Some of you do not know that Railways was actually a train station first before it was stage ya Ronga. You have only seen it filled with buses to Ngong and Kitengela and Easy Coach. That inasmuch as it is the most common stage in this Nairobi CBD, it brought as many people to town even in the olden days. and you may think you knew this, but think about it. did you really? I know this because I was among you until I was enlightened. Brought to the light by the person who told me this story. Now, you must have figured out already that this is not a story a millennial. And you may sit down in a corner and ask yourself, “Didn’t this MIRAWU person say she would give us stories by millennials? Didn’t she say that she would not lie to us?” I know how you feel. But allow me to digress a little with this one story, told to me by someone who lived the life of the famous 70s and dressed the fashion of the 80s, but saw the same problems we face today.
I am made to understand that the houses that were provided for Railways employees were extremely big. In that time, you could walk in Nairobi without rubbing shoulders and holding on to your purse anytime someone bumps into you. There was space, and space here means you could do cartwheels in the CBD without bumping into anyone. In fact, I think they would just do somersaults around town on Sunday afternoons for the sake of it. Just because they could. Must’ve been nice. The people who designed these Railway houses had spent enough time in the streets that they thought the curtains should match the drapes. This, I was told, had both its positives and negatives. We will focus on the positives first. After all, who receives the bad news before the good?
He had five children. I’m not sure how many were girls and how many boys. They were children. They played together, lived and laughed in their father’s house. They were “Railways kids” [pronounced ‘RELWE’]. They were happy, as children from large households ought to be. No kid with more than two siblings ever says they had a dull childhood because children are cunning and stubborn and ruthless when it comes to having fun with each other. Plus, they had a big enough house to play in. They were happy children.
He, however, was not as joyous as his household. It was not that he was discontent with all he had achieved. I mean, he had laughter in his house. Any man whose walls vibrate with the laughter of his children is a happy man, to say the least. He could provide for his family –meaning he was happy with himself as well. His life was good. Almost perfect. People in ushago used him as a benchmark. A man would hit a calf on the back and think to himself “One day, I will be like So-and-so, with a big family and a big house in Narobi,” his dreams flooded by a time of no cow dung at the hem of his trousers.
This man’s children would set trends when they went to their visit their ushago relatives during the Christmas holidays. He would meet people in the streets filled with praises for his well-behaved children.
“Aah, Mr. So-and-so, this is you?”
“Ha-ha” he would smile coyly “This is me”
“You have come to visit us. Ei! that is good. The kids also need to know their home”
“How long are you staying? My Akech should meet with your youngest. You know they are age mates eh?”
The smile is wiped off his face. “That child is not mine”
“Aah, So-and-so, you play too much”
But he didn’t play. He was never one to mince his words and he did this, a lot. He said it to friends, colleagues, even relatives during holidays and family gatherings. He would be seated on a bench near the jiko that slowly roasted nyama choma when the wife would send one of the children to ask their father where he placed his socks because she wanted to do laundry. The child would come and whisper in his ear, since you do not speak of dirty socks near roasting meat, lest the hypothetical stench shifts gears. He would listen intently, as his face did things without his knowledge. A frown here, a scowl there. Tiny things that made no difference to someone who did not pay attention to a man whose belly was filled with kong’o. But for those who judged not and held no importance to a wig and gavel, conversations after one of his five children passed by him went a different way.
“That’s my oldest. Aah, I love this child. He is very smart too. You know he was number one again? He has remained in the position since class two. The brains on that child are like mine. Copyright!”
The second child passes: “That child is not mine. I don’t know where their mother got that child from but he is not mine.”
To this, someone would say, “Ah Buana, how do you know?” And he would reply, “A man knows his children”. But does he? Can a man say, without a sliver of doubt, that a child is truly his and no one else’s? How does he know? Is it the glistening of the child’s shaved head that he looks at and goes “that head glistens like my grandfather’s, hence that child is mine”? Or is it the child’s cough. Or his hands, in the way they grasp a cup at breakfast. It’s not black and white for a man. A woman can know. She has the possibility of having enough reason to believe a child is of a specific man… As a child is the mother’s before he is given to the father
[don’t fight me on this, I spoke to the elders first before I came to you with
When the wife started asking for another child, he was at a lack of words. He could not openly say no, because they had space for it
[notice we have began the negatives]
and his job was paying well enough that he could afford it. He just did not want to have another kid whose paternity he would have to worry about. But he could not tell his wife this, so he hid in alcohol.
He began drinking at about the same time Railways employees were suddenly retrenched. Some would say he did this because he lost his job. He could no longer provide and hence he felt like less of a man. That he drank to mask this pain. But people close to him know. The person telling me this story knows. He drank because of his paternity wrangles.
“What does the wife say?” I asked.
She said the kids are his. That no other man has gone where her husband has ventured. But in-laws always doubt these things. They have a way to assume everything you claim is a lie.
It did not help when he relocated his family to ushago at around this time. There was already so much going on that this one move seemed to tip the pile over. a normal person would have put up a house just enough for his family. The kids could have even shared a room in this said household. But you don’t come here for stories about normal people and because he was mtu wa Relwe, he built a mud bungalow. Talk of spare rooms that were never moved into (because they had to sell half their belongings to move upcountry) and a house so massive that people came over just to marvel at its size.
When it rains, they say, it pours. His drinking got so bad over the months and with his diminishing funds, he started seeking alternative sources to pay for his mug of froth. One evening, while sitting under a tree outside his house, he was looking at the roofing, and at the spare rooms that nobody used and he realized he was housing nothing when that effort could be taken elsewhere. So he got a hammer and a ladder, climbed up the latter and pounded with the former, then took his “spare” roofing material to pay for his drink. His wife tried to protest but at this point in their marriage, she had become white noise to his ears.
“He has been doing that for a while now. The house remains halfway roofless. Last I heard, he wanted the kids to share rooms so there could be more dues for his beer.”
It often happens that I meet people I never thought I would again when I am totally zoned out while walking, thinking about pancakes or a cute puppy that I just discovered on Instagram, or trying to remember a new word I just read and forgot to write down so it slipped my mind. It happens a lot [everything from meeting these folks to recalling that bedlam means chaos] and most times, it is a huge pain, mostly because after the meeting and exchanging numbers, we will most definitely never talk. But sometimes, and very rarely, it morphs into a beautiful friendship that knocks my socks off [and you should know how much I love socks].
I feel like the second time we met was Heaven-sent, because that was the moment we became friends again. Before that, she was just someone in my past. I can confidently say that after my last K.C.P.E paper, she never crossed my mind. But one day, four years later, fate came into the picture [Ha-ha, I’m making this sound like a soap opera, right?] I was going for computer classes in April 2015, dreaming of going to Multimedia University of Kenya in September that same year [Yes, I actually wanted to go to MMU]. I was adamant. If they did not call me, I would go on self-sponsored program. I had told my dad this, countless times, but each time he just blew air out of his nose [same way you do before sending the four laughing emojis] and looked at me, probably thinking “does this one know university costs money? And SSP programs’ fees are much, much higher than where the university calls you”, but he still let me dream.
After classes (computer) I would walk with two of the people I was in class with to town then get a matatu home. On this day, as fate would have it [I brought up the fate thing so I could say this], I forgot something in the classroom (let’s say keys because my memory evades me). We were already in the CBD and if I remember correctly, the classes would be closed immediately the last person was out. But I needed those keys (if that’s what I had actually left behind) because how the hell would I get in the house otherwise? A girl had to go back and beg the cleaning guy to open the door so I could get my keys. And a girl had to go fast.
I wasn’t seeing what was in front of me. My brain was preoccupied with getting to the class and the keys then straight home before I got drenched in the rain. The world around me had faded to a blur, as it does most times, and I had not seen her until I was about two feet from bumping into her. I immediately knew who she was, but not exactly who she was. I don’t think you actually get that. I mean I knew where I knew her from…just not her name, or her face. It was her skin color. Ginger [that’s what she wants you to know her as] has always had skin that is almost yellow. She is the proverbial lightskin. And immediately I saw that shade of yellow I knew, without a doubt who she was, but her name evaded me. I didn’t tell her this, mainly because she called me by name which meant I would have hurt her feelings asking hers. She told me she was going to MMU, and even though I still had not received the nod from my dad, I told her I too would join her in a few months. I knew I wanted to go there, I just needed to convince him [which I did]. We exchanged numbers, and for reasons of my security, I will not tell you what I saved her as.
