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.
Today’s Man Like is Uche Uba aka Vcheba, a designer, stylist and fashion illustrator. He talks about growing up the youngest of six children, how he deals with the different reactions to his style and his two cents on how to be a man.
Tell me about your childhood?
I am the last child in a family of six; however, I grew up a bit lonely because there was a massive age gap between myself and my siblings. I was way too young to offer them anything. Either way, I enjoyed my own company and was super close to my mum. She wasn’t super strict, and I could talk to her about some things. She was still traditional though, and sometimes it was difficult to discuss certain issues with her. Like the time I was molested in boarding school, it wasn’t something I could run and talk to her about. She’s still everything to me even though our relationship has gotten a little distant since I became an adult.
Do you want to talk about boarding school?
Sure. I was really small and fragile which made me an easy target back then. Physical abuse made up the bulk of my experience. There was sexual abuse too. Everyone had some story about a senior calling them to a corner and touching them inappropriately. We didn’t know what to call it because it didn’t feel aggressive. There was something about knowing you were not the only one that made it a little bit bearable. I didn’t know how much damage it caused until I started experiencing certain trauma responses down the line.
Want to talk about that?
I’ve had issues with trust and anxiety. After school, I found it hard to be in a space with more than five grown men I wasn’t familiar with. And it’s wild because you don’t immediately link it to your past, but your body just subconsciously knows that this could end badly, so just avoid it. I try to be attentive to myself, so when these things happen, I try to trace them back to their roots.
How do you deal with this trauma?
You never get over it. I don’t dwell on it anymore, but I still remember it. I’m glad that I worked through mine in a way I can finally have open conversations about it.
I’m so sorry this happened to you. So, in this day and age, what does being a man mean to you?
I don’t think there’s one way to be a man. If you identify as a man, you’re a man. Society tries to pressure us to present ourselves in a very rigid way, but the beauty of humanity lies in our differences. I’ve had people ask me I’m non-binary because of my style, but I’m not. These questions tend to pop up the moment you dress or act differently. There is space for everyone to show their versions of manhood. For me, being a man is living in truth and owning my decisions. But deviating from the norm in a place like Nigeria can be dangerous.
I’ve been attacked by police and touts several times. I once took a Bolt ride and the driver asked me to come down when he saw my acrylic nails. At this point, I don’t think anyone’s opinion of me threatens the essence of who I am.
Does your family have any issues with how you present yourself?
I make compromises when I’m visiting my family. It’s not like I wear acrylic nails 365 days in a year. There are days when I’m at home and there’s nothing on, so if I can do that in my house, then it shouldn’t be an issue taking them off when I visit them. But they know the way I dress and there are times when they have expressed their reservations, but it has never really been a big deal. Also, they are from a different generation so the way we dress as young adults will always be strange to them.
We’ve touched on the negatives. Have there been positive reactions to your style?
Yes! People come up to me to tell me that they’re really shy and scared, but seeing me inspires them to fully be themselves. It’s wild when I think about it. I’m just me. Despite everything happening in this country, I don’t know how to be anyone else but me.
I’m curious. How do you manage your mental health?
This is a constant journey. There’s a stigma surrounding mental health, so I’ve found a way to talk to people about what I’m going through without being direct. Therapy is not cheap! I know it’s not the healthiest way because I need to be honest about my struggles, but as I said, I’m working on it.
Do you think men get the short end of the stick when it comes to mental health conversations?
Yes. As men there’s a perception of us where we’re supposed to be strong “alpha” males. And this is a perception that we continue to feed. While we ask society to be more open to these conversations about men and mental health, we also need to cultivate a habit of communicating how we feel. We need to make the first step.
What’s one misconception people have about men that needs fixing?
I would say the idea that men should be strong. I don’t think there should be any shame in being a softer person. There should be space for everybody. Men don’t have to be anything.
As we continue to evolve, what’s one thing we should leave behind?
I want us to move past thinking that equality is a threat to who we are or our livelihood.
What would you say is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is somewhere in between not reaching my goals and being left behind. I want to be successful and renowned in my field. I’m also scared of dying unexpectedly because it’s the one aspect of my life I can’t control. I once saw a truck run into a man’s car and I’m sure he didn’t wake up thinking he’d die that day. If I’m dying, I want to know I’m dying.
What motto do you live by?
There’s no time for regret. If it has happened, it has happened. Regret is not the same thing as reflecting.
What does happiness look like to you?
A safe space. I feel like I have this sometimes, but there are days where I don’t feel that way. It’s definitely a work in progress.