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Masculinity and leadership in Shimmer Chinodya's Strife: A Book Café discussion
Amanda Atwood,
September 01, 2008

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"Who or what is a man? What does a man do and what are the responsibilities of a man? And how can men become more effective leaders during Zimbabwe's moments of strife."

These are the questions with which Ezra Chitando, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, opened his presentation at Harare's Book Café on Thursday 21 August. The subject of the evening was Shimmer Chinodya's novel Strife, published by Weaver Press last year.

Chitando observed: "We know the social construction of masculinity: Men are portrayed as strong, women are weak. Men are aggressive, women are nurturing. Men are tough, women are soft. But when one reads the book Strife, one asks the question: Do men live up to the social construction of masculinity? Do men actually succeed in delivering?"

This introduction opened the evening to a discussion of masculinities as they are depicted in the novel Strife specifically, as well as in every day life at a family, community and national level. Where the male characters of Strife fall short, argued Chitando, so might one observe other male leaders in society falling short. "Zimbabwe's collective failure of leadership is perhaps an outworking of exhausted patriarchy," he said. "Men have not been effective leaders - of families, extended families or of nations." Listen

Drawing parallels between Ndungu, the main character in Strife, and what he called "toxic masculinities" more generally, Chitando contended that the character flaws of the novel's protagonist reflect the flaws of patriarchy, such as excessive ambition, emotional aloofness, extreme paranoia and authoritarianism. As Chitando put it, "patriarchy thrives on competition, ownership, control and success." But this drive to dominate also sets the built-in limits of patriarchy.

Drawing on Chinodya's writing and the lessons of Strife, Chitando made several recommendations for how to "reinvigorate the structures of leadership" and promote a more positive masculinity including:

  • Accept the voice and leadership of women.
  • Analyse more critically the interface between modernity and tradition.
  • Radically transform masculinities.
  • Accept that sometimes you'll be second best.

Legal practitioner Nokuthula Moyo also presented her thoughts, and agreed that many of the male characters in Strife are "typical of the men in our society."

Moyo raised issues such as the characters' inconsistencies in their belief system, and the novel's prevailing tensions between Christianity and African traditional beliefs. Moyo stressed the importance of having something to believe in: "regardless of whether it is traditional or modern, many of us find that we need a faith and a firm grounding. We need something to believe in."

Moyo looked at the ways in which the men in Strife played their roles as sons, brothers, friends, workers, husbands and fathers, and described the ways in which they were "typical of so many in society." For example, the man who knows what is best - for himself, for his brothers and sisters, for his wife. Regardless of the sensible contributions of others, this man does not listen.

Moyo went on to ask "how do our men reshape themselves?" She argued that "we need to change our concept of masculinity. We need to get our men to somehow understand that perfect leadership requires sensitivity, listening to others."

To Moyo, a part of this transformation required finding a belief system - any belief system - and committing to it. She observed the ways in which modern society has allowed itself to be "Westernised beyond religion," and she questioned the effectiveness of that. Without a belief system, Moyo contended, when we face difficulty, we "seem to fall into a bottomless pit." That is why, she said, "we owe it to ourselves to examine ourselves and where we came from, where we are going, what we believe, and what moral values we want to hold on to." Listen

In closing, Moyo noted "if a man is not capable of being a good father, a good son, and a good husband, he is not capable of leading a nation."

In the discussion after these two presentations, many of the contributions focused on the points raised by both speakers about the need to transform masculinities. Participants asked how easy is it, really, to make this transformation to something more positive, what could this new masculinity look like, and how can society get there, particularly given the many social and economic challenges currently facing Zimbabweans. How, asked one participant, "do we deal with the frustrations of manhood, particularly given Zimbabwe's current economic difficulties? How do we deal with a man who is failing to be a breadwinner and provide for his family? And how are men taking these frustrations out on the family, in community, and even politically." Participants also discussed the challenges faced when both men and women accept negative male behaviour such as violence as the norm - and judge men as "unmasculine" if they do not beat their wives. Listen

Chitando responded that, in his work with the World Council of Churches, in the context of HIV/AIDS, they look at "redemptive masculinities" as a way to move men away from "the toxic and dangerous masculinities that push men to excel, compete, own, possess, and to regard predatory sexual experiences as normative." Redemptive masculinities included things like teaching men that "women are equal partners, that men do not have the right and privilege to have multiple sexual partners, that men can look after people living with HIV and AIDS," he said.

Chitando emphasized the need to "catch them young" - to work with school aged boys, before they have taken on too much of society's toxic masculinity. But a participant questioned this, observing that "the moment these boys start to display these positive masculinities, they are labelled by society, and pressurized. They then typically go back to the toxic masculinities and even become more dangerous to the same society."

Chitando held that the roots of toxic masculinity are found both in Christianity and modernity, and in traditional African culture. Thus, he argued, "we need to go back to the tradition and to the culture and look for redemptive windows of opportunity and the positive masculine traits within African culture." Similarly, he said, we need to go back to Christianity and retrieve the positive masculinities from that.

Audio File

  • Ezra Chitando
    Language: English
    Duration: 1min 40sec
    Date: August 21, 2008
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 1.53MB

  • Nokuthula Moyo
    Language: English
    Duration: 1min
    Date: August 21, 2008
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 953KB

  • Discussion
    Language: English
    Duration: 1min 14sec
    Date: August 21, 2008
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 1.13MB

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