What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
For my first anonymous episode of Man Like, I talked to Mr Grey, a 44-year-old customer service expert, who shared what it was like to be sent to military school to toughen up, finally finding people he can be odd with in his 40s and why death doesn’t move him anymore.
What was your childhood like?
I always felt like I was odd. I started feeling like an outsider as early as primary school. Most of the time, I was too scared to play with the other kids because I knew I wouldn’t blend in. I was considered too “girly” because I would gesticulate a lot and didn’t care about gender when it came to style. I liked girls’ sandals the same way I liked boys’ sandals. I got bullied for these things.
Things changed a little bit after my dad took me to a military secondary school when I was 11, which ended up being one of the most challenging experiences for me at the time.
Do you know why you were moved to a military school?
In hindsight, I think my dad was scared. Like I said, I was perceived as girly at the time which made me different from other boys my age. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself if he didn’t take it upon himself to toughen me up and make me more of a boy.
His plan worked to some degree. I became conscious of my mannerisms and learnt to walk straight, but I hated being there. Once, I had to hide in an uncompleted school building because I was afraid of a senior, and there was an instance of attempted sexual assault.
My grades also fell in comparison to how they were in primary school. It was so hard for me in my first term that I ended up having a meltdown in front of my mum because I didn’t want to go back. It convinced her to plead with my dad so we could change schools, but that didn’t work. He told us he had no problem putting me in another school, but it would’ve meant my mum had to take responsibility for my school fees. She convinced me to go back.
Damn. What happened next?
School went as it went. I continued with the early morning wake up calls and marches in harsh weather. Younger students like me were bullied into washing clothes for our seniors. I was once beaten so badly by an officer for being minutes late that my arm and back bled; he wasn’t held accountable for this.
Even though I fixed my mannerisms to an extent, I still didn’t fit in because I didn’t like most of the things other boys liked, like sports. So when boys in my class were outdoors playing, I was the odd one who didn’t join in.
Looking back, I learnt to fend for myself quicker than most teenagers could and can today. It was boarding school, but on steroids, and I still have the scars to show for my experience there.
About two months after graduating from military school in 1995, I lost my dad and became more confused about my life.
I’m the last child of seven kids, and my dad made all of my decisions. I wanted to study the arts in university, but he had me choose the sciences after he’d asked me what I wanted and I told him. I trusted his decisions because he was my guide.
I’m so sorry, man
I remember coming home after graduation to meet a different man because my dad had lost so much weight due to his illness. It was so bad, I had to take care of him at some point.
That must’ve been tough
Yeah, he was in and out of the hospital for about a month before he died. There were times when I had to go and take care of him. I didn’t like that because I was out trying to make up for lost fun. I was once left at the hospital to cater to him, but I walked quite the distance back home, and I didn’t feel guilty at the time.
When my dad died, I remember walking into the kitchen and crying my eyes out. But I don’t remember crying much after that day. A part of me feels it’s because of the military school I attended. I had to “be a man,” and crying wasn’t part of the deal.
Did you ever feel guilty for not spending as much time with your dad before he died?
1000%. It’s been decades now, but I vividly remember feeling so guilty because a part of me knew my dad wanted to spend more time with me. Anyway, I’ve learnt to forgive myself and understand that kids do stupid things sometimes.
I’m also very familiar with death because my dad’s death was only the beginning. We went from a family of nine to four. Witnessing all these deaths, I’ve become numb.
But I can say I tried to be more as present as I could for the others before they died. I don’t know if it was some form of atonement, but I’ve become more conscious of stepping up for people now.
I’m curious about what you meant by being numb to death
Death feels like a routine at this point — I grieve, pay my last respects, and we bury. I recently lost my mum, who was my reason for living, and I haven’t been able to grieve her death. I don’t know how to. I know if I dwell on it, I’ll get stuck, and I don’t know how to ask for help if that happens.
Death is so normal now that I could be chatting with a friend about someone who died, and we might find a laugh somewhere in there. It’s how I process death now.
I know it’s weird. My sisters process it differently. I see the grief on them and hear it in their voices. But for me, after the initial shock and maybe tears, I move on. Perhaps I’ll have a meltdown in the future. Who knows?
Sensitive question: do you fear death?
I’m not sure about fear, but I can say ending my life has crossed my mind many times. The weird part is these thoughts didn’t come up during any of the deaths. My most recent dark moment was during the pandemic when I had COVID and had to sit with my thoughts. I kept thinking, “Is this going to be me when I’m 50? Sick and alone? It was fine for COVID to take me”.
I’m in a better place now, though. Not my best, but better than lockdown. I’m trying to note when I start sinking and do something to spark joy, like rewatch a show I like or make myself a cocktail.
Not so random question: when was the last time you cried?
In June  while I was on the phone, talking to a friend after my mum’s passing. I was nagging about how life was unfair, and at some point, I just got emotional. I ended the call and cried until I stopped. It was an okay night, though. I still went out for drinks with my friends.
How are you fitting in these days?
I’m now 44 and have found my tribe, even though they’re a handful. I feel like I’m still odd in my own way, but I don’t feel the need to fit in with people outside my tribe. My odd feels great because we’re all bouncing our oddness off of each other.
A friend also said something about validation that changed how I feel about “fitting in”. Validation is necessary and reasonable as human beings, but it should be from people who matter to us. The problem starts when you seek that validation, especially from strangers. It also doesn’t define me.
Does this IDGAF energy come with age? Because I need it
I’m not sure it does. The only role age has played for me is it has given me more experience in figuring out who I am. Some people have figured out themselves without these experiences and at a younger age.
How would you say your view of masculinity has changed as you got older?
These days I’m not worried about how my masculinity is perceived. I don’t need to be an alpha male or whatever this generation calls it. I’m living for me.
Was there a moment that led to you finally living for yourself?
There was a time when I was under a lot of pressure to find a partner. I met this amazing girl, and even though she liked me, I only liked her as a friend. Being mature enough to let her go amid the pressure was when I realised I needed to start living for myself.
I still think, “Oh my God. Am I going to slip in the bathroom and die at 50 because I’m alone.” But for now, I’m here, and that’s fine.
Cheers to us single boys. What gives you joy these days?
Music, my incredible tribe of friends, being in control of my life, video games to help me relive my childhood and a good nightcap — my poor liver, but alcohol brings me a lot of joy.
Oh, and those cheesy audition videos for singing reality shows on YouTube.
Before I go, are you genuinely happy?
If happiness is a destination, I’ll say I’m getting there.