Locating the African Man

On October 15, 2013 by ali heller

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I sat with a father who held the hand of his adult daughter as she fitfully slept, jerking awake anytime the large growth, which had consumed her breast and migrated to her left armpit, brushed against the sheet. “We’ve been here 35 days now. They haven’t done any tests. We haven’t even seen a doctor. I’m only a villager, and when I ask why, they don’t look at me. They just tell me to wait,” Kareem told me, shaking his head slightly. His daughter shot up to vomit into a small basin and then sunk into his arms as he gently cradled her.

Mati was my friend. Every day he wore the same freshly-washed and pressed aqua satin shirt emblazoned with barely visible sea horses, sold many years ago somewhere in the West as a woman’s luxury pyjama top, transformed into the only piece of clothing he owned besides his tattered slacks. One evening at dinner he unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a large tumour which consumed his left breast. “It has gotten worse this year,” Mati confided in me with worry as his shy four year-old nestled deeply into his arms. “Hello my brave man” he crooned. While treatment for breast cancer is completely paid for by the Nigerien government when it presents itself in a woman’s body, when present in a man’s body, the State offers no assistance.

Yussofou paced up and down the driveway. His wife just had a miscarriage, or a haemorrhage, or maybe a prolapsed uterus. He wasn’t sure, really. All he knew is that she needed surgery, and surgery was expensive. His hands shook. He brought a few belongings and his motorcycle to the market, hoping to sell them. He knew that with such urgency he wouldn’t get a good price, but he was out of options.

“He begged me to come home for just four days to see him.” Safia smiled a mischievous grin whenever she talked about her husband, Adamou. “I went home, and I stayed four months instead! He cried when I came back to the hospital to wait for surgery”. Safia says her husband doesn’t care about her fistula. He hasn’t taken a second wife. He has never insulted her. He consoles her, tells her she is beautiful, and is no less physically attracted to her than the day they married.

I recently was engaged in a discussion about development with a friend that works for a large international non-profit organization here in Niger. She described some staples in both development and humanitarian assistance programs such as women’s budgeting classes, female education, and direct transfers of cash to women. Indeed, the focus on women (and children, but particularly girls) has permeated so much of the development agenda and its resultant programming, the goal of “female empowerment” so ubiquitous, that the underlying premises are rarely examined. Without dismissing the reality of coercive gender dynamics (which exist not only in Africa, but right here at home too), whereby women systematically enjoy less power, fewer options, and more constrained choices than men, the elision of men in the development agenda (one of the largest sources of income to many sub-Saharan African states) is not without consequence.

Emerging in the 1970s, the practice of focusing on women in development is based on the assumption that if African men were given money, they would be much less likely to reinvest it in their families than their wives would be, instead buying drinks for their friends, going out, or investing in shows of wealth or status. Conversely, the assumption is that women are more adept at saving and investing wisely, and more likely to channel resources to their children’s and family’s health and education. In an unsurprising repackaging of stereotypes of both genders, men are expected to spend money only on themselves while women are expected to spend money on everyone else. As a result of such assumptions, women have become the flag-bearers of international development work, their faces disproportionately populate fundraising materials and beneficiary rosters, and nearly every intervention integrates “gender”, focusing heavily on improving women’s access to resources.

African men have become caricatures in the Western imagination, fall-men for everything that befalls African women and children. The inclusion of women in the development agenda was in response to the historic erasure of women of the global south. However, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Too often, men are now either absent, or present only as they hold guns, rape women, reject their wives, participate in extortion and corruption, or join the growing ranks of religiously motivated extremists.

In my own work, I realize that I am also guilty of this expunction of men. Next to nearly every woman with fistula, there is a concerned father, a supportive brother, and often, a loving husband. These men struggle to keep themselves and their families healthy in a context of crippling poverty and countless unmet needs. They struggle to understand a mysterious illness, to make fair and ethical decisions, and make ends-meet. But these men disappear behind the stories of women’s strength, suffering, and solidarity.

As a recent TED talk discusses (http://ed.ted.com/lessons/leslie-dodson-don-t-misrepresent-africa), the development industry pivots around the image of the Madonna and child. There is no room for men. In Western engagement with sub-Saharan Africa, there is a strict gender divide: suffering and victimhood belong to women while perpetration and barbarity belong to men. Western anger and indignation is channeled to African men, while Western compassion to women and girls.

Girl’s education. Girl’s business skills. Women’s health. Women’s hygiene. There are real consequences to forgetting men and boys. While the “focus on women” aims to empower women, it may in fact strip women of agency and reify notions of gender, buttressing claims which naturalize women’s place in the home and as caretaker while reinforcing notions of men as deadbeat dads and cruel husbands. While the focus on only half the population serves fundraising purposes (as Western audiences infrequently respond to nuance – one is either a victim or a victimizer), these programs overlook that families, communities, marriages, and businesses do not operate in the absence of half their members.

It is hard to critique development agendas which aim to increase the power and status of women in places largely defined by male dominance. Still, by painting African women as the victims of African men, we overlook the real victimizer which is blind to sex or gender: poverty and systemic inequalities.

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