I’ve tried writing about her before, but it never felt right. The words did not move in the correct sequence and I just knew, in the way only I would, that it wasn’t the right time. There are a lot of things to write about when it comes to her, but this is AA, and she had a story on it, so that’s what we will read about today.
Ginger was in second year at the time. It was Friday afternoon and class was dragging as usual. I don’t know how the most boring of lecturers get the Friday afternoon class, but the government needs to set up a comittee that will be tasked with investigating the root cause of this problem. These classes drain you of your life force and leave you in desperate need of air and life, so it is only understandable that most campus students need to unwind come Friday night, and our sweet Ginger was one of them on this night. She got her posse together and after a fun time getting ready [because getting ready is the best part of going out], they went to a club that was frequented by students from all campuses around Rongai. It was one of these hip new places that have just opened and where students go because they need the selfies to prove how hip and up to date they are.
“Ey, you guy [I never understand why anyone would call someone this], did you go to ABC club last weekend?” asks random dude 1 on Monday.
“Yea man, I was there Friday. It was maad” says random dude 2.
“Really man? Coz I was there on Friday with kina Ginger and I didn’t spot you. Kwani who were you with?”
RD2: Aah, si you know me you guy my guy. I just chunguliad and left
RD1: Oh, heh, si Ginger killed manze, that dress my guy wooosh [because onomatopoeia was something they learnt in school]
RD2: I saw her snap man
RD1: By tha lemme see your pics on Friday. You must have been there when I wasn’t. Were there bad chilles?
RD2: Uh…Yeah man. So bad…uh…so bad that I forgot to take pics. You have to live in the moment sometimes G
Ginger was being totally “bad” this night [please don’t mistake being bad with being irresponsible, though a girl can do both in this era]. She was dancing. Ginger loves to dance. Anytime music plays you will find her bobbing her head or whining her waist polepole. She loves to move to music. In the midst of this unwinding, there was the taking of shots, the whining of waists, the bumping of heads and the dancing on tables, all her.
It will be important to make clear that I was not surprised, especially with the dancing on tables. Because if I was to make a bet on any of the people I know, the bet on ‘most likely to dance on a table on a Friday night in a club’ [and I probably need to find better names for these bets] would most definitely go to her. If some random person came to me and said “Hey, Mirriam, I saw your friend dancing on tables” and I asked “are you sure it was a friend of mine?” and they said yes… I know what I would say. I would say “Oh, that must be Ginger”. Not that my other two friends don’t have the DOT (Dancing on tables) gene…but the best bet would be her. She is the most upbeat person I know, meaning in a place with louder beats, she will definitely be up, literally. At some point, she blacked out. The times I heard someone blacked out because of alcohol consumption was at a house party and they had too much of it but were not active enough, ergo sitting down trying to figure out the meaning of life, and the alcohol got the best of them. But this? This was new to me. She doesn’t remember blacking out, just waking up next to a girl she did not know, in a house she did not recognize and… to top it all off, in Karen.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What is it with Karen and these girls? Last week’s house without food had the same location. Right? Because me too! And I promise Stormi and Ginger are different people. Maybe this is the storytelling version of Déjà vu. You know? How all this is just too eerily familiar and all that. Maybe today’s story is last week’s déjà vu. Or last week’s is today’s? aargh I’m muddled [that just means confused, but there is this book I’m reading has me going back to the dictionary like I did not learn any English, so I thought why not throw that in there? Have us be a couple of muddled people. Muddlers Ha-ha] Want to know what she did? Well… she got her ass home and vowed to never go out clubbing on top of tables ever again. That’s what she did.
Also, I know what her name is. Please don’t think I have had her as a friend all these years without knowing her name. I am no boy.
[Send me an email on email@example.com if you have an AA story that you want to tell here. Remember, you get to pick any name you want. Isn’t that cool?]
The girl telling me this story has a cat. A beautiful dark grey feline with silver tips named Stormi. Like all cats, he is playful and fun and poops in the bathroom. But I was allergic to him [my first experience ever of being allergic to a furry] and it broke my heart. We had to throw Stormi out while she told me this story, and it may have been his sad meows at the door or my nose slowly blocking and my throat choking up that made this story a little difficult to follow. Some parts may be fabricated and some may have holes that the human brain may not be able to explain, but I thought it was a good story, and I hope you do too.
When I asked how she preferred to be referred to, she said I should “use something close to her name (wink emoji) something interesting” and in that moment, I wanted to call her Stormi. If I can’t hold the cat, I could at least use its name for something bigger than that. Stormi [the owner, not the cat. Try to keep up] had to tell this story twice to me, the first time in full- while my sinuses acted up in a way I have never seen before, and the second time- when I had her text me the first part of the story that led them to where the real story took place.
She and her friends (B, T, L and S) work hard during the week. They are all ladies in their twenties who are doing businesses to keep themselves afloat. For their hard work, they like to take themselves out, you know, just the ladies. See some nice sh*t, touch some wild sh*t and eat some good sh*t [I know someone who writes ‘isht’. Makes me chuckle every time].
“So my friends and I decided to go unwind and do something fun,” she texts on WhatsApp. “We were five girls [mentions names but says I should change them, hence the letters above]. After an afternoon at Giraffe Center we decided to go get cocktails at Galleria mall.”
While there, they were invited by T’s friend – Brian – to go out. They said they wanted to eat first before going out but Brian was having none of it. After all, here was 5 girls on a Saturday evening ready for an evening to remember. No Brian will pass that up. He told them to get an Uber to Westlands, to Djavu [a club, I gathered]. He would take care of the bills; alcohol, food, even the Uber. What bevy of girls is going to refuse an all-expense paid evening of food and alcohol? [PS. I’ve always wanted to use this ‘bevy’ word in real life. Can you see my dreams coming true or is it just me?]. They went for what Stormi calls a “G walk” behind the mall, and I am going to let you decipher what that is on your own rather than spoon feeding you my hunches. Then they got an Uber to Westy. “On getting there, this guy was so friendly, invited us in, ordered a bigger table so we could all sit, and got drinks and food. We had so much fun.”
Brian lives in Karen. He started hinting at going back to his place as soon as they were all tipsy. L and S, who are sisters, opted out. They claimed to have some work still left to do at home, so they had to go. Stormi, B and T however could stay out a little longer. They went to Brian’s place after the club. When this house was described to me, it felt like the White House. Serene and big on the outside, chaotic and cluttered on the inside. “It’s a big house,” Stormi said. “Big enough to look like a family lived there. Large gate, own compound. You know, the kind of houses you expect to find in Karen.
In the house was a couple, mzungu girl and her Kenyan king. She specified that it was a mzungu so I feel you too need to be told this. Counting them, there was now 6 people in this house – Her, B, T, Brian, and the couple. Now by this time, T and Brian had coupled up as well, which makes me think that this was the reason the girls were invited out in the first place. The table was laden with bottles of alcohol, “everything from gin to whiskey and vodka”. The kitchen had paper cups all over. The kitchen is brought up because B and Stormi, the only two people without cuddle heat, were looking for food to warm themselves up.
“Wait,” I interrupt. “There was no food?”
“Yes! Imagine there was no food”
I cannot imagine it. What house with human beings has all this alcohol and no food? No. scratch that. What house in Karen has no food? Where are people’s priorities? My M-PESA balance could be 0.03 but I will find a way to have food in the house! Call a parent, befriend the mama mboga, send a smoke signal for goodness sake. I was still stuck on the ‘No Food Phenomenon’ when the story suddenly transformed to where everyone was in bed. Three bedrooms were used; the mzungu couple in one, Brian and T in another and Stormi and B in the last one. Stormi too only remembers turning at night and finding B in bed beside her [I think she passed out with the shock of not finding food].
The next part of this story had me worried about a number of things, and laughing through the rest. This may also be the reason that parts of it are vague and some parts really stick out. Morning came, [and I am tempted to say birds were chirping and to give a description of a beautiful sunrise]. We wake up with T first, who slept with Brian. When she opened her eyes, she saw a girl, in her twenties, sitting on the bed just staring at her. I don’t know what goes on in your head when you wake up to a strange face looking right at you. No one can know this feeling, unless you go through it. and I could not find T to have her explain it to me. So we’ll assume she was freaked out, for lack of a better expression.
