I’ve known Dickson Migiro for many years. We were once young lads working as feature writers for ADAM Magazine…good times, those. Dicky is one of those guys who leaves a lasting impression on everybody he meets; charming, engaging, irreverent, funny and smart. An uber bullshitter. Still, Dicky was always the heart of the party and over time he became what a flame would be to a moth; you stepped too close you got charred. While the rest of us might come close to the edge and step back, Dicky would happily plod right on. His debauchery knew very few bounds with his biggest Achilles Heels being alcohol. He was up to his chin in that stuff. It consistently brought down everything around him like a house of cards but he ploughed on because Dicky was always assured of nine lives. Consequently, it was always prudent to have him at arm’s length. He was too intense. Too unhinged. He was like a strong medicinal dosage; strictly take one tablet a month, anymore and no one would be responsible for what harm may come to you, least of all himself.
The past year or so we lost contact, an occasional phone call maybe. I saw him once running around town with some flashy loaded Sudanese chaps then he sort of went under the radar. But like a bad penny, Dicky always turned up. Sure enough, last week he called me out of the blue; “Biko, I’m in Kilimani, are you in the office?” He swung by in a flowing Kanzu and that big Dicky smile. It was great to see him, his cheeks had filled out nicely. He had a sparkle in his eyes.
He said he had quit booze. “No shit,” I said cynically. He said he was turning his life around. That he was Muslim now. Then he talked about his past; a deep hole of hurt, confusion, mayhem and addiction. Powerful shit. As he spoke I opened a fresh Word-doc on my laptop and told him, “Why don’t you write that story down, 2,000 words maximum?” For the next hour and half, we sat in silence, the only sound in the room being the incessant pecking of the laptop, a drumming tale of the devils he triumphed over, the demons he once danced a merry tango with. When he was done he was at 4,000 words. It was beautiful and honest and haunting. I sent it to my unpaid copy editor, Vicky, who I asked if we can chop it off to at least 3,000 words and she said, “Let’s not.”
Dickson stands here in his nakedness not because we are better than him as men – because we aren’t – but just because he’s passed the point of judgement and is staring at redemption.
But before I let Dicky grab the oars of this vessel, I’d like to wish one lady a happy birthday. Happy Birthday Naomi Njoki Ngugi of LLB – Kenyatta University, now working at William and Co Advocates in Nyeri. Your pal, Claire Muriuki, inboxed me saying that you two have been great and dedicated fans of this blog since you were in Form 2 in 2011 (gulp) and that it would absolutely make your day if I threw in birthday wishes here. Well, Happy 20th Birthday (I can’t believe there is someone actually turning 20!) and may your 20’s bring joy, and well, moderation.
OK, without any further ado, Gang, meet Dickson Migiro.
A Drop of Love:
The conversation began in that kind of roundabout manner that we are all familiar with. The setting – my cousin’s house; the topic of conversation – as yet unknown. I had braved a special kind of Nairobi traffic to get here. That unnecessary jam caused by overlapping cars. The one that makes you want to come out Transformer-style and mow all the useless drivers to the ground. The only thing that had kept me sane was the bottle of Absolut that I had in the back seat. From time to time, I would take a sip, feeling the liquid sear my lips then my throat and finally exploding in my tummy. It felt good. It felt comforting, it was vodka. And vodka was my sanity.
I was ushered into my cousin’s place by a house girl. She smiled and asked if I had eaten. I said I had, which was a lie and she said my auntie was sitting in the living room. I walked in, auntie was holding her grandchild in her arms. The little tot was the definition of ‘sleeping like a baby,’ and slept through most of our initial conversation. She called out to the house girl to make me tea, got up and took the sleeping baby upstairs. I sat there in the living room looking at everything and nothing. Citizen TV was on. Lillian Muli was talking about something. All I wanted was another shot.
My Auntie came back downstairs, went into the kitchen, served me a mjengo portion of ugali, coloured greens (sukuma wiki) and beef stew. She plonked it in front of me, sank into a leather couch and commanded ‘Eat.” I did. I had to. Ever since my mother died when I was 20, she had become my mum. I ate, she watched me in silence. My time in the British Army had taught me that chow time was chow time. I forced myself into chow mode and ate in record speed. I took my plate to the kitchen, I have never been one to be waited on, washed my hands and had a drink of water wishing it was a shot of something more fiery.
