Wednesday, June 25, 2008

All The Presidents' Women & A Tribute to the ‘Unknown Woman’

If we look at some of the youngest and most dynamic western leaders we have had in recent times, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, they have had partners that were formidable in their own right. Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth is an accomplished lawyer - a Queen’s Counsel, who trumped her husband's grades in college. Hilary Rodham was a ferociously intelligent Yale graduate, a lawyer too, who made a mark for herself in diverse levels of politics but also grounded and guided the free-spirited but charismatic Bill Clinton. Michelle Obama (another lawyer, interestingly), had graduated from Princeton and Harvard and was even her husband's assigned mentor when he began practicing law.

Though we know a lot today about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, I believe we should know more about Coretta King, Betty Shabaz and Winnie Mandela as well. Surely, these women were instrumental to the making of these men and sacrificed so much for these men to be known as the great men they are today. In essence, as we sing the praises of these ‘great’ men and mark their place in history, surely we need to do the same for their wives who have been instrumental in making them who they are today. Furthermore, as we have copious studies on these men, I think we also need to study these women. Until we do, we will never have the full picture of their character, their strengths and their own contributions to the legacies they built with their husbands.

Michelle Obama said in an interview "the way I see it, we are both running for President of the United States”. Meaning it was a joint effort, a joint sacrifice and a joint struggle even though only the husband would be sworn in as President. Only he will have a Presidential Library and his face on a postal stamp, though they did it togther. So again I am saying that as these great women stood by their man to make history, we must not forget they also are a key part of the making of that history. I also think as we often commemorate the ‘Unknown Soldier’, we also need to recognise the sacrifices of the ‘The Unknown Woman’ - many of them who are out there and may not be so visible but have made countless sacrifices for their men (to be who they are today) and their societies (for what they have become today).

Now, there is another issue here though and I am just musing not pontificating: Many men do admire these great women above, but mostly from a distance -not as wives or spouses. Could it be because some men are afraid to marry strong accomplished women supposedly for fear of being overshadowed or 'dethroned' as the 'man' of the house? I think the real fear is that when you are married to women as accomplished as those mentioned above, there is little to impress them with! Your sense of ‘manhood’ (whatever you take that to be) is stretched and challenged and you have no choice but to raise your game! You only have to watch Commander-in-Chief ( drama series where Genna Davis plays the first woman president of the US) to see the internal ego and public identity battles the ‘First Gentleman’ had to fight before settling into the position. Loving and supportive as he was, the guy struggled!
There is no doubt that the performance and delivery bar is set so far higher when you have a high performing and high delivering partner (who also sleeps with you – no pressure!). But if you really look at it, this could be a major driver for success! Perhaps this may have something to do with these men going for the highest office in the land? I want to be President so that I can impress my wife?!

More seriously, the sheer weight of great women’s achievements don’t have to debilitate and emasculate men, but can challenge men to be better men, to achieve more, to stand for more, to be more. Not in a competitive kind of way but in a complimentary one. But some men see this as a lot of (fear induced) pressure! They think: 'what if I fall a few Kobos short of a Naira, will I still be valuable legal tender in my wife’s eyes?' Will I live in the shadow of my wife as a ‘Mr Her’? Will my son look up to me, will my in-laws snidely poke me with the prickly stick of mockery? Will society think of me as a ‘woose’, a frail failed fellow?
These fears can exist ( whether they are legitimate or not is another topic for discussion), but they can be converted into the energy that can transform crippling fears into enabling energy for success. For all you know Blair, Clinton and Obama had to struggle with these issues and they converted their fears into constructive energy and ‘Ajani is you uncle’, they get to the top! Can all men do this?

The thing is that the average alpha male wants to proudly lead the pack. We men want to impress our women and want to feel we are the greatest men and the inspirational centre of their lives. So we jostle for this position as it often affirms our sense of manhood. This can be seen as a chivalrous gesture of a man wanting to be everything to his woman. But the problem often is that the emotionally deficient alpha male tries to lead by primal aggression, while the wise ones seek to lead, not only by example, but by earning the love and respect of their partners. This can be hard work, but better to win the kingdom of the wife’s heart and respect than the fleeting adulation of a fickle world and flawed cultural values.

