Africans are generally warm and respectful people. However, as with all good people and things, Africans – particularly men – have three annoying tendencies. Although I usually ignore those traits, they’ve vexed me long enough to earn a place among my top peeves. These traits miff women more than men, so I am writing this from a woman’s perspective based on my experience and that of some friends with the African men we have met over the years.
- The assumption of some form of kinship
“Sister, auntie, mother, ambuya (Shona for mother-in-law or grandmother depending on the intonation) – these are titles that the average woman is called from the age of 18, often by men in the name of “respect.”
Much as we preach unity and speak of being one big family, there is a tendency by African men to assign titles to women based on assumed age. So, depending on the assumptions, we African women often find ourselves being called sister, auntie, mom in the name of “respect.” The truth is, this is annoying, particularly when they get the age wrong. For example, it does not make sense for a 30 something year old man to call a 40 year old woman “mummy,” unless he is from a culture that condones child marriage!
Everyone wants to be respected, but not when it comes with the tag of being called mother by grown men!
The problem with such tags, in my view, is that they come with prescribed behaviour. For example, when a person calls you their mother, they expect you to fit into that mould. Essentially, this strips us women of our individuality and attempts to box us into the expected behaviour based on the imposed title and its assumed roles and responsibilities. If the person’s mother is illiterate, then the person being referred to as mom is somehow treated as illiterate. Similarly, if he is close to his mother, he will assume closeness to you even though you are strangers. African women therefore find themselves burdened with the cloak that comes with the kinship, including the mother’s personality and love.
These assumptions of kinship are particularly annoying in the business environment. Such “respect” is therefore contradictory because it disempowers the person who is supposedly being respected.
I recently contracted an African man’s company to do some work at home. The work began while I was out of the country and all was going well. However, after I returned and met the company owner, everything changed. The man, who is roughly my age, decided to call me “mother” and started misbehaving. On some days, he would not turn up for work and on others he would change the rules for his team. Somehow, I was expected to be a good “mother” and tolerate his lack of responsibility. I believe that if I had not turned up and remained faceless he would have done his work diligently and completed his tasks on time.
Elsewhere, I found myself being converted to a “younger sister or daughter” in the business environment. Of course this came with patronage and expectations of subservience on my part. Naturally, this meant the “big brothers and fathers” were stripping me of my authority, expertise and professionalism. We were now family and they expected me to fit into the subservient roles assigned to me and redrawing the boundaries was seen as a diversion from the expected “African” behaviour.
And then there was the gentleman who is about my age but insisted on calling me his aunt because he was facing challenges and wanted to me to pay his rent and living expenses. By playing the nephew he could abdicate both the responsibility and shame of being dependent on a woman he barely knew while benefiting financially. Although I lent him some support, I made it clear that as a grown man he should take responsibility for his life and expressed my reluctance to play his aunt.
Then once, when my sister and I were shopping in Botswana, a man behind us kept shouting “mme” (mother in Setswana) but we continued walking because we assumed he was calling his mother. When he reached us, we realised he had been trying to draw our attention because the shop was about to close and we were the only customers left.
Perhaps the average African man does not realise that it is very awkward and confusing to be switching roles between being mom, sister and aunt to strangers, particularly when the roles are imposed.
My advice to these men is stop looking for your mother or some relative in every woman. Just let us be who we are as individuals. To be very honest, I really prefer to be called by my name and if you don’t know my name, “madam” is more respectful than any of these titles of assumed kinship as it is free of the obligations that come with the associated relationship.
- The assumption that one community’s culture is universal
Indeed I am a black African who grew up in Africa. However, I am a black Zimbabwean from a specific community in urban Bulawayo and my experience is different from that of someone who grew up in Jos, Nigeria or Wau, South Sudan or Lusaka, Zambia or Nairobi, Kenya or Cape Town, South Africa or any other place on the continent.
Africa is rich with diverse cultures. Our common cultural practices unite us, but we should not disregard the diversity that adds to the continent’s cultural wealth. However, there is a tendency by African men to want to dictate what is “African” and what is not and usually their definition of “African” is behaviour that is convenient for them at a given time.
My struggle in the business arena has been with African men from cultures that do not condone education and careers for women. I have observed the way some of these men relate with women and found that while they do not have challenges working with women from other races, they struggle to relate with African women as professionals. The African women in the workplace seem to be an embodiment of the women they suppress at home. Such men automatically assume authority regardless of their titles and expect the African woman to be in constant subordination. These men prefer roles where they give instructions to the African woman, and struggle to relate with her as an equal or superior. Consequently, when an African woman asks questions, expresses a contrary view, participates in meetings, gives instructions, is assertive or tries to do her work, she is often dismissed and perceived as un-African. Naturally, the African woman in such circumstances finds herself constantly fighting not to be put in the same box that these men have placed the women in their personal lives.
My advice is let’s celebrate our diversity and acknowledge that Africa is not one big village with a universal culture so, do not impose your culture on everyone. Some African countries have made greater strides than others when it comes to the treatment of women and women from such countries will not cede their freedom to accommodate anyone’s culture or assumptions.
- The assumption that we all grew up the same way.
Just as African culture is diverse, African countries are at different levels of development. The truth is we may have grown up in Africa, but we were not brought up in the same way. In any country, there are geographic, cultural and class divisions.
I am often annoyed by social media posts like “you are not African if….”
The truth is even if we are all African, our experiences are different. It is both unfortunate and unfair to elevate one experience over another.
Once while having lunch with colleagues, an African man shared his experience of growing up in rural Zimbabwe, where life was a struggle because the family relied on his mother’s farming for subsistence. He told us that he never had a balanced diet then, and meat was a luxury that was eaten on special occasions when a cow was slaughtered and some of the meat was preserved as biltong for the leaner season. He then asked me to affirm that as the standard way of life for Zimbabweans but I could not because that was not my experience. Unfortunately, rather than acknowledge that their experience was not universal, all the African men from similar backgrounds at the table got upset with me. Growing up in Bulawayo with professional parents, my experience was that meat was bought at the butchery or shops and preserved in the refrigerator. These people overlooked the fact that 75 per cent of Zimbabweans live in rural areas and 25 per cent in urban areas and their experiences are different. What is practical in rural areas may not apply in urban areas but that does not make anyone less African than the other.
My advice is come to terms with the reality that all Africans were not brought up in the same home. We have different experiences but that does not make one experience more superior to the other.