/ 21 August 2008

Real men cry too

There is an African idiom that real men don’t cry. Over the years I have subscribed to this saying and I have been a ”real man”.

I have watched men, including my father, my uncles and my friends, fight tears in difficult situations. I have only looked at them with admiration and respect for being ”strong” and above all for being great ”African men”.

I have seen my father mourn the death of his elderly mother the African way, or rather, the Tswana way. While my aunts and close female relatives shed tears my father remained calm, collected and seemingly emotionless when the news of his mother’s death was announced. I have never seen my father cry, though I have seen my mother weeping on several occasions.

She has mourned in public and there was nothing unusual about it because she is a woman. According to African tradition women are emotionally weak — tears are not only okay, they are expected.

Bob Marley underlined the point in his famous and evergreen song, No Woman, No Cry. In my culture women are supposed to cry — when they are angry, when they are mourning a close relative’s death and even when they are excited. Women who do not cry are said to be brave. In Setswana we say ”Ba thata [they are strong]” or ”Mosadi yo ke Monna [that woman is like an iron man]”. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is considered a ”man” because of the position she once occupied and because of her tough ways — an iron lady.

Shaped by my culture and the men who surround me, I never thought I would cry in public. When my brother and my sister died in a horrific car accident in 2004 I nearly cried, but I didn’t. ”Men don’t cry,” I told myself before stepping on to the podium to give a lengthy eulogy. Those who attended the funeral service later told me that I did a great job and said, ”O monna monna [you are a real man]”.

But then something happened that exposed my weakness — as far as being a real African man is concerned. In May this year I lost my girlfriend to a fatal asthma attack. We were deeply in love and were planning bigger things together. We wanted to get married and start a family. The love we shared was wonderful.

It happened very suddenly. On May 25 her sister called me late at night to tell me that Bosa Gloria Kealotswe had succumbed to an asthma attack. We talked two hours earlier and she was fine. She had a history of asthma but her condition was stable. For the first time in my life I cried as a baby would, I failed to control myself. I tried to muster courage like real African men but it didn’t work. Like a woman, I cried and cried.

Before I went to work the following day I told myself that I was going to be strong. But somehow the situation was made worse by those who offered their condolences. ”Oh shame. It will be fine, be strong,” one colleague said to me. I immediately lost it and burst into tears and sobbed — loudly — before my colleagues. I felt embarrassed, but not enough to stop crying. ”I have lost the love of my life,” I told myself, ”who cares about a little embarrassment?”

A day before Bosa’s funeral I met her mother and her aunts, who explained to me the events leading to her untimely death. Against all odds her mother was calm and began by saying, ”My child, your friend is gone. Her death has devastated the family.” My eyes began to moisten. As she dwelt on the details, the tears spilled over and ran down my cheeks.

The next day things got worse. As the casket was being lowered into the grave memories of her flashed back and at that moment I cried before hundreds of villagers. I told myself that if crying in public meant I was losing my manhood, so be it. I couldn’t have cared less about what people were undoubtedly saying behind my back. And if that makes me a sissy, that’s fine with me.

Today I still cry whenever I listen to my girlfriend’s favourite songs — The Book of Love by Peter Gabriel and Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. I am not ashamed of crying or showing emotions in public. I am a human being and I cannot suppress my feelings for the sake of society. Society does not define me, I define myself.

Ntibinyane Alvin Ntibinyane is a Francistown-based reporter working for Cbet, publishers of the Midweek Sun and Botswana Guardian