This is how I started running. When I was a younger strapping man with a stronger back, and at my first job, I lived in the extension of a corner house in Mountain View estate. The landlady was a very kind South Sudanese lady married to a very mysterious German with twisted whiskers who was always away. They were both always away. [Including the whiskers, yes.] She worked in Geneva with a UN body. He worked for Doctors Without Borders, and so did his whiskers. They had three massive dogs; two elegant German Shepherds and one really badass dog that was half Mastiff and half something that I always presumed to be Lucifer. Those dogs breathed like cows. Fearsome but very lovely beasts. To hold the fort and take care of the household while they were away shaking the bushes was a Congolese fellow called Santa. Yes, like the white-bearded chimney guy. He was a squat and compact fella with a strong, manly face. The kind of face that can sell anything from shaving razors to a national party on billboards. A soft-spoken gentleman. He was the one who took care of her kids and the dogs. I was in my mid-20s and slightly on the heavy side. I didn’t do shit because I had my metabolism do shit for me. I ate everything. I ate late. I drank sodas.
I am naturally an early riser, and most dawns I’d hear the dogs whimpering and whining as Santa talked to them in his low, musical voice. They were the kind of dogs you talked to. They spoke fluent French. Santa would say, “Ça Va?” and the dogs would bark “Bien” right back at him. After locking them up he’d go for his obligatory run. He ran each morning no matter the weather or season. As I left for work at about 6:30am, I’d meet him stretching outside the gate having completed his 10kms. He’d always invite me for the next run and I’d tell him, naah, Santa, I’m good. I’m young. I have a great metabolism.
When I started writing for a men’s magazine, on the first week, the editor [Oyunga] called me chubby which – although it stung my ego – was something I already knew because each time I went up the staircase I could feel my ass jiggle a little…not a lot, just enough for me to feel mortified. But I ignored it because there were worse things happening in the world at that time. [It’s the year Fidel Castro stepped down]. But sometimes you just need one person to tell you the raw truth to get off your [jiggly] ass. So I decided to do something about it. I joined Santa on his next run, and I never really stopped running. Running is addictive. You start with 3kms then you do 5, then 10, 15. You keep pushing the envelope, buying better running gear, obsessing over your time and pace and technique. Before long you are knee-deep and are signing up for half-marathons. The more sane people stop at half-marathons but the real whackos start running full marathons. I think it’s a special brand of madness to run full marathons, because you have to train weekly, which means you have to run like 15 to 20kms almost every other day and that shit just melts your flesh off your bones and before long your face looks like something that can be used to warn trespassers of the presence of an electric fence.
The natural progression was to join a running group, just a dozen or so people who would run every Saturday. The group became inconsistent at some point and died so I joined another group.
It’s in this group that I met Nimo*.
Over post-run breakfasts, she’d drop morsels of information suggesting that she had gone through a divorce and that running had saved her. Things come out of people who are healing or transforming, information wedged between unrelated sentences like plants growing on walls. We ran together as a group for a year or so before the group was killed by Covid. After that, I started boxing for a year at Arboretum, run by a brute of a former boxer called Ominde Live. That was great punishing fun, however, late last year I started travelling a lot and missing training and when you miss training and go back it feels like someone is performing surgery on you without anaesthesia so I slithered away. I started swimming this year and was shocked to learn that I couldn’t swim, not with my terrible technique. One afternoon a skinny guy standing outside the pool told me, while shaking his head, “You are not kicking your legs, your head is out of the water, your strokes are wrong, your body twists too much and your shorts are for walking the beach not swimming.” He said his name was Juma and he could help me stop embarrassing myself. So I signed up.
A few weeks ago I got invited to a swish party. Guess who I met at the party, in very white sneakers and ragged jeans, picking canapes with the tips of her fingers? Nimo. She was talking about relationships, something about 40yr olds [almost all the men there were in their 40s] being unable to wrap their heads around the current crop of liberated women like her. I was just coming out of a Daniel’s Fast, weak in the knees, celebrating with something very strong [whisky] and feeling gradually light-headed and buoyant like I had a helium balloon inflating in my thorax. I asked her if we could have an interview and that’s how we ended up at Tokyo restaurant a month later.
