Monday, March 24, 2014

Learning to Say No: What It Could Mean to Be A Man

            "Chivalry is dead" is a statement I hear over and over again among the numerous friend circles I've kept in my short life. Often times I hear it in exasperation by my female friends over rude or selfish behavior they've experienced by men in their personal life, though recently I've heard it in anger towards men who hold the door only because the other person was female.
            This blog post is not directed in anyway to the gender not my own, and for that I apologize for the exclusion. The majority of times the female gender is excluded in the worst way, which is why I'm grateful for programs such as Camp GLOW (Girls Lead Our World) within Kenya that help young girls explore their right to self expression, both reproductively and socially. A young woman has and should always have the right to have control over her own body, and often times, the pressures of my gender override that freedom in a terrible and cruel way. Self-esteem, early pregnancies, and HIV infections are blatant indicators not just within Kenya, but throughout the world, in "developing" and "developed" nations alike.
            No, this blog post is dedicated to the question I was asked by my Kenyan friend, a teacher and advocate of young girls, and a topic I will have to teach at the upcoming Camp MAP (Men As Partners) in April.
"What does it mean to be a man"?

Sagalla Youth Officers striking a pose in the bush
            Immediately things that come to mind are stereotypical "being strong, being a leader, never backing down", change that to being a "healthy man", "supporting his wife/lover, being respectful, controlling his 'urges'".
             "Urges", let's get back to that later, but I want you to think about the themes. Often times, in defining what it means to be a man, we define it in relation to others, to our friends, to our peers, to our family, to women, to our lovers. There's a reason for this, because men are often the perpetrators on violence towards women and men, we define them by how they act. Now onto "urges":
            You're in a bar with friends, and your friends are drinking heavily, they tell you to take a shot of whiskey with them. You say no, knowing that you don't enjoy being heavily intoxicated, they tell you to "be a man" and drink with say yes, and say yes again and again.
            You become so intoxicated you're not really moving right, there's a woman in the table across the room, your friends tell you to "go for it" even though you've not only never met her, but you can't even quite see her clearly. You don't think twice, because why shouldn't you? You're strong, handsome, you work out, you go up to her...and she rejects you coldly, because rightfully, you smell like you've drank too much and the stench is not attractive to her. Your friends are watching you and they make fun of you for striking out, for not being "man enough", not being assertive, confident, cool. You get angry, you try again, the woman turns you down angrily, calling you disgusting for, again rightfully, harassing her.
            You feel alone, isolated, a joke, you get angry, what do you do? You're wrong, you've done badly, you've drank too much, you just want to make the hurt go away. One of your friends keeps on letting you have it, and then you let him have it. You black out and several hours later you come to in a jail, you've just hurt your friend, he's missing teeth, and no one is there for you, what an asshole.
            Where was the manliness in drinking more than you wanted? Hitting on someone you couldn't even see clearly? Disfiguring the face of someone you cared for? Ending up in jail for crime? That situation is real, as men we're told to "go for it", be up for anything, sleep with anyone as long as she's attractive "enough", but these actions are not based on inherent urges that we have to reign in, it's based on actively adhering to a definition not in line with our own. It's a conscious decision, not a gross quality of manhood.

