He wasn’t supposed to sit at our table. He had followed George. You must know George. Everybody in town knows George. George is the life of the party, a barfly, snake oil salesman. Always in a Polo shirt. I bet his pyjama top is a polo shirt. They had met earlier at this other local where George had gone to meet another friend of his for nyama. I suspect George had roped him in with his glib talk, his classic gung-ho mantras of life, strung with beautiful turn of phrase. George is the type who says stuff like, ‘there is no glory in sex and money, but there is glory in falling in love with yourself.” Or, “only choose a life in which you forgive yourself.” Or “you are a blue globe spinning, going nowhere, a rock hurtling through space.” “Your heart isn’t an honest heart if it refuses to admit its truth, so what’s your truth?” A mishmash of metaphors, allegories, and rich rhetoric that only reveal the turmoils of his past and sometimes his present. He normally tells me these things whenever we are having a whisky and I write them down on my Notes on my phone because they make me happy and because one day I know he will tell me his story when he’s done pontificating.
He must have fed this guy his spiel, and the spiel must have resonated deep within him, because just like George, he was going through the wringer of life, buoyed by George’s lyrical prowess. So when George said, OK guys, off to meet some friends of mine at a local, this guy said he would not mind joining him.
And we didn’t mind having him. He was a polite guest. He respected his drink and the act of drinking, never letting it get the better of him. He respected the unseen pecking order of the table. He was amiable. Whereas most loud people expend all their energy in the moment, the calm ones store theirs, which adds to their layers of mystery. At some point he said ‘when I was mad’. He just dropped it casually in a conversation like you would say,”I think it’s gonna rain.” I don’t even think anybody took much notice, but I did.
As curfew loomed and the deejay packed his songs in his big box of music, we exchanged numbers. We Whatsapped randomly. In the following weeks he invited me for things that I couldn’t manage to go for because either they weren’t up my alley or I was out of town. I invited him back for a drink but he was busy with other things. One morning I texted him, “hey, why don’t we meet for breakfast you tell me about your bipolar?” He came with his laptop to show me videos he’d taken of himself during his manic stages: of him frenzied, talking to camera, a dusty Lilly(his offroad bike) and him on top of Mount Suswa, the wind whistling in the recording, him in Kilifi causing a royal ruckus, him in a tuk-tuk (rickshaw) talking about some inane stuff, him wandering aimlessly by the roadside in a maasai shuka and sandals, him in a car following a bodaboda with a woman at the back carrying her dead 11-year girl, him on a passenger seat videoing his pal crying about the dead child, him in an SGR with a bunch of strangers who he’s making laugh hysterically, him in a mental institution showing what a padded room looks like, in all of these videos he is talking and talking and talking and laughing . “That’s who I am when I’m manic.” It’s not the person seated before me.
He orders a coffee and a croissant and he leans back and says, “what do you want to know about my bipolar?”
“My dad died of AIDS. I remember him hosting parties, dinner parties in brightly lit hotels or carpeted restaurants or at home. Lots of people attended, some who I knew, others who I didn’t, people laughing, the sounds of glasses tinkling and spoons scraping plates and music in the background and his voice rising above this hubbub, strong and reassuring. I remember him coming back home late in shags after driving through the treacherous roads of Narok, the headlights of his car bathing the walls of the living room as he parked his mud-covered car, and I’d marvel at how heroic he was to make that journey in pitch darkness. I also remember him shrinking, getting frailer over the years as his sickness ate into him. Then one day I was picked up from school. He had died at home. When I got there they were just carting away the body. I was 14. I remember thinking, ‘Will things ever be the same again?” Things have never been the same, he’s the one who always held the family together.
How I found out that he had died of AIDS was ironic; a counsellor at school told me. Yes, I used to see a counsellor in high school. I attended a posh all-white missionary school. I was amongst the handful of “token” black students. When my father died, I struggled to pay school fees. I’d stay home a week or two after school opened, as my family put together some money. My life was an irony, being a poor black kid amongst rich white kids. I was battling insecurities and self-esteem issues. Unbeknownst to me, I also had bipolar. I had insane highs and pit-bottom lows. I didn’t understand them, I just thought that’s who I was. You are who you are.
