Never More Luo

In 2007/8, I wasn’t in Nairobi. I was working in Dar, far from the mess and watching it all on CNN. Things always seem worse on foreign TV, and it was heartbreaking to watch. I was crushed, suffocated, terrified, but only in my mind. I can’t begin to say what it was like for Kenyans who were actually here.

I wrote a few ‘political pieces’ expressing how I felt and received a little hate mail. I lie. I received one idiotic comment. He said I should get off my high across-the-borders horse and come face the music at home. I responded on email, calmly telling him I hoped his country never experienced what my country was dealing with.

After that, a bunch of people thought I was political. I was added to ‘elections blog’ lists and my blog posts were brought up in offline meetings. After a while, I deleted those posts because I didn’t like the attention they were bringing. I didn’t like the person they made me out to be.

This time, as I type, I’m in Lang’ata. It’s pretty quiet here, but yesterday and the day before, I could hear tear gas canisters and see the smoke from my bedroom window. I listened for a while, feeling it was my ‘duty’ to ‘witness’. It felt immoral to drown the sound with loud music while people were being gassed in their homes 500 metres from where I sat.

But then my teenager said she was hungry and went to the kiosk to get weetabix for breakfast. She told me to relax. She says I probably have PTSD because every time I hear a bang, I feel as though someone is holding a gun to my head. She said if I didn’t calm down, I’d give myself a heart attack. So I got a big bottle of juice, a bigger bottle of booze, and turned the music up loud.

I’ve never seen myself as a Luo. In fact, I’ve been accused of reverse tribalism against my own people, because I criticise ‘our customs’ so vehemently and make it a point never to date my tribesmen. I guess because despite what all my friends say, how romantic and suave they think Luo men are, how sexy the language is, I’ve seen the other side … and it isn’t pretty.

Though in fairness, my baby’s father is Kikuyu, and he did the very things I avoid Luo men for doing. And so … to generalise isn’t very clever. It’s like a stereotype. It is a stereotype. But stereotypes start in truth, and as I’ve watched my tribesmen, my relatives, the men I’ve been exposed to, I find it safer to pick my mating partners from the other 41 (?) tribes.

And yet this is me. The ‘Least Luo’ Luo that I know, and I’m feeling my blood begin to boil. I am noticing that Jubilee protests are unmolested while Nasa ones end up with kids dead in balconies and cribs. I am seeing people told to stay at home if they don’t want trouble, only to hear of people dragged out of their houses and shot. I am seeing trouble in Ongwaro, Kayole, nowhere near ‘traditional hot spots.’

I am feeling myself begin to get radicalised. I find myself asking questions. Questions like … even though jang’os are clearly being targeted, we haven’t swung into 2007/8 territory. Does that mean Luos were never the problem, even back then? Does that mean us Luos and our stones and arrogance are beings scapegoated for a deeper, more sinister problem, and that we’re embracing the scapegoatism and running with it? Does that mean it’s time to finally push back, in any way I can?

Again, this is me, the least jang’o, least conforntational person I know. So what about the people that are already time bombs? The ones that overtly declare their hatred for kyuks? What about the people in Kibera who know that every election season, the cops will come form them. Every time, without fail. Will they not sit back on the 24th and 25th and think – logically – that this time they would be prepared? That this time they would be ready with more than just stones?

Although in fairness, there are swords and there are guns …

It does feel like someone is deliberately trying to rile us up. Us Kenyans. The past few months have felt like people are trying to re-light the fuse of 2007/8 but Kenyans keep blowing it out. In our own quiet ‘peaceful’ inadvertent ways, we’re quelling the flame before it gets started. And so the agitators are getting smarter.

‘Dark forces’ tried to ignite anger in Kisumu, Migori, Kibera, Mathare. Shooting an eight year old. Clubbing a 6 month baby. Teargassing nursery kids. Nothing doing. And now suddenly … Kawangware? Kayole? Places where despite clear tribal groupings, things have never gotten to the national radar. Why suddenly now? Isn’t this a tad too choreographed?

This is the problem with political huffing and puffing. For them it’s just a show, but for us, the spotlight is real. To the political inciters, it may just be a strategy, but real people get killed. Real homes burn down. Real hatred gets stoked. And those divisions will continue for centuries to come.