The new girl started arguing with Brian, she saying he was cheating on her and him that they had broken up. This went on for a while, with T and Brian still naked and the girl still on the bed. There was already a commotion, which got everyone in the house up and listening at the door. Seeing that it was not going to end any time soon, T got dressed while the two were still going at it and left the room to tell Stormi what had happened. She was hurt. Brian was a jerk. He had a girlfriend and still made a pass at her. She felt lied to. As T was pouring her heart out, the door to Brian’s room was slammed open and they came out to the common room, with things still heated up [This was a whole lot to absorb on an empty stomach, right].
“You still didn’t get food?” I ask.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you? Brian ordered some pizzas at night”
[Phew! We can now breathe through the fight] which went on for a long time. At one point, the girl, who Stormi refers to as “The psycho girlfriend” came out with a knife, claiming she would “katakata kila mtu”. Now you know you are where you are not supposed to be when something happens and the first thing you think of is “what will my mom think when she is called ati I was katakatwad in Karen and she pays rent for Rongai?” and that thought scared the sh*t out of you, because if you survive that hospital bed, your mom will hold it over your head for as long as she lives. She may even haunt you with it. Imagine it: you are a grandma of 68, your grandkids are out on the backyard playing and you see an apparition of your mother saying “You remember when I got a call that you were hurt in Karen? Yet I had called the previous night and you said you were in Rongai? Those were the days huh?” Now you are the grandma who poops her pants every time because your mother haunts you with a situation you had no control over.
Anyway, this psycho girlfriend and Brian were an on and off couple. The girl is the jealous type. Like crazy jealous. The boy says he has had enough, but still seems to go back. I guess everyone knows their poison. Also… did you notice they didn’t have breakfast?
I just think that house needs food. Blood sugar is dangerous when low.
[Hey you. Yes, you. Do you have an Alcoholics Anonymous story? Any experience with alcohol counts. Send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work on telling your story. Cheerio]
[Remember to subscribe to MIRAWU]
I met Fred a few weeks ago while I was staying with an aunt. They go to the same church. We had not shared a total of seven words before the day he came over and I was alone in the house. There had not been an earlier warning, so I did not let him in until I had confirmed with mwenye nyumba that Fred was expected. He was. He needed to use the internet and the electricity in his apartment were lost [is that direct translation?]… or so he told me. We sat in the common room, me on the couch and him on the dining table. It was quiet. A kind of quiet that can only be held by strangers who know not what to say to each other. A silence that picks on your thoughts, turning them over until you are left bare. It felt too quiet to get up for a cup of water. Too quiet for a cough. So we sat. I watched two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale with earphones on because I was afraid to disturb the peace that the silence had established.
There is a saying about habits. That if you spend a specific number of minutes or seconds doing something, it becomes a habit. Alcoholics Anonymous has become my habit. I look at people with alcoholic eyes now [perhaps I can frame that statement better]. My conversations have developed into alcohol-related experiences. I find myself slipping alcohol into a sentence and before you know it, I am being told about people in their ten-year-old pants looking for sips of alcohol, of fathers who restricted their wives from taking alcohol and of mothers who drank in the presence of their children. I have also become a somewhat better conversationalist… or so I think…because I have had more conversations in the last six months than I had in 2017 and 2018 combined.
At some point, in the quiet, the power followed the example of Fred’s place. He sighed, the first sound I had heard from him since he asked if I had been told he was coming. I took this sigh as an opening, because the only available buffer to the silence (a neighbor’s blasting Kenyan obscenities from his woofer) had now joined in the sovereign stillness.
“Stima imepotea?” I asked, to spark something. He turned. I felt on top of the world. For those two seconds, I was the negotiator on those movies where there is a hostage situation and FBI guys have tried talking to the bank robber to no avail, till a guy in jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up strolls in and talks the bank robber to tears, having him release the hostages. The scene ends applause from onlookers who were afraid for the hostages and the guy [my guy] throwing a toothpick he had in his mouth all this time at the FBI guys’ feet as if to say “F y’all”. They beg him to join the FBI but he is better than that. He refuses and walks into the sunset to a piano playing in the background.
“Eee, na I’m not done with this work. I don’t know what I will do.” He looks at his phone.
“What kind of work is it?” I ask. [Am I crushing this conversation thing or what]
He says it is something for the government. Then turns back to his laptop, assuming the position he has held since he arrived. I feel the quiet threaten to return. It peeps at the door, waiting for an opening. I think about letting it. Slipping back into my comfort zone sounded so good. But then, I think, WWSD. WhatWouldSpongebobDo. He would badger this guy till he got what he wanted. And I wanted a story.
“When is your deadline?”
“Ilikuwa inasupposed kukuwa 12.30” [He said ‘inasupposed’… Would I lie to you?]
I look at the time. 1.03pm. He was way past his deadline. The lights were not back yet. All odds were in my favor. There was no longer a deadline to beat, and there was no electricity to back him up. We had to have this conversation. “What do you do?”
“A couple of things here and there. I dabble in a lot.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Writing…consulting. And other stuff”
His “stuff” sounded so much like ‘staff’. I swear. But I told someone about it and she said that I was probably hearing my own things. I guess you had to be there. I gathered he did not want to talk about what he did for a living…but he had said enough to catch my attention. I asked what he writes.
“These academic stuff [I heard it again]. Writers’ Hub. It pays well.”
Okay, so the writing conversation had run its course before it even started.
“Fred,” I said, because I wanted to rip off the band aid once and for all. “Do you drink? Alcohol.” [You and I both know we needed to be specific here]. He turned, again. Progress! I made a little jump inside.
“Why?” He asked.
I told him about AA, and MIRAWU, and my motivation behind everything. Then I caught myself, because I tend to ramble when I talk about things I actually give a fuck about. He sat there, nodding and staring at me till I felt weird about it and ended with asking the question a second time.
“No.” He said. I waited for accompanying information. I was not sure whether his no was to deny drinking or answering the question. I felt the quiet watching, waiting to stretch ten seconds into forty-five and make it awkward for follow up questions. I had to at quick. WWSD?
“Why not?” I saved it at the eleventh minute.
“It has never interested me.”
I looked at him. He is tall enough. Not the kind of tall that you see and say “damn, that’s tall”, but tall. He never shaves everything on his head, but he also does not have the fuckboy haircut [you know the one I’m talking about, don’t be coy]. His nails are always short, I think he owns a nail cutter and goes to work on them every Friday evening for church the next day. He looks you straight in the eye, either to establish dominance, or to prove he is listening. I am leaning more on the latter. He has watched all behaviorial videos that tell you where to place your hands and when to scratch your head. He wants to seem collected. Approachable. His feet are slightly parted, not to close to seem feminine and not too wide to achieve “male comfort”.
“Have you tasted alcohol?”
I laughed. He was beginning to seem like a modern day unicorn. A late twenties male whose lips have known no alcohol. It was surreal. Straight out of a Barbie’s Dreamhouse episode. So I asked about his father, because, I presumed, it was either he was a messy drunk or was absent all his life. “My dad died when I was in…class…2 or 3” he places two fingers on his chin, thinking. “Class two, yeah. And I’m the firstborn of 6 kids… I had to be responsible.” I point out that taking alcohol does not necessarily make one irresponsible. He agrees, but then he says “You never know where the line is between the two. I didn’t want my siblings to grow up without a father and on top of it have a sibling who was addicted to alcohol. It was a risk I was never going to take.”
“So you’re the Delmonte guy when your friends are hanging out?”
“Ha-ha, yeah. It’s not so bad actually. I get to be the designated driver, and I love driving at night.”
“I guess everyone has their place then” I say.
The time was 1.41pm. the lights were still not back. He asked for the link to MIRAWU. At 1.56 he looks up. “You have a nice font,” he says, looking right at me. I say than you and pretend to watch another episode. This conversation has run its course. He takes his phone and calls three people, asking if their Wi-Fi is still functional. Electricity is out in all three places. “I think all of Kitengela does not have electricity”. I look up. “Huh?” [I should get an acting gig]. “Stima zimepotea kila mahali.” He repeats.
The silence has won. We fought the good fight. We will be given medals of valor. But the enemy had weapons that our will could not tackle. It was two of us against an infinity’s worth of experience in haunting children’s nightmares and creeping into cementeries. We fought the good fight. I admitted it.