To hide my insecurities I became a prankster in school. I hid behind comedy. I pranked these white kids. One day, on the fourth of July, the independence day of America, I burnt a flag. I had the knack for drawing a crowd. Students would gather around me because of my energy. I told stories. I rigged the students’ school elections and then gave a big campaign speech in the main assembly and stuck it to the administration. The students clapped and roared as I stood before them, punching in the air. In my state I was invincible, I was going to fix the school then I was going to fix this country then I would fix the world. I didn’t know I was in my manic state, a state of great delusions of grandeur, of psychosis, extreme energy and exaggerated thoughts. I was a general and I’d amass an army of faithfuls. Nothing I couldn’t do. No mountain I couldn’t climb. I could barely sleep, I was just vibrating constantly, looking for amazing things to do because I was amazing, I was greatness, I was the Pharaoh and the Chosen One.
I was later summoned and sat before ten white men, a kangaroo court of sorts. They glared at me and needled me with questions. Then I think someone realised, this boy isn’t well so I ended up in the school’s infirmary. The nurse injected me with what I later learnt was Dormicum. I blacked out. When I woke up it was dark outside. My uncle was seated by my bed. He said, ‘Hi, you will just be fine. OK?”
I will just be fine? I AM fine, I don’t need to sleep. I should be up saving this goddamn school and this county. I was injected again. I woke up the following afternoon with lots of light coming into the room. I was losing track of time. Was it Monday or Tuesday? Has the weekend come and gone? I sipped some water. Then I was in a car. I saw trees pass. And a hill in the distance. Then I was seated before a man, an ageing man I’d seen on TV, a famous psychiatrist. We were in his office. He had a grave look. He listened briefly, more to my family than me. And wrote a lot. I don’t know why I was being treated like a sick person. I said I was fine. Why were these people sitting here wasting time with me when we could save the world, where was the Tusker spirit? Why can’t we save Kenya instead of sitting here asking me questions? They said, just relax, just relax. A nurse pushed a needle in my vein.
When I woke up I knew I was at the hospital before I knew I was at the hospital. I smelled it. It was the same smell of sickness, of lurking death and of bruised life. My family was there, my sisters and uncle and people I don’t remember now. Over the next week they pumped me full of drugs; antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs. I became a zombie. I couldn’t feel myself. I didn’ have any feelings about anything. I couldn’t feel anything. Nothing made sense. My life had flattened. I could see my dad. He’d come back to life, he had never died. He was always around the corner or still in the car waiting for the opportune time to come and save me. I raised my hand and said, “Dad! Dad!” he looked at me, never answered but I was somehow assured that at the right time he would come!
I was sad and in a constant daze. I slept a lot. When I woke up I thought of sleeping again. Maybe the old doctor came to see me, maybe it was in my mind. They gave me more drugs, these ones more intense. There is a drug that makes your jaw lock hard and your tongue to stick out. Then they gave me another one to stop my tongue from hanging out. I felt helpless. After a week, I was put in a car because a normal hospital was not the best place for me to be treated. I sat at the back, I don’t remember who was driving. I don’t even remember if it was a car or a carriage pulled by horses. I rested my head on the seat and stared blankly outside. The landscape seemed stripped of colour. The trees lacked the green. The birdless sky looked dry. An endless grayscale.
I was institutionalized in a mental facility in Westlands. An ugly place with ugly metal doors. Other zombies walked about. A grown man was rocking and crying while seated on a sofa in a common room. The food was awful. The sounds of the night were like people dying, the end of the world. I was medicated all the time, I was numb. When we couldn’t afford it anymore I was moved to the village in Narok. Our home is on top of a hill. There are cows and goats. All around us spread farmlands. When it’s dry it’s dusty, during the rainy season everything blossoms. It’s astonishing how one place can have two personalities. Narok is bipolar. Like me.
I spent days on end in bed in my room or on the couch, never looking outside. My mother spoke to me like I was crazy. Visitors spoke to me like I was crazy. I did nothing but sit in a chair or lie on a bed. Pastors came and laid their hands on my head, mumbling prayers because this was the devil’s work. Uncles and aunts came and prayed for me. Some days I felt like a woman who had given birth, all those people coming to see me. I sat there looking blank, as if I was in a parallel universe. All these things I remember vaguely. People, faces, events. But I remember how it all came to an end. There was this old friend of my dad’s, a Maasai man who used to come with his rungu [which he eventually bequeathed to me] to visit me every morning and just tell me stories. We’d sit for an hour or so then he’d go. One day he told me, “you have to get better so that you can be the man around here. You are the only son of this boma, so you need to get better but you can’t get better if you are taking this medicine.” So I threw the drugs in the fire. I slowly got out of zombie mode. I started smelling food and feeling the breeze on my cheeks. When I looked at the farmland around, I felt something, a recognition of beauty.