I have heard it said that when you don’t know, don’t speak. I have heard myself get shushed as a keyboard warrior, a privileged pundit, a politically clueless lout. I’ve also heard those big people in big houses say ‘tuko pamoja’. They’re just like me, protecting their families the best way they know how. For them, power is a right, and all they are doing is defending their right, so if you’re in the way, shauri yako.

I don’t know what the words say, so feel free to translate #kthxbye

Here’s the thing though. When their rights get trampled, they throw tantrums, maybe lose a little money. When they lose a political seat, they have expensive shit to fall back on. And visas. And helicopters. But when we lose our rights, we die. Our kids fight each other in school, at work, on the roads. Livelihoods are compromised.

I am Luo. I will not say proudly, because that’s not something I feel. But I do feel Luo. For the first time, I feel Luo. And that’s an empty descriptor, because while my Luo-ness only leaves a painful feeling in my gut, the Luo-ness of my brothers and sisters is getting their homes burned and their babies shot.

My dearest friends are Kikuyu, as are my favoruite lovers. My feelings for them haven’t changed, and I defend and protect them as dearly as my own. Because they are my own. They are my people. And yet … if I am suddenly feeling Luo, what about those who have lived it – proudly – their whole lives? How far will they be pushed before they fight back? Is it so strange that a lot of them already are?

I will be told it’s not just the Luos. I will be told it’s also the Kisiis and the Luhyas. I will be told I am flaunting the privilege of middle class-ness and feminism and majority tribe-ness.  I will be told I am speaking from a point of emotion, that I should stick to my lane. I will be told I think too highly of myself, and that if I really care, I should put my body where my keyboard is. I should be on the streets, not on the screen. I will receive ridiculous, maybe even threatening responses. And I will say bring it. Bring. It. But beware, this bitch bites, usiseme hukuambiwa.

All that aside, here’s what I’m saying. When you push people, they push back. And even this Kenyan spirit of ‘accept and move on’ has its breaking point. I will say that we are pushing back on the wrong people. My Kikuyu lovers did not teargas nursery kids. My Kyuk landlord did not shoot up Kibera. My Kyuk best friends did not arm youth in Kawangware.

Speaking of Kawangware, it’s not about who started it or who will finish it. I can see Kikuyu business people being upset that their stores were torched, and calling in reinforcements. And I can see Luos feeling targeted and hitting at whoever it was that sat on their rights. What both sides can’t see is that they were all pushed and prodded and armed by big people with big money and big guns. And although few of these guys are online, and my words don’t matter to them, my words are what I have. They’re what I choose to use.

When all the shit is done, Kenya will still be here. I will still be here. My child will still have both Luo and Kikuyu blood in her veins. My lovers will still (mostly) be circumcised. And I will still surround myself with people who see past my tribe. Those of us who will be left, we will have to pick up, clean up, and keep moving.

I know that a lot of the online rhetoric comes from bots and influencers. I know this, because I’ve created some in the past, and I know the power they wield. I can’t do anything about the people on the streets, in their homes, or hiding behind uniforms.

But I can speak to anyone who’s reading, and I can say don’t react to the rhetoric. Do what you can do, even if all you can do is text a Luo / Luhya / Kamba / Kisii / Taita / Somali friend and ask them out for coffee after elections. Even if all you can do is tell them that between you, inside the ‘privileged space’ of WiFi and coffee houses, tribe and politics will not destroy your kinship.

And yes, some people will see this as an insult in itself. That people are burning and killing and dying and I think I can fix it with coffee. Well, I’m not on the streets. I’m here. And my people are here. And if all I can do is tell my people that they are still my people, then that’s what I will do. It’s not enough, but it’s what I will do.

In the meantime can we maybe look into changing the narrative? Take us Luos, Kyuks, and Kales out of the equation and let the ‘smaller tribes’ have a go at the top seat. Because honestly, I could do with a Dida presidency, just because. Aukot seems a little too political for the nation’s good, so let’s have the original githeri man for a little while. If nothing else, it’ll be a fun five years …

♫ Last Boat to Goree ♫ Soweto String Quartet ♫

Of demons and addictions

There’s a line from Lemonade that says ‘My torturer became my remedy.’ I don’t know what Bey was talking about, not really. We all assume it’s about Hov cheating and her choice to forgive him. In my case, I feel like it summarises my current state of toxic relationships.

