Women are the reason why men have changed because women are hard on men. […] The expectations they come with into a relationship, and generally how they have been brought up, or the life they live, that is what gives some men stress. […] When someone is living with a woman in the house, you find that issues are many because money is little.
Wellington Ochieng, 36-year old labor migrant from western Kenya
During almost three years of ethnographic fieldwork among male migrants in Pipeline, an over-populated high-rise estate in Nairobi’s chronically marginalized east, I heard complaints like Wellington’s almost daily. Migrant men, in my case predominantly Luo from western Kenya who came to Nairobi with high expectations of a better future, bemoaned a life full of pressure caused by the romantic, sexual, and economic expectations of their girlfriends, wives, and rural kin. The blame often lay on ‘city girls’ who were portrayed as materialistic ‘slay queens’who ‘finish’ men by leaving them bankrupt only to suck away the next sponsor’s wealth after grabbing him with their ‘Beelzebub nails’ as Wellington called the colorful nails sported by many Nairobi women. Soon, so a fear expressed repeatedly by my interlocutors, most men would no longer be needed at all and Kenya’s economy would be ruled by economically powerful women who raise chaotic boys brought up without an authoritative father figure. Such fears of male expendability also manifested in imaginations about a future in which more and more men and women would live in homosexual relationships or ‘contract marriages’ that replace trust and love with contractual agreements. When my flat mate Samuel, a student of economics divorced from the mother of his baby son, returned to our apartment after passing the neighbor’s house where a group of women celebrated a birthday, for instance, he just shook his head and sighed: ‘We live like animals in the jungle. Women and men separately. We only meet for mating and making babies. Maybe that’s where we’re heading to.’ Overwhelmed by their wives’ and girlfriends’ expectations, many migrant men who spoke to me in Pipeline decided to spend as little time as possible in their marital houses. Instead, they evaded pressure by lifting weights in gyms, stockpiling digital loans and informal credits, placing bets in gambling shops, gulping down a cold beer in a Wines & Spirits, playing the videogame FIFA, or catcalling ‘brown-skinned’ Kamba women on the roads. Some men who could no longer cope took even more drastic measures involving murder and suicide. One man, for instance, cut the throat of his girlfriend only to try to kill himself, while another tried to poison himself, later quoting the wife’s actions and character as the cause. Anything appeared better than spending time with the ‘daughters of Jezebel’ who were waiting for them in the cramped houses of Pipeline, sometimes demanding migrant men to engage in romantic and sexual practices they were unfamiliar with as expounded upon by Wellington:
When you come to Nairobi, our girls want that you hold her hand when you are going to buy chips, you hug her when you are going to the house, I hear there is something called cuddling, she wants that you cuddle, at what time will you cuddle and tomorrow you want to go to work early? […] you don’t go to meet your friends so that you show her you love her, you just sleep on the sofa and caress her hair, to me, this is nonsense because that is not romantic love, I think that romantic love, so long as I provide the things I provide, and we sire children, I think that’s enough romance. […] Another girl told me to lick her, and I asked her ‘Why do you want me to lick you?’ She said that she wanted me to lick her private parts. Are those places licked? […] Those things are things that people see on TV, let us leave them to the people on TV.
Figure 1: Pipeline
The burden of economic and sexual performance was not only felt by poorer migrant men though. Rather, as shown by articles in Kenyan newspapers (see, for example, here and here), it is a nationwide pandemic affecting men from different classes. On a two-day long men’s meeting on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in mid-2022 which I attended and which was organized by Chomba Njoka and the self-help book authors and masculinity consultants Silas Nyanchwani and Jacob Aliet, for instance, a male lawyer, a psychologist, and, among others, a land surveyor lamented about similar issues. Sitting around a bonfire drinking cold beer in Mt. Kenya’s damp night, one man after the other told a story about a girlfriend who cheated with a financially better-off man, a wife who emptied the marital home of all valuable commodities and left with the children, or young women who come to Nairobi to be seduced by the city’s material promises and men in suits with ‘deep pockets’ who flock the bars of places like Pipeline looking for teenage girls with dreams of big cars, shiny clothes, and expensive hair pieces. Initially the stories were narrated with hesitance, one could feel that the men telling them were afraid to be blamed. Was I not man enough to provide for a family? Was I responsible for my wife leaving me? Yet, soon and after more and more of us had told similar stories, we broke out in cathartic laughter after another man had told us about another ridiculous incident in his life. Maybe, we began to think, it was not our fault, but whose fault then was it?
Figure 2: Men’s meeting in central Kenya
‘Nairobian girls, man, acha tu (Kiswahili, ‘just leave it’)! If some hapless guy with disposable income and sensible behavior shows some interest, the girl will put her acting mask on, and can easily fool the man proper. Nothing wrong with that, as life is a game. You play. They play. We play each other’, writes Silas Nyanchwani in his book 50 memos to men (2021: 104), a collection of his Facebook posts on gender relations in contemporary Nairobi. The first time I met Silas in a café in Nairobi’s central business district, he, a calm and soft-spoken guy over two meters tall and father of a girl, told me that men had been left behind in Kenya’s economic and cultural development of the last two decades, thereby perpetuating local discourses about the ‘neglect of the boychild’. Most development aid interventions were targeting the girlchild, and women were increasingly empowered economically. Who, however, was there to tell men what to do, to give men a voice and guidance? Jacob Aliet, an imposing man with an authoritative appearance, shared Silas’ sentiment. Known as a writer of Sci-Fi novels, many of his male friends had shared stories with him about the pressure to provide, the burden of performance, women’s ungratefulness, and men’s inability to know how to respond to what women and society demands of them after which Jacob decided to write the book Things our fathers did not tell us. Unplugged. From comforting lies to cold hard truths (2022) that, according to raving reviews by both men and women on the homepage of the Nairobian bookstore Nuria, has helped many male readers to find relief and new hope by getting guidance on what it means to be a man in contemporary Kenya.
