We Need To Stop Saying Boys Will Be Boys

A few weeks ago the internet went into meltdown when a photo of barely teenage boys simulating a groupsex or rape scene surfaced. There were the expected outcries about how this could happen, shock, horror and disgust were trending. Without delay, there were also those who said the whole affair was being blown out of proportion and all this attention would do more harm than good to the boys.

I went to a boarding school with very similar traditions to the school these boys attend. Both schools are founded on the English public school template designed then to produce future leaders for the British empire. Too bad nobody told these schools the empire no longer exists. Much of what was standard practice a hundred years ago was still unchanged when I was in school twenty five years ago. It is disturbingly apparent little has changed since then. Effectively, boys are still being boys and this is a problem.

In my day we called it seniority, a strictly enforced heirarchical system that positioned the school prefects and head-boy at the top with the youngest students at the bottom. The teaching staff maintaining a laissez-faire attitude as the boys effectively managed themselves only stepping in when there was some sort of crisis. It was a veritable animal farm with minimal supervision. Looking back on it now, this was clearly a recipe for disaster far beyond the gates of the school. This was a breeding ground for troubling mysogynistic attitudes, we arrived as impressionable boys and left as damaged young men.

Much as the boys who trended, we engaged in acts of sexual miseducation and violence that in most cases, were directed by seniors. These seniors were boys barely three years older than ourselves and we replicated this as we moved up the seniority chain in an effort to be seen as part of the collective. We were conditioned to be go-getters but along the way became aggressive, vicious, callous even. We were also trained to be loyal to each other to a fault, nothing was more disgusting to us than ratting out fellow students to anyone in authority. For a long time I didn’t realize how much this last lesson had affected me.

I know now that it is this code of silence that caused me to look aside when I saw questionable behavior by my peers. It was because of this that I knew I could get away with being abusive to younger boys because nobody would say anything, besides, it was expected because that’s what had happened to us. After leaving school this bond remained, growing stronger in some cases. It even led to some boys committing crimes together.

I know that this is pervasive across other men who have gone through the schoolboy system and plays itself out in everyday life in the most unsettling ways. Guys give each other a pass because of an unspoken allegiance which they cannot even fully explain. It can be traced back to how they were socialized in high school. This skewed code of silence is the result of boys just being boys and needs to stop. Saying it’s all part of growing up is wrong and destructive.

More men who went through the system need to speak against it. I wonder what one would find if they studied the ratio of violent offenders amongst men who went through the schoolboy system. We cannot, in 2015, still be raising boys the same way as we did a century ago and expect them to be better men than we are. We know better now, boys cannot be left to their own devices as the lessons they draw from each other mark them for the rest of their lives.

When A Mother’s Love Become’s A Son’s Crutch

The past few days have had me thinking a lot about how the way our mothers raised us influences us. More particularly, how it influences our relationships as men, with the women on our lives. The other day I listened to a radio discussion where the talkshow host asked, do women contribute to men thinking it is ok to abuse them? Put better, do women give men a pass sometimes when they are abusive thereby entrenching and giving subtle approval for such behaviour? It was one of the heaviest hours of radio I have listened to in a while and it has stayed with me since. For me the answer is yes, however unintentional, women by not calling men out when they are abusive is tantamount to giving tacit approval for such behaviour. However, this does not mean the woman who does so is to blame nor does it, by any measure, absolve the abuser.

Someone I follow on Twitter said “mothers are often the greatest defenders of their sons when they are accused of abuse”, I agree with this, having witnessed it more times than I can count. There is often a cruel irony here, the same abuser who beats his partner in front of their children loves his mother to death and prays for his daughters to never go through any form of abuse at the hands of another man. That’s a topic for another day, for now I want to talk about our mothers and their seemingly blind love for us men even when we do wrong. Women of my mother’s generation, those born in rural Zimbabwe of the 1940s and 1950s, were taught to be obedient to their husbands, caring to their greater family and nurturing to their children Though these lessons continue today, some see this as entrenching submission in woman and reject certain aspects of these teachings.

