BOTH SIDES

“You think you can steal from me, you good for nothing thief? You told me to get in with 30 bob fare, not 40!”

“Madam, please don’t bring your issues to this matatu, just pay the money. Everyone else has paid 40, do you think you are more special than them?”

“These are not issues of mine, this is an injustice from you! You lied to me! I gave you a 50 shilling note-I want my 20 shillings change or nothing. The rest have not spoken up because they are meek- but they feel just as I do. And I know you’ll just take that money and go waste it on alcohol. Yes, steal that extra change and go become a useless drunkard! You deserve it!”

Mathee, you won’t disrespect me at my own workplace. I’m sorry that 10 shillings means so much to you, but that is simply how it is. If you don’t like it, get off and grab a bicycle. Don’t stress me.”

“How dare you talk to me like that, you little boy? What kind of shame are you bringing the mother who raised you? Stealing and then acting self-righteous??”

We mathee-“

Foolish man-“

Shuka saa hii basi! Si ush-“

“Sishuki bila my change!”

I smiled to myself and buried my head deeper in the novel, ‘Sleeping with Schubert’, that I was reading, though my full concentration had now shifted to the spectacle in the vehicle. The matatu conductor, now positively shaking with fury, pointed at me as one of the ‘compliant’ customers who were content with their 10 shilling change, and barked at the lady to get out of the matatu lest he throw her out. I raised my hand in a feeble attempt at an apology at the lady, who was now glowering at me, as if I had somehow colluded with the conductor to do this to her. The rest of the passengers, in the meanwhile, exchanged knowing looks and chuckled quietly. It seemed this would be the biggest form of entertainment for the day for many of us. As we got to the stage, I promptly got off the vehicle, though part of me wanted to stay to see how the argument would pan out.

AsI walked back home, I overheard a loud conversation between a boy and a girl, in their preteen years, who were both wearing the same school uniform, the girl perched on a bicycle and the boy leaning on the gate of one of the houses (presumably they were siblings). The girl was chuckling uncontrollably as she let out words in gasps; “You…like…Anne…everyone…now….knows.” The boy, meanwhile, waved his hands and shook his head furiously as he shouted back in an irritated, high pitched voice, “No, I don’t! Marvin made that up! Now people are going to laugh at me!”

“You did call him fat, you know. It’s partly your fault.”

“Well, he is! I didn’t know it would hurt his girly feelings! He’s such a girl.”

The girl continued to laugh and sped off on her bicycle, shouting, “Harry likes Anne! Harry likes Anne!”, and Harry chased after her, shaking his fist in protest. I chuckled with nostalgia as I remembered my own early experiences of tween romance, and how harrowing it was to have a boy like you, to like a boy, or to have someone accuse you of liking someone.

As I reached the gate, my mind strayed back to the heated exchange in the matatu. The initial assumption would be to blame the woman for being so petty; but I wondered whether maybe that 10 shillings really did mean a lot to her. Perhaps it was the difference between a full meal and just ugali in the evening. Perhaps it was her fare to get home. Perhaps the rest of us had indeed just let it slide for fear of sparking an argument. The matatu conductor, too, was not the absolute victim- he did state that the fare was 30Ksh at the stage, so he went back on his word. But I knew too that he was only doing his job, and perhaps had hastily recalculated the price on seeing the traffic snarl-up on the road, to prevent his boss from getting on his case about low returns at the end of the day. There were 2 sides to every story- even Harry, the boy who supposedly liked Anne, was not an absolute victim-neither was chubby Marvin, the said accuser.

A cold breeze swept past me, and I shivered- a glance at my watch told me it was almost 7:30 pm. My heart sank with dread- my mother would use my lateness as an excuse to point out every single mistake I had made for the last 5 years, and then would proceed to pick a fight for the rest of the evening. But then I remembered, that this only one side of the story- my own. Of course she was only worried about my safety, and that is why she got angry. And her point of view was completely understandable-the methods, questionable- but understandable.