I seem to keep stumbling into the ‘wrong’ people and falling or them hard. It’s like I’m drawn to the poison. Like I somehow think fixing their darkness will brighten mine. Except … we only drag each other deeper. I guess Bey is stronger than me.

I recently broke up with someone I liked a lot, because he had no time for me. And in true human fashion, the second I stopped wanting his attention, he felt the strongest urge to give it. He called to ‘see how I was doing.’ I asked why. He seemed upset that I didn’t want him checking up on me. I guess he figured he was ‘being nice’ to me and that I was ‘being a bitch’ for refusing. A bit like cat-calling … when I’m supposed to just take my compliment and go.

I suppose he’d be offended to be compared to a cat-caller. He’s a nice guy after all. Smart, educated, feminist, far above ‘ordinary men’. I find those are the scariest ones. The ‘enlightened’ ones who still exhibit hotep behaviour. Because I expect them to know better, to do better, so when they turn out to be just like any other guy, it scares me. It makes me think that maybe men really are trash. I know a lot of women have made their peace with that, but I refuse to exist in a world where every second person is out to harm me. I can’t function like that.

But just because I prefer to live in my own little bubble of ignorant bliss doesn’t mean it will protect me. Bubbles are fragile like that. I guess that’s why Ex Machina fucked me up so much. I was like Jeeezus, these are the smart ones! And they’re just as problematic as the ones in the village. Like, what the actual fuck?!?

There’s someone else in my life, someone I met recently. I feel safe around him, but I also feel destructive. He is a safe space, yes, but it’s a space of drunken haze, and … and how is that a good thing? Trust is amazing. But trust that goes with hedonism … is that who I want to be?

I’ve been meeting a lot of people like that lately. People who hide and escape in booze and weed. And sometimes, I escape with them. It’s … free-ing. Except … is that kind of freedom something I should indulge? I want to do it, yes. I want to shed the weight of propriety and responsibility I’ve carried since I was three. And so I’m drawn to these people that let me be that person, these people that don’t know me and therefore don’t judge me. They have no reference point to tell them how ‘unlike me’ this new footloose drugging version of me is.

And of course, it’s an escape. It’s me not dealing with my shit. For them it might be just some fun, a normal way of life. But for me, it’s hiding. It’s taking a vacation to a place where no one knows me. And because no one knows me, I can be as ratchet as I want. No expectations, no consequences. It can get addictive.

People have told me that I’m more fun when I’m drunk or high. Because I’m less intense, more chilled out and mellow. They get more comfortable when I’m in that easy state because I’m less … me. I don’t think it’s really compliment, even though it’s always framed as one. Because it says an intrinsic part of me makes them uncomfortable. Something about me is … in their eyes … wrong.

People who have addicts in their family are often extra careful with drugs. They know a part of that shite is genetic, so they’re wary about falling into patterns. But sometimes that wariness is interpreted as judgement. In protecting myself, others feel like I’m chastising them. And it doesn’t matter how much I explain that this is really about me, they’re always going to feel like I’m looking down on them.

One of the things I learned in therapy is that I need to deal with my feelings. It was a surprising revelation, because I consider myself a really emotional person. And yet … I’m only at ease with specific forms of expression. The rest I suppress until they implode. And I feel like this new ‘social escape’ is just another form of quashing troublesome sentiment.

When I’ve had a drink, I can break down and cry. I can get on a soap box and rant. I can grunt and moan louder than before. I can let my deepest demons out to dance. And it feels good. Really good. But if I can only do it when I’m drunk, then that presents two problems. One, that I’ll drink more and more in a bid to let those demons out. Two, that I won’t deal with said demons while I’m functional and sober. Which is a problem, because I’m a fixer, so I need those demons sorted.

I realise this is me overanalysing. I always get drunk and/or high by myself, in my house, with the doors locked, where I can’t bother anyone. But twice now, I have ‘shared’ the experience and enjoyed it. Got drunk with a smart boy that has a super sexy voice. Got high with another boy that cooks a mean stew and had me purring like an engine. And while it felt good, it didn’t feel like me.

As I feel a deeper craving for that drunk and high experience, I wonder if those are new parts of me, and whether they’re parts I want to keep. The natural instinct is to get back into that space. To stop all the analysing and just get drugged again. After all, the true goth story is about dark souls swimming together in the abyss, no? Except … goth (love) stories never have happy endings.

