Côte d’Ivoire

Arriving Côte d’Ivoire

Traveling has moved from being just a hobby to becoming who I am. More and more I am beginning to see myself and my world through the eyes of the diverse cultures of the globe and lesser through the small lenses of my culture and past experiences. I see myself more as a citizen of the world than a citizen of one country or state.

However, amidst this new awakening, I have come to rest in the fact that my heart will always find a home in Africa, as my legs effortlessly always wander to take root in the continent. Traveling and touring across Africa always leaves me wondering how one region can be endowed with so many resources, color, diversity in culture, wealth and people, all these keep me coming back.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to go all out in touring Africa, starting out with Anglophone Africa mostly because it was convenient for me, being born and bred in Nigeria meant I spoke English fluently, though I had plans of exploring Francophone Africa as well, I was always crippled by the language barrier, at least the fear of it; going to a place I knew no one and not being able to communicate – the horror!

As summer 2019 began to wind down, I decided to rise above my fears and break the Francophone Africa jinx, I began planning to visit Ivory Coast; a Francophone African country in West Africa; a cultural pot, boiling over with all the cultural ingredients from all neighboring countries around it. I considered Ivory Coast to be the perfect Anglophone city to begin my French Adventure, for its rich culture and history, and its nearness to Ghana, another African Country I had found a home in.

It was a cold, rainy November evening in Cote d’Ivoire I had just landed in the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, I was in Abidjan one of the bubbliest cities in the country. There was peaceful chaos as people moved to and from the airport arena; Hugs, handshakes, goodbyes, and tears all mixing in the fading sounds of the infamous Makossa music playing in the background. “It begins,” I thought to myself as I picked up my bags and hopped into my taxi, “Who knows what magic lies beyond these walls”. I was both eager and scared to experience it all. Abidjan is clean, beautiful and calm, riding through the city I could spot cheerful faces everywhere, this made me warm and slowly washed my worries away.

At the Hotel, the attendants were really nice, some could speak English, though Google Translate played some part in our communication. Everyone was cheerful and welcoming. By the next day, I had begun going out, visiting spots around and taking photos. Abidjan reminded me so much of Ghana, the houses and street culture seemed so alike. The people dressed very similar to Ghanaians, wearing the traditional wears that the Ghanaians wore. Ivoirians are very laid back, soft-spoken and very easy going, cheerful and welcoming to visitors. One interesting thing though, when it came to partying, Ivoirians knew how to party! Dancing mostly to Nigerian music and a mix of Pop Congolese and Ivorian music… Parties started really early and lasted all night. Street bars opened as early as 4:00 pm and stayed open till dawn.

Oronce

During my stay in Cote d’Ivoire, I met this amazing photographer called Oronce, meeting him was accidental as I wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with him. I had pre-booked a photographer for my documentary about Cote d’Ivoire. He came along with my photographer, Oronce is from Benin republic but he works around francophone West African countries. I was shirtless when I received them in my hotel room and the minute he saw me, he started talking about wanting me to shoot an underwear photography contest for him. Apparently, a men underwear company was running the contest among photographers and according to him, I ticked all the boxes for the photo project he was working on. Right there and then, I had found myself a friend in Abidjan, I had two days left and he was willing to make it memorable. Oronce speaks fluent French, so he offered to show me around town. We visited this local restaurant where I was treated with local seafood soup, served with a pudding-like meal made from fermented cassava pulp called Attieke, served with plantain, I loved every bit of the meal.

Like many people I met in the City, Oronce was very nice but unlike the Ivoirians, he was a bit fast in speech and action.

Bushman Cafe and The Ivorian Super model

That same night he took me to the Bushman Cafe, where I had a literal epiphany. Bushman Café was beautiful inside-out, standing at a spectacular corner in the city somewhere in Cocody, Abidjan. Inside the building was like a beautiful orchestra, filled with both contemporary and ancient art collected from across and beyond the country. The building housed a restaurant, a bar, a craft shop, a library, a museum and a little sleepover space which one could call a hotel or a B and B. I had never in my life seen so much raw African art like I saw at Bushman Café, the furniture, the fabric on the walls, the art on the walls, the masks, the curtains, the rugs and mats on the floor, the bright African prints the attendants wore, the music, everything was magically African; Vibrant, colorful, alive and full of wondrous vigor.