The centrepiece of Tokyo restaurant is an old tree that could be an Oak tree or not. It’s a big muscular tree. It towers over a garden dining area. It’s under this tree that she sits talking about her “period pimple.” Remember the young girl from last week, the one who was struggling with addiction and was perspiring because of her period? “A girl I interviewed last week also had her period,” I tell her, “It’s my period moment, it seems.”
“It’s better than the ovulation period,” she says, “It would be too hot for you to get any interview done constructively.” She’s wearing very white sneakers, different white sneakers. They aren’t new. Her DM scrubs everything very clean, she explains, including her walls.
She got married at 27. Big wedding. “The talk of town.” She was three months pregnant when they got married. The guy was four years older, a colleague at a blue-chip company. “He was the one who interviewed me for the internship job. Very cute guy. I like cute guys.” Courtship included a lot of weekend drinking. He was a spender. “I’d go with my friends and he’d treat all of us. I got pregnant in December and by March we were married. He couldn’t do the whole out-of-wedlock thing because he was raised under strict Christain values, a clergy’s son.”
When she speaks of him, she has this wistful look that I inquire about, if it is still love. “I loved him very much. We are great co-parents.” A waiter sets salad starters before us in small bowls. The lettuce floats in a broth that is both sweet and tangy. “I think relationships break when a woman loves a man too much. A guy is supposed to love you more.”
”How do you figure?”
“Because he knows. Men know if you love them too much and they sit back and let you do all the work.”
Anyway, the marriage settled. They got babies. Her career also picked up. But then trouble started. “You can’t tell the true character of a man who doesn’t have money. You only get to know a man when they have money. Shit comes out.” Her husband got a swell job for one of the Fortune 500 companies, taking home over 1 million bob each month. Lifestyle changed; in came the luxury cars and the good clothes and the trips abroad in Business class. “Remember he’s a very cute guy and now he has so much money and he’s driving all these swanky cars and dressing great. Women were throwing themselves at him. Literally. I started seeing messages on his phone and hearing things, and when I asked he’d make me feel like I’m the crazy one. You men have a way of making women feel crazy.”
“How?” I say defensively, as if I was there to defend all men.
“He’d turn things around and make it look like what was happening was my fault, that I wasn’t giving him enough attention, that I didn’t talk to him like I used to, that I was always busy or whatever. Anyway, I soon discovered he was seeing this one girl from his office. And that girl became a thorn in our flesh for so long. Everybody knew that he was seeing her. We had common friends. One day she even sat with us at a concert with a group of friends, can you believe it? Sat right next to me and I had no clue it was her. The nerve. Anyway, this story dragged on and on, man. We had major tiffs about this girl.”
On his 40th she threw him a party. They were hosting a group of friends at a garden somewhere; barbeque, floppy hats and things. She was a good wife, running up and down, making sure everybody had a drink and something to bite, saying hello, handing napkins, talking about the weather or complimenting a garment, laughing at jokes. One of his good friends came over to where she was standing with her gin in hand and said, “By the way, I’m so happy because you have embraced what an African woman should do and this is working out.”
“What have I embraced?” she asked him.
“You have forgiven my boy for, you know, that transgression and let him be an African man and even allowed him to be friends with his exes,” he told her. She said, “What! I haven’t allowed anything, what are you talking abo-…wait, what?! What exes?” She looked around at the invited guests.
“This friend of his was truly something. In fact, when we were going through the divorce I ran into him at a reggae concert and he was all over me, telling me how pretty I am, how he has always fancied me, trying to kiss me. I was like, wait, hold up, I thought you guys are friends? My sister had to tell him to back off. In fact, I think I will tell my ex what kind of friend he is.”