I walked back into the living room, squared my shoulders and mentally prepared myself for the talk. I knew my Auntie, she would not have summoned me if it was not important. “I would like to talk to you Dicky,” she began. “I have spoken to everyone and I mean everyone in the family and they have all concluded that you are a lost cause, but I said I would like to try one last time.” She fixed me with her no nonsense look. I squirmed. This was going to be painful. She began as always with stories about her and her late husband, my uncle, and the fights that they had had over alcohol. She then broadly pointed out each member of the family who had been partaking and the long term effects it had on them, their work, family and friends.
Now I really needed a drink. “Pombe haiwezi kukusaidia. Mimi ninataka kukuja kukuvisit lakini siwezi kuja kwa nyumba yenye sijui kama nitakupata ama sitakupata. Na nikikupata, sijui uko kwa state gani,” she went on. I went into screen saver mode. She talked and talked and I made all the right sounds and acknowledgements. All I could think about was when I could get out and take that much needed shot. Absolut was calling my name. It would be rude not to answer. She was interfering with my drinking time. I began to feel anxious, perhaps I would pass by my dealer and get a few rolls of weed on the way home. That might calm me down. These were the thoughts rolling around my head.
“You are not always going to look this handsome!” That jolted me. What? What was she on about? “Yes. I said it. You are not always going to look this handsome. You are not always going to be this young. The girls who you hang around are all going to realise, sooner rather than later, who you really are, and none of them is going to want to be with you. That is why your wife left you, and you will not keep a woman if you carry on going the way you are going.” She ended this part in a slightly raised voice.
What? How had I, the most promising member of this family, ended up here? When had the rain started beating me? Where had the fork in the road come?
Nine years ago, I had landed back in Nairobi from a rather stressful London sojourn. My journey had taken me from a little known camera and edit assistant at Level One Productions, then owned and run by the amazing Moses Nderitu to one of the most prestigious production companies in England, Tiger Aspect, in SoHo Square. I had walked into their office one Wednesday afternoon, and after a three hour chat in an edit suite, I was offered what was supposed to be a one week gap filler. I didn’t leave for three and a half years. I ended up directing and producing some amazing award-winning shows.
With sheer grit, determination, hard work and an element of luck, I had taken on London and won. Sometimes I would walk down the street from Angel, my tube stop to Gibson square where I lived and marvel at where I was. This young man born in dusty Maralal had finally arrived. Or so I thought. I counted amongst my friends Rowan Atkinson, Michael Curtis and Peter Bennet-Jones. For those who do not know, Rowan Atkinson is Mr. Bean and Richard Curtis wrote Four Weddings and A Funeral and all the movies where Hugh Grant plays the most adorable bumbling Englishman. As for PBJ, he was the most amazing man I have ever had the pleasure of working for.
In a tragic twist of fate, the man responsible for getting me into Tiger Aspect, Charlie Forman, an Anglo-Ugandan raised in Eldoret, plunged into depression. It got so bad that he kept asking me repeatedly if I would finish the job if he attempted suicide and failed. Inevitably, he checked into the Priory, a kind of rehab for celebrities and wealthy people. Thousands of pounds later, he was not getting any better. So his parents entered stage left and convinced him to move to Kampala which is where they were living at the time. Their argument was that Charlie was born in Africa, he loved Africa and should come back to Africa so he could learn to love life and himself again.
I remember the last day he was in London. We got drunk in the afternoon. I brought my one year old daughter Imani along to say goodbye. She caused some problems of her own. SoHo Square pubs are not child-friendly. In fact all of London is not child friendly. But that’s neither here nor there. So Charlie sat there with his dad, we downed Shandies and then they were off to Heathrow and Africa. Two weeks later, Charlie convinced his cousin to lend him a motorbike and at 150 clicks per hour, he rode straight into a concrete wall. He was buried in a sealed coffin.
