To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: Masculinity, Money, and Intimacy in Nigeria

To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: Masculinity, Money, and Intimacy in Nigeria

by Daniel Jordan Smith

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Refrains about financial hardship are ubiquitous in contemporary Nigeria, frequently expressed through the idiom “to be a man is not a one-day job.” But while men talk constantly about money, underlying their economic worries are broader concerns about the shifting meanings of masculinity, amid changing expectations and practices of intimacy.
Drawing on twenty-five years of experience in southeastern Nigeria, Daniel Jordan Smith takes readers through the principal phases and arenas of men’s lives: the transition to adulthood; searching for work and making a living; courtship, marriage, and fatherhood; fraternal and political relationships; and finally, the attainment of elder status and death. He relates men’s struggles both to fulfill their own aspirations and to meet society’s expectations. He also considers men who behave badly, mistreat their wives and children, or resort to crime and violence. All of these men face similar challenges as they navigate the complex geometry of money and intimacy. Unraveling these connections, Smith argues, provides us with a deeper understanding of both masculinity and society in Nigeria. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226491790
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/24/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Daniel Jordan Smith is professor of anthropology at Brown University. His previous books include AIDS Doesn’t Show Its Face, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


From Boys to Men: Learning to Love Women and Money

Nwankwo arrived at his Aunty Chinwe's flat in Lagos with little more than the clothes on his back. His parents had put him on a bus in Umuahia, the town nearest to their village home, twelve hours earlier. They had arranged that he would live with Chinwe and her family. She and her husband, Nwabueze, would find him a secondary school, pay his fees, provide a uniform, and feed him. In exchange, Nwankwo would be expected to perform many domestic chores for the family. Nwabueze and Chinwe had four children of their own, as well as Nwabueze's elderly mother, living with them in their modest three-bedroom flat. Nwankwo's daily chores in his new urban household included fetching water, sweeping, washing clothes, assisting in cooking, and running multiple errands to nearby vendors or the main local outdoor market. His relationship with his new guardians and their family was part-kin, part-servant — a status common in child-fostering arrangements in contemporary Nigeria, and in many other places in Africa (Isiugo-Abanihe 1985; Bledsoe 1993; Castle 1996; Renata 2009).

Although he missed his parents at first, Nwankwo was enamored with the hustle and bustle of Lagos, a city of over fifteen million people. The mega-city contrasted in many ways with life in his home village, a community of fewer than two thousand. Nwankwo's daily chores were not much different from or more onerous than the work his parents expected of him in the village. But his new arrangement had the added benefit of enrollment in secondary school. He had dropped out of school two years earlier after completing his primary education because his parents could not pay the fees. Further, the food in his aunt's household was generally superior to what his parents could afford; unlike in the village, in Lagos he ate some meat or fish almost every day. Perhaps most appealing, Lagos presented daily enchantments. Nwankwo regularly encountered novel experiences and developed new desires on his way to and from school, moving about the city as part of his round-the-clock errands, and on family excursions to Sunday church or visits to village relatives spread across the vast metropolis. Over time, however, some of the indignities of his quasi-son, quasi-servant status grated on him, especially as he began to compare himself with some of his peers in secondary school. But, overall, he was happy to have come to the city.

I knew Nwankwo because I often stayed with his guardians in Lagos. Nwabueze hails from Ubakala, the community near Umuahia in southeastern Nigeria where, as I have explained, I live when I am doing research. I have been able to observe the family periodically for twenty years and had regular conversations with Nwankwo over four years, after he moved to Lagos. He was not the first person in the household to be fostered there under a kind of kin-servant arrangement. Nwabueze and Chinwe sent the last boy, Oke, back to his mother after they caught him stealing a significant amount of money from their bedroom, a sad event that ended what had appeared to be a mostly happy arrangement of several years. In Oke's tearful admission, he confessed to his aunt and uncle that he'd stolen the money with the hope of buying a pair of Nike basketball sneakers, the kind that popular, wealthier boys in his school had been sporting in the latest fashion statement.

The transition to adulthood for many boys (and girls) in contemporary Nigeria is increasingly an urban process. Nowadays, a majority of young males either grow up in the city or move there at some point before maturity. This chapter explores the fast-evolving arenas in which boys struggle to become men in Nigeria. In school, at university, in their efforts to find employment or establish a business, and even in their sexual debuts, young males in Nigeria face daunting pressures to make money, measure up to new standards of value, and prove that they are competent men. For a growing majority of young men, the transition to adulthood occurs through real but ritually unmarked adjustments to urban life. But even when the transition still happens in the village, young men face these new pressures. I analyze the experiences, meanings, and consequences of these adjustments to contemporary life to convey the expectations for masculinity in Nigeria.

I argue that in the transition to adulthood, young men in Nigeria confront and begin to learn to grapple with the paramount importance of money as the means by which intersecting aspirations for manhood and upward mobility are imagined and realized — and also frequently frustrated. Even in adolescence and young adulthood, the intertwining of gender and social class is central to the construction of masculinity. The experience of growing from a boy into a man is marked by powerful peer expectations about consumption, conspicuous redistribution, and the performance of social status associated with them. How much money one has and how one spends it both situate and shape young men's understanding of what it takes to be a successful man.