Anyway, the marriage got rocky quickly after the 40th. There was a period of separation, a year or so, and then patching things up. There was therapy. More struggles. At around this time some young blood in the office started making eyes at her. He would compliment her along the corridor; say things about her dress. Her pants. In the lifts, his eyes would linger on her. He would say “I love your cheeks.” Or “those heels really elevate you, you are even more unreachable.” He would notice earrings and hair clips and the colour of her nail polish. He would say, “You have fantastic shoes. I haven’t seen the green ones in a minute.” So she’d wear the green ones the following day and hope to run into him. He was cute and young and energetic. “I liked the attention for a change. Someone was noticing me. Someone thought I was desirable, attractive. Someone wanted me!” She touches her hair. An affair started and it raged on for a while like wildfire until her husband found out one night, then the wheels started coming off slowly, and then quickly. It was pretty messy as these things go. A lot of harsh words, a lot of hurt words, a lot of gaping wounds and unanswered questions and obscene truths. “He was very hurt. Hurt that I had done the very same things he had done to me over the years.”
They both knew that the marriage had reached a cul-de-sac beyond which only lay mistrust, pain, horrible memories and blame. A decision was made and one day they sat down with the kids after school and told them they would be having two homes now; this house and dad’s house. One of the kids said, “Two homes? So cool!” She told them it didn’t matter, they were both loved very much. “I cried a lot after that conversation.”
“What were you crying about?”
“The loss of family, the very idea of it. You don’t get married expecting to raise your children alone. I wondered what people would say. Men can move on quickly and start dating, even get married, not for women. Mentally it messes you up. We take the burden of divorce harder than men. The stigma of divorce on the woman is just horrible. You are judged and blamed for breaking the family. It’s always the woman’s fault that a marriage ended. You are expected to be a saint and if you dare divorce it’s like the world is ending. You lose friends. I lost many of my girlfriends because I was now a pariah and they couldn’t invite me to the same spaces their husbands occupied. Never mind that these girls weren’t above reproach in their own marriages.”
She stops and takes a deep breath from that diatribe. She’s a bit upset. It’s such a lovely day to be upset. I look up the tree and point out at a branch that has intertwined against another branch. Nature is freaky.
Lawyers are like flies that settle on the fresh amputation of a marriage. And so there were lawyers and court sessions and nights of tears and insecurity. Nights of wondering if she would be able to manage alone. It was at this point that she discovered running. She bought running shoes and off she went, running away from her grief and loss but also from parts of her that she wanted to bury. “The only time I was truly alone was when I was running.” She ran early in the morning, past houses with darkened windows, families still asleep. She ran in forests, the trees listening to her thoughts. She ran with music and without music. She processed her life during those runs; asked questions: What really killed my marriage, what part did I have in it, why did he cheat, why did I really cheat? Was it just sex or was it more? Was I a good woman? Should I have married him because I was pregnant? She would wonder in the darkness of early dawn, the roads bare, the air sweet and cold, her lungs filling with it, her heart bursting with all manner of feelings; inadequacy, freedom, regret, gratitude, fear. “I often prayed during the runs. I prayed for myself and I prayed for my children and my family. Running was my therapy.”
They bring her a massive bowl of something called Katsudon; deep-fried pork pan-fried with egg and rice. I’m no fan of raw fish. I can’t stand the rubbery taste or the smell, which is weird because I love omena and tilapia and everybody thinks it stinks of fish. I perused the menu and settled on chicken wings.
Five years post-divorce and Nimo has three flower vases in her house. It’s a week after Valentine’s Day. They contain flowers sent by three different men, including a bottle of wine from her ex-husband. [They are on great terms. The co-parenting thing is working]. She’s having a dalliance with these three men. The men know of each other’s presence in her life. Two are younger men, one is an older man. They all send her flowers because she loves flowers but all the flowers in the vases are different. “Each man sends me the kind of flowers they imagine I like. You think you know a woman yet you don’t.”
