How I Lost The Man Box

When I was starting out in the writing business in the late 90s, my business savvy friends advised me to get a card. I had a popular column, called Mantalk, which focused on a male point of view in contemporary urban relationships.  Within the first three years, the column started to generate countrywide interest and it seemed smart to seize the moment and milk my popularity for what it was worth. Had I considered a TV show, a speaking circuit or at the very least a cookbook? Anything to leverage my five minutes of fame. I was big on resolve and psyche but low on resources and the advisers told me to run lean. Start with a business card. People will take you more seriously.

Since I was shaping up as the go-to guy as far African masculinity challenges were concerned, I had to choose a card that reflected a manly profile that was not too cheesy nor too flimflam. I chose the color blue because I had read in some astrological profile that it symbolised strength and power, a tad bit more original than plain white. I grappled with some fancy titles.

“Journalist” was not accurate because I was not formally trained in the craft.

“Columnist” seemed a bit boxed. I did more than write columns.

“Media practitioner” had all the undertones of a PR overload.

“Anthropologist” sounded stiff and academic.

“Wordsmith” gave the impression of self-aggrandizement.

Eventually I ended up with no title under my name because my advisers added that, if I was any good at my craft, my name would be able to carry its own weight. At the back of the card, I decided, to add a little witty touch and wrote, “Lose the box”.

It was a personality brand, positioning statement.  However, my readers decided on their own terms, what they liked or disliked about me and my witty catch phrase, ‘lose the box” did not deliver the sort of business interest I expected.  Readers are drawn to familiarity and like a TV actor, it was my ‘rude boy’ print persona that drew in the fans.

In my mind, I remained clear that the characterization of the column and my personal self were separate entities. I had to be wary of falling for my own hype.  It would be years before I realized that I was sending out all the wrong signals. I played rugby. Wore boots. Rode a trail biker. Walked about with such a tough exterior you would think I did time as a mercenary in second battle of Fallujah. I knocked back my whiskies neat and drunk beer straight from the bottle. I could skin a goat with a pen knife and dismissed veggie salads as rabbit food.

The man box says do not shed a tear unless it is for an epic sports result. Show no emotion unless it is anger.

But I also had another side that was not that apparent and privately guarded. I appreciated detail in cooking and sourced fresh spices from an Indian trader in Nairobi’s Ngara neighbourhood.  I loved nature walks and took delight in such simple things as spotting Morning Glory (no pun intended) vines. Old trees mesmerized me. There is a 100 year old Bhutan Cypress (labelled 1907) at the Nairobi Arboretum that I once hugged when no one was watching. Sentimental movies made me choke up and I found it easy to show my vulnerability around older and wiser women.

In public though, I kept up my hard guy image until a random blind date shook me out of my comfort zone. It was a mismatch. A girl who was looking for love in all the wrong places but I played along, eager to exploit my celebrity.  As the conversation progressed, the flirting got outrageous and possibilities emerged. Amidst the heavy petting in the parking lot, I whispered my dirty thoughts and her response was totally unexpected. “You are exactly the man you write about?” It was not a compliment.

I was firmly in the man box. The man box says do not shed a tear unless it is for an epic sports result. Show no emotion unless it is anger. Show no weakness unless it is for a vice like single malt whiskies. Show no fear except for lightening and hot porridge. Always strive to be in control and powerful, when your friends are watching. Whatever, you do, do not behave like a woman.

I had crossed the thin line between impressions and reality into a male figure that hardly represented my true self. It was not who I truly was. I would have to start putting in the work of my knowing my inner self by chipping through the armour of my socially sanctioned personality.

Our socialization process has become about packing men into boxes and churning out an industrial belt of plastic guys playing up to roles that eat away at their souls like a cancer.

The long road out of that Man box is self-knowledge for without self-work, we remain shackled to a gender stereotype and never grasp what it truly means to be real and free.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. great post.

    Thank you for the easy to read font, this is progress OP. the other site was burdening the eyes an i could count the articles i read to the end.

    i almost became that guy from reading ManTalk only for a relationship to save me..

    • Thanks Dwayne. That is useful feedback. Hopefully you can catch up with more reading. About Mantalk, I am reminded of Muhammad Ali who said “The man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”. We live and learn.

  2. Nice read. I wondered where you went!

  3. This makes one pause and reflect. Raising a 10 year old boy…the messages one implicitly sends by saying “boys/men dont do that etc”

    • There is more to be becoming a man than prescribed social roles. We have to track back and understand our influences and what informed them. Most as I gather, are mostly myth.

  4. BrianYuleWako

    Truly an eye opener on how relationships, right relationships, can change the bad-boy people perceive us to be to really good men
    Thanks a lot for this piece OP.

  5. This is good

  6. Unveiled!

  7. joshua kiptoo

    Refreshing but puzzling. Does it mean what you used to write about were not your convictions?

    • No. Those were my convictions only that the point of view of a 20 something old is limited. As one grows older, perspective changes and life stops becoming about rigid black and white positions and you learn to see things in the grey.

  8. Enlightening read! That box has made many a man lose his way and not realise until it is way too late. Savour the grey area of your life, keep hugging those trees! ☺

  9. Glad you are back…

  10. Thanks for finishing the reconstruction of this page and would say its way better, I am sponge absorbing anything written by OP because it usually carries loads of sage. I have a similar experience though mine was in the field of dating, and like you I came to the eureka moment and decided to ”come out of the box”. I would say you’ve ‘strike home’. It is an inspiration, an article that will motivate many and I can go on and on …

  11. A man with a strong sense of self awareness… Rare gem! Nice “seeing” how you’re evolving in your writing from ManTalk (which I miss on a Saturday morning). Sigh!

  12. Beta Bata Beet

    Bringing back memories of a much talked about and not very loved Oyungs Pala..Mantalk was for Friday if I remember correctly. You remind me of Bill Commack who blogged from NY.totally didn’t like his version of the truth coz he just spoke for the player. ..
    On this piece how i got out the man box I got to the end of the article and looked for the continuation. ends very abruptly as if to suggest a limit in words per article. …..
    Made for a good read nonetheless.

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