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Masculinity in Nigeria: Rebellion vs. Conformity and Power

Masculinity in Nigeria: Rebellion vs. Conformity and Power

     Imagine growing up in a country where the most important aspect of a boy’s life is the measure of his masculinity. From a job to religion, everything must line up with the concept of masculinity in order to gain respect. Boys must carry themselves like a man, and if they do not, then there are penalties for defiance. In Nigeria, some boys are beat and have their hair cut to signify their manliness. Masculinity is the only way of living for both the young and old men of Nigeria. Fathers drill it into their sons and society will reinforce these guidelines to further instill them into every little boy’s way of living. It starts young and they receive training to be the best, as they get older. However, the questions are, When does a boy become a man in Nigeria? Is it when he joins the army? When he gets a job? Or when he devotes himself to a religion? These are all questions we can ask to better understand masculinity in Nigeria. Masculinity in Nigeria is the fight between conformity and rebellion for power and respect. 

       Webster’s’ Dictionary defines masculinity as “having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man”. Graceland, a novel by Chris Abani, dramatizes this definition through the main character Elvis. Elvis struggles with his masculinity and living up to the expectation that society has provided. Throughout the book, Elvis has difficulty finding a male role model to teach him how to become a man. The first role model he looks to is his father, Sunday. Abani provides this relationship to show the customs that are taught by fathers in Nigeria. For example in the book, when Elvis dresses up in his female relative's clothing and wig, his father cuts off his braids as punishment and then drilled into him how a man should look and act(61-62). Sunday states, “No son of mine is going to grow up a homosexual…I'm only doing dis for your own good. It is not easy to be a man. Dese are trying times. Not easy" (62-63). He tries to drill into Elvis’s mind that homosexuality is not accepted and that a young man should never confuse femininity with masculinity.  The men in Nigeria raise their male children to wear “manly” clothing such as pants and baggy t-shirts. According to "Rewards of manliness", the men do not particularly accept men with braids because they feel that it can be a form of femininity. Femininity and masculinity are separate and they refuse to allow either to mix, even in the slightest instance. 

       On the other hand, Chris Abani also presents a character named Redemption, who illustrates a different attitude towards masculinity. Redemption is a symbolic figure of new age masculinity that gives freedom and choice of expression. He provides Elvis with a way out of this restricted mindset. He shows Elvis the rebellious side of life by getting him involved with lucrative illegal jobs. Redemption provides him with the job of being a drug handler, escort and soon a human trafficker. Although these jobs are illegal and harmful, they provide a symbol of freedom and hope.  In the end of the novel, Redemption allows him to assume his name and gives him his passport to escape this way of living and when  paged he answers to the name as “Redemption”  (321). 

      In addition, the Islamic and Christian faith has a substantial impact on the formation of masculinity in Nigeria. A news article entitled "Voicing Out Perceptions and Realities of Men in Nigeria” by Alkasim Abdulkadir, focuses on the context of religion and how it challenges the idea of male dominance. The article explains intolerance of abuse against women and the consequences set up to enforce this law. The article states that men use religion to obtain an authoritative role in their community and family. Religion is a reason that masculinity is stressed in Nigeria.  Abdulkadir states, “Religion both reinforces and challenges perceptions of male dominance and gender roles in Nigeria.” It gives the guidelines that a man should follow and the characteristics he should obtain to gain his masculinity. This article gives an explanation why religion plays a dominant role in masculinity whether it is Islamic or Christianity.  The article states “Men are perceived to express their “masculinity” in religious spaces so they could be seen as respectable and religious, for example through leading prayers”. Their religion gives the Nigerian men a form of respect and authority over society and family.  

       In contrast, Redemption in Graceland, folows an anti-traditional mindset and chooses to create his own idea of what it is to be a man. A scholarly journal article entitled "Elvis Has Left the Country: Marronage in Chris Abani’s Graceland" by Erin M. Fehskens, focuses on the rebellion against the repressive militaristic form of Nigeria. It discusses the neoliberal economic forces that hold this country. This journal article focuses on the authoritative roles in the Nigeria when pertaining to masculinity. In addition, gives and an idea of the displacement from the hegomonistic culture of Nigeria. This further supports Redemption and Elvis’s idea of rebellion and setting himself apart from this traditional way of masculinity. The article states, “His refusal to adhere to Nigerian codes of masculinity has imperiled his very viability in the country”. This helps to support the idea of a new age of masculinity in modern day Nigeria

      Nigerian men also use photos as templates for a young boy to follow. The picture they provide for a young man to look at can be one of soldiers or fighters. The reason for this is to insert an image of a masculine figure in a young man’s head to identify and believe in. "Regarding Race, Nation, and Our Future" provides imagery to the militaristic aspect of masculinity in Nigeria.   The military is key in this picture, which shows how the some young men are raised in Nigeria. It was established during the time of the British rule on Africa as a whole. Frantz Fanon states, “Because non-European gender roles and matrilineage was common within pre-colonial Africa, this is not an African complex, but a European one”. This concept suggests that the Nigeria custom of masculinity could have originated from British influence. It provides a visual of how the young men are trained to be in uniformity and power.  

       Furthermore, the values that are instilled into young boys, that are expected to be followed, are provided in the Nigerian culture. A news article entitled "Rewards of manliness" from Business Day identifies the value of masculinity and the “menaissance.” The menaissance is the idea of how a man should carry himself by Nigerian standards. The article discusses the idea that neutral gender base society cannot exist because each gender has its own attributes.  The article provides the thoughts of male figures that believe in the dominance of men. Graham Cruikshanks, Saatchi deputy MD, says "The menaissance in Africa seems to be more rooted in intellectual masculinity, and is based on virtues of courage, perseverance, loyalty and inventiveness." Masculinity connects a man’s intellectual stability and the level of valor they hold within. 

        In conclusion, masculinity in Nigeria is complex, and deeply entwined with both religion and histories of colonialism. Often, men must choice whether to conform or rebel against tradition. Some young men are taught to look at masculinity as bravery and a responsibility. In addition, understand that it comes with respect from religion and beliefs. A man in Nigeria that takes charge understands how important masculinity is. After all of the information provided can you tell if a Nigerian boy has it easier to rebel or conform to the standards of masculinity that are established by Nigerian society?     


                                                   Work cited 


Abani, Chris. Graceland. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004. Print. 


Abdulkadir, Alkasim  "Voicing Out Perceptions and Realities of Men in Nigeria,  


              Nigeria News Today Breaking News Read on NAIJCOM. N.p., 08 Nov. 2015.  


                Web. 17 Nov. 2015. 


Fehskens, Erin M. "Elvis Has Left the Country: Marronage in   Chris Abani’s GraceLand." 


                      College Literature 42.1 (2015): 90-111. Web. 


"Rewards of manliness." Business Day (South Africa). (September 13, 2008 ):  


          652   words.LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2015/11/17. 



"Regarding Race, Nation, and Our Future." Regarding Race Nation and Our Future.  


                       13 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. 


1 comment

I really like your blog. It's very well written!

It's extremely sad that boys have to be treated as "machos" to be considered men.