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.
The subject of today’s “Man Like” is Israel Oni, a pharmacist and content creator based in Lagos. While working as a pharmacy intern in 2018, Israel lost his mum, who was an integral part of his childhood and adult years. He talks about navigating grief as a medical professional and then as an individual. Israel says that his mum’s death provided an avenue for him to bond with his dad who was busy with work for most of his life growing up. He talks about the struggles, setbacks, and eventual success with getting to slowly know his dad. Israel has some very deeply held beliefs about what it means to be a man, and he says his inspiration is Jesus Christ.
Everyone gets their “Man Like” moment. When did you get yours?
It was during my time at university. I was the assistant class rep, and this meant that people always came to me with one problem or the other: “Israel, I failed this course. What should I do?” “Israel, how do we register for this?” Some even brought personal problems, and with that, the pressure to try to help them make good decisions because they believed whatever I said. People confided in me so many times I started to wonder what they saw in me — I felt like a priest at confession.
Then the second time…
Wait, second time?
Ah. Yes. The second time was when I lost my mum in 2018. Her death hit me like a rock on the head because it was really hard to take in. Also, as the only medical person in my family, I couldn’t afford to fall hand. So while my friends, family and siblings were crying, I had to be strong for them and make arrangements. Sometime during the running around, it hit me that I no longer had a mum and I would have to take care of my old dad; check up on him, support him and spend time with him so he doesn’t get depressed. These newfound responsibilities reminded me of being a man.
What position are you in the family?
Funny enough, I’m the last born, the baby of the house. I have a brother and a sister.
Wait. Why was it up to you to do all of these things?
It’s not like my siblings didn’t want to help. It’s like this: my sister is married and lives with her family. My older brother stays on his own. So it was just me, my dad and mum at home before I lost her. Now that one of us was no longer in the picture, I couldn’t abandon my dad like that. My siblings call and visit, but when the responsibility of physically staying came up, it fell naturally on me. I felt I had to be the one to do all of the running around for my dad.
I’m wondering: did you get time to properly grieve as a person? Not as a son or medical professional now.
I lost my mum in 2018, and I went for NYSC outside Lagos at the end of that year. I hadn’t processed what happened because it felt like a dream during that period. But you see 2019? I cried every day from around February till June. Every night, I’d come back from work, lock my door, think about the incident surrounding my mum’s death and start to cry myself to sleep. I’d wake up and go to work the next day, come back and repeat. One time I forgot to lock my door and my neighbour saw me crying. She was so shocked, she didn’t know whether to beg me to stop crying or to join me. She just sat down with me until I got myself. Death is such a terrible experience.
I’m so sorry.
Have you been able to find joy after this experience?
I find joy in seeing other people happy. Once they’re happy, I’m happy. Life is not as hard as many of us take it and so it’s the little things that matter to me. Even when I’m going through anything, I focus on the positive. I believe that if you keep focusing on the negatives you’ll never find a way out. Perspective matters when you’re going through things
Interesting. Do you have any fears?
I’m scared of poverty. If I’m poor, I can’t put smiles on people’s faces, and I want to help people. I try to be as hardworking as possible because, without money, you can’t help even yourself.
I’m curious: what’s something everyone assumes you’re supposed to like but you don’t?
During my time as assistant class rep, a large number of people who used to confide in me were women, and over time, a lot of these people have gone on to become my friends.
People looking in from the outside who see me surrounded by a lot of female friends assume I’m having affairs with them. Me that I’m scared of womanising because I can’t imagine playing with someone’s heart. I’ll now break it and carry curse.
Lmao. But that’s how Lagos men do now. Small curse.
I dey fear oh, and I don’t like to toy with people’s emotions. If I’m not going to be serious with the person, there’s no point leading them on.
I feel you.
It’s not good to break women’s hearts. They already go through a lot on a normal day, so why add more? Have you seen a woman having menstrual pain before? Or giving birth? It’s painful to add on top of that. Fear God.
My brother, it’s like both of us are the last two God-fearing Nigerian men left.
I was going to ask: what’s your relationship with your dad like now? Especially now that your mum isn’t around.
It’s very different because my siblings and I grew up with my mum. My dad is a pastor so he was always on the move doing one thing or the other. It’s not like he abandoned his responsibilities as a father; he just didn’t have time to bond with his kids. My mum was the one keeping things together.
So when she was no longer around, it was difficult for me to try to shift the relationship I had with her to my dad. However, with time we settled into a routine. We’ve both accepted that whether we like it or not, we only have ourselves. I can say our relationship is better now because I can talk to my dad about a woman I like, and we’ll laugh and he’ll advise me. This didn’t exist before.
My dad is a great person. He just didn’t have time when we were growing up.
I hate the dry season because it makes tears come out of my eyes.
Do you think your upbringing will affect how you raise your kids?
Definitely. From my relationship with my parents, I learnt the benefits of bonding early with your children and some of the challenges that come with not bonding on time. I like to think I’m properly armed with the dos and don’ts that’ll make my kids my best friends. Top of my list is quality time with their parents, and so help me God, I’ll provide it.
Amen! What would you say is different about being a man in Nigeria?
We’ve made it look like it’s the sole responsibility of a man to provide everything. And once he can’t provide, his masculinity is in question. The worst thing you can do to a Nigerian man is say they’re not man enough. E dey pain o. To be regarded as “men”, they work their asses out and fail to do other things like bond with their family. When they get old, they see all their effort has been for nothing because the kids don’t check up on them and everybody is on their own. Then they get lonely. Some go into depression while others develop disease conditions because they didn’t pay attention to their health while slaving away. I think that being a man is much more than providing, and there must be a balance. Men should know that there are a lot of ways to show impact as a man.
Why exactly did you get married if you know it’s only you that’ll handle all the responsibilities? Your wife is supposed to be your partner, so it’s supposed to be teamwork. You’re supposed to do this life thing together and make it easy for each other so you can enjoy each other until the last day. Men fail to understand that providing is important, spending time with kids is also important, but striking a balance is “importantest.”
How do you define your masculinity?
A man should always stand up for the things he believes in. He should try as much as possible to not allow society define him because it’s easy to fall into a stereotype. Men should know and go for what they want. Men should respect and welcome the opinion of other people because they can’t do life alone. Men shouldn’t say because they are men their word is final — you learn more from listening to others. Another important thing is that a man shouldn’t be ashamed to seek help when he needs it.
I can’t but wonder who your role models are.
Jesus Christ is my role model of what it means to be a man. I liked the life he lived because he listened and was slow to respond. In the book of John, when people were feeling very religious, Jesus would ask them questions and let them answer. By the time they realised what was happening, he’d give them a savage reply. Remember when Jesus asked, “If there’s anyone among you without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone.” He makes me want to do better, and although I’m not perfect, I try to live up to his teachings.
I also see some of my friends as role models, so I wouldn’t say I have a particular person. I look at different people and emulate one or two things from their lifestyle so I can be better. As long as they have traits I admire in them, I see everyone I meet as a potential role model.
You mentioned being raised by your mum, and I’m sure she started you on this journey. I couldn’t help but wonder about the last memory of your mum you have.
It’ll be the time when she told me, “Israel, do fast and bring wife oh. Let me carry my grandchildren while I still have strength.” It’s almost like she saw the future because she said this just a few months before she passed.