I suppose the problem with life is that we are almost pre-conditioned to not see past our own noses. We make assumptions about things, without considering both sides- I myself am a victim of this. Which is why my New Year’s resolution is to know both sides of the story, for as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, there is great danger in knowing , or telling, the single story.

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GROWING MY ROOTS

The crowd stared at me impatiently; I had taken far too long to think. With a deep breath, I began in Swahili, “Gogo was one of
the kindest people I have ever met.”
Whispers broke out in the crowd, the elders staring at me in disbelief, and the youth barely hiding their amusement.
Nevertheless, I stuttered throughout the rest of my dedication and rushed back to my seat, scattered claps following in my
wake. I was furious with the crowd for laughing at me, and with myself for giving them a good reason to. The rest of the
ceremony went in a blur. At tea time, I dragged myself to the smoky kitchen, trying to ignore the loud whispers and sniggers
that followed me. Aunt Chelimo stood up to stretch herself just as I got in, and when she caught my eye, she said, tongue-in-
cheek, “Ehe, the city girl who cannot speak Kalenjin, even at her grandmother’s memorial!”
In the uncomfortable silence that ensued, Mum sieved the tea, quietly handing the thermos flask over to me to take to the
Elders’ tent. My great uncle, Kipchirchir, looked at me suspiciously as I approached and talked to me in Kalenjin. I replied
apologetically that I couldn’t understand. With a morose shake of his head, he turned back to the elders, and said in Swahili, “A
tree with no roots.”
A tree with no roots. I left that ceremony feeling worse than I had ever felt in my life. On our painfully silent journey back home
that evening, my mind wandered back to the older days; Kalenjin was initially the secret code, spoken by my parents when they
wanted to have a confidential conversation, while the languages of instruction to us were English and Swahili. I was 11 when
Mum attempted to teach me Kalenjin, but my preteen self so stubbornly refused to cooperate that she gave up on me. My
flawed reasoning was that we were ‘urban’, and therefore had Swahili for ‘authenticity’. During various family gatherings and
trips to Sangurur, our home village, I always felt a distinct desire to understand the peculiar pronunciations and intonations of
Kalenjin, but I pushed it to my subconscious. However, that memorial day, it refused to stay there.
As I stayed awake in my bed that night, feeling guilty for desecrating my grandmother’s memory with my ignorance, and being
a stranger to my own tribal tongue, I remembered that merely having guilty feelings would not right my wrongs. It was time to
change. I needed to learn Kalenjin.
From that month onwards, I tried different methods of learning, from listening to Kalenjin radio stations and putting traditional
music on my playlist (this amused my friends), to instructing my parents to speak in Kalenjin only, with necessary translations. I
even started reading the Bible in Kalenjin, and keeping a diary of the new words I learnt daily. Performing as a soloist in a
traditional Kalenjin song during my final music assessment in High School imparted in me knowledge of our colorful traditional
garb, dance and vocal ornamentation. It has not been easy; many times I feel ashamed in holding a conversation with my fluent
cousins, uncles and aunts in the broken Kalenjin I have learnt. Nevertheless, I try, and I have noticed that things I used to see
with indifference, such as mursik, our traditional drink, and Kalenjin proverbs, poems and sayings, are becoming meaningful to
me.
That night after the memorial, I resolved to learn Kalenjin in a bid to prove myself; to show that I was worthy of my second
name. But since then, I have realized that learning my native language is not a competition, it is a journey of self-awareness
and appreciation of traditions that have been in my family for generations.
I may never pass the litmus test of Kalenjin fluency, but this tree won’t stop growing its roots.

WHY ARE YOU HERE?

A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?”

