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 firstname.lastname@example.org?