Five minutes later, he got up. “I’ll be leaving now”
“Oh?” happy dance in my head “Hii stima sioni ikirudi saa hii”
“Yeah” he hauls his backpack on. “Are you going to write my story? It’s not much to go on” he says with an open door before him.
I smile. “Biko says everything is a story.”
There comes a time in a man’s life when he has to sit himself in a corner and say ENOUGH! Enough of chasing and moving and playing. This moment varies in all men. There are those who are in the corner for two seconds and they walk out new men. There are also others who spend years in this corner and never come out. These ones spend their days telling themselves that things HAVE to be different. They need to move on up. To change their situation. But they remain in the corner not because they lack the will to move, but because they know nothing else.
As I read his text, I could not imagine what he was going through. Which corner had he ventured to and been unable to pull away from? I had so many questions, till he asked me the one question every guy asks me during our conversations.
“Do guys really tell you their shit? Like…boys?”
“I don’t know. (Lauging emoji) Because I listen. I don’t ask why they do what they do… I ask what made them do it.”
“I have never thought of telling this part of myself to anyone. Let alone a journalist!”
I laugh. There is stigma associated with the title ‘Journalist’. He is accusing me of doing what I studied in school, because of a few misgivings from a few of us. He is accusing me of telling secrets. And of lies tied into these secrets that make them extra scandalous and worth the tabloids. It makes me want to say I am not a Journalist. To disassociate myself from the stigma and stand as my own person. To be able to tell someone that I tell stories without them saying “nyinyi ndiyo hawa watu wa propaganda.” I crave this freedom… But then what would I be? A lawyer? Those are told they are liars. A doctor? They are told they give the wrong prescriptions [Plus my handwriting is too neat to qualify as a doctor] Anyway, let’s get into this before I transfer my existential crisis on to you.
At eleven years old, Jesse realized he was fat. It was not something he had noticed before, especially since his twin brother was the same weight as him from birth to December 2008. But he could not fit into his shirt on the morning of the first day of school and his mother had to go buy him a new one… then get more during the week. His classmates compared him to his brother all through the first week of school in 2009. “Ai Jesse, Kwani you ate all of your bro’s food during Krisi?” But the girls said he was ‘fluffy’ and it wasn’t all bad. He liked being called fluffy. They said he was “comfortable to be around”. He was okay with that. He says he was okay with it because he did not know what it meant, till he asked a girl he liked to be his girlfriend and she said the same thing. “You are just so comfortable to be around, Jesse. I would’t want to ruin that.”
When I was eleven years old, I hurt myself during the December holidays. I could not make the first day of school because I needed to have my bandages changed. My classmates were taught new things that day. I went in the next day, sat down and waited for my teacher. In between the lessons, she was checking everyone’s work, and as expected, I was a little behind than my classmates. She looked at my book and told me to ‘pull up my socks’, an idiom she had taught the previous day. I reached for my socks. My classmates laughed. I hate that day.
Being bigger than your identical twin has some strings attached. On one part, your grandmother will show you more love, and nothing is more precious than a grandmother’s love. But the downsides outweigh the good in Jesse’s case. The catcalling is worse when it is done by people you thought of as friends. I know this, because people pulled up their socks even on the day of our KCPE exams. “Friends are supposed to bring you up. To support you, and be by you through your ups and downs.” Jesse writes. He has all these quotes that may make him seem pretentious, even if they hold some truth to them. “But when you’re young, you think everyone you know is your friend. You don’t know about talking behind people’s backs because its meaning is above your thinking capacity. You cannot comprehend it, and that just builds into a lifetime of hating yourself and hating your past when you get to the point that you actually understand it.”
In high school, he was the fat kid. He tells me that in almost every setting, he was always the biggest person around. He was ashamed of himself. Everyone focuses on girls when it comes to overweight issues. There are programs made for girls, and sitcoms that are made to show that they are not as different as anyone else. That they too can love. They too can lead lives that allow them to get in a matatu without the conductor asking if they will pay for both seats. The boys have to fend for themselves. It was in form two that he discovered the wonders of alcohol. It never interested him at first. He always saw the drunkards sprawled in trenches soaked in their own vomit and decided that it would never be him. But Justin Bieber and cute Jaden Smith [I cannot speak for him now] said ‘Never say Never’.
“It started out as rumors. You know, you hear some guys in form two North have a mzinga and you have to give them your hard-boiled egg on Sunday to qualify for a sip. But that did not interest me. I loved my Sunday egg.” But not all boys share the same sentiment for eggs as he did, and one of the guys who fell prey was his friend (who we will name Larry –loosely based on Jackson Biko’s Drunk character).
Larry did not come from a fine household, unlike most of the boys in the school, which meant he had to try extra hard to fit in. He had to put in effort to be accepted. So he gave his egg for sips because the mzinga was being given by the more affluent boys and it was the only way he knew to get them to notice him. The exchange happened immediately after breakfast was served and it had to be quick, because Sunday mass was immediately after breakfast and you could never be late to that. There was a small window of five minutes between breakfast and mass, where they boys were allowed a bathroom break so as not to disrupt others during prayers. This was the egg-sip window. It seemed an easy trade for Larry. A full bladder for popularity. When he was hooked, the popular boys told him to bring his ‘fat friend’ along the next Sunday and they would both get to keep their eggs.
“I did not want to go” Jesse texts. “But when the popular boys want to see you in their sacred time, you get intrigued. Tempted even. And Larry tried so hard to convince me. He was my only friend then, because we were both losers in school. Poor kid, Fat kid. We were a team… especially when our adversaries were beating us behind the toilets.”
“Was your twin brother in the same school?”
“Yeah, but he is one of those people who blend with the right crowd. I would hang out with him and his friends, but it always felt weird. They would talk about things I had no idea about.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“(laughing emoji) like girls, and rugby. You know, normal guy stuff.”
When they got to the exchange spot, they guys had a bottle of Best. Larry got his sip, still holding on to his egg. He had gotten so used to bringing it that he forgot they had said he shouldn’t bring it. Jesse was Larry’s egg now. He would have gladly traded his best friend for a place at the popular table. Jesse did not mind it. He saw it as helping his friend. A charitable act for the guy who was always with him. His one loyal friend. The bottle was passed to him and for a second, he was confused.
“I was not really sure what they wanted with me to this point. They had only told Larry that they wanted him to come with me.”
“Where was it? This exchange point?”
“Ha-ha, behind the toilets. Just two steps from where they used to beat Larry and me up.”
The bottle in his hands caught him by surprise because his theories had not added up to him having his first taste of alcohol from these guys… and definitely not on that spot. This was going to change things. He would have preferred his first sip of alcohol to be bought by his last savings, in the comfort of his brother’s presence, probably as they were sneaking behind their parents’ backs, with the cover of darkness just behind their watchman’s shed [He did not say this]. He would have wanted the thrill he felt to be experienced somewhere other than the same place he had acquired unexplainable bruising.
One of the boys pushed the bottle to his lips and he hated it. The invasion of both his freedom and his taste buds. “I didn’t like it one bit. The taste was unlike anything else. When someone says something is a little bitter, you imagine sweetened lemon. That is what I had prepared myself for. Lemonade that messed with your senses. Instead, I got this cringe in my face that made the boys laugh.”
“Did you pass by those toilets again? Did you go to the exchange the next Sunday?”
“I had to! they would otherwise beat us up if we didn’t. you have to understand that we were losers in school. Being in the crew made us popular. We were cool. I hated it…but it was better to go behind those toilets to murder my tongue and throat than come out limping. That spot now had a double sentiment. It was either bruises or a sip…and Larry would have sold me out for that sip. I was just being smart”
[We’re back to AA. Thanks for being patient through the Mental Health break, but I believe we did some good work in the few stories we told]
I wanted to name him after a city. Somewhere far that he has never been but where correctly shows the turmoil he has faced all around his life. I wanted to equate him to a busy city that is filled with life and laughter and lovers holding hands when its exterior is plagued with an excruciating calmness that threatens one’s soul. I wanted to name him Venice. But Venice sounds like a girl’s name. So I asked him what name he would like before I christened the poor soul New York.
“I get to choose anything?” he asks.
