiously self-congratulatory culture (we're all leaders!), I believe true talent at leadership is exceedingly uncommon.  In my life I've met one or two genuinely talented leaders and seen a few more live.

It's the same reason I'm a miserably bad teacher.  Teaching is a leadership position—by that I don't mean one must have the charisma of Pericles to be a good teacher, but that one must be able to fake at least a reasonable approximation.  I believe most people are capable of this with some decent training.  But I am more like an anti-leader.  I'm smart, but I'm also grouchy, cynical, easily irritated, and easily discouraged.  In short, I'm a lot better at pointing problems out than fixing them.  Everybody has their place—the world needs my kind of people to point out where things are going wrong.  Maybe I can work for the CBO.

Wow, this post turned narcissistic in a hurry.  Pointless negativity aside, the man question is a serious one in South Africa, and one for which I have no answers.  Oliver Wang, pivoting off an excellent post by TNC on violence, has some thoughts on violence and gender that seem germane.

1 comment:

  1. I believe a similar trend has been occurring in african american males. Few positive role models, high rates of single mothers, incarceration, etc. On the rez, too. Lots of unemployment, alcohol abuse, etc. I think that by the nature of you being there, not abusing or using anyone, you are more of a positive role model than most men in your village. Me not having babies, sleeping with guys for airtime, and paying attention to people sometimes automatically ranks me ahead of most in mine. We won't ever know the impact of our presence, and i'll bet it is more positive than you think. Just stay away from those high schoolers