It should not be surprising that for boys on the path to manhood in Nigeria, in addition to the pivotal importance of male peer group expectations and approval in configuring masculine trajectories, the desires for and interactions with the opposite sex are significant factors (Izugbara 2001, 2004a, 2005, 2008). In contemporary Nigeria, young men face a changing gendered landscape, in which the rules for interaction between boys and girls are in a period of rapid transformation, whether in relation to coeducation, gender and the division of labor in society, premarital sex, courtship, or expectations about social, sexual, and romantic intimacy. Further, as I try to show not only in this chapter, but also throughout the book, the changing landscape of intimacy intersects in powerful ways with the centrality of money as the medium through which so much of the social work of human relationships is negotiated. While in some ways the monetization of sociality and increasing expectations of intimacy in relationships with women might appear to be antithetical, I show how, in fact, boys learn that money is a primary means of navigating intimacy.

Making Men in Village Nigeria: Stalled Transitions

Before exploring the transition to manhood that ever-larger numbers of Nigerian boys experience in cities, it is instructive to provide some context with regard to the traditional transition to adulthood in village Nigeria. Until Nigeria became so urbanized — now half of the country's population resides in cities (Mberu 2005; White, Mberu, and Collinson 2008) — most people grew up in villages. In southeastern Nigeria, where I work, for boys in rural communities the transition to adulthood historically involved economic, social, cultural, and political milestones and accomplishments. Economically, manhood meant establishing an independent farm, or perhaps learning an artisanal skill or a small trade (Henderson and Henderson 1966; Olutayo 1999). Socially, becoming a man required, above all, marrying and having children, with marriages commonly arranged by one's family rather than chosen individually based on love or some other individual ideal (Ukaegbu 1975; Smith 2001b). Culturally, in addition to ceremonies associated with marriage and fatherhood, manhood could be marked by joining a men's secret society, or by passing through different symbolically recognized age grades that signified one's generational status (Uchendu 1965; Ottenberg 1982, 1988, 1989). These economic, social, and cultural achievements then conferred the political privileges of manhood, and specifically the right to speak publicly about and have influence over a community's collective decisions (Ottenberg 1971; Henderson 1972; Harneit-Sievers 2006).

Although the transition to manhood still involves economic, social, cultural, and political accomplishments, a host of social changes — from globalization, urbanization, and a changing economy to the spread of formal education and the rise of consumption as a primary marker of status — has transformed expectations and practices not only in cities, but also in villages. Few boys aspire to be farmers or to live in their natal villages after they marry. While almost all young men want to marry and have children, most resist the idea of an arranged marriage and many view romantic love as an important criterion for marriage (Smith 2001b, 2006). Age grades and secret societies no longer exist in many villages, and are waning in others. And the most valued forms of political influence are in relation to the state rather than vis-à-vis local community dynamics (Harneit-Sievers 2006; Smith 2007a). Boys and young men want to leave their villages in search of more and better education, employment, the amenities of modern urban life, and the kinds of spouses and children they imagine to be possible in the city, but not in the village (Mberu 2005). Indeed, for many young men in Nigeria, villages are perceived as emblematic of a transition to manhood that is threatened, stalled, and even impossible, a situation common in other settings experiencing similar social and demographic transitions (Singerman 2011; Dhillon and Yousef 2009; Sommers 2012; Honwana 2012, 2013).

Emeka saw his transition to manhood stalled by being stuck in his village, Amibo, on the outskirts of Umuahia. His experience was representative of many young men whose lives I have observed and whose complaints I have heard over the past twenty-five years. Emeka is the third son in a family of six children. His father was a farmer who supplemented his small agricultural income by sometimes doing masonry work on local construction projects. His mother also farmed and had a little stall in the local market where she sold children's clothing, mostly used clothes that she would purchase in bulk on occasional trips to Lagos. His parents' multiple — but meager — sources of income are typical of village households in southeastern Nigeria, where farming alone does not provide sufficient income, especially as nearly everyone aspires to educate his or her children and to be able to buy a wide range of modern commodities that are increasingly seen as essential for contemporary life.

Emeka attended one of the local primary schools and enrolled for two years in secondary school until his father died and his mother and older siblings could not afford to pay his fees. One of his older brothers and one older sister finished secondary school. The brother got a civil service job in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, and the sister is married to a small businessman in Port Harcourt, the largest city in Nigeria's oil-producing region, about a two-hour drive from Amibo. At my last visit to Nigeria, all of Emeka's siblings, save his youngest sister, had migrated away from the village. He and his youngest sister lived in the family's village compound along with their mother. Emeka helps his mother farm the family's plots of land, occasionally assists her at her stall in the market, and regularly goes to Umuahia, about five miles away, in search of employment. He has pleaded with his eldest brother to help him find work in Abuja, made a trip to his sister's in Port Harcourt that lasted almost two months without finding a job, and approached various kinsmen from his village about help to go back to school or to find him an apprenticeship to learn a trade. But none of this has yielded success. As a result, Emeka regularly voices frustration that his transition to manhood has been stalled in the village.