“Anything. Reach far and deep and get me something good”
“Cool. I’ll think of something”
He lives with his sister, mother and grandmother. He says they have raised him to respect women in a way that he never would have were he in a different household. “When you see three women of different generations overcome the impossible to get to where they are today, you gain a certain kind of admiration”
His grandmother fled from Somalia with his mother in 1992, just when the Dadaab camps were constructed. They were among the first refugees in the camps and were settled in the Ifo camp, which had most of the Somali refugees fleeing the civil war. His mother was 11 years old, and the only surviving child that her mother had. They clung to each other. There had already been too much loss to bear losing sight of one another for more than a minute. They sold camel milk to earn their keep. “The distance from where they would walk to get the milk and bring it back to the camp was insane. In the heat, they would walk five hours to and fro, every two days, just so they could get enough money for other needs.” He doesn’t have a lot of details of this time because his grandmother does not like talking about it and his mother was too young to remember.
When his sister had her first anxiety attack in 2014 he did not know what it was. He says they were walking home from school and her breathing got laboured. She stopped and clutched at her chest. Said she could not breathe. Could not see colour. She was sweating and shaking and he was scared. Then, out of nowhere, she got up and was fine. She warned him, in the way only big sisters can threaten you into submission, that if he told on her, he would regret it. He said nothing to their parents.
“You can call me Boot,” He texts.
“The name, that you asked me to pick… I choose Boot”
I think I should start talking to normal people.
When his mother was sixteen, she met a boy. Boot is not sure whether this part of the story is true or she was using it to warn her sister against guys. She sat them down one day, when Boot was thirteen and his sister sixteen, they sat in the kitchen and his mother told them the story of a young refugee girl, who did not know love beyond clinging to her mother all day and lying by her side at night. She knew nothing other than the white of camel milk and the smell it leaves under your fingernails until her senses learned of John’s cologne [It’s always a John]. She was going to get water or to buy something or collect a debt from a fellow refugee when she bumped into him. Tall, muscular John in army uniform. He was darker than anyone she had ever seen but he made the night brighter [must have had really white teeth]. She trembled. Glitter exploded in her and left her feeling warm inside.
John was a lieutenant. That’s what he told her…or she told them. He was older than her. Old enough that it would make people notice and women snicker. So they met with the cover of darkness. This was 1998. The girl was sixteen. She says the boy was in his 25s to 30s. She is not sure. She never asked. Love blinds you. The birds sing and butterflies flutter while your brain goes out the window. She was sneaking out of the camp to see him and by the third week of knowing each other, he began talk of ‘kichwa tu’; a lie that most girls fall for because their feet are swept and they lose their footing. She resisted. That’s what she says. That she said no, and told him no, and almost put on a one-woman musical explaining that she did not want to. But he coaxed her. And lied to her. And the head went further north than she thought.
After the anxiety attack, Boot noticed his sister was not sleeping properly. He is a light sleeper. “I can even hear cats walking by my window at night.” Okay, first of all, this guy needs to move from where he lives if CATS [notice plural] are walking by his window every night. Also…I think this is a lie. I can’t hear a cat in the daytime unless he/she does that annoying meow thing that they do that creeps me out. But Boot is here hearing cats walk?! Really? I think I was being measured here. Moral of the story: Don’t believe someone who calls themselves one part of a pair… [and please don’t correct my grammar, I know what I said].
Anyway, back to John and Boot’s mom [Knee-high boot Ha-ha]. Long story short, because mothers usually like to skip over the important stuff, she got preggo and went to him. She was at the barracks’ gate for almost two hours before John finally came to the gate. He acted like she was just another light-skinned refugee from Somalia. “Unataka nini madam?”
“Madam, sema shida yako. Niko busy sana”
“Can we talk?”
“Not here,” he whispered. “I’ll come later.”
She went back home, preparing a script of what to say to her John. ‘John, you see, when a man and a woman love each other very much…they sleep together and…no… I’m sure he knows that. John is smart. He is a Lieutenant after all.’ She got home and waited. When dusk fell she was at their spot, where the head went in search of a hat and where love was proclaimed. She waited until the crickets fell silent and the horizon turned orange with the rising sun, then went back to Ifo just as her mother was stirring awake.
“Have you been up all night?
“No,” she lied. “I just went to pee.”
But mothers know. They always know. During the day, she was watched like a hawk. She trying to avoid the older woman’s eyes while the older woman looked at the changes in her body. The curve of her hips and rise in her stomach.
“Whose child is it?”
“What? What child?… Ha-ha, mama you are funny. Ati..”
“I asked you a question”
She looked at her feet and whispered his name. It came out as the hardest breath she ever had to exhale. When she looked up after what seemed like many moons past, her mother was still staring at her, disappointment spread across the frown lines on her forehead and worry draped over her cheeks. She told her everything. From how they met, to the ‘kichwa tu’ conversation, to her saying no to the night of crickets and fireflies that were dimmed by the sunrise.
When they asked for John the lieutenant, there was none. “The guy I came to see here Jana. He is tall, and really dark, and makes me feel like glitter exploded to fill me with warmth” Recognition flooded the soldier’s face when he revealed to them how John the Lieutenant is a Cadet, and that it was a common thing for Soldiers to lie to get in good with the girls. That it was not frowned upon. John denied the kid, and Ms. Knee-length Boot. They left the camp and have never looked back.
“After telling us this story, my mom said ‘And that, kids, is why you should abstain from sex’, I don’t think there has ever been a more confusing moment in my life”
“Does she tell you these kinds of things often?”
“All the time. When she was telling me that stealing is wrong, she and my grandma sat me down and told me about my uncle who got his hand chopped off for stealing sukari nguru. But if she lived in a refugee camp, how does she know of this uncle? She was supposedly the only kid my grandma had. Before I joined high school, she said ‘You know I never went to high school, right? But I have managed to take you…so if you want to end up like me, then you should fail in the school I am breaking my back to take you”
“Why does she do that?”
“She’s worried about us. About who we will become. She wants better for us, so in her mind, she needs us to understand that taking the wrong path in life screws everything up. She gets panic attacks when she thinks about our future, upcoming exams and one time, what we would have for supper.”
“Has your sister ever explained what her anxiety attacks feel like?”
“I’ll ask her.” Ten minutes later he sends me a voice note.
“I don’t know how to put it into words. Colour fades…well…not literally…but something happens to your vision…and oh the ringing in my ears. That’s the worst part.” But you know what is worse than the ringing? The fact that everyone else expects you to wear your demons like a scarlet letter on your chest for you to seem like you are actually suffering. People think that if they cannot see it, then it is not really there. As if the pain does not exist unless you are bleeding or slung in a cast or staggering with a limp. Sometimes, the most painful of demons are the ones only you can see. “I feel helpless, and sad and worthless. For that moment, I am sure that nothing can get better. I convince myself of it. That I am a failure and that is it. I can’t breathe, I shake and sweat. It’s really terrifying”.
Boot’s sister has anxiety. His mother is Bipolar. His doctors say that when she gets into an episode where she does not differentiate reality from her imagination, that they should ride it out with her. That they should never try to correct her with facts. Ride with it. His sister’s birth certificate lists Annex Hospital Nakuru as her birth hospital and their father as Jeremiah (Boot); also the man who takes their mother for her monthly checkup and ensures she takes her medicine and pays their fees because…well… he’s their father.
“It’s crazy. There have been times that both my mom and siz are in an episode simultaneously. Some days are alright. We even go out, have fun and it lasts almost a full day! These are the best days. They remind me of how much I love them and appreciate their strength… especially when another episode kicks in. but I also hate it when the episodes are too far apart. They come back stronger. Like the calm before a storm.”
I know he said he is Boot. I know that. But I know him as Venice, and I don’t care what the world thinks. I think of him as Venice because of the creepy sense of calm that his voice holds. He does not stutter. His tongue rolls over each word perfectly as if he practiced it in a mirror. He is Venice for the tranquility of the water surrounding a city filled with tourists and lovers and architects trying to understand how a city so beautiful can be so chaotic. He is Venice for his calmness during the storm. Oh, and his second name is Karanja. They are not Somali.
We have one more Mental Health story before we get back to Alcoholics Anonymous… so all you with AA stories, how ’bout an email to email@example.com?
Patricia Kiwara is a complete 180 from last week’s mystery girl. And not only because she said I could use her name. She is different in the way she speaks of her past and in how she writes about her issues with self-esteem.