I am seated here, in our farm at Sergoit Road in Uasin Gishu County, soaking in the sun, in silence, because though I denied it vehemently at first, I do need a break from the crazy bustle of Nairobi City and to slide into the tranquility of the countryside. I spent Christmas isolated from the buzz of holiday cheer, movies and indulgent family lunches, herding our cows and going on long treks to our neighbors’ far-stretched homes in the rolling hills on this plain, because I needed to appreciate the beauty of simplicity. In an alternative universe, I would have been lazing around in Nairobi, meeting up with friends, and attending Christmas carol concerts-all of which are not inherently bad tasks. But if I did, I’d have never known that catching sheep is harder than it seems, that effort is required to keep a hearty conversation with no distraction from devices, that Suzza, our highest-yielding cow, is a fierce kicker when provoked, and that the sunrise is so beautiful over the farm’s horizon.

The age old question of fate kicks in; are our lives predetermined by some golden thread, whose tension depends on factors past our control? Some people work hard, and never see the reward of it-some work minimally, and are continually benefited. Working at the bank, it became obvious that life is grey- the nicest people are not always the most financially successful, nor are the rudest ones the poorest. If it’s possible that one may have their dreams painted out, and strive incessantly to achieve them, then fail at the last minute or succumb to a stroke of bad luck. And if comfort cannot be found in religion, in the belief of a supernatural, eternal relief, then we begin to question the needfulness of life. Why are we here, and not in the grave, if regardless of our effort, we are destined to fail?  The answer is simple- because we are not only a product of our needs.

We are here because we have a responsibility to ensure that neither us, nor those surrounding us, regret being here. We are here because sometimes our minds play tricks on us by convincing us that we are not worthy of true consideration; and that the key to living life is to be able to overcome those thoughts.

As Katie Perry once asked, do you ever feel like you’re a waste of space? I know I do. I have grappled with extremem feelings of worthlessness more than I care to admit.And once that one brooding thought enters your mind, and you allow it to take center-stage, you subconsciously let the rest in. I ceased to see the beauty of life, and pessimism pervaded my everyday activities. Seeing a beggar on the street, instead of wondering how I should help him, I was scared that I might one day end up in the same position. I became insanely envious of my successful friends, instead of being happy for their achievements. When I looked to my future, all I could see was disappointment and failure-and at one point I did not see life as worth living anymore. And that was when I hit my rock-bottom.

Looking back now, I am ashamed and disgusted by that behavior. But that’s the thing with life-it’s so much easier to be negative than to be positive. It actually takes effort to wake up each morning and be excited for what is to come. I used to believe that happy people were simply that way, that it was a character trait and I could only blissfully long for the day when I would also wake up with a light heart. But then I realized that life doesn’t quite work that way-I had to will myself into living my life the way it should be lived. I realized that there is much more joy in giving back to the community than spending money on myself trying to feel better. I realized that in life there will always be someone better than me, so I should suck up my pride and understand that even if I’m not the best, what matters is that I’ve done my level best. I realized that I have no right to a sure, prosperous future, because I am subject to the rules of time, just like everyone else, so I should stop worrying about it so much. I realized that the difference between what you think and feel you need (my Christmas experience) and what you actually do need can be very stark.

So why are we here? There are 2 primary answers to the question: in religion, it is so that we secure a better after-life, in purely scientific terms, it is so that we reproduce, thus perpetuating the human race. Regardless of where your beliefs lie in the theism-atheism spectrum, please always remember, no matter how horrible you feel, that you are here to live your life, and to live it well; and to make sure that on your deathbed, your regrets are manageable. So if you haven’t started living your life, I urge you to begin as soon as possible. I began it only a few months ago. And I don’t plan on stopping for the next 51 years or so.

That’s why I’m here. Why are you here?

