First thing that happens is that mom dies. Technically, it isn’t the first thing because there is all that banality of childhood; riding bicycles, scrapes with other boys, the chugging humdrum of school. But this is the very first important thing that happens to him even though he’s not completely aware of its impact; mom dying. He’s 14-years old, barely a minute into his teenage years. Barely able to process a broken voice and pubic hair and these constant thoughts of a girl’s dark areola. Mom picks a rotten time to die; or death picks a rotten time to take mom – three days before he’s to sit for his KCPE exams.
They came back from school and there was dad asking them to sit down. Dad with deep ridges of worry that had dug deep gullies of worry across his forehead. He looked distraught, confused and old already because wives can make you young but they can also age you. They – with his twin brother- put down their bags on the floor and sat in the living room in their soiled socks and he told them their mother had died the previous night. A road accident. While coming from Machakos. It was like hearing something through a closed door; muffled, distant – the voice of a dying soothsayer. Mom was studying for her PhD in Anthropology. This was the early 90s when moms were mostly secretaries or teachers. So, an outlier even before Gladwell had written his book.
He doesn’t remember grieving. He remembers his twin brother grieving more. While he locked in his grief, his twin brother’s grief seemed to come out in thudding anger. The memory of that period is erased. But he remembers scoring 581/700 and ending up in Mangu High School.
He excelled in Form One, a stellar student, crossing all t’s and shit. In Form Two, he skipped a French lesson and joined some cool kids behind the classrooms for his first cigarette. There was Kanja, Nick and Karis. You can tell by their names that they were cool. There was no John. Or Elijah. Or Joshua. No prophets from the Bible. Those stayed in the French class. Nick had the packet of SM which they called Small Millionaire. In Form Two, he picked up pool. Over the holidays he would go to the neighbourhood pubs in Donholm and shoot pool. Now there are video game arcades, then it was pool. He realized that he was good at it. Very good at it. He knew how to get to the black ball. He knew how to hide the white ball. He played musical chairs with them. He was great at angles and speed. He didn’t stick out his tongue while aiming like other melodramatic amateurs. He never bent over the table unless he was sure he was potting the ball. He was smooth with the stick. He was legendary. He played for ego and money. And he kicked ass. Constantly.
“I started rebelling in Mang’u,” he says. “In primary school I was a good boy. I loved the Bible and I was religious but after I lost my mom, I started losing my religion as well. I started dissociating with God. Unlike my twin brother, I was never the guy to speak up; I didn’t speak in class. I never spoke up if I felt wronged. The only time I would come alive was when I played football and I think I played football to be a part of a group. To be like them. I was looking to belong.”
It’s around this time that his father sat them down for a second time. In the living room was a lady with a child. “He said, this is your mother now and that is your younger brother.” They both turned to look at her and this boy who was now their brother, just like that, by decree. “My father is very totalitarian, a man who likes structure but also the most honest person I know,” he says. “The announcement was very cut and dry. An instruction.”
I laugh. I tell him how my own dad introduced my step-mom two years ago. He didn’t sit us down because we were already seated after dinner and he said very casually, almost in passing, “This here is Nyar Kano,” waving hand towards the said Nyar Kano, “She helps me around here when you guys are away.”
We chortle at that. “I found it funny, how uncomfortable he was,” I continue. “How he just couldn’t say, this is my wife now, your stepmom, anyone with a complaint or a comment should keep it in their socks.” I can imagine the conversation that ensued at bedtime that night. She obviously just changed into her nightdress silently, ignoring him. The radio was probably on at low volume because my dad – like most people his age in shags – prefer to listen to death announcements at bedtime. Very romantic. I can imagine him realizing that his new wife wasn’t talking and him asking her, “What’s wrong Nyar Kano?” and her saying emphatically, “Nothing. I’m just tired.” And then she gets in bed and turns to face away from him, most likely facing Kano. And my dad saying, “You sound upset,” and her saying, “No, of course not. It was a lovely evening; your children are nice, goodnight.” My dad reducing the volume of the death announcements and saying to her back, “Yaye Nyar Kano, en ango’ kendo yawa?” And her – from under the depths of the duvet, mumbling, “Nothing is wrong. I’m just tired, cooking chapatis isn’t easy. I need to sleep now so that I can wake up early and help you around the house again tomorrow.”
“My siblings thought it was betrayal,” he says. “My brother reacted to it aggressively. I didn’t really care.”
He soon discovered alcohol because there was alcohol in their house. His father kept gin in their Wall Unit in the house. A Wall Unit, dear Millennials, was this coffin-like contraption that was very common in the 80s and 90s. It was mostly displayed in the living rooms. It had cabinets, drawers and windows