After that, life at Tiger Aspect was never the same, Charlie’s death deeply affected me; my marriage began to unravel. My wife hated Charlie, blamed him for taking me away from her. Hatred is even worse in death. I plunged into depression and for the first time in my life began to drink rather heavily and more frequently. The love he had shown me had been unconditional. He was a fellow African, or at least that is how I viewed him, and we were facing big bad London together. In the summer of 2006, I threw in the towel and came back home for good.
Nairobi has always been this place bubbling with possibilities, full of people with big dreams and the local TV market, even though it was not quite your BBC or Channel 4, was promising. The fact that it was home was comforting and there were some bright sparks working hard at trying to make the industry better. I was chomping at the bit to be part of that change.
In that strange way that brings about creative enterprise, I began looking for investors to set up a kind of ‘Time Out’ Nairobi. In 1999, way ahead of my time, I set up Kenya’s first entertainment website Kelele.com. And interviewed the likes of Nameless, Chameleone, Bebe Cool, Redsan and Atemi. The social ‘What’s Happening?’ ‘Society’ genre appealed to me. I was all about experiences, taking gulps of Nairobi, one at a time. That’s how you devour a city like Nairobi. Then I ran into an old Nation buddy Oyunga Pala who in my absence had built quite a brand for himself with his Mantalk column and was headhunting for a fresh new, bold magazine.
Adam. By Kenyan Men. For Kenyan Men. Enough said. I loved it from the get go. Short sharp staccato stories about my people. Not one to do things in half measures, I plunged right in. The running joke was that I penned a cover story on Chris Foot under the dubious headline International Man of Mystery. On the social side of things, I began to be invited to more events and parties. Everyone wanted the Adam crew around them. And that is when my relationship with alcohol deepened and got more layered. We were now swimming around in the free booze.
There was the perfect drinking day. Done right, it was like a magic trick. The emphasis as always was on distraction. A chilled white at midday under the blazing sun hobnobbing with diplomats made you a great conversationalist. One who would surely be invited to the next party and the one after that. Birds of a feather, nudge nudge wink wink, cue prolonged guffawing. Gin and tonics for sundowners which in practice began at 3pm, even though I knew they should begin at 5ish.
Then refreshing glasses of Tusker that went down even before a function had formally began. The serving staff were now on a first name basis and knew to serve you with a fresh glass each time, so no one could see that you were already on your seventh. Cue top-shelf single malts unveiled with much fanfare and witty impromptu speeches.
Everything was going swimmingly well, all covered under a beautiful alcoholic haze. Then two things happened. The first was the 2007 post-election violence, the second was the global credit crunch. Post-election violence brought with it a hoard of international press baying for editorial blood. BBC lifers who had been pitching story ideas about Kenya and getting turned down flat for years, now had stories that had legs that could run and run. I jumped on the bandwagon and earned more money in two months than I had earned in a whole year. I learned that the adage, if it bleeds it leads, was sad but very very true.
The global credit crunch had a different effect on Adam. The parent company Naspers in South Africa suffered serious loses in the international markets and they sent in a mortician by the name of Cobus Heyl. Luckily for me I jumped before I was pushed. The money from PBS, Channel 4 and BBC went to alcohol. I didn’t buy clothes or furniture or a car or anything I could see, I just drank it all. Heck everyone was having a post-election fling, mine was with alcohol.
Then I jumped, literally, from the frying pan into the fire. I was head-hunted by The Star as the Society Editor. This meant I had an open invitation to every party in Nairobi. From Jomo Gecaga’s champagne filled private residence to SK Macharia’s Ndakaini ranch, it was party season galore. All day, every day. Most diplomatic functions in Kenya, for some reason, happen at lunchtime. So I would be standing at one of these on any given day of the week, red wine glass firmly in hand pretending to listen keenly to the keynote address. If I was lucky, Michael Joseph would roll in with his bar on wheels, a private stash of very good red wine.
And then I would stumble into my cab and head back to the office in Lion place and somehow manage to churn out copy. I read some of those stories today and cringe with embarrassment. I became the poster boy for the Star Newspaper – I was at every function, every launch, damn I even did birthday parties. Slowly but surely, alcohol began to take a grip on me. I began to drink more and only hang out in places that had alcohol. My integrity went out of the window but my copy was still pretty good so I got a pay rise and a car. Suffice to say I lasted less than a year. I crashed the car while driving drunk, proceeded to storm up to William Pike, the MD, and demanded that he fix it. When he protested, I dropped the car keys on his desk and walked out on my career.