WHEN I DECIDED TO BECOME A PAUPER

They say that clever people are cursed by the expectations of those around them. They are convinced by parents and teachers that any other career apart from Medicine or Engineering (and a fancy type at that-not the ‘common’ engineering courses, no; the aeronautical, or the biomedical, or spatial), is a meaningless endeavor.  When I was young, I was told, with brains like mine, I should become a neurosurgeon ( oh, the beauty of pun). I was thrilled; I mean, who doesn’t think a neurosurgeon is super cool? I knew nothing of the demands of the course, but I did get stares of admiration from my classmates in Standard 3 when I solemnly declared that my future career plan was to get a PhD in Neurosurgery, and then start my own practice to rival Agha Khan Hospital. And then, of course, I would be swimming in money.

But time passed, and I immersed myself in activities that I found a genuine interest in, I discovered that there was so much more to life than neurosurgery. I grew to love Music, Physics, Literature and art. When the moment of reckoning came, I informed my parents that I didn’t want to pursue Neurosurgery- in fact, I didn’t want to do Medicine as a field.

Anyone who has ever had such a conversation with their parents will understand me when I say that they  reacted as if I had told them I wanted to drop out of school. I was coaxed, threatened, lectured, and advised before they gave up on me. “Fine,fine, waste your grades then, go do whatever you want, and tarmac forever. Go become a pauper.”

Now, my parents are not bad people. They only want the best for my future. But the thing is, should we have jobs solely because the chances of becoming unemployed are low? No career is financially safe in Kenya, after all. Junior government doctors earn about 10000 shillings per week, and by the time the ‘good’ money comes in, they will have to have worked relentlessly. And not every doctor will begin a private practice. So if you go into a career with only salary and prestige on your mind, you are in for a rude shock. About 100 students either repeat or drop out of medical school by the end of the first year. Why not then, pursue what you truly desire, and make a career out of it? If we all decided to play safe, what would life be?

So I decided to become a pauper. I am going to pursue Music, and computer technology, because that is what I enjoy. I am not saying that I will disregard all advice given to me and only ‘follow my heart’. With the unemployment rates peaking at almost 40% in Kenya today, I cannot afford to slack off in my fields. But I can’t ignore my heart; it protests.

In 10 years time, I might be ridiculously successful, or a spectacular failure. But I’m not going to willingly to let the latter possibility become a reality. And  I know I won’t regret my decision.

WHY WE BROKE UP…AND I’M MUCH HAPPIER

He almost destroyed me.

I have had several internal battles about him. I have made up excuses for my behavior with him and have tried to justify why I wanted to stick around, though I always knew he was no good. Friends and family asked me, “What are you doing with him?” and honestly, I couldn’t come up with a good enough answer to convince myself. I had false happiness around him- false because as soon as he went away, I would realize that I had done nothing constructive and that my deadlines and goals were suffering because of it. With this awareness, I would vow to never again accommodate him into my routine, but oh, he was such a good convincer! “ You are stressing yourself out, you need a break. I only want to see you happy and relaxed. Don’t listen to those other guys, they don’t know you like I do.” So I would go in ready to end the relationship, but I would leave convinced that we were meant to be together forever. But  after repeated failure and regret, and missed opportunities, it became obvious to me that he was the enemy, and not the friend. So I just stopped listening to what he had to say. He put up a good show, and I almost reconsidered my decision, but I stayed strong, and he got the hint. We don’t talk anymore. I have my moments of weakness…but the last time I talked to him was a couple of weeks ago. And I’ve got a lot more done without him in my life. Mr Procrastinate, trust me, I don’t miss you. 🙂

MY ON AND OFF RELATIONSHIP WITH VANITY

If I had a facebook relationship status with Vanity, it would read, “It’s complicated.”

No one likes to admit to being vain. I know I don’t. Vanity is shallowness, and shallowness is lack of character, lack of soulfulness. It is a despised form of narcissism, a gauge of bad personality. Vain people are constantly fretting about their skin, hair, clothing, shoes, accessories, weight, make-up and all other things shallow. They lack maturity and the stoic form of self-dismissal that deep, mysterious folk possess; you know, that uncanny ability to not care about frivolous things to do with oneself and always look at the bigger picture. It is a trait I admire almost as much as loyalty and courage.