 The youth center was built primary on the volunteer
 labor of the local boys football groups,
 males continue to be the most elusive target audience for the health center
Gender and Development Committee Members Khalil Jarrett
and Max Mann gathering data for an upcoming meeting
  Simply, if you let your definition of yourself be defined by others, your actions will not necessarily be your own. In Peace Corps we teach girls to be independent, to take control of their actions, it's extremely necessary to teach boys to do the same in relation not just to society, but to themselves as well.
            It's important not to just admonish them against gender based violence, but discover what the pressures are towards that. How many troubled young men grew up with abuse, absent fathers, or extreme poverty? Those prone to violent and self abusive actions will not stop if you ask them "to stop", because sure enough, someone closer to them has been telling them all their lives "to go".
            On a basic level, I believe most of us as human beings want to be wanted, and be accepted, emotionally and physically. However, the focus on men, in terms of valuable aspects has historically leaned on the latter. I grew up to those being praised for their athleticism, those being popular for their handsome features. I worked out everyday to get those fabled six pack abs just to realize that even afterwards, I wanted someone else to praise them. It wasn't enough to be healthy, I needed someone to validate my body.
The winning football team at the Sagalla Kick Out Malaria Tournament, April 2013.
Who knows what challenges lay ahead for them?
             Growing up, I've been praised less for being emotionally secure, giving and expressive and admonished more to "take it like a man". I've played games where we punch each other on the arm to see who can handle the pain, done push up contests, and participated in sports just to adhere to some form of contest. Even if you are naturally expressive, you quickly let yourself believe (rightly or wrongly) that women favor the "strong" around you, and you learn to emotionally close up. In fact you'll hear men complain that "nice guys finish last" based on their experience that if they are to be wanted by a woman physically, they cannot show levels of openness that would make them "nice", and hence "friend-zoned".
            And there is the problem, again, I am addressing my gender, we aimed at being "nice" with the ultimate goal of being wanted, and we veer on the physical side of sex and courtship as the "prize". Why must the goal be physical pleasure no matter what your personality is like. Why is not attaining friendship just for an emotional connection considered valuable with a female?
Sagalla Youth Nicholas Mwavula finally knows his status.
 A star footballer, he's currently making it on his own in Mombasa
       As human beings, being open emotionally, being healthy physically, is not just for the express service of acceptance. Often times, without acceptance of yourself, being wanted becomes more of a dependence than a boon to your personality. Women should not be a "thing" to be obtained, because that skew your priorities in how you view people as well as how you view yourself.
            So what do you do when you're at that bar with your friends who are trying to have a good time?
            This is where the title comes from, learn to say no if you truly don't want to.
Public Health Officer Godrick Mwachofi lost his father at an early age,
 earning his way as a teenager to fund his schooling. 
            Say no to that shot because you don't always enjoy being wasted and losing control. Say no to hitting on a woman you have no real desire for. Say no to the angry impulses inside you because you know you truly don't want to hurt the people you care for.
            Say no when someone tells you to "be a man" because who you are is up to you,  and no one else, including your friends and your family, has the right to define you. You have the right to be selective, you have the right to your body image, you have the right to the pursuit of your passions, you have the right to be you.
            What you don't have a right to is to harm others, including those you love, or strangers, and if you do, the law has the right to prosecute you, and I say this because you have the right to control your life so no one else coerces you into habits or actions you don't want.
Sagalla Super Star Prince Darling right before
performing his music in front of a crowd of hundreds.
            Yes, it's okay to be wanted, but if you cannot find what you want from yourself and specifically from others, is it okay to say yes to those you truly don't care for? If you say yes without a condom to someone you have no intention of being serious with, will you truly be happy in case you contract HIV or an STI? What if the person you were with ends up pregnant, will you be willing to raise a child with the type of love you believe you yourself deserve?
            Because when I ask you, "what does it mean to be a man"? I am daring you to answer back with a vision of the type of man you want to be, I want someone to object to that as "unrealistic" and I want you to prove them wrong. Because you are capable of being who you want to be, regardless of gender definitions, you're capable of saying no to what you don't want, and saying yes to what you truly desire. But you have to know that desire and you have to put yourself in a position to actualize it friend. If you're friends are putting you down, you can say no to their company if it's a detriment, if you are being rejected by the women you like because they would rather date someone else different, you don't have to be that someone else, because it is not a crime to be loved for you. It's not a crime to be successful for being you...and being your own man.
Sagalla Youth Joseph pointing beyond the distance as he just finished his climb of Sagalla's tallest peak, I wonder what he'll learn at the upcoming boy's camp next week?
            It  won't be easy, but finding the road less traveled is never easy, in the end, isn't life worth the muscles we have gained when we get to our destination? Let your own legs take you to where you must go and rely not on the transportation of those who would steer you away.
Peace be upon you,
Tanim Awwal

   March 24th, 2014

May this cute weirdo never change..
.although ironically he's named after Barack Obama