Touring the building, I was captivated by  African Masquerades, standing tall and unfazed by time and the effects of modernization. I was immediately transported to my hometown in Kwara State, I was a boy again, running from these Masquerades, it was one those festivals where the Masquerades come in their numbers to display their glorious majesty. Where I’m from, Masquerades are revered and celebrated; adorned in shakers and raffia, the chorus of their apparel all clapping and dancing to the music of their majestic steps. Asides entertaining the people, like today’s Police, masquerades were the voice of gods and the hand of the law in ancient times. A close look at these Masquerades hanging on the walls and I saw the shocking resemblance in their outfit, mirrored in the attire of Military Police across the west, the face masks resembled the Gas Masks worn during riots and unrests, the Police belts resembled those of these old African Masquerades, the colourful badges and full sleeves all mirrored the ones that adorned these Masquerades. I may not be so accurate but I would bet a great deal that these pieces inspired today’s Police uniform design and this thought saddened me as I looked on old African art trapped and hidden in rooms where people; fellow Africans could only come to photograph them. These great pieces which our ancestors made in their backyards, that had become demonized by foreign religion, same peddlers of these religion who stole these “demonized” items away and are displaying them today in huge museums that fetch them millions of dollars. I was lost in these thoughts when Oronce, tapped my shoulder, it was time to meet the owner of the café, He was a diplomat in the country, an amazing and very friendly man most likely in his 40s. We sat for food and drinks, he was very smart and well travelled, we shared Ideas on life, our cultures and how to impact our continent as young Africans. The conversation left me inspired and hopeful about the future of the continent.

Later that evening, Oronce introduced me to an Ivorian super model, Awa Sanoko, a friend of his, the winner of the Miss Model of the World contest in 2015, the first African contestant to do so in 27 years. She had the darkest black pearl-like skin I had ever seen, her skin glowed in the light like velvet, she reminded me so much of Grace Jones; tall, slim, with a sleek stature like an hourglass. I was mesmerized by her beauty.

As we chatted, Oronce resumed his request, which I was still unsure about; to be photographed in a foreign country and for a big men’s underwear project?I had not planned for this! I was sceptical and Icouldn’t process the request enough to accept it. Theirony of the matter was that, as a young boy, I was super skinny and had dreamed countlessly of being a male model, I would jokingly practice my grand entry into the runway in my room and my siblings would laugh and clap. I never made it to become a tall man so the reality of my modelling dream began to fade away, as I got older, I started losing my slender frame which got replaced by more flesh, I began to hit the gym and bulk up and I knew it was all over, I believed it was impossible for me to ever model and here I was in a foreign land, my distant childhood dream begging to come true and I was hesitant. I felt a bit too old for it, over it, perhaps unqualified but Oronce would not give up.

Masculinity

After a day of being the most amazing host, I gave in, this was the least I could do, Oronce was elated, we drove hours away from the bustle of the city towards the open planes with lesser modern houses, we made a stop at this seemingly odd beach with golden sand. I was unimpressed with the site, for starters, instead of the characteristic white sand the beach had golden sand. Oronce threw out his cameras and light equipment, he was in his element, it was a golden hour and he wasn’t going to miss it for anything. I was stiff, self-conscious and too in my thoughts to allow myself into these sparkling new and freshly unboxed costume – White underwear. “Oh my God, how do I begin?”

I watched Oronce set up and had no other choice than to get into the costume, at first I did not know how to pose beyond spreading my hands wide like Christ on the cross, then he started to direct the session, telling me how to pose, I felt irritated and insulted, I kept thinking that the poses were too feminine, that a man’s body shouldn’t be made to curve and bend this way, but softly and calmly Oronce led me into it and got me to do what he wanted me to do. I was still irritated and I felt silly to have danced to his tunes but when the photos were out and I saw them, I suddenly came to the realization of how my preconceived false notions of what a man should and should not be or do, played the biggest part in my refusal to participate and later in my irritation during the shoot.

