My list of great men every African should know about
This contradiction – of lamenting for boys but not wanting to do anything about it while blaming others for not doing it – is the dilemma of male supremacy. But since no one will listen to me saying that we need to transform our society so that our boys can thrive, I’ve decided to go on the offensive and draw up a list of those whom I consider to be men that every African should know about. (Note the word “consider”: it’s just an opinion). These are my criteria for real manhood:
- Must love his wife and family and his country, enough to want society to change so that his children and others’ children can live in a better world
- Must admit that he is human, recognize his weaknesses, acknowledge his mistakes, and be engaged in a personal struggle to become a better human being
- Must recognize the importance of reading and of education.
So here’s my list:
- Malcolm X (need I state the obvious?): This man came from a broken background, difficult family circumstances, became a hustler in his teenage and ended up in prison. While there, the power of faith and of books transformed him. He was a great reader. When he left prison, he spoke the anger and pain of his people and warned those who committed violence against black people that black people had the right to defend themselves according to their own terms. He later recognized that his adoration for Elijah Mohammed was misplaced, and after his Hajj to Mecca, he announced that he would be changing tactics in his fight for the dignity of black people around the world. He read a lot, and often told the youth that the best thing they could have in this world was education. I think Ossie Davis said it best about Malcolm, “however much I disagreed with him, I never doubted that Malcolm X, even when he was wrong, was the rarest thing in the world among us negroes: a true man.”
- Boniface Mwangi, Kenyan photographer activist: This man also came from a difficult background and suffered the odds to become a great photographer. He recognized that despite her flaws, his mother did the best she could with the difficult circumstances she was in. I’ve heard few people speak of their mothers as people with dignity. Boniface took pictures of Kenyans at their worst, and unlike most journalists – most people – he felt the pain of the people he saw, he cried for us, and committed himself to that never happening again. Boniface is the only Kenyan activist I’ve heard use the word “love” as a reason for his protest against injustice. And we saw that love at the Ballot Revolution protest where he came with his family and walked on the streets with the rest of us. There is no greater love than that of a man showing his children and the rest of us his commitment by example. Boniface has created a space called PAWA 254 where young people who want to have a social impact gather together.
- Patrice Lumumba: I don’t know whether this happened in real life, but there’s a scene in Raoul Peck’s movie “Lumumba” that to me, shows how Lumumba valued what young Congolese would learn about themselves. In Brussels, as King Bedouin was generously “giving” independence to Congo, Lumumba’s friends discouraged Lumumba from giving a speech in which he would affirm the dignity of the Congolese, rather than thank his majesty for independence. In the movie, Lumumba asks (my paraphrase): if I don’t give this speech, how will we explain this whole situation to our children? And to the podium he went, and gave one of the greatest speeches of our time, in which he addressed the Men and Women of Congo, (not the King) and told them to remember independence as a great day about which they would teach their children. He said that Congo and Belgium were two countries relating as “equal to equal,” and he reminded the Congolese that it was by fighting that they won their freedom. In his letter to his wife” before he died, he said: “I would like my children, whom I am leaving and may perhaps never see again, to be told that the Congo has a great future, and that it is up to them as to every other Congolese, to carry out the sacred task of rebuilding our independence and our sovereignty, for where there is no dignity, there is no freedom, and where there is no justice there is no dignity, and where there is no independence there are no free men.”
- Barack Obama: Obama is the man we love not because he became the first black President of the United States, but because he shared his journey with us. Through his books, he shared his struggles as a man grappling with his identity, with a father he barely knew, and the usual issues young men have. He has opened the White House to children. His government has been committed to improving early childhood education. He has started the Commencement Challenge in which the winning public school gets him as their Commencement speaker. He has campaigned to reward and recognize teachers, and has been committed to empowering teachers so as to attract the best and brightest minds to the teaching profession. This “people’s president” was raised by a woman, is husband to a brilliant, educated woman, and father to two great women.
- Nelson Mandela: Mandela embodies the spirit of freedom, determination and love for his country. After his release from prison, he stood by his wife Winnie to the best of his ability. He asked black South Africans to do the impossible, which was to value truth and healing over revenge. I hate the way Eurocentrism has turned that into proof that we should not hold grudges against whites (as if we care for grudges – what we want is justice), but that’s not Mandela’s fault. He is a lesson in what it means to retire in dignity – with the world cheering you on as you live your best life.
- Thomas Sankara: Of course this young, handsome man who became president at 35 and died four years later had to be on my list. Out of the many great things I could say about Sankara, these are the ones I’ll mention here. First, his commitment to women’s freedom as human freedom, not as “women’s rights.” Like he said, a society cannot be free if half its population is in bondage. He was also an intelligent and widely read man, as one will see in his speeches. Under his term, literacy shot up, children immunization improved so much that Bourkina Faso was soon helping other countries with their immunization programs. He often spoke of the injustice of foreign aid. He kept emphasizing the importance of education, and my favorite quote from him in this regard is “A soldier without political education is a virtual criminal.”
- SM Otieno: I’ve put this Kenyan lawyer on my list based on what his wife Wambui says about him in her autobiography. This was a Kenyan man who married a woman with a difficult history, encouraged her not to dwell on the pain of the past, and supported her political ambitions, and raised and supported several children who were not his own. It is a pity that we know more of him in death than in life. But trust a woman to keep him alive.
- Paul Kagame: I know I’m going to get a lot of criticism for putting him on my list. I may even regret it, given what’s happening in Congo. But for now, I consider him one of Africa’s most intelligent and articulate leaders. His RPF was different from the bands of chaotic criminals we see in the Congo who maim the people Lumumba gave his life for. RPF soldiers were expected to read and take lessons in political education. Kagame has fought tirelessly for a country that was abandoned to genocide by a world that now has the audacity to demand that Rwanda follows the path to healing on terms other than Rwandans’ terms. He has put school attendance and health insurance at 98%. More than half the Parliament is made up of women. His country has abolished the death penalty when it had the right to maintain it. He has asked victims of the most horrific crime to live with their former tormentors who confess. He is not afraid to subject himself to press conferences again and again in which journalists (including African ones) will do nothing original but hold up the racist stereotype of Africa producing nothing but dictators and expect him to defend himself. To his critics, he does not say “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” but “come to Rwanda and see for yourself, and speak to the Rwandan people.” I don’t know any living African leader who has told the world: we know what we’ve been through, and you have no right to dictate to us how we are going to go forward.
The men on this list are not perfect. And that’s precisely the point. We need to teach about people who are more human so that our youth know the power of hope and of education. That’s why I didn’t put Jesus and the saints like Martin Luther King on my list.
I hope Kenyans reading this list will not settle for criticizing it for including or not including so-and-so. Draw up your own list, mentor and educate with it, get to the bookshops, surf the net, educate yourself and read to others. Don’t sit back and blame women activists for what you should be doing yourself. The men on my list recognized that people must be constantly educated, and education was not just about schooling but also about reading and critical thinking for life. And they knew that people lead as good as they read.
Source: Zeleza Post