So what am I saying here? I am saying that the world celebrates all these male leaders, they should also celebrate their wives who in countless ways got them there. Why? You ask. Well, because it takes a greater woman to make a great man. I am saying we need to notice and celebrate the many other ‘unknown women’ that in their own way -often more private than public- make their men who they are today. I am saying that the truly great ones are not just these very visible women that we admire on our TV screens today, often they are those women behind the scenes whom we sometimes forget to notice, forget to praise and forget to admire. I am saying we need to appreciate our women more.

But how do we men then show our appreciation? Is it through nice articles, great speeches, cooking dinner or buying expensive handbags? Perhaps, these are some ways that may work for different folks, but truly, the best way is for us to be able to make the kind of sacrifices that they make for us; to carry the burdens that they carry with us; to endure with them as they do for us even when its tough; to stand by them in achieving their dreams: so that they too can be the best they can be.

Dakar, Senegal, June 08

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Finding Me-More

Do you ever find yourself feeling lost? You are surrounded by people but you feel alone? You are amongst the people you think you know but you realise that you actually don’t know them as well as you thought you did and no one knows you as much as you would like them to? You feel lost and alone and desperately need to find yourself, but how do we find ourselves in an ever more complicated and super-fast changing world? Nothing stays the same and the same has become nothing. For example, traditional roles and responsibilities of men and women are changing, interfacing, interlocking and conflicting all at the same time to the point that one is not sure what it is to be a man or a woman anymore - beyond the biological differences and even that is changing and being exchanged too! What a ball of confusion.

Global interaction has heightened to unprecedented levels. With technology, we now have easier and faster travel, text messages, Instant Messenger, cable satellite TV and the internet. With all these we are more opened to an influx of cultural diffusion, intellectual osmosis and value exchange than any other generation in world history. We have so much information at our finger tips, door steps and even through holograms that call your name that it’s sometimes hard to decipher which is noise and which is not. Whichever way they all sink into your psyche someway somehow and when you need to dip into your chest of wisdom to address a problem, you are spoilt for choice. Which do you pick? Osama’s wisdom, Obama’s wisdom, Oprah’s wisdom, Dr Phill’s wisdom, the Dillai Lama’s Wisdom, Chopra’s wisdom, grandma’s wisdom, Socrates’ wisdom or the good ol’ biblical wisdom, amongst others.

Our options and choices on everything have increased phenomenally to the point there is almost no right choice or wrong choice anymore. No right view or wrong view anymore. No right or wrong response anymore. “Whatever makes you happy darling” is what Agony Aunt now recommends.

We now live in the age of relativism: there is no good, no bad, no ugly anymore. Everything is relative. Our social norms and values have become social plastercine we can mould to suit our predilections and with the unsexiness of traditional values, what we used to know as our social templates are fading and our world is becoming this 'free for all', 'anything goes' society operating on the mantra of: 'do what you like, get what you can, as long as you can get away with it' or 'what ever floats your boat mate, as long as it don't sink mine'. Now these are rights of free humans living in free societies and are signs of a progressive and fast integrating society. But my question is how do you find or define yourself in this amorphous social miasma?

How do you find yourself, where do you find yourself? Do you see and assess yourself against the mirror of the majority or through your courage to be part of the minority? Who’s right and who’s wrong, the minority or the majority and which camp should you join? Perhaps you should sit on the fence or just go ahead and blaze your own trail. The fact is that you can do one or all the above and still be right and wrong at the same time. So how do you know what the right thing to do is when there is almost no right or wrong anymore?

So where do we find answers? Schools nowadays teach almost everything. You can possibly get a PhD in Culinary Arts with a Specialisation in Sushi Making, if that's what takes your fancy. We go to school to learn answers to questions and to develop the techniques of finding those answers. Why does the sun come up at dawn? Why does it snow? How are children born? Why do people die? We even ask often in jocular parlance: why did the chicken cross the road? Like the chicken gives a toss why you crossed the road. In school, we are taught answers to many questions about the world, its inhabitants, its history and its future but hardly are we taught about finding answers about ourselves as individuals.