For as long as we have known, masculinity has always been associated and equated to physical strength, violence and a certain roughness that is supposed to be possessed by the male species, we have heard all the phrases that excuse toxic masculinity and make it a norm, from “boys will be boys” to “men don’t cry.” We use them ourselves sometimes, or at least we think them before we catch ourselves and adjust ( for those who adjust), even as we try to unlearn, it is obvious to us that these ideologies are very much deep-seated and would need an extra conscious effort to be rid of them.

In every part of the world, there are men trying to meet up to these expectations, men shaping their lives around the particulars of these words. There is a secondary school student that will not cry when he is hurt for fear of being laughed at, he would use the body of his sister as an outlet for his anger, there is the man that likes flowers but will never say it out loud, there is the male student that is being bullied for “walking like a girl.” You might think to deny it, to say that nobody does these things anymore, that men know now that they do not have to hide their true nature behind these notions but I tell you that for every one man that knows this, there are a thousand men who don’t.

Toxic masculinity is one of the strongholds of sexism, we raise male children that are constantly told to “stop talking like a woman” they grow up believing that there is a weakness in femininity. These boys grow up on the foundation of these lies; that everything that is not hard and rough and sharp makes them less of men. This article is not in any way belittling the men with toned bellies and deep voices the purpose is to show that men that do not possess these qualities are men too and also to examine the term “manliness” and all the harm it is causing.

Grayson Perry in his book, “The descent of man,” wrote; “For many males, being masculine, acting in a manly way, is as unquestionably a biological part of them as their penis and testicles and deep voice. But masculinity is mainly a set of habits, traditions, and beliefs historically associated with being a man. Our bodies take tens of millennia to evolve even slightly, but behaviors seen as masculine can be as transient as a teenage fad, a coal mine or a forgotten deity. We need to shift away from seeing masculinity as a closed set of behaviors and from seeing change as threatening, unnatural and feminizing. In their drive for domination, men may have neglected to prioritize vital aspects of being wholly human, particularly issues around mental health.” I totally agree with Perry

The average Nigerian Family places different expectations on their children based on gender, male children wash the cars while the females’ cook, no one does the other. Boys are taught to change bulbs, change tires and fix small electrical faults around the house while the females clean and wash clothes, these boys often grow up to see cooking as a woman’s job and vice versa. The world will be a much better place if more women knew how to change their own light bulbs.

Once I saw on Instagram a picture of a man carrying his child on his back, when I went to the comment section there was so much praise about how he was such a good and loving father I couldn’t help but laugh; shouldn’t a man be able to carry and take care of his own child? This is what the society has made men believe, that men who show emotion are weak men, making men constantly strive to be “strong,” they hide their feelings behind the facade of “manliness,” and slowly, even the most basic instinct of human beings is lost on them.

Religion also has a major part to play, especially in African countries like Nigeria many religions portray women as the weaker vessels, putting them beneath their male counterparts especially in the area of marriage where the man is expected to be the sole provider, so these men want to make all the money they can before they get married.

In Nigeria, cyber fraud is at a rise and it is a known fact that a very large percentage of its culprits are male, coupled with the fact that the Nigerian economic situation is very discouraging, I believe another reason for this is because of the pressure on young men to make money, to “hammer,” to “hustle ooo” because they believe that their worth as men is directly dependent on the amount of money they have and are willing to spend, so these men want to make money as fast as they can.

During my personal survey on this topic, a friend of mine said; “ I think toxic masculinity is just not a good thing. There’s this funny experience I had, it was raining that day, so I had to use an umbrella, when I got to class a girl said “nawaoo why boys go dey use umbrella sef.” I couldn’t believe that a person could think this way let alone say it out loud, I feel like this toxic masculinity thing is shown more by Africans/Nigerians. For example, even if you see a good old friend of yours you wouldn’t want to hug him because you are both men. It is toxic because you have to suppress your emotions like you aren’t human and not allowed to feel emotions, because you are a man then you have to be macho and tough.”

There is more to being male than being “manly” and “masculine,” who defines the boundaries? Who decides when a man is soft or hard, weak or strong? We are human first before we are anything and we owe it to each other to allow ourselves some breathing space, give room for people to comfortable in their own skins, to express their emotions in the language known to their own bodies. For as long as we keep inculcating these ideologies , we will keep raising men who hide under false thick skins.

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