He snuck in like the men in movies do; blown in by the rain, from the urgent embrace of darkness, the bill of his cap pulled furtively low over his face. I was seated in a booth at Baraza Media Lab, and suddenly he was standing over me, brought in by the lady from the main desk who announced him by his real name, not the one he had used on email. He was fashionably dressed, wearing a denim shirt over a t-shirt, distressed jeans and Chukka boots. Two beady heads of his earphones dangled from the neck of his t-shirt, gulping for fresh air.
We had been talking about masturbation by email for a few weeks. Then we exchanged numbers and talked about it some more on WhatsApp. It’s my first time – to my recollection – to ever talk about masturbation with another man. It didn’t feel strange or odd. We could have been talking about pigeons. But now he was here and we had to talk about it face to face and I remember thinking, OK, it will be strange if I ask for detailed descriptions.
I led him to a small intimate lounge area against the glass walls with low comfortable settees. He sat facing Riverside Drive and avoided eye-contact for the most part. You can talk to someone on email for so long but when you finally meet them the image you had of them is often upset. Some people sound so large on email but when you meet, their hands are so small. Some sound so meek on email but in person you are surprised at how much space they displace with their presence. Of course he wasn’t what I expected. I expected a delicate-faced person, someone sorrowful. Maybe a little taller. He had a face that looked chiselled by a very heavy tool. His cheekbones looked like someone hurriedly buried two diamonds under his skin but didn’t cover them well. They bubbled from underneath his skin. He had a strong face, a masculine face even without any noticeable hair on it.
We went through the usual niceties. He had been travelling around a lot and couldn’t meet up earlier. A freelance photographer, he’s led by tragedy, by the thirst of his camera lens. He once worked for mainstream media but threw in the towel a year or so ago because he’s not very good with authority, because he’s an artist. Now he works for himself, which means he works harder and longer. He’s constantly stalking bad news; riots, deaths, exhumations, blown up KDF trucks, women and children buried in farms, murders, floods, accidents. The camera loves terrible news and that’s what he sells to international news agencies. He sees life in the form of frames. The money’s not too shabby. “The trick is your reaction time,” he told me. “The faster you get to the source of news the more you will earn. You have to get the photos nobody else has.” He uses many cameras but he favours the Nikon D850 and a plethora of lenses that he stuffs in his massive bag like hand grenades.
When we finally got around to talking about the elephant in the room, we couldn’t call it by name. We called it “this thing.” Rather, I did. I said, “so, when did this thing start?” It felt as if we were addressing a cancer, which we might as well have been, seeing as it’s ugly when it gets a life of its own, spreading from his body to his mind, polluting it…something you want to amputate and bury on a farm of rocks.
“I’ve always done it,” he said. “As far back as I can remember.” He started masturbating in primary school, he did it through high school, through university, through his first job and second job, through his new job, through the very seldom girlfriends he had with names he can barely recall. Now he masturbates daily. “Sometimes four times a day when I’m very busy.”
He has masturbated everywhere; in matatus, in church, in the washrooms at work, in the washrooms in planes, in friends’ toilets, in a pantry, in public toilets, in the club at 2am as a girl waited for him in the parking, in dark balconies, behind a tree with a thick trunk, in pricey hotel rooms and cheap motels with stained windows….everywhere. It’s a sneeze he can’t stifle. Like a junkie and his fix; every moment he gets, he finds a secret place and he unzips his pants and he masturbates.
“But as soon as I’m done, even before I’ve zipped up my pants, I feel terrible,” he said. “I feel so bad, so defeated.” He has wanted to stop for many years now but the addiction just won’t go away. “It controls every minute of my life. Every second. And it has greatly affected every part of my life and now I live under great stress, I’m constantly fatigued, as in tired like someone who worked in a field. And overwhelmed with guilt and I feel depressed as a result of the evil act.”
“Why do you call it evil?” I asked.
“Because it is. It’s not normal. I know it’s not, ” he said. “It’s like a curse of sorts. I really don’t want to, but I find myself doing it. It can’t stop.”
Very small things trigger him. A short skirt on a woman and a flash of skin. A clinging dress that accentuates the ebb and flow of curves. A leg. A flicker of cleavage in an elevator will spark a fire in him. A flash of memory of the area around a woman’s navel. Tittie Tuesdays on Twitter. An advert on television. A billboard featuring a scantily dressed woman. Tik Tok videos of women dancing in hot pants. Instagram with its temptresses on beaches and making smoothies in their underwear. It’s everywhere; women, skin, sex.
“Once I see something, it could be something small, my mind will be immediately distracted and I will not think of anything else but finding a place to do it fast. I once worked in an office, and sometimes my colleagues would be downstairs waiting for me in the car to leave for an assignment while I’d run off to the loo to do it,” he remarked. “You know how when you use the bus to coast and it stops at Mtito Andei and guys get off and smokers try to smoke quickly before jumping back on? I will be the guy going to do it quickly in the loo before we get on the bus. It’s like a drug addict who will do anything for it. And I can’t seem to stop. I have tried everything to stop, everything, but it won’t stop.”
It’s become so frequent it’s affecting his body. “I feel constant pain in my penis. I get bruises. I feel pain in my body. I feel pains here,” he points at where his lymph nodes are around the groin, neck, armpit area, “I am fatigued all the time. My job is demanding and I’m also travelling and coupled with this I’m constantly tired. I feel like I do nothing with my life because this thing possesses my whole mind. I’ve developed back pains because often I bend slightly forward when I do it. ”
“How many times a day now?” I asked.