The typical example of a vain person would be a Hollywood reality TV star whose more-or-less ordinary life is tracked down in stalker-fashion by a camera crew. We lounge on our sofas and watch as the beautiful lady’s life is examined through a camera lens, and click disapprovingly, remarking that there are more important things to be covered by the media, such as climate change and civil unrest, and why would someone have cameras follow them around every single day, that’s unbelievably vain, can you hear the shallow conversations they are having, all about diets and fashion, I can’t believe they make millions out of this show… Of course, we don’t explain why exactly we keep tuning onto the program.

So, in reference to above title, yes, I am vain. In fact, I get so vain sometimes that, as I’m walking on the street and I recall my moments of vanity, I stand still and recoil in horror and embarrassment, because I can’t believe I could consciously act so pathetically. The moments come rather sporadically. Take, for example, the time I posted my first edited photo on facebook. It was a rather nice-looking photo, made doubly pretty by the power of the editing app on my previous phone (I really miss that phone’s editing app), so I saw it fit to make it my profile picture. The minute it got on my facebook wall, I felt inexplicably nervous, as if I were awaiting exam results. I went to wash dishes and play guitar, and when I came back to check my phone, I had 30 likes. 30! In 20 minutes! I couldn’t help feel a sort of sheepish glee at this ‘accomplishment’. For the rest of the night (until I slept) and most of the following day, I kept on checking and re-checking my Facebook notifications for new likes.  It was sad, I tell you. I quite literally became obsessed with that little red pop-up box. By the next evening, my super photo had amassed 60 likes. And I felt like I’d won the lottery. I was on an all-time high; I was on an internet-induced cloud nine. And all this because of a photo. One lousy, facebook photo. It took a reduction in rate of new likes the next day and my friend’s 100-likes-in-an-hour (how is that even possible) new profile picture for me to jolt back to reality and realize I was being foolish and superficial.woman-taking-selfie-herself

Or the time we went for dinner, and I spent one and a half hours bathing and picking out my outfit, then another 20 minutes prettifying myself. We got to the restaurant late, and the food didn’t even taste that good, because I was too busy fretting about my hair(which I had not repaired in a while and roughly resembled a dead mongoose perched on my head) and my dress, which fit way too tightly around the waist meaning I had gained weight and now I was a fat fat girl and my skin which decided to sprout a ripe pimple right in the middle of my forehead to add onto my sunburn and my toenails which were just plain ugly, a problem exacerbated by the fact that I wore open shoes and had not applied polish… I’m not even exaggerating here; I made my mum take about 20 pictures of me and then scooted over to closely examine them and determine whether I was unbearably foul-looking or mildly unsightly, maybe even quirky, which can be taken as a positive.  Needless to say, Mum was mildly worried about my sanity. I look back at those photos and I wonder if I was high throughout the dinner, because my appearance was nowhere near as ghoulish as I was convinced it was. I basically wasted a perfectly good evening ‘cause of sheer vanity.

Vanity feels good most times, though. When I get a new set of braids-the neat, thick, long and shiny ones, made (painfully) in Kenyatta market- shinny loop earrings, a smashing dress and cute shoes, I can literally spend the whole morning in the room taking selfies for no one in particular, and swagger outside, feeling extremely hot for myself; I float on the ground, feeling of rather high importance and ranking in the world and glancing at passers-by with a smug look that shouts Mmmmh, ya don’t have to say it, I already know.

VAIN

That is, until I see someone who looks a hell of a lot better than me. Then I get mildly irritated, and I realize the irritation is jealousy, and that vanity can make me happy momentarily, but will never fully satisfy, because it wants more; more attention, more perfection, more admiration, more stares. It wants to be the most everything in the room. And I can never have it all. No one can. (An argument could be made for some notable exceptions). Vanity is a drug, a parasite. It is reasonably tolerable in small amounts, but if not controlled, it can take over one’s system and render him/her a slave to its shallow demands. Not to mention that it is painfully embarrassing to remember.