Our mothers in some cases suffered and continue to suffer abuse from our fathers and we likely grew up not knowing this was happening because as part of their nurturing role, our mothers shielded us from this. They protected us by taking all the flack so we would not have to. They protected us the best way they knew how, by literally putting their bodies on their line. They forsook careers so that they could be home with us when our fathers went to work. They would be home when our fathers returned, frustrated and angry at the world, ready to explode. We never knew what happened in the bedroom, what discussions were had and when they emerged, what bruises our mothers may have covered up. We never knew the trauma our mothers went through in finding out about our fathers’ infidelities or worse, their other families. Our mothers have such grace under fire that, as a child, you would never know the turmoil and anguish they were dealing with. Even if you did see something you were not supposed to, they still made every effort to shield us from being scarred by it. Bless them.

The cruel irony is that this low intensity warfare produced a generation of men who are in many aspects, exactly like our fathers. Too many of us are physically and verbally abusive, emotionally unavailable, lie, cheat and have other families. At the same time, we adore our mothers and cherish our daughters, ready to bring hellfire down on anyone who harms a hair on their heads or even thinks it. We have become our fathers and this must be such a disappointment to our mothers but they would never say. We perpetuate a culture of abuse on social media then turn around and play son, husband or dad of the year without missing a beat. The good news is, we can break this cycle for good in one generation. We live with the awareness that what we do is wrong but too often choose to take our partners’ silence as tacit approval when we know better. You should not have to wait to be called out when you can apologise, correct course and live your life, it’s called being a man. I just don’t see how it is possible to raise children to not perpetuate the same mistakes we make if they do not see us actively correcting ourselves. We can be the partners and sons our wives or girlfriends and mothers deserve. We can start by having this conversation as men before we turn our daughters into our mothers, the quiet strong, sacrificing woman who only lives for her children and in their defence quietly lives a life less than ideal with an abusive man.

The Skinny Kid Paradox

Growing up I was always the skinny kid who everyone made fun of and called all kinds of names. Luckily I could handle the name-calling and wasn’t shy to throw a few choice ones back. What I couldn’t escape though, was the self-image of being smaller, less masculine than the other boys and I carried this into adulthood.

With that skinny kid self-image well engrained I ate and drank what I wanted for most of my life never worrying about the consequences because hey, that’s for fat people. I saw my schoolmates marry, have kids, balloon and turn grey whilst I was the smug young looking skinny guy. That was, until a recent visit to the doctor.

I know my body is nowhere near what it used to be and i have picked up a few kilos, or so I thought. Along with the rest of the world I made a commitment to get fit this year and  literally hit the ground running. I’ve been running at least 4 days a week since the year began slowly building up my stamina. In that effort I started getting terrible shin splints then a fever so I went to the doctor. What he told me changed my life.

For the first time in my life I’m overweight. My legs can’t take the strain of running because I am so heavy that if I continue road-running at this weight I will start getting micro-fractures in my foot and shin bones. I could not believe what I was hearing and in a daze I stepped onto the scale again just to be sure, I weigh ninety kilograms. The last time I weighed myself I was barely eighty kilos, how was this possible? “For your height you need to lose at least ten kilos to be safe before you start developing complications” the doctor said.

I got home, went to the bathroom and had a good hard look at this overweight person in the mirror. Here’s the kicker, I still  didn’t see it. Here I am, having just been told I have a weight problem and I’m still seeing that skinny kid from my youth. It then starts to dawn on me what a number I have done on myself.

Over the next few hours I thought through how I stopped exercising, started eating more of everything, how I drank more, how it took me longer and longer to recover from a night out, the more than occasional shortness of breath and the denial. The years and years of denial. In those hours a new picture started to form, a realistic picture of who I had let myself become. When I stood in front of the mirror again, the skinny kid was gone.