Often, many of us just go through life often repeating patterns and wondering why we find ourselves in the same position. We hardly step back and examine ourselves to find out how we got ourselves in those positions in the first place.Why do I think the way I do? Why do I feel the way I feel? Why do I react to things the way I react? Why am I afraid of this or that? Why am I the way I am? Why do I have the life I have? Often many of us go through life just acting, responding and reacting to things, people and issues without asking ourselves 'why?' We often judge ourselves base on the feedback we get, but even that we can ignore saying 'what the hell do they know about me, its my life anyway', but with all due respect, what the heck do you know about yourself - considering the reality that even you are subject to continous change?

I don't know about you but the more I travel, the more I read, the more I take in the avalanche of diverse views, news and information out there about who one should be, how one should be and how one should relate to the world and others, the more I get confused. Am I right or am I wrong? Are these views too old fashioned or are they too modern? Is it best to do this or to do that? Am I being a man or am I being weasel and what is the difference? What is a good man and what is a bad man? Who evaluates and who determines? Who am I and who does the world want me to be, and should I care?
Right and wrong is often a socially determined issue. We often assess our selves through the eyes of others. Our sense of self is often determined more by external factors than internal ones. It’s how we were taught. We seek happiness through our lives with others; we seek love in others hearts and we seek value in others minds. So where are you in the mix?

After years of studying sociology, politics and communications augmented by ardent people watching and character studying across the globe, plus reading everything in print I stumble on, I find I actually have more questions now than answers. But I realise now that it’s fine to study all the externalities but at the end of the day most answers lie within yourself -but that is if you can find yourself.

I realise now more than ever that before I become a family man, a husband to some kind lady who takes me in and a father to some choiceless kid who will end up needing me, that if I am to do the best for them, the world around me and myself, there is something I need to learn more and it’s not astrology, philosophy or physics, its me. I need to study myself more, understand myself more and learn me more if I am ever going to find me more.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Well Done Michelle

I proudly count myself amongst the group of people who have caught this blessed disease called 'Obamamania'. From the day I heard his first speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, I knew this was no ordinary man. I remember jailing myself in a hotel room in Manhattan for two days as I tried to finish up a report and the only thing that earned my distraction was a glimpse of this young lean black man on the muted television prancing onto the stage like a prize stallion.

No, I was not watching ‘Roots’ and he was not a slave on auction, it was CNN and this charismatic black man was auditioning to be the leader of the 'free world'. I stopped my work for the first time in hours and listened to his speech. I had to. It was hynpotising. There was something in his eyes and the animation of his face, the sincerity and profundity of his words and the sheer power of his eloquence and comportment that told me this guy was no ordinary man.

I knew right there and then that this man would make an indelible mark on our world. He was focused, fluid, empathetic and visionary – qualities several politicians today lack in this era of predatory, kleptocratic and hypocritical politics dominated by grey haired cynics who have empty treasure chests to fill, after-life retirement plans to secure, age-old scores to settle, messianic crusades to wage and enormous egos to boost.

Though he reminded me of a pre-Monica Bill Clinton and an un-Bushed Tony Blair, watching Obama was the first time that I saw a politician that was like us. One that spoke for us, dressed like us, walked like us, talked like us and dreamt like us. This man spoke for the young and the old; the poor and the rich, the west and the east; the north and the south; the black, the white and all else in between. This man understood. He got us. He embodied the human bridge we need in a fractured and conflicted world and the role model a 'lost MTV generation' so badly needs– sure beats 50 Cents. He expressed the thoughts, the aspirations and the hopes of our generation. He was pregnant with the promise of the change which we all so desperately desire. If ‘he can’, then we all can, I thought.