When I got better I went back to school. It was very awkward. People pretended that I had never been unwell. You will break your leg and people will line up to sign on your cast, but not mental health. Nobody wants to talk about mental health. The school gave me one condition for getting back; see a school shrink every week and another shrink outside of school – Kenyatta market – once a month. I was on Camcolit, a mood stabilizer. I refused to take other drugs to stop feeling like a robot. I’d meet the counsellor guy in his office and sit on a wooden chair and spend time looking out the window as I spoke about my life to this white fellow. He’s the one who told me my dad had died of AIDS. I looked at him and said, “hell no, he didn’t,” he said ‘yes, he did.” I thought damn.
I finished high school. My friends all went overseas for further studies. I couldn’t afford to go to university so my mom held my hand and knocked on this door. It was my father’s friend, an Asian businessman. He runs a big business. She told him, “This is your friend’s son, he needs a job.” So the man hired me. They were in the motoring industry. I started off as a data entry clerk but I was smart, I spoke well, before long he moved me to his main office headquarters where I eventually became his assistant. The Asian guy kept me close. He was like a father figure. He taught me everything about business. We went everywhere together, he showed me the ropes of the business, let me in on trade secrets and all. He treated me like a son. And because we dealt with things automotive and my boss trusted me I would be rolling with top-of-the-range vehicles that belonged to them, and wining and dining in big restaurants and hotels. I would accompany him for pitches, with me standing before businessmen to present shit on oil and gas. We dealt in groundnuts from Uganda. We pitched in the UK, in Thailand, in Dubai. In Comoros, I presented to the President of the country. It was surreal! However even though I seemed to be rolling, I was 18, living with my sister and earning less than 10K. I was restless. I was lured by another guy who ran a bus company from Uganda, promised me 200K a month. I jumped ship, this guy never paid me a cent for two months and I went knocking on my former boss’s friend, who was in real estate. Oh and in 2012, I got married. This marriage didn’t work and as a result it caused me great pain and instability. But this isn’t about my failed marriage.
At this new gig in real estate, the boss took me for training in Italy and Poland. I was thriving until I got greedy. I tried to undercut my boss by poaching one of his clients who was going to pay me many million shillings to do the job. The boss found out. I was out in the cold. But I had skills gathered over time so I opened my own shop in 2013. I built the business slowly over the next few years or so and the staff grew to thirty. But not everybody is a businessman. I’m not a businessman. I was making bad business decisions. I was paying 150K in rent for the business premises. I was turning over money but with nothing to show for it. Covid hit in 2020 and it decimated our business. I let go of my last 8 staff members. Then I met a fellow who said he’d pay me to make hand wash stations. I activated an old company and got cracking. He paid me good money. Then he ordered more, an 8-million job. I rented a place in Industrial Area, built a small operation that would produce 1000 handwash stations a day. We were in business.
Then success got to my head. Or maybe it’s the disease that was already in my head. Over time I had figured out when my manic stages were coming and I’d take off to the village and spend a week or more just locked up there, doing nothing, not talking to anyone, not doing anything, phone off. Sleeping. When I felt confident enough to come back I’d come back to Nairobi.
I know I’m manic when I start telling people truths. When I start speaking my mind without fearing hurting people’s feelings. When I start feeling that I know more than the next person and that there is absolutely nothing I can’t achieve. When the success of this job got to me I imagined I was destined for something bigger and better. So I announced an expansion. I called an event. I invited our biggest client and a pastor friend of mine, family, friends and employees. In the videos of the event I’m giving a speech and I’m crying. I had started experiencing my manic stage weeks before. I know this because I was shouting at people, causing scenes, and dreaming up impossible ideas.
Not long after, I took an SGR to Kilifi with three friends. I was vlogging the trip the whole way. I met a band of people on the coach and we drank and laughed. A car company gave us a car to test drive. We drove to the beach. I took the car to a guy who I knew would make a car fly. I insisted on taking his two dogs for a walk and lost one who was never found. On a drive we saw a woman who was carrying a child to the hospital on a motorbike. I told my friend who was driving, let’s give that woman a lift. Turns out the child was long dead. We cried. This sent me into a deeper state of mania.