Figure 3: Gym sign in Pipeline: men as strong, stoic, prudent providers.
Yet, neither Silas Nyanchwani nor Jacob Aliet rule over the booming Nairobian masculinity consultancy scene where one can find a controversial figure such as former radio host Andrew Kibe among more moderate voices such as pastor Simon Mbevi who counsels men and couples or Onyango Otieno who openly talks about his experience as a male rape victim and advises men to allow themselves to be vulnerable. The most famous personality, however, is Amerix, a medical doctor from Kenya’s former Western province who gives advice to Kenyan men on Twitter and through other social media channels. Although Jacob Aliet, Silas Nyanchwani, former writer of the column ‘The Retrosexual’ in the newspaper The Nairobian now written by Brian Guserwa, and Amerix align with the global red pill movement, part of a global backlash against feminism or some of feminism’s social consequences, they do so to different degrees. While they all agree that the world has become ‘femicentric’ and that men need to swallow the red pill to be ‘unplugged’ from the false truths of feminism, Amerix has a more radical take on Kenya’s gender relation and offers answers that aim at changing not only the totality of his adepts’ daily lives but also openly admire Paul Kagame’s autocratic style of leadership and dreams of a world where strong ‘Afrikan’ men subdue obedient women. In his chat groups, young Kenyan are not allowed to write using ‘effeminate’ emojis or incorrect English while dreaming about a reinstated patriarchal order and implementing Amerix’ advice by practicing semen retention to accumulate testosterone, fasting for days, lifting weights, and avoiding industrial processed food as well as imperial ideology spread in NGOs and churches by white men and women. Being pressured to perform economically and sexually, young men all over Nairobi beg Amerix to ‘continue to mislead’ them by warning against get-rich-quick schemes and by ridiculing women’s expectations of large penises and pornographic sexual performances.
Figure 4: Amerix: a men’s movement with over one million followers on Twitter
It would be easy to just ridicule the absurdity of some of Amerix’ advice or to call out Jacob Aliet and Silas Nyanchwani as toxic men. Yet, over one million people are following Amerix on Twitter, and both Jacob Aliet and Silas Nyanchwani are rather typical Kenyan men who, despite boasting patriarchal inclinations, care about their children, girlfriends, and wives. None of the men I met on the slopes of Mt. Kenya dreamt of enslaving women, and all agreed that a return to their fathers’ worlds was not desirable. However, after three years of fieldwork, I can count on one hand those men who confided to me that they are in happy relationships or marriages. Heterosexual Kenyan men, in other words, are unhappy, and, as attested for by Amerix’ fame, they are desperately looking for explanations for their experience of economic, romantic, and sexual pressure and the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women more generally. Many Kenyan men feel sidelined and, despite their willingness and attempts to provide, are unable to meet what they imagine to be or what sometimes indeed are the unrealistic expectations of women which compels them to look for advice from fellow Kenyan men who seem to be the only voices resonating with the problems they face ‘on the ground’. Mark, an unemployed Luo migrant with a degree in physics who survived by writing essays for Chinese students with substandard English skills, for instance, responded to my question about the role of Amerix in his life with excitement:
Amerix is talking about why shouldn’t we be us? Why do you have to be dictated by a woman? Let the woman decide whatever you have to do. Be away from friends, she does not want. Do whatever she wants? You see that? So, we were like, give us this shit. […] From the first day, we were all into Amerix’ thing. […] there are some people who argue that Amerix is misleading the men, but then if you understand what Amerix is talking about, it is the real thing, the real situation on the ground.
In such an impasse, western journalists, social scientists, and practitioners from development aid should ask themselves what social, economic, and conceptual benefits for both men and women could be generated from working with more moderate masculinity consultants such as Silas Nyanchwani. Though they neither agree to notions of the social construction of gender nor share beliefs in the necessity to dismantle all patriarchal gender roles, they have access to the minds and hearts of Kenyan men such as Wellington, Mark, or Samuel. Although I disagree with the red pill movement’s evolutionary naturalization of gender roles and its simplistic use of biological assumptions – such as female hypergamy – to explain human social relations and strongly believe that a more political-economic approach would allow men and women to attack some of their common enemies who deprive them of economic development, I also think that honest debates that include the voices of various masculinity consultants could open a conceptual space beyond, on the one hand, the capitalistic and colonial notion of the male breadwinner and provider that necessarily produces pressured men who desperately want but cannot provide for their loved ones due to structural conditions of Kenya’s capitalistic economy, and, on the other hand, locally largely still unacceptable notions of men as vulnerable and dependent that only resonate with a few middle-class Kenyans. Such progressive, open-minded, and creative debates might help to repair what appears to be a social constellation characterized by mutual misunderstanding and heightened mistrust between men and women.
Mario Schmidt is currently a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. He is the co-editor of the blog series ‘Pressure in the City’ and currently finalizing a book manuscript entitled ‘Migrants and Masculinity in High-Rise Nairobi. Under Pressure in an African Capital’.