In her account of the events that led her down the path to self-realization, she says “Campus is one of those places where learning and books are not the only things you experience” and I couldn’t agree more. The one thing I took from my university years, [apart from my love of chapo-smokie] was that you can have people who will profess their desperate urge to ride and die for you, and they may believe it, and make you believe it, until it comes down to it and they forget their boots and pistols at home. Patricia wrote of three experiences in a series of two posts [If it were a movie I’d be greatly disappointed with two episodes], of how she got her heart broken without ever being in a relationship.
I have been stalling on writing this story. It’s been ‘just one more album’ on Spotify and ‘after I eat lunch’ and ‘just one more TED talk’ and the time now is 10:34 pm on Wednesday, which means it’s either now or never. I don’t know what’s wrong. I have the whole story on her blog, it’s just a matter of morphing it into MIRAWU format, but I’ve been procrastinating on writing this story since last Thursday. It isn’t writer’s block this time, because I have written the whole story in my head twelve times over. I just lacked the strength to give it life. At about 10:15, I called one person who I thought would understand, but he told me I should quit playing.
“You mean, you have a story already written down for you, and you refuse to write it?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘refuse’…” I tried defending myself, but he could have none of it.
“Ebu write that thing and do it justice. You can’t start playing like that.” Then he reminded me of all the times I called him crying about not having a story to write. “I actually thought it was that. I saw you calling and started rehearsing what to tell you to get you to calm down…but, are you kidding me?” Then he said some words that I would rather not repeat [mainly because I may need him next week].
Here’s the thing. I have known Patricia since 2015. We were in adjacent rooms on campus for the brief time I spent in the campus hostels. We shared classes, went to get food together, and laughed together. She is a creative as well, though her niche lies in radio while I cannot even speak in full sentences to people. She has a smile that lights up a room, iced by the fact that she always smells of coconuts.
In 2016, just fresh into campus, she “got into something with a guy and got damaged.” She gave her all. She was in it to win it. But this was one of those one-sided relationships that are never discussed before they begin, so while one person is investing time and emotion, the other is in it for the ride. And boy was she ridden. Rode? Rided? [Okay, I’m just playing. Let’s try this again] She was taken for a ride. [There. Better]. It went on for a couple of months, totaling to 12. See kids, that’s why you should always define these things. Tell people what you want and spare yourself all the hurt and telling yourself how stupid you had been for not asking.
Patricia asked what she calls “the dreaded question” after a year. But I don’t think asking what you are to someone should be ‘dreadful.’ It should be liberating. Freeing. To know exactly what you mean to someone, no matter the answer, because what they think about you should in no way affect the value you place on yourself. Free yourself from the uncertainties. From sleepless nights of whether they think of you when they cross your mind. Ask, and let it be answered to you. PS. I, too, have not always thought this, but I have also never allowed someone to string me along to some unknown love destination.
The second guy came on her 21st birthday. Well, came is a wrong word since he was always there, lurking in the shadows like Gotham’s dark knight, waiting to strike. What is it with male best friends and professing their feelings at the worst possible time? Do they think life is one big romcom? I’ve tried understanding this, and I think I might go mad [well, maybe further into mental destruction than where I already am]. Her first instinct was that he was lying. I asked her why she thought this.
“I didn’t want it to be true. He is a great guy. Up to now, I speak highly of him. I wasn’t ready for anything at that time and him actually meaning what he said meant I would be to him what the other guy [Guy1] was to me and the last thing I wanted was to see him hurt or unsatisfied.” In the blog, she says she did not feel like she was pretty enough for him. My question is, was rejecting him doing him a favor, or was she just saving her heart from all the hurt of Guy1. No one is pretty enough for anyone else. We are all here to love and be loved, and hearts are strange little things. They pump blood to our fingertips yet still manage to harbor love that is so big it puts shattered pieces back together. there is a reason to why it is “I love you from the bottom of my heart” rather than “I love you because of your face and body and what you look like.”
When Patricia began seeing herself as unworthy for someone else and giving excuses for other people’s feelings toward her, was when her self-esteem issues began. It was not because of Guy1, or her best friend, but because of how she saw herself. The person looking back in the mirror needed excuses for existing. She began being busy for her friends, claiming to be busy, when they had the same workload as her. She became busy for the best friend who professed his love for her but decided to remain friends. She ghosted him. But to quote Liam Neeson narrating for The Huntsman Winters War, ‘The heart is a treacherous thing; and love, love is nothing more than a fairy tale.’ She says she realized she “actually liked him and started texting him again.” [Don’t ask me. Girls are complex people. Scholars have tried and given up]
Then she met the guy who she says looked at her the same way Niklaus Michaelson looked at the blonde chic from Vampire Diaries. “Every time we were together, it felt right.” She describes this relationship as “very mysterious,” because, again, there was no initial definition of what they were getting into. Every rumor has an aspect of truth. A tiny sliver that makes it believable. She says it was rumored that Guy3 was in a relationship, and she is a journalist, so her Detective Pikachu skills took over. She could not find the girl. “Do not discredit my degree on not finding her,” she writes. I already think she was doing too much without starting at the very beginning.
“Okay, this guy, before uanze detective duties, did you consider asking him if he was dating? Instead of relying on rumors,” I text her.
“Actually yes,” she replies almost immediately. “He said they were ‘not committed.’ Very vague (shrugging emoji). But like I said in the blog, I already liked him, so I wanted it to work until I realized it couldn’t.”
I go back to her blog to read the 2-part series again. “I hadn’t set my standards,” she writes on the second part. “I knew that even if I did very little would change; it’s like putting a price on an already sold product. We continued to talk and flirt, but I was looking for the right time to set the record straight. With these things, there’s never a right time, so I just had to let go as soon as I could and then leave before I got burnt. Before I was too attached and things went too far deep, I gave him an ultimatum; to choose me or lose me. I should never be an option for anyone, right? Neither should you.”
She has listed a total of 5 lessons that she learned in this time when her sense of worth was so low that she allowed herself into situations that had her feeling even worse in the end. Her love destination became herself.. Her lovestination is seeing herself as a “high-value woman.” You can read these lessons on https://patkiwara.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/my-campus-love-stories-evolution-of-the-high-value-woman/
“My point is, from my campus love stories, I have learned my worth and value. That no one should play around with my emotions if they haven’t figured out their own. Finally, that I shouldn’t stick around people’s lives if I have no intentions to stay.”
PS. Just love yourself and the mirror will smile back on you.
[Still looking for more mental health stories, so if you have one send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org]
It is only fitting that this story is told today. This specific month and day. It becomes appropriate to talk about this girl today because I have saved her for so long that she began to think I had forgotten about her. She texted me yesterday, “Hey, was my story not important enough?” I think I made her feel less important by keeping her on the shelf. It was not my intention. I was waiting for the right moment. Not for me, I already know her. I have thought of her for weeks. I was waiting for you to be ready. To relate to her in the backdrop that this month represents. So here goes.
When I started this AA thing, I didn’t think it would go far. I thought I’d be done for by the time March rolled by, but here we are, In May, with almost 10 stories done. She was one of the few people who believed in AA from the word go. She reads every story, understands every word, every message. After the first AA post, she emailed me, a stranger, and told me she would love to tell her story if only to give me content, but that she was sorry she did not have any relationship whatsoever with alcohol. We became friends, as close as online friendships between two people in love with telling stories can be. After the second AA post, she asked me how I can form a story out of one’s confession. I told her my brain works and my fingers type. I only sit there and marvel at the masterpiece that emerges. Then she said she drank a lot in university, which, as it so happens, she finished in December, like me.
“You don’t drink anymore?” I asked.
“I do, but only wine. No whiskey, no vodka.”
“That’s specific. Can’t stand the taste?”
She sent laughing emojis. “No, that’s not it. I got to a point where I was numb to the bitterness of it. I’d see people cringe their faces and could not even understand what that feeling was. I think my taste buds died with my soul.” She was at a dark place in university, she said. Her heart was so broken in 2017 that she didn’t think it was possible to come out of it. “You know guys. You love them, and they destroy you.” Damn, I think, someone did a number on her. She refused to tell me what happened. Said it’s not part of the story.
May is Mental Health Month. Anyone who knows me well enough knows how much I advocate for this one topic, particularly depression and anxiety. You probably know how important peace of mind is to me. And I lied. This story is not for you. No. It’s for me. The last couple of weeks have had me reevaluate my life more than a billion times. I have been sad. Really sad. I almost went back to a place I had sworn I would never get to again. A place I had vowed never to sink to. But I was almost back there. I was sad all the time and worried about everything. So in as much as I have kept my promise to remain happy, I think I knew in the back of my mind that I would slip, and let other people’s words get to my head. But this time, I realized it early enough, and I remembered I had this tucked away. What better time to talk about mental health than now?