In one of several conversations we had about his life and his aspirations he said:

Nothing is moving here [in Amibo]. There are no jobs. No money. Without money it is impossible to be a man. I cannot marry. I cannot train my children. In this our place a man does not have a mouth to speak if he has no money, if he cannot marry, if he cannot feed his family. I have been looking for work in Umuahia, but without a proper education all doors are closed. I want to transfer to Lagos or Abuja. There are more opportunities in those places. At least something is moving. But even to find work in the city I need money. Without money I am stuck in the village.

Amibo and the other villages in southeastern Nigeria appear to be slowly emptying of young men, most of them migrating to urban areas in search of education, employment, or other opportunities to earn income. But even as ever more young people migrate to cities (young women are moving too [Adepoju 2003; Mberu 2005]), many are left behind, living rural lives that do not allow them to achieve their modern aspirations.

In southeastern Nigeria, the frustrations of stalled transitions to manhood in rural areas are exacerbated by the fact that for successful rural-to-urban migrants, the periodic return to one's village of origin remains a paramount practice in the performance of masculinity. Migrants come home not only to fulfill their kinship obligations, but also to show off their success. Further, for the vast majority of longtime urban residents, marriages are still undertaken in connection to place of origin. Migrants' weddings (and funerals) are ubiquitous weekend activities in virtually every rural community. Rural people are constantly confronted by the displays of spending that determine how impressive any ceremony is perceived to be. Village-based men who have not yet married see wealthier migrant men perform lavish weddings, which can accentuate their sense of failure (Masquelier 2004, 2005). For young men stuck in the village the aggravations of approaching manhood without money are perhaps most palpable when their migrant peers visit home.

Of course even for men who manage to migrate to cities, making enough money and being able to marry can be serious sources of anxiety. I will return later to examine in much greater detail how and why the intersection of money and marriage occupies such a central place in the ways men navigate expectations about masculinity in contemporary Nigeria. Suffice it to say here that many young men in rural communities share a perception that the transition to the kind of modern manhood they desire is nearly impossible when stuck in village communities, above all because money has become the essential means to prove one's value as a man.

School and the Stuff of Becoming a Man

If a boy manages to start early enough and stay on track long enough, the most established path to modern manhood in Nigeria is formal education. The expectation that money (and the capacity for conspicuous consumption and redistribution that it enables) is the most important marker of manhood is produced and reinforced throughout society, including in school. At first glance, schools do not look like places where consumption-based social status is established and displayed. Students in Nigerian secondary schools appear remarkably homogeneous. Uniforms are required. Everyone in the same school dresses identically. Similar haircuts are mandated. Behavior is strictly monitored. But this seeming uniformity is misleading. A naïve observer might not notice the dramatic statements about status these kids manage to display in the few areas where variation is permissible.

Like most boys his age, when Nwankwo, the fostered child of my friends in Lagos, is at his secondary school he pays as much attention to these markers of status as to his lessons. Among his fellow students, some lads stand out for their sneakers, their backpacks, their watches, and, these days, their mobile phones. The boys with more things — and by implication more money — are frequently more popular among their male peers, and perhaps even more importantly, among the girls. Boys learn early that their success as men is measured in the things they can buy, display, and share.

In school, footwear is a primary domain of distinction. Everyone is required to wear shoes, but the type and quality vary from often-repaired cheap rubber sandals to imported Nikes bearing names such as LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant — sneakers that cost more than some families earn in a month. When it comes to commodities associated with social status, Nigerians recognize and evaluate multiple gradations of quality. Things are generally divided into four categories, more or less in ascending order of prestige: local, China, tokunbo/Belgian, and original. Boys learn these categories early and carry them into adulthood.

While the relative prestige of the three lower categories can occasionally shift for reasons I will explain in detail below, with regard to schoolboys' sneakers and just about every other imaginable consumer good, "original" carries the highest status. Typically, original means made in Europe, Japan, or North America, though given that so many products meant for Western consumption are now made in China (or elsewhere in the Global South), Nigerians increasingly recognize that original means "produced for Western markets" rather than "made in the West." In schoolboys' conversations, debates rage about whether a particular product is China or original. One of the only ways to be relatively sure that something is original is to demonstrate that it was, in fact, purchased in Europe or North America.


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Table of Contents


1          From Boys to Men: Learning to Love Women and Money
2          Expensive Intimacies: Courtship, Marriage, and Fatherhood
3          “Money Problem”: Work, Class, Consumption, and Men’s Social Status
4          “Ahhheee Club”: Money, Intimacy, and Male Peer Groups
5          Masculinity Gone Awry: Intimate Partner Violence, Crime, and Insecurity
6          Becoming an Elder, Burying One’s Father


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