Thankfully I have already started exercising and I am committed to it so I just have to adjust my routine accordingly, the killer is the diet. Trying to eat 6 small meals and constantly ingest fluids is damn hard. I have my motivation though, a little girl who’s growing up fast and won’t understand why daddy’s always too tired to play with her.

My father used to say to me “you don’t want to be the oldest dad at your child’s sports day”, chances are I’ll be amongst the older dads but I’ll be damned if I don’t kick those young bucks in the fathers’ 100 metre dash. It will be great being that skinny guy again, but this time with the wisdom that comes from letting yourself go and then fighting to get back to who you were again, I look forward to winning this struggle.

When Not To Stop Aim And Shoot In Bulawayo

Whilst in Bulawayo Zimbabwe last week I spent a few days photographing sites and scenes around the city. I recently posted a blog of my visit to Centenary Park but today’s post will have no photographs.

On Sunday morning I went to the iconic Bulawayo Railway station, a place I had not visited since I was in high school some twenty years ago. On arrival I was impressed at how well maintained the main station entrance area is and it photographed really well in the morning light. I walked onto the platform and as I expected I found it in dire need of attention but much of the original structure is still intact.

The platform is a budding photographer’s dream with combinations of colonial and art deco architecture that have blended together over the decades as the station grew from it’s original structures. The long views down the railway lines as they disappear out the station to far off destinations. The iron struts that hold up the platform roof look like they have been there an eternity and will be there for an eternity still.

The faded advertising boards feature products that have not been seen anywhere in Zimbabwe for years, some since the eighties. Whilst quaint and photogenic, none of the advertising light boxes work anymore and I wonder when last anyone paid rent for the advertising space they still take up. There are no engines on the platform today, just fully loaded coal wagons and a few closed wagons possibly loaded, possibly empty. As I photograph a concrete pillar a passer-by says to me, “don’t get caught” I look up but he is already moved on so I continue with what I am doing.

I walk to the end of the tracks looking for the shot that will make my day and notice a guard sunning himself on a bench with his back to me. Not sure I have found what I wanted I make my way out of the station only to be stopped by a now wide awake security guard who asks me what I am doing. I tell him and he asks me to come with him, I ask why I should if I have done nothing wrong but he is insistent, politely so. After sparring for a few minutes like this I realise this will end badly if I continue to resist so I get in the car and we go to his office a short distance away.

At the office he asks to see my photographs so I show him, it is at this point that he tells me I have broken the law. He points to a notice on his wall which states there will be no unauthorised photography of any national railways structure or property and violation will result in a fine or jail time or both. Lucky for me we had had a cordial discussion so he allowed me to leave with a warning and advised me who I should seek permission from in future, a Mr. Masikati at the NRZ Head Office in town.

This was not the first time I had been stopped from taking photographs at a train station, a few months earlier at Johannesburg’s Park Station the guards there had threatened to take my phone but let me go when they realised I was a tourist.

Still reeling from that close shave I went across the road to shoot the power station who’s cooling towers are a famous Bulawayo landmark. No sooner had I taken my first shot a security guard comes across the road to usher me into the station’s guard house. Turns out it is a criminal offence to photograph any power installation punishable by a prison sentence, a US$2000,00 fine or both. Mr. Banda, the guard, told me i had broken the law and that he was required to call state security, known locally as the President’s Office, believe me, these are the last people you ver want to deal with. I asked why this was so serious an offence he explained thus:

If Zimbabwe was to ever come under attack the two places to first be neutralised would be the power and fuel supplies therefore all such installations are regarded as national key points requiring the highest security. He then asked to see my photographs and asked me to delete them as he watched. I was gutted but grateful the situation didn’t go further than it did, I may not have been here today to write this.

You know how they say bad things happen in threes? Turns out fate was not done with me yet, fast forward to Friday, my last morning in Bulawayo. After shooting in Centenary Park I walked to the council buildings looking for unique angles for my blogpost. I hand’t taken five shots before a security guard approached me and the now familiar dance began. “Who are you, where are you from and what are you doing? Let me see your photographs because what you’re doing is not allowed. Ok last warning, don’t do it again, be gone.” After a great morning shoot in the park this was deeply frustrating, to make matters worse, the guard told me they were simply enforcing a verbal instruction from some superior and he was not even sure if it was enforceable.