I chew on my chicken wings and mull over this vase story because sometimes stories are metaphors. Nimo decided that she wanted to do her love life differently post-divorce. She didn’t want to commit to one man – for now. She wanted to have the freedom to be with several men. “Men I chose.” She holds up her index finger for emphasis. “We are trained as women to wait to be chosen, to be pursued. We are conditioned to wait. Wait to be approached, to be asked out. Wait to be taken for holiday. Wait in bed to be touched. The wait isn’t for me.” I have always had a problem with that. This waiting to be chosen. I wanted to have the power to choose a man I wanted to be with, to be the hunter, not the hunted.”
So how it works is that if she sees you at a party or bar or at a birthday and you look like her type [cute] and you look like you have some brains in you and you aren’t a psycho and she likes you, she will tell you that she likes you. She will tell you that she would like to go on dates with you, have fun with you but that it’s not exclusive, that she also likes other people who she can have fun with so you can’t catch feelings. You have to be cool. Is that the kind of party you want?
“I think we are not honest enough as people. I make it very clear at the beginning what this is and what it’s not about. So that I avoid the drama. I won’t commit.” She’s dating for fun.
She calls it sitting at the table of men.
She grew up with boys, a tomboy, she says. She was also very close to her father, the most central figure in her life. They moved to shags when she was a young girl. Her dad built the only stone house in the village. There was never any electricity or running water but there was love. They were the family that spoke Kiswahili. When they moved back to Nairobi all her ‘rs’ and ‘ls’ were knocking each other. She worked her way through that, cleaned up, worked hard in university, met the ex-husband and here we are. “The relationship you have with your father affects how you turn out and relate with men. My dad never treated me like a girl. There were never any tasks for girls and boys. I grew up knowing that I was equal.”
I take her back to these men.
“How do you get these men to agree to these conditions?”
“The problem is that when you tell the men these conditions they imagine you are talking about sex.”
“Are you not?”
She laughs. “You see! Typical.”
“This is not about sex. It’s about dating and choices. Some of these don’t even have to end up in bed. We can do a roadtrip and nothing will happen. We can go dancing and nothing will happen. If someone wants to hang out I tell them this weekend is for the other person.”
“And they are cool with that.”
She nods. “The younger men get it. The older men, men in their 40s like you, don’t get it. Older men your age want to own you. They are jealous. They want to ask you about the other man you were with over the weekend; how old is he, what car does he drive, where does he work, where does he live. I don’t divulge those details. The older ones are great with conversations, though. They excite me. The younger fellows make me feel young; they are spontaneous, they will say let’s drive to Naivasha, so I will wear shorts and off we go to Naivasha for good times.”
I want to say, of course they are spontaneous, they have a lot of idle time, but I don’t because it would be petty. And there is never any need to be petty over age because it’s not a static monopoly. I tell her that perhaps the older man is financially independent and is set in his ways and so doesn’t play ball easily while the younger fellows haven’t lived, have no baggage and perhaps are lured and enthralled by the fact that she is financially independent.
“Maybe so,” she says. “ But I don’t finance the younger guys’ lives.. I don’t pay their rent or buy them drinks. They have their own lives, they are doing their own thing in corporate but they just don’t like the stress of girls their age.”
I arch an eyebrow, like The Rock.
“The older men come from a different school of thought when it comes to women. Their idea of a woman is that a woman should be obedient, shouldn’t be too enthusiastic when it comes to sexual matters and should stick to one man even though the man isn’t sticking with only her. They want a woman they can control, it makes them feel safe. They are the type who will call and ask you, where are you? Excuse me? Even my mother doesn’t ask me where I am. I am a grown woman, I know where I am. Older men want perfect women. The younger men have embraced the new kind of woman because this is all they know.”
She’s unapologetic about her lifestyle. She isn’t lying to anyone, isn’t sneaking around living two lives. She is a hunter. She hunts what she wants. She will settle down and commit to one man one day, that day isn’t today. Or tomorrow.
Do you have a cracking story you want to share? Ping me on [email protected] with a paragraph or two of synopsis.
If you don’t have a story but just want to get DRUNK before THURSDAY, click HERE.