When she described what she went through, I saw myself in her. It was like I was listening to a recording of myself. She made voice notes, and it was like a dream. A flashback.
“I don’t know how to describe what I was going through”, she began explaining, “I was depressed. At least that’s what my psychiatrist said. But I didn’t know that at the time. I found myself crying in public most times, so I stopped going to school. People said I was pregnant, and you can never really understand the magnitude of a rumor until you get one about yourself. So I had to force myself back to school. I was a zombie. Color faded from my vision and everything became grey.”
“Like a romantic French movie from the 1940s where the woman is on a bridge with a cigarette between her fingers and a dress that seems to accentuate her figure even though it’s baggy and flare? Or a sad American one where the man forgets how important he is and a guardian angel has to be sent to him to show him what the lives of those around him would be like without him in it?” [I did not ask her that]
“I could not concentrate in class,” she continues “I am a pretty bright student. I scored As and Bs. But my 2017 transcripts are embarrassing. You know what happens when you tell someone that you are sad?” I don’t. “They say being happy is a choice. Like what to eat and which song to listen to. They tell you to ‘be happy’. Then they sing that song. I hate that song. It haunts me. It made me ask why I couldn’t just stop being sad. Why I couldn’t leave everything behind and let go. That song makes it seem so easy.”
“You don’t like Bob Marley?”
I like Button Poetry. I can listen to them for hours. As she spoke, I heard Sabrina Benaim whispering the words to ‘Explaining my Depression to My Mother’ [I think you should listen to it]. Sabrina likens depression to a fly in the hand of a bear one day and the next as the bear itself. It is more than just feeling down in the dumps. It is a struggle in the brain that drowns you until the breath in your lungs exhausts and the space left is filled with sadness. This is how she felt. Submerged in her sadness, like a submarine, with no oxygen in her tanks. She was broken, with no one to hold on to, and sad. A kind of sadness that even fish could not understand. That even dolphins could not save her from. So she started drinking. It numbed all feeling and, in her stupor state, she was almost happy. Alcohol became the choice she made.
She would go to class with a bottle of Dasani, only her water was bitter and had the distinct smell of Vodka. She killed the rumour of her being pregnant. But in its stead, came one that she had gotten rid of the pregnancy and was now using alcohol to fill the void. What made it worse was the guy who had “destroyed” her orchestrated this rumour. “He said things about me that no one should say of the devil. So I morphed into a state of constant hatred. I hated my nails, my face, my friends. There was always this thing in my chest that weighed me down day and night. I hated it. I hated myself for feeling it, and I hated waking up.”
Her friends held an intervention for her. I swear people should stop watching too many movies. They said she was going down a dark path and they cared for her. They wanted the best for her.
“That was nice,” I say.
“Until someone said ati ‘what I had lost should not define me. Ati they understand if I didn’t want to keep it and they still love me. Can you imagine the nerve! That a guy can come from nowhere and with no context accuse you of something that they were not even sure of.” See up to this point, she had not heard the exact rumor. Only bits and pieces that she made sense of in her head. When she heard she had lost it, she assumed it was the guy. When she heard she was using alcohol to fill the void, she understood the void he left in her life.
She had been binge-watching series all month, since she had no energy to be around people. She spent her time getting drunk and bingeing on series. It happened that on this specific day, while she was at her lowest, she watched ’13 Reasons Why’ [If you were not in the rage then, 13 Reasons Why is a series about a teenage girl who goes through so many things that destroy her will to live so much that she commits suicide]. She said that that could never be her. She could never let her mother suffer such a tragedy. So she called home and said she needed to see a psychiatrist. The date was 13th September, [I don’t know if it was a Friday]. And her road cleared up.
“Sometimes I still sink. It doesn’t really go away, you know. There are times that a series of events happen that make me feel unworthy, but I remind myself of how far I have come. That I am worthy. That I have forgiven myself for loving the wrong person, and for hurting myself for other people’s actions. I am still learning to let go, but I am more than halfway there, and that is all that matters”.
Kitambo, we used to be told that you should not stress yourself over small small things because you would get ulcers. Or H. Pylori [which I have, Ha-ha]. But our parent’s ulcers is our depression, and the effects are worse, because H. Pylori is cured by a kit of a week’s worth of medicine, while depression is a lifelong disease that is suppressed by blue happy pills that you have to take so you don’t sink back into the darkness.
Happy Mental Health Month.
[And if you have a Mental Health story kindly email me on email@example.com It doesn’t have to be AA related. I’m thinking of honouring the month then we’ll get back to AA in June]
It didn’t make any sense to him that Monday morning. He woke up to shouting from his parents’ bedroom. His mother’s voice was louder than he had ever heard it. It sounded like she was screaming herself sore. And so he did what any teenage boy would do if he heard his mother shout. He got out of bed, went to his parents’ door and knocked once. The voice went silent. “What!” “Uh, mom? Umm… Are you okay?” The door opened. His mother was in her bathrobe, her hair a mess and his father was seated on the bed. “Why aren’t you in school Mike*?” They had been on holiday for two weeks. He remembers his father bent over and supporting his head by the bridge of his eyes. He remembers his father’s exasperated voice telling her to ‘leave the boy alone and go take a shower’. Then, he remembers the door slamming in his face. He went back to his room, got in bed and went to sleep. It was a dream. None of what he had seen that Monday morning was real. When he woke up he smelled pancakes. Everything was back to normal. His father was reading the newspaper at the dining table, with his coffee on the table. He took his seat and waited for his pancakes. They had breakfast as a family. Like a normal family. Then his parents left for work and he watched cartoons.
That week, the air felt like there had been no raised voices in the wee hours. It was like everyone forgot that a door had slammed in his face. But it ate at him. He saw the door when he watched Samurai Jack and on his plate during supper. He heard it in his dreams, with his mother’s voice echoing in the background. “Why aren’t you in school Mike?” When he couldn’t take it anymore, he called his brother.
“Mom forgets things,” he had said.
“What do you mean, Mike?”
“She forgets things. She didn’t know I have been home for two weeks. And last week she put salt in tea.”
“Ha-ha… Come on dude. Maybe she’s just tired. I’m sure you don’t even help out at home anymore.”
“But nothing man. She’s mom. She’s okay. Don’t worry about it. And help her bring in groceries at least. Okay?”
He hung up. His brother didn’t know anything. It made him feel lost. So he did what any kid born in this day and age would do. He asked Uncle Google. He typed in ‘is being forgetful normal’ and says he got some hope. This has to be the first person in the world to have asked anything on Google and not found out he, together with his entire extended family, was already dead. So I take my phone out and type in the same thing. A girl needs hope in this tough and unruly world. ‘Many people worry about becoming forgetful as they age” comes my sliver of googled hope ‘They think it is the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease. But some forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging’. That is all the hope he needed. To be told that salty tea is part of aging, and he took it. He accepted his mother was getting old and went back to school when they opened and forgot all about his mother’s forgetfulness.
A few weeks later there was commotion in school. Mike’s class was having Social Studies, which he hated, meaning any excuse of a break was welcome. He would purposely not pee during break time only so he could ask to go outside during the class. But on this particular day, he remembers having been extremely pressed and was forced to pee when they were out. It was odd. Like hitting your toe on a table that was never in your living room [Okay, I don’t get that either].
The disturbance, it turned out, was his mother. He remembers looking out the window and his eyes immediately meeting with hers. The familiarity in them uncanny. He knew, before his eyes travelled down her bathrobe and sandals, that she was not herself. “It was weird. The way the look in her eyes transported me back to that Monday morning. I heard her voice. ‘Why aren’t you in school, Mike?’ I saw her at home, adding salt to my tea. It was the first time my heart broke.”