Whilst I can appreciate national security concerns I find barring tourists from taking photographs of state structures is an archaic and unenforceable regulation. You would think the station in a city that suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in history would have the most restrictive measures but no, New York City’s Grand Central Station has an Instagram account and hundreds of photos are uploaded daily by travellers passing through it. Johannesburg’s Gautrain has no problem with photographers at it’s stations or on it’s trains as long as they don’t cause a danger to themselves or others.

In Zimbabwe the people expected to enforce these rules are bored and disinterested, you just have to google these places and you will find hundreds of photos. In an age of drones and spy satellites who would walk up to the front gate of a national key point in broad daylight and start taking photographs in full view of security personnel? This is an example of technology outpacing technology and those who write our laws are woefully ill-equipped to meet this challenge.

Until that day, take this as a word of advice from one who got lucky twice in fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning, you may not be so lucky when next you’re out gramming wherever you are.

A Centenary Of Childhood Memories (Part 1)

Over the last four weeks I have travelled to various parts of Zimbabwe and South Africa on  what started out as a trip to Kimberley to see family but has evolved into quite an adventure. One of these adventures was a visit I made yesterday to Centenary Park in Bulawayo Zimbabwe.

The last time I went to the park must have been over twenty years ago despite driving past it numerous times over the years. Growing up in Bulawayo in the eighties Centenary Park was an integral part of our life with many a happy Sunday family outing spent there enjoying the numerous attractions for all ages. I could write to no end about the mini train that took you on a ride around the park or the mini-golf course I never got a chance to play because I was too young to be interested. There was a sailing pool for model boats where I remember watching those who had them sail them as I wondered to myself why I didn’t have one. I remember the skating rink which I never got to try because I never owned roller-skates. I remember the life-size chess board and pieces in the gardens that we would imagine were real and came alive at night to do battle before becoming statues again just before dawn. I remember the wishing well and the many people I saw cast coins into it making silent wishes, meanwhile my brother and I would scheme on how we could fish out all those coins and be rich, rich, rich. I remember the zoo with impala and zebra, the aviary with all kinds of wonderful birds and the amphitheatre though I can’t tell you of a single event that happened there.

I remember all these things but what I remember most of all was the place where I spent most of my time, the playground. The sound of the swings and merry-go-rounds as they swung and spun. The thud of hundreds of feet running in all directions, the joyous sounds of youth unleashed. The inevitable tears when somebody got hurt that were quickly forgotten when the next game began or your turn on the slide was up. I remember the tank we used to play in, yes a military tank, I even remember the smell inside it when we would pretend we were at war blasting away at an invisible enemy.

That was many years ago now and although I knew the park was now run down nothing could have prepared me for the state I found the playground in.

There used to be two train engines here but now there is only one. The paintwork is fresh though.
There used to be two train engines here but now there is only one. The paintwork is fresh though.

The train doesn’t run here anymore but the station and the track are still there from what I could see.

The railway line is still there but I have no idea when last it was used.
The railway line is still there but I have no idea when last it was used.
I remember this tunnel being a lot more imposing, but then, I was nine.
I remember this tunnel being a lot more imposing, but then, I was nine.

Bulawayo is known for it’s tree-lined streets, most famous are the jacarandas that bloom in late October. The park was always home to many different trees and thankfully they are still there for the most part.

Dawn breaks behind a dying tree that has probably stood here longer than anyone in Bulawayo today has been alive.
Dawn breaks behind a dying tree that has probably stood here longer than anyone in Bulawayo today has been alive.

In the playground you could be a King, a general or the lord of the jungle, your only limit was your imagination.