Don’t be alarmed, I’m not proposing we all dress up in sack cloths from now on and wage war on Reality TV Shows and Fashion Lines. As I said, vanity is an effective trigger of happy hormones (endorphins, for the fancy folk). Everyone appreciates looking good, and having his/her appearance admired. We need approval to live happy lives- not too much such that we become dependent on it, but enough to feel wanted. Vanity is not all evil.  After all, everyone harbors a bit of it. We all have that soft spot for social media popularity, fashion, looks, luxury and swag (Microsoft word dictionary says that the synonym for swag is ‘curtain’). All I’m saying is, let’s not let it take over our lives. Don’t be caught up by the number of likes you get on your Instagram or Facebook, or the number of retweets and followers you get on Twitter, because life is more than that. Get in touch with your deep side. Be self-dismissive sometimes. It pays to see the world through lens that are not pre-occupied with their owner.

 

 

 

ON BEING UNCONVENTIONALLY PRETTY( OR CONVENTIONALLY UNPRETTY)

First things first; don’t worry, I’m not fishing for compliments. I know such posts usually put people in an awkward situation. “This girl is calling herself ugly, now what am I supposed to say?” No, I am not trashing myself, or wallowing in self pity. I happen to regard myself quite highly, in fact. I just thought it would be good to give you a glimpse of the world through the eyes of an unconventionally pretty person. As a young child, I had  an abnormally high self esteem. I suppose all children are like that. I, literally, believed I could do just about anything. Sing in front of the church congregation? You bet I can! Bake a cake in a jam tin? It’ll turn out great! Write a composition? I’ll give you a Nobel prize winning essay! And along with believing I could do anything, I knew I could be anything.  My life plan(and I was dead serious on this) was to be a model-singer-writer-neurosurgeon-super mom.  Yes, it was. And was I pretty? Come on, I could probably knock that Miss World woman right off her throne. Well, then adolescence happened, and slowly but surely, that ludicrous optimism was shed, like autumn leaves, to pave way for a hefty serving of pessimism, with a seasoning of teenage angst and self consciousness. The voice inside my head, as I’m sure it did for many of you guys, spent countless hours convincing me that I would never be good enough. “Special? Hah, there are 7 billion people on this earth, how exactly are you unique?” Also, of course, came the age for awkward romance. At this point, I realized I was unconventionally pretty. There was a distinct difference between the way I was treated and the way particular friends were treated by boys. I doubt that I need to delve into details about what conventional beauty is. Just picture your typical pretty person. Yes, that is conventional beauty. It is not hard to pick out because it is agreed upon by a majority of the population. And the unconventionally pretty…that’s the rest of the population. The population that doesn’t get stares of admiration, or people who stammer when conversing with them, or reassurance that the guy /girl they like surely must like them back because, well, “look at this face.” So, this unconventional beauty, how did it work exactly ? The unspoken guide for us was to be outstanding in the background-to never delude ourselves into thinking we were conventionally beautiful, yet to be confident and not feel sorry for ourselves, because that would just be sad and embarrassing.  So with this invisible guide in hand, I set out to conquer life, albeit a little less starry eyed as I was before. I started off pretty bad ,I admit. I was engrossed in self pity, wondering why I had to be this way. I was the poster girl for low self esteem disguised by a cheery, sociable demeanor. Then, I realized, my unconventional beauty was not a curse. It also was not a gift. It was simply there, a part of me, that would not deter nor boost my dreams. I could either choose to let it engulf me, or to push it  aside and say, “Not now, I’m busy.” I chose the latter. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I guess what I’m trying to say, in many confusing sentences, is that I’m unconventionally pretty, and I survived. And I’m not just existing , I’m living. I hope you can all do the same.