At the house where we were drinking I saw a guy I didn’t know and I asked someone who had invited this guy to this house. I was mad. I stormed out at night and walked for 4km to the roadside where I checked into a hotel. I woke up and they told me the hotel didn’t serve breakfast so I went to a kibanda where I met a madman seated outside. I tried talking to him. I eventually made him my friend. I told him, “those idiots I was with invited strangers to my house. I’m leaving them, I’m going back to Nairobi.” Only I didn’t have my ID. I went to the cop station to get a police abstract and they referred me to a Huduma center where I got one in record time. I vlogged about that. I talked about changing this country. How much we can do to save our country.
I tell the Huduma guy, you are a great man, Kenya needs more of you.” I vlogged all these things. I took a tuk-tuk to Malindi, it was over an hour. I talked to the driver while I vlogged. I wanted to recruit him into this army that would save this country, an army of do-gooders, of ethically upright people, people with a conscience. The driver told me stories of the Mjikenda people, he was no army man. At the airport, I started talking to a random rastaman. Then I started talking to airport cops, 10 of them gathered around me to listen to my social manifesto. They were so impressed, one carried the small knapsack I had.
When I landed in Nairobi I went to my local church. I found three pastors there, and I told them my story. I asked them, do you think I’m crazy? They said, no, but you need some rest. The next day I go to a funeral in Nyandarua. I wrote a eulogy. I ditched the funeral. My sister, who I hadn’t spoken to in years, called me. I got back to Nairobi. I later remember walking to Ngong Road in sandals and a Maasai shuka, all the while Vlogging. My sister and uncle found me. Things got blurry. Maybe they lured me. Maybe there was an ambulance. But I remember the trip to the mental institution where they took my blood pressure, it’s above 200. I was then given Dormicum and put on a padded room like a crazie so that I don’t kill myself. They didn’t know I didn’t want to kill myself. I just wanted to save this country.
When I woke up, I banged the door. I want to go back home, I shouted. You can’t hold me against my will. They moved me to a different room. More drugs. Sleep. More drugs. I started hiding some of them under my tongue. I didn’t take the other cocktail of drugs they give me, because I know where they take me, they make my tongue hang out, they stiffen my jaw, so I take Camcolit only. I wanted my laptop and phone. I threatened them with the law if they didn’t give me my laptop and phone. I get better. I really do. I was discharged after a week. When I left the place I went straight to the cop station and reported the crime. I told the cops that I was abducted, institutionalized in a padded room against my will. The cop asked me, did you run away? I said from where? From the hospital? I said, yeah! He refused to write my statement.
When I come out I learn of a coup, a mutiny, at work. My partner had told our biggest client that I smoke too much weed and can’t be trusted. I tell my mom that I never want to see my sister and her hubby. My mom feigns ignorance when it comes to my sickness. She never discusses my situation. People walk on eggshells around me. My uncles talk about it behind my back. My psychologist told me that to get better I had to leave my flat which was like a frat house. I found a house in Tigoni and when I told the landlady that I had mental health issues, she changed her mind.
When you have mental health issues, you lose work, many people write you off. Your family talks behind your back. You lose friends. I have lost a lot of friends. When I’m in my mania stage I’m very vocal and maybe rude. I’m delusional. But I know how to handle it. I go away to Narok, on the farm and I lock myself there till that tide passes, that’s what I do. It’s always either depression or mania. When I’m depressed I don’t move, I stay in the house. I’m sad asf. I can’t work. I can’t think happy thoughts, I just stay alone. When I drink or smoke weed I either get depressed or become manic. Alcohol is the trigger. When I’m drunk and depressed I will sleep on a table at the bar. When I’m manic I will be the most interesting person. Why don’t I stop drinking? Because life is boring without booze.
I met a girl I have been dating for a while now. One day I was on a four-way call with some people and I was in my manic state and she sat there listening to my phone conversation with that who-the-frrk-are-you look. When I hung up she asked, how can you speak to those people like that? I told her that I had bipolar. She didn’t talk to me for a few weeks. I went looking for her because I liked her. I explained to her what the disease was about and what medication I can get. We started dating. A year now. I want kids though I’m not sure I can take care of a kid if I can’t take care of myself.
Why don’t I take my medicine? Because medicine flattens my life. There is no color or excitement. They are also costly. When I’m on meds I just sit in the house doing nothing, but I can’t afford to just sit in the house because someone has to pay that rent and guess who that is? Yes, the person just sitting in the house. Money is a trigger for me. When I’m broke I get really depressed, I sit in the house thinking. But when I have money to burn, perceived success causes my mania. I can’t stay still.