Since this epiphany, I have followed his meteoric rise to the top. Well actually, been 'transfixed' is the right word. I have bought every book by and about this man, trying to see how he got to where he is today and what makes him tick, think and talk the way he does. Why? Because this guy is the first person, that made me realise that all the thoughts in my head, and all the desires in my heart, all the hopes I have for our generation and the convictions I hold dear are not totally hogwash or idealistic delusions that are impossible in our era of chronic individualism, pathological cynism and wanton consumerism.

My Cameroonian friend Johnny and I shunned the call of the sublime beaches of Dakar, Senegal on a beautiful Saturday afternoon as we stayed glued to CNN watching the drama of the final dying kicks of Clinton’s campaign and Obama's ‘coronation’ as the democratic party presidential candidate.

As I watched this young man and his graceful wife ( in that unforgettable chic purple dress) walk onto the stage to accept the nomination, I felt goose bumps. I knew this was the third greatest moment in black/ world history I had witnessed in my generation. The first was the release from prison and inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa and the second was the appointment of Koffi Annan as the first black African Secretary General of the United Nations. However, as bowled over and inspired by Obama as myself and many others are, my attention and thoughts shifted to someone else: Michelle Obama.

Now, it’s not rocket science to know that when you see a successful woman or man, their partners (in most cases), have something to do with it. I know only too well from a previous, and dare I say an adventurous and disastrous experience that our partners can make or break us. However, as I watched Michelle Obama walk up proudly with her husband and give him that 'homie knuckle to knuckle' punch on stage (with a side kiss delivered with the sensibility that ensured that the first black man to ever win the presidential nomination of a major political party did not deliver his acceptance speech with gloss-smeared lips) that in the case of Barack Obama, Michelle did not break him, a to a large extent, she made him!

I wondered what price she had to pay and what burden she had to bear to hold her marriage together and at the same time support her husband’s political career. What did she do to help him build enough confidence to do what had never been done before? How did she make sure the things did not fall apart and the centre held? In some interviews she was open enough to admit their marriage had not been perfect and that his many travels away from home and the busyness that politics often demands, had strained their marriage and family life. But she did not pack up and ship out, she stood by him ( I remember that in Koffi Annan's biography, it was stated that his first wife could not handle the same type of pressures and she jumped ship only for him to later become one of the most popular and respected men in the world).

So despite the pulls and pushes of the pulsating and sometime destabilising and confusing tides of destiny, Michelle saw something in this man, who had been as wayward and adventurous as many young men in their molding years had been. She saw something that was greater than his weaknesses, frailties and faults. After he lost his first attempt to win a political seat and emerged beaten, bruised and broke, she was there holding the fort and staying the course till he got back on his feet. Am sure there must have been times she wanted to jump ship, but instead she endured, she and her ‘buddy’ would endure till they achieved their dream. Now would Obama be the great man he is today if Michelle had not been the great woman that she was? I doubt it.

The truth is that when our women believe in us and standby us, we can do the incredible and achieve the impossible. When they stop believing in us and start doubting or undermining our dreams and aspirations, we men break inside. Our women mean more to us than we let on. We are not as tough as we like to pretend. Michelle Obama, in my view, was the rock beneath Barack Obama's feet. She gave him the stable ground on which he could build his confidence, hopes and dreams, and from which he could be catapulted into the prominence we all see today.

Did he deserve it? I don't know, but she was great enough a woman to stay faithful to her man and his dreams for him to grow into the fullness of his destiny - despite his blunders and failures along the way. She did not only see who he was at his worst times, she saw who he could be at his best times. And she stayed with him, toiled with him, endured with him and helped to make and shape this man into the best he could be. Now, thats no ordinary woman. Do I hear a roaring applause for this lady? I am giving her a standing ovation.

To all the women out there who stand by we men through the good, the bad and the ugly, just because you love and believe in us, I say thank you. Perhaps we men need to ask ourselves if we can be as great as our women, for example, would we make the same sacrifices for them? Just a thought. And to the amazing Michelle Obama, I say “Well done, Madam Presidential Candidate!”

PS: ...and um, feel free to use your veto to pimp up the White house. Pardon the pun, but it’s the first time we had black folks in the White House. Make ’em 'recognise’!