Various people approached me like Patrick Quarcoo, whom I respect, Caroline Mutoko who knew me from my university days, and gently tried to pry me out of this grip of alcohol. But I would not have any of it. I could not see that I was a slave to alcohol. My resignation party was at Hidden Agenda. I spent more than I would like to remember and if my friend Dorothy Oliech hadn’t intervened I would have bought the whole bar drinks. What nobody knew at this point is that my long-suffering wife, having tired of my antics had left with my babies and I was terrified of going home to an empty house.
As luck would have it, I was head-hunted, again, by Nusu Nusu productions run by Mark Moss who was and still is, the best DOP in Kenya & whom I knew from my Level One days and Fareed Diamond Khimani, whom I had worked with at Radio Africa and loved his wacky sense of humour. So it seemed a natural fit. I could definitely get on with this gang. My interview was conducted in Mombasa aboard the Tamarind Dhow awash with vodka-based dawas. Let me state here that I love TV, I have always loved TV and I just cheated on her with print. So it felt right to be back doing what I loved. Being where I belonged.
TV production takes a long time. You get great stories but it is time intensive. There is no way around it. Evenings began to fill with functions as Mashariki Mix, the magazine show I was producing picked up. Before I knew it I was back in the regular haunts, the last man standing at any bar. The only thing that would tear me away was if the bar became a cash bar. We had some pretty tough accountants so it was not easy to drink on the production budget. But I found ways. I compromised. I cajoled. I promised anything for free drinks. I basically became a prostitute for free drinks. I began to rate events depending on the availability of a wet and open bar. That was my SI unit.
The pivotal point was a trip to Malindi. Driving a rented car, high off my head, I crashed into the bush at Garoda resort. With it crashed my burgeoning TV career. I got out unscathed but in a bizarre twist, my local fixer called the office and Fareed and Mark promptly fired me. In hindsight I completely understand their reasoning. At the time, it was all wasted on me. Water running off a ducks back, I was back socializing in Nairobi. It was not long before the British Army came calling. That stint was an eye-opener. My role as communication officer was to help the Army shift attention away from sensitive stories. I did the complete opposite. I actively leaked information to the very correspondents I was supposed to block.
In between our two offices, one in Nanyuki and one in Nairobi, I disappeared as if in a puff of smoke. I was so good, my commanding officer had no clue where I was. Wherever he would be, I would be at the other end. Six months later, a lot of talk and tankers of subsidized alcohol later, I had nothing to show. I was graciously shown the door. I now had no job, nothing to keep me from drinking until, well until my body couldn’t take it anymore. I would wake up with hang overs so severe I was catatonic. I could barely move, eat or drink anything. A situation myself and Edward Kwach, – someone who should read this article a few times – called ‘lying in state.’
For the next two years, life was one big party. I lied to everyone, my family, my friends, my partner. No one knew where I was. I was like the Ghost in the Darkness. Down and down my life spiraled into this insatiable vat of alcohol.
You know that look that people give you when they are not quite sure how high you are, but they know you are high? The once over? The double-take that girls who once fawned over you now give you? Followed closely by the ‘he is not going to hug me smelling like that,’ look of dread? That look of concern that is quickly masked with a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes. That look that says, ‘I know you can do better, but I do not know how to get you to where I think you should be.’ I got those looks often. Those looks became my friend.
Then I met her.
We always used to make fun of Uncle Chris as we affectionately refer to him, Chris Kirubi to the rest of you, as he would always try to slice girls off us. But for once he came through. On the 25th of November 2014, Uncle Chris made an introduction at the Belgian Ambassador’s residence that was to become my final turning point. Life as I knew it changed for good. An angel walked, rather was ushered, right into my life. She didn’t give me that double take. She didn’t seem phased by me and she was courageous enough to come out to Emmanuel Jambo’s birthday that evening at Slims. Something happened when she came through that gate at Slims. I felt excited but I didn’t want to show it. I walked her up the stairs and paid very close attention to her every word. I didn’t feel the urge to drink that night. It was like the Sicilians say, I was struck by a thunderbolt.