“Way more than five times.” He paused. “You know, when I was younger I’d recover fast, now it takes me a few hours. It’s like my system can’t take it anymore. My body is telling me it’s tired but my mind won’t listen. This thing has completely fucked my mind. I feel ashamed, you know the deep shame? I feel regret. I hate myself each time I do it. But then I do it again and feel regret and shame and then I do it again, so it’s like I’m going round and round.”
There was that time he sold his smartphone and bought a kabambe, hoping that it would keep him away from social media. (But then there was television, women in the office in dresses…). His phone always seems to send him suggestive websites and he keeps blocking them but it keeps sending more.
Every year it has featured as the first item on his new year’s resolution and every year he has failed to stop it. “I have scrawled, in block letters, the words ‘I WILL NOT DO IT’ across the wall in my bedroom.’ so that it’s the first thing I see when I wake up but that hasn’t helped.”
It’s still there, written on his vision board. He has gone to kneel in front of the pulpit during church service whenever the pastor or priest asked for people with special prayers to come forward. “Many men of God have placed their hands on my head, Biko. Many.” Because he travels a lot, wherever he is on a Sunday, he will walk into a church, any church at all even though he is a Protestant and he will pray for this thing to go away.
He had a fairly decent childhood. Stable home. He grew up going to church every Sunday, he still does. However, when he was in class four or five they had a househelp, a plus-sized woman who, he told me, he would often share a bed with. “Each night, she would try and force my erection in her but she was so big it was always a struggle.” He doesn’t know if this contributed. I don’t know either.
“How do you relate to women?” I asked him.
“I don’t get along with women much,” he said.
He wrung his hands and looked straight ahead. “I’m always at loggerheads with them. There is always something they will do that will set me off. I have always had a pretty bad temper.”
“Towards women or just generally?”
“Generally, but I tend to fight with women more.”
“What do you fight about?”
“Small things, it’s the small things that set me off.”
He gives an example. When he goes to a café with a male friend and a waitress comes to take his order, he says he usually gives his friend the order to relay to the waitress.
“Why?” I ask incredulously.
“I don’t know, because if I address her directly she will say something that will irritate me. And I will be annoyed.”
He has always been angry, he told me. Even when he was in primary school, he’d get in flare ups with the teacher and walk out. He’s seeing someone about his anger, two people, a psychologist and a psychiatrist at a mental health hospital in the city. “They tell me I have ADHD. I took the drugs and they reacted with me.”
“Have you told them about this other problem?”
“Because they are treating me for anger issues, not for this problem,” he said.
“But they could be related.”
“How can they be related? He asked.
“I don’t know, but everything is related, man,” I said. “ Just disclose this problem to your therapist, you will be surprised at what they say.”
“Hmm,” he said. His jaws moved but no sound came out of his mouth.
His confidence to satisfy a woman is at an all time low. He’s afraid to even attempt intimacy. The thought of a naked woman before him, presenting her body for pleasure fills him with dread and foreboding. He’s gotten so used to satisfying himself that he’s not sure he will allow himself to be satisfied by a woman, or vice versa. Masturbation has cornered him and corroded his confidence in sex.
In the last three years he’s had sex twice with a woman. He met the first one on a hook-up app called Tagged. She came over with big hair and a short burgundy dress that floated way above her knees like a very bad intention. He couldn’t get an erection. “She tried everything but I couldn’t just rise,” he said softly. “She was concerned, of course and I made excuses. Told her I was tired from work. That I was very exhausted from the work trip. As soon as she left I pleased myself.” The second girl lives in the next apartment block. He managed to get an erection this time for a duration of time but couldn’t get to the finish line even though the whole stand was cheering him on. When she left, he pleased himself.
“Women show interest in me a lot, but I’m scared of taking it any further because I know how it will end. I know they will be disappointed.”
He’s going to be 32 years old this year and he’s worried. His parents have started wondering why he isn’t settling down. He wants to settle down. “I can’t just be running around making money for myself, for what? It feels empty, making money for the sake of making money. I feel like it’s time to do more with my life, to start a family,” he said. “But I’m scared of getting into something with a woman because I know I will not satisfy her sexually. I just know it. And what use is a marriage like that?”
“This can be fixed,” I urged him.
“Yeah?” He seemed sceptical. “How?
“There are people who specialise in these kinds of things. People with worse problems have recovered; degenerate alcoholics, sex addicts, people who were sexually abused as children, Kleptomaniacs. People heal.”
He hasn’t told anybody else about this problem. He keeps it all under his hat. It’s his embarrassing secret, his ball and chain. And he’s tired of dragging it all over. I asked him what compelled him to email me.
“To see if there is someone out there who has or has had the same problem like this. I feel like I’m the only one who has this problem,” he said. “And if there is someone who’s had this problem and recovered I want to know what they did. Because I’ve run out of ideas. I’ve tried everything and it’s starting to affect my health.”
I walked him to the lift. “I was so afraid I would run into someone here who knows me, then they’d know it’s me in the story,” he said as the doors pinged open.
We shook hands and the lift swallowed him and I remember walking back thinking, don’t sanitise your hands just yet, that would be an arsehole move, give it five minutes.
There are no announcements here today. The Writing Masterclass is full. Winter seems to be here so you can wear the sweater your grandmother crocheted for you. Don’t throw trash out of moving cars. Almond milk is a marketing scam. [email protected] In case you want to whisper something in my right ear.