The castle fort where many a battle were fought in an effort to be King.
The castle fort where many a battle were fought in an effort to be King.
The highest of highs upon the tallest slide ever built, or so we thought.
The highest of highs upon the tallest slide ever built, or so we thought.
One moment you're on top of the world the next you're picking yourself up off the ground, dusting yourself off and getting ready to go again. Just mind the jagged rusty edges.
One moment you’re on top of the world the next you’re picking yourself up off the ground, dusting yourself off and getting ready to go again. Just mind the jagged rusty edges.
what games did you play when you were growing up?
what games did you play when you were growing up?

In the years since I became an adult I have often wondered about the intention behind putting a military vehicle that had literally killed people in a children’s playground. Was it some effort at mental manipulation, some plots to desensitise us to violence? I don’t know but i think for the most part we turned out alright.

There used to be a tank here. I remember the cannon and the caterpillar tread. Also, this vehicle is sealed so you can't get in, unlike our tank in the eighties.
There used to be a tank here. I remember the cannon and the caterpillar tread. Also, this vehicle is sealed so you can’t get in, unlike our tank in the eighties.
It all looks so innocent and playful, the children are none the wiser.
It all looks so innocent and playful, the children are none the wiser.
All broken dreams once gave someone hope, meaning. Some broken dreams can be restored and realised.
All broken dreams once gave someone hope, meaning. Some broken dreams can be restored and realised.

This playground is in fact a microcosm of what has happened across Bulawayo, a city that is today barely a ghost of it’s past. It pains me to see the playground of my youth reduced to a dusty field of broken children’s toys, their dreams broken on the rusty iron of military surplus junk, but I live in hope that the glory that once was Centenary Park can be restored. It honestly wouldn’t take that much but for now I fear the imagination of children is lacking in the City Fathers.

 

The Light

Some of my most vivid memories are of me smashing a blue toy gun at age five and about a year later my younger brother throwing lit matches into a closet full of books, burning, amongst other things, my early art-books. I also remember we each got thoroughly disciplined for our transgressions. 

Around that period I got my first audio book, Winnie The Pooh. The truth is our Dad took my siblings and I to a record store one Saturday afternoon and whilst everyone else was in awe of Michael Jackson’s newly released Thriller album I wondered off on my own and noticing the Winnie book, I took it off the shelf & off we went home. I thought it was just a book, imagine my surprise when I found a record inside. Dad didn’t notice until we were almost home and whilst I don’t remember my explanation I do remember we drove back to the store where I mumbled an apology and he paid. By the time we got home none of us kids cared for MJ as we were all in awe of this book that came with a record, or was it a record that came with a book? Either way, it was a day that I will never forget.

My next vivid memory was winning a book award at age seven, one of the proudest days of my young life. The book is long gone but my mother has my medal stashed away somewhere. One day at age ten, I think, my brother and I were at my friend Mehluli’s house and after seeing a wire-car I decided I wanted to make my own. His parents’ garage became our workshop and for what seemed forever, we churned out all sorts of ever more elaborate creations. It was 1986, Knight Rider and The A-Team were all the rage so you can imagine what our cars looked like.

My school years were full of such contradictions. When not getting into all kinds of trouble I did have the occasional moment of academic achievement, if I may call it that. What some may see as destructive or anti-social behaviour was, I believe, the source of my most defining and vivid lessons.

Had I not smashed that toy-gun open I may never have learned to look closer at how things work, from wire cars then, to studying and developing alternative business models today. My parents were unwitting mentors in this regard as the more they told me not to do certain things the more I wanted to do those very things.

I am more curious than courageous although those who know me may insist I’m stubborn, and it is that curiosity that allows me to keep learning. Curiosity allows me to do things or go places just to see what will happen and that’s taken me on some of the most rewarding adventures of my life. Curiosity is how I met my beautiful wife and whilst my antiques may occasionally drive her crazy, she knows it’s all for a greater good.

The hardest thing for me has been to understand that every day is the sum of all my previous actions, good or bad, what makes me different is how I choose to apply yesterday’s lessons today.