She made me realise something. That I was worth it. That a sober me was still ten times more interesting than a drunk me. When I was with her, I didn’t have the urge to drink. She doesn’t drink at all. That helped but it also raised questions. Why was I able to remain sober with her whereas there are some people who just made me want to drink? What was it about her? The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. Her love for me had somehow filled a gap that was previously occupied by an impostor. Let me try to explain it.
If you break both your legs today and go into Nairobi hospital, because of the pain, chances are you will be given a shot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. Yes, that stuff that comes from the poppy fields in Afghanistan. After you are discharged, normal people will not run out to find the nearest heroin dealer. Why? There is a story we tell ourselves about addiction. A story that once you try a line of cocaine, you never go back. That one hit of heroin and you will sell your grandmother for another fix. But this story like most bush telegraph stories, only part of the story and not the whole story.
I find that people who have a healthy work/life balance, who occasionally like to have fun but are surrounded by loving family and friends tend not to become addicts. And if they do, a curious thing occurs. They get a new set of friends, their cocaine crew, or ecstasy girls, and if you are rolling your eyes at the mention of drugs, go to any club in Westlands and see if you cannot score anything in ten minutes flat. They change their friends because the new crew is all united under one banner. Drugs.
What we human beings search for is connection, acknowledgement and support. If we fail to find that in our normal interactions with fellow human beings, we look for it elsewhere. The son of a prominent politician who was a close friend overdosed in a brothel in Lavington on coke. Why would a seemingly happily married man end up next to a virtual stranger with his veins coursing with laced coke? Because drugs and alcohol love secrets. You have your peddler who no one ever meets. You score drugs and keep it to yourself or share it amongst their trusted inner circle of ‘friends.’ So you and the booze or the drugs and the ‘friends’ have a bond of brotherhood. An island of us-versus-them. One that over time makes you believe that the one true friend you have left in this world is cocaine or your favorite whiskey.
I say this as a person who has been there. It is time to act. Not in the way that I have seen being championed by the women of Nyeri. Or by that crazed Moses Kuria egged on by Jubilee bigwigs. Or by Governor Kabogo almost torching himself. The flames and anger that are directed at legitimate businesses like Keroche Breweries are not the solution. Alcohol has existed for millennia. And I think it is safe to say, it will survive the current siege it is under. It has survived such misguided policies like prohibition, it will survive like a cockroach after a nuclear meltdown. You can reduce the flow, but you will never stop it. I think it is safe to say the industry will outlive NACADA.
So what then is to be done? We all know it is hard to love an addict. But believe me that is what they need most. If you their spouse loves them; that is all the strength they need to overcome it. If you their family members push them away; you are helping the drink demons succeed in convincing that person that the only thing they have to turn to for solace, for a bond, the only thing that is a constant in their lives as they lose their families, fortunes and children is the drink. The drink takes over and occupies that place that love, family and spouses used to occupy. There is a fight for that man or woman’s soul. If the spouse gives up, the colleagues at work walk away & old friends turn their backs, the alcohol wins.
All the effort that is being spent on destroying factories and setting ablaze illicit brews should instead be transferred much closer home. If you want to help an addict, help them stay in touch with society. Take them to the mosque or to church. Give them access to their children. Pay someone to give them a job. Give them somewhere to be and something to do. Trick them into exercising so they can trigger an appetite. Don’t lecture them, Love them. It is the only thing more powerful than addiction. I know it is hard to love an addict, but that love is what will make all the difference between them getting home or lying dying in that brothel terrified that you will not open the door, or let them in.
As I sit here in Jackson Biko’s office, at his desk, writing this story from his laptop I have been sober for three months and counting. I have not touched a drink. I have not been to an AA meeting, I find them pathetic. I joined the Islamic faith and it has kept me going. Support has come from the most unexpected quarters. I am a reformed man, I have a different spring in my step. I might falter and stumble as life has a way of throwing you curve balls. But now I know what my problem is and I am looking onwards and upwards. As for the girl, she is still by my side. I will keep you posted kama tuna harusi ama hatuna.