12 year olds do not understand empathy. All they know to do is laugh and make fun of their friends. They don’t know that a person’s mother cannot just come to school in pyjamas out of their own accord. Their immature brains cannot process the possibility of being held at gunpoint to wear the most ridiculous costume to your son’s school, let alone what Alzheimer’s disease is. //Mickey, si that’s your mom? // Kwani her problem is what? // You guys just wear like that when going out? // Ha-ha, hey guys, look at Mickey’s mom. Kwani you don’t own combs in your home? // Haiya Mickey! That’s really your mom? Na vile she is usually smart. Kwani what happened? //
Mike ran to her, this time his social studies excuse too dire to comprehend. She came to her senses as his hand touched hers and he witnessed first-hand what the realization of what had happened did to her mother. “Mom,” he said to her “It’s okay. Breathe. Just breathe. You’ll be fine. I promise. I’ll call Daddy and he’ll take you home. But I’ll take care of you till he comes.” He held her hand through explaining to his teacher that he needed to call his father. Held her hand through the waiting. Through his classmates peeping at them from the windows. Through the 12-year-old theories of what was wrong with his family. He held her hand even when there was enough sweat between their palms to fill the Red Sea. When his father arrived, they both got in the car and drove off. He never went back to the school.
“I can only imagine the kinds of stories those kids had to give. How many of them called my mom crazy, or said that I was mad myself?”
“They were just kids. Kids say things that they don’t mean”
“But kids also say the truth, right? I had been told that so many times and I started believing it.”
“You thought she was crazy?”
“For a time, yes. But I was young. And hurt. I had lost all my friends because of one thing. One mistake that my mom could not control herself making. My heart was broken. I was broken.”
His brother came home from campus. He convinced their father to seek medical assistance for their mother, who was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease [Yeah, I know. I expected something different too. Point for Google]. She was admitted at Mathari Hospital for five months and released, provided she took her medication. As Alzheimer’s progresses, brain cells die and connections among them are lost, causing cognitive symptoms to worsen. While current medications cannot stop the damage Alzheimer’s causes to brain cells, they may help lessen or stabilize symptoms for a limited time by affecting certain chemicals involved in carrying messages among the brain’s nerve cells. Mike’s mother had a combination of cholinesterase inhibitors, Donepezil (Aricept) and Rivastigmine (Exelon), which are prescribed to treat symptoms related to memory, thinking, language, judgment and other thought processes.
“My father became my hero in that time. I mean, he was okay, for a dad. He always took us out, helped us with homework and did dad stuff like a respectable…well…dad. But in the five months that mom was admitted and in the years that followed, he was spectacular.” I don’t think your dad is your hero if you can’t describe him as spectacular. He is otherwise just a dad who does homework among other dad stuff. “He became everything to us. He would go see my mom every day. We weren’t allowed in to see her, so he bought a polaroid camera and would come home every evening with a photo of her, so we would now she was okay. He made sure we were fed and went to school. We never lacked anything. My mom had everything she would have needed, and, in all this time, he never drank a single drop of alcohol.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. He remained himself. He never self-medicated. He showed us a kind of strength that we needed to have in that time of our lives. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. He was spectacular. He proved to us, my bro and I, that family is everything. That a man takes care of his own, builds what he has, so that when he stumbles, he has something to hold on to.”
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Some of the stories I write here are stories I was told months ago, and they just re-surface in my head when they think appropriate. Sometimes I start writing a story and leave it in the middle because the subject texted me at 12:07 am and asked me to not post it, and I get pissed off because I had seen how it would end. I had the whole thing planned out in my head for so long that I knew when and how each paragraph would begin and what exact words I would use to bring the story to life. Have it breathe the words of a life told in tears and laughter. Other times I have the story but lack the words. I hate these days. These are the days I lie on the floor and try to think of a word for each letter of the alphabet. A for abandon. B for brawl. T for tactless…because that’s how it feels in this difficult task of coming up with words that will explain this story in a way that you will be able to understand how broad the smiles are and how much the creasing of foreheads depict their sadness.
And so, because I cannot seem to write it properly, I will tell you about a man I sat next to on Saturday.
The bus was full by the time I got in. It made me feel like a VIP, the way I entered and we were off as if I was the one they were waiting for. I felt so special. I must have been smiling because he saw me and smiled himself and I knew it was safe to sit by him. Not because he smiled, [you never know how conniving people are out here. One minute they smile at you in public and the next you have a blade at your hip], but because it was the only available seat.
You know how you arrive late at an event and your best friend has a seat, so without thinking they scoot over and you both sit an arse cheek a-hanging? That’s how I sat… only the guy was not my friend and he had taken half my seat rather that scooching over on a bench. He had a little girl on his lap, I presumed she was (..or is?) his daughter judging by how trusting she slept. He was a big man. Not fat, yet not built. He played at being fat with muscles. I tried googling an exact word for his physique and now Google wants me to join a gym. I don’t think there is a word for what he is…but you can help me by commenting below if you know.
I can’t speak for the rest of him, but his face had no hair. Zilch. Nada. I remember thinking to myself that he either waxes his face weekly or has a personal barber that comes to his house every morning to shave him while his little girl has the pancakes that he made for breakfast. He looked like he cooks. Not that he smelled of onions or cayenne pepper, but with the way he held his little girl. The delicateness of his hands when he smoothed her shirt on her shoulders and carefully placed them on her knees. The softness of his chin that lacked the scruff of manly strands. Even his top lip was smooth. Most guys forget the moustache area. Maybe his daughter once complained “Daddy, when you kiss me goodnight, the hair on your face scratches my soft skin and I bleed” so the man had to make a decision. Face hair or giving his little girl her goodnight kisses. Others may say he chose poorly, but for him, it was the best decision he ever made. He had a hat on so I can’t speak much of the hair on his head.
Michael Blackson is a 46-year-old Ghanaian comedian and American actor. His real name is Jafari Ferguson and he is well known for portraying “Angry African Man” in the film Next Friday [thankyou Wikipedia]. He is best known for his work on Wild n Out…[because that is where I first knew him from]. Anyway, last week. Michael Blackson was on a flight from I don’t know where to I have no clue where, and he was seated next to this “Ben Affleck looking neega” who fell asleep and Blackson “sabotaged his life” doing all manner of things like wearing the dude’s glasses and taking photos of his armpit on the guy’s phone [Irrelevant info btw]. Back to the guy I am next to…who had now fallen asleep. When daughters sleep on their father’s laps, and the fathers fall asleep as well, do they meet in a special Daddy-daughter wonderland where fathers can keep facial hair and still kiss their little girls without scratching their foreheads and delicate cheeks? [PS. I didn’t take photos of my armpit with his phone]
Having this Alcoholics Anonymous thing has had me doing some weird shit btw. Now I cannot hold a conversation with someone without asking if they drink, what kind of drink floats their boat [He-he] and what impact that drink has had on their lives. But whatever conversation I had held with this sleeping man had only happened in my head, so I had to ask myself this as well.
“Do you drink?”
I lean in closer to smell him. The people seated behind me must have thought me mad…but I guess I’d do anything for you guys. He smells like candy which is a good thing, but makes me suspicious. Maybe he drinks or smokes and uses candy to mask the smell. Maybe he buys the candy in the guise of they are his daughter’s when half of that candy is for his stench.
“What kind of drink?”
Can’t be any type of cheap liquor. He has a daughter to think of. He cannot be found in a trench without his senses. No. He walks into a bar, takes a seat by the counter and tells the bartender exactly what he wants. Whiskey, neat. [I watch movies too]. He broods over it, buying time so he can get home when homework is finished and people are ready for bed, so he can deliver his fatherly duty on delicate foreheads and cheeks.
Hmm, tough one. He has a happy life. The wife must be happy. The kids are dressed, her hair is done. He seems content. Normal. I don’t like normal people. They have no story to tell. They are blunt.
The daughter stirs. The father wakes. He stares into her face as if he could see the reason to her moving in her sleep written on her tiny nose. He smiles. It’s small. I may have missed it if I was not looking at him from the corner of my eye. That smile holds so much story. Memories that I cannot begin to unravel unless he speaks of them. That smile holds the first time she said ‘Dada’ and her first tooth. It is her scraped knee and the time she cried because she could not have her way. But it is also much, much more. It is the present, the past, and future. Forehead kisses and all.
Someone alighted at Commercial and I had to move to the empty seat because the arse cheek that was hanging had started getting numb. I didn’t want uneven cheek muscles while walking around CBD. I could have as easily become a meme. The girl I sit next to was not as interesting…but she had on red trousers and an orange top. That was peculiar.
[Alcoholics Anonymous continues next Thursday. Also, methinks we need another Easter holiday just to recover from last weekend]