Plus that feels like a hole I could sink into and never find my way out, so another part of me wants to take off screaming. Except … isn’t that just running away? Is that who I am now? The kind of person that just runs away?

I ran away from ice skating lessons. I’ve wanted them for years, and I finally went. But it wasn’t fun. I tried it for five hours and realised I no longer enjoyed it. Maybe it was the pressure of having to learn within a week. Maybe I’m no longer the kind if person that likes skating. Maybe I’m too tightly wound up to let myself go on the ice.

I learned the basics. I can stand on the ice without falling. I can maintain my balance. I can move in plodding half inch steps. But I couldn’t get past that, even after five hours, and I decided I didn’t even want to. That and my teacher was pretty fed up with me, so yeah.

It’s okay to sip a few drinks or smoke a few puffs to take the edge off. My fear is how much I enjoy being in that space, how free-ing it is to shed said edge. That edge that’s been so constant and so heavy that I didn’t even realise it was there until it got lifted by a drunken haze.

I’ve always described myself as having an addictive personality, and I suppose as much as I enjoy floating in that happy space everyone else seems to achieve so effortlessly, I’m genuinely concerned about picking up a new addiction. So as good as it feels to be all drunk and high, I need to find a gentler form of release.

♫ Amazing ♫ Blue October ♫

♫ What’s been up man ♫

♫ how’s your daughter? ♫

She’s good, thanks. Now for the goss. In terms of my career, June has always been big. For one thing, a lot of my work came through a childhood friend named June. She’s a really cool person, actually.

In June 2006, I interned at Kwani Trust. A few weeks later, I got a job at Oxford University Press, Tanzania. It was kind of a big deal, because I never got round to finishing my degree in Literature and Music, so I didn’t think I’d ever get a job in publishing. The experience had lots of ups and downs. I’ll write about them one day, but not today *cheeky grin*

In June 2011, I got into the advertising business with a job at Squad Digital. It was a copywriting gig, and mostly involved running Facebook and Twitter accounts for corporates, plus the odd website and online video script. Then in June 2012 I moved into ATL (That’s Above-The-Line Advertising, not – you know – Atlanta). I worked at TBWA / Flametree / Red Herring / Right Here Kenya. Same boss, different terms. Made some good money, did some cool work, met some great people, learned to smoke and drink. Advertising will do that to you.

In June 2017, I went back to full-time freelance writing. I get my jobs through and the occasional referral from people I used to know. A few months in, I’m still enjoying it. Bills are getting paid, I get to nap more, and I’m home when the teenager’s school bus arrives. I’m not overly isolated, because it’s girls’ night every Tuesday and date night every Friday. Plus I skate most Mondays and swim some Thursday mornings so really, life is good. The only downside is with the fridge so close, I get the urge snack a lot. I’m trying to swap cookies and ice cream for carrot sticks and cucumber slices. Wish me luck with that.

… before and after …

When I first got into advertising, I thought I’d be doing stuff like this and this. It didn’t really work out that way, but it did remind me that media affects our lives. Yes, I know that’s a given, but for someone who doesn’t think the TV controls me, it’s a bit jarring. Like, for example, how Ally McBeal taught me that when you love someone, you have their heart forever, even if they fall in love with someone else and trick you into thinking it’s your fault. Because in retrospect, Billy was kind of an asshole, but scripting still makes me think he (and McDreamy) are nice guys.

Fortunately, life doesn’t always imitate art, and I finally found myself a genuinely nice guy, who just happened to be super smart, and pretty too! I guess love really does find you when you’re not looking. I had his affection for a little while, and he tried to indoctrinate me into bougie baddie, pun intended. It didn’t work out because … well … med school is hectic, and I wanted more time than he had. I learned a lot from him though. About life, about  relationships, about myself. And I really did like him. But it turns out affection isn’t nearly enough to keep people together.

At the beginning of this year, I was feeling a little lost. But somehow everything has worked itself out nicely. I still get low cycles, but I’m mostly happy. I have an amazing daughter, a nice house, a healthy pay-cheque, entertaining cats, colourful fish … and I’m blogging again, so yay! Life is good.

A few years ago, this would have been my cue to panic. Whenever things were going too well, I’d look around to see what would go wrong. And of course when you expect things to go wrong, they do. So now I’m trying something different. I’m expecting things to stay right. Because 36 is looking amazing, and life’s too short whine.

♫ Midnight decisions ♫ Sia ♫