Thursday, March 20, 2014

In Defense of Daring to Care

            At any point in time, from the moment I type this and the second you take in reading this, someone, somewhere, is doing a heroic service to the world. More accurately, multiple people are doing multiple good deeds globally, and chances are, several of those people are Peace Corps Volunteers
Volunteers teach young girls about how easily
and invisibly HIV spreads without proper preventative care
            Peace Corps was founded in the 60s midst the Cold War as America's belief that more than wealth, security, and nationalism, that it's core foundation is in spreading a global good will of aiding humanity. John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to give up their comfortable lives for two years and serve those in disadvantaged situations, learn the meaning of hardship, and take up a cause that is just and pure. In juxtaposition of multiple proxy wars, mutually assured destruction with the Soviet Union, and burgeoning materialism resulting from Post-World War 2 hegemony, the Peace Corps represented a living counterpoint to American real politick.
            I say this all now knowing that many will scoff at the near sugary coating I put of my organization, from those who do not know the Peace Corps but hate the concept of foreign aid to those who have served and have experienced extreme hardship, leaving them bitter and disillusioned.  To all of you, I want to talk about something uncomfortable, I want to talk about something that perhaps you are ashamed of feeling as I was a 21 months ago.
            I want to talk to you about idealism, and I want you to let yourself experience it.
            Take a look at the world today, the multiple wars happening among us, take a ponderance at the future ahead of us, environmental conflict not being the only crisis to likely worry about. We have a lifetime of tragedy before us, and unless you're in a position where you are being oppressed, there is something you can do about it.
            What was the difference between the generation that first joined the Peace Corps and now? Perhaps unlike growing up directly after two World Wars, we grew up after two Gulf Wars. We've grown up in a Post-Vietnam era where we actively know that the government is not necessarily always fighting against an enemy we can all rally against. Perhaps as result of seeing that developing countries post-colonialization are still developing afterwards even with the establishment of the World Bank, US AID, and the IMF, there is question of the effectiveness of altruistic reasons. Perhaps even more, having articles labeling inexperienced privileged do-gooders as "voluntourists" that focus, rather on constructive criticisms, to scrap the idea of interpersonal interaction all together, have led us to wonder if we are doing more harm than good.
            But I can tell you, the world has gotten better due to your desire to love, and not only does it desire it, you need it too.
I certainly have, I'll miss this view

Malaria rates have drastically reduced as a result of
the Mass Bed Net Distribution in Sagalla
 Malaria rates have drastically reduced within Africa due to the Global Fund, the President's Malaria Initiative, and Stomp Out Malaria, among many other partners. At my site alone, a mass bed net distribution in 2012 has reduced malaria rates by over 60% in less than a year. Every year, Peace Corps Kenya volunteer trains hundreds of youth to realize that they can make their own healthy decisions when it comes to preventing HIV, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy. Next month, for the first time in Kenya, PEPFAR is organizing with  Peace Corps to teach a Men As Partners camp, focusing on training young men about domestic violence, substance abuse, and healthy gender relations. This is work done by normal Americans, funded by normal Americans. You are making a difference, and you will continue to the make a difference.
The Youth Center has been an epicenter for youth engagement in Sagalla
            Idealism is a victim of the very enemies it is trying to defeat, which is indifference and oppression. Of the two,  the latter cannot be defeated immediately and perhaps because of the amount of time taken to combat it, the former breeds.
            Indeed, I am here to tell you to be idealistic, and be willing to live with it. Because being idealistic is difficult, it involves having to deal with challenges, failure, and the burden of having to humble and ultimately change 
yourself. Peace Corps is not just about helping people, it's also about letting other people help and change your perception. Idealism will break you, make you question your values, and ultimately put you at the cliff ready to fall down into yourself, but as you peer down, I want you to realize how far you have climbed because you believed you can.
The partnership between Host Country Nationals and Peace Corps Volunteers breeds a fusion of ideas and energy to make a difference, such as the restoration of this dam.
One of the proudest days of my life
            I want you to join Peace Corps, I want you to help people, more importantly, I want you to believe that it's possible to make a difference. Because it is, if I could, why can't you if you desired to. I will choose to believe in you, and will be continue to attempt to be an example for those after me to follow.
Peace be upon you,
Tanim Awwal

March 20th, 2014

This post is dedicated to the thousands of Volunteers who have served in world, from JICA, VSO, and Peace Corps in particular. This post is also dedicated to the thousands more I hope will choose to volunteer in the future, for them, I wish you courage, leadership, integrity, grace, and Zen in your development.