A Blog post by Sally Dalton
The African man is a complex concept. In the eyes of westerners, he is the potent, powerful figure whose otherness determines him an object for admiration and contempt, his image daunted by expectations and prejudices, an epitome of masculinity as Frantz Fanon observes in Black Skin, White Masks. There is no African man, of course – the perception of the continent as country is just one of the many stereotypes which confuse and conflate the many intricate differences between a diverse array of nations and peoples. Yet like many regions of the world, the ideals of masculinity pervade virtually every aspect of society. The idea that an ideal man is the breadwinner, the head of the family, the producer of children, the warrior, is a noble and honourable one, yet it comes with its price.
One of the prices which comes with ideals of masculinity in various regions across the globe is the notion that manhood is defined by an ability to withstand particular temptations, and the relationship with alcohol in particular is complicated. By many cultures and societies, alcohol is viewed with a cautionary and disapproving eye; men who let their addictions control their ability to take care of family and loved ones are considered lesser. Yet alcohol itself comprises a significant aspect of some societies, particularly for its social importance.
A Rising Dependency?
In Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, the narrator recounts the experiences of men in his compound and how life takes place around the individual homes of people living in it, as well as the famous and mystical Madame Koto’s bar which is a central stage. Palm wine is the celebratory drink when families experience a stroke of luck, is generously supplied for the men of the village, and is also the escape when times are more difficult than usual. Sometimes, it drives the emotions and reactions of individuals, causing disruption in the overall social construct.
If Okri’s experiences were strongly influenced by his time in Nigeria, then its towns and cities could be considered a focal point for study in examining the use of alcohol consumption. In comparison to many other countries, while alcohol consumption is common (particularly among males), it does not reach the same alarming statistics as it does in the west; alcoholic beverages would be consumed during traditional ceremonies for the most part. However, recent years have seen a considerable rise in its consumption, particularly in wine. The question remains as to the why – is this an effect of western influence and/or globalization, or a potentially more liberal attitude towards such substances? Is this an issue which is only counted for in larger metropolitan areas, leaving smaller regions to the wayside, or is it an issue at all? Or is alcohol abuse such a stigmatized topic that it is left unconfronted?
Certainly, times are changing for the typically devout country. Despite its intense religiousness, more and more young individuals, particularly men, are becoming regular drinkers. Depending on one’s definition of “regular” (for example, “frequent” often means five days a week), that in itself isn’t problematic. Nor does social change which is reflective of more secular tendencies necessarily present a problem either. With an increasingly successful economy, it is no surprise that drinking is a natural, celebratory feature of social life. But is it becoming a more serious problem? Certainly, young men often measure their own prowess by their ability to hold their alcohol; drinking is considered an informal rite of passage and peer pressure often perpetuates this. Is this the new ideal example of masculinity?
These ideals are problematic to say the least, although it is not the sole sentiment of young Nigerians, the majority of whom are extremely conscientious about alcohol consumption. Yet families are still torn apart and children are left in increasingly difficult situations without the right resources to cope, often taking on the burden of providing for the family and sacrificing their well-being, and even schooling, to do so.
Fortunately, Nigeria’s approach to treating substance abuse has evolved considerably over the past few decades, and continues to play an active role in helping individuals and families who face an adversary in the form of alcohol. In any region where consumption is gradually increasing, this is paramount. Equally important, addressing the truth about alcohol is paramount. That alcohol improves one’s performance and provides a safe environment is a myth, and one which must be confronted. So while alcoholism is not a huge national issue as yet, it is significant that people think ahead and ensure that it remains a pleasurable pastime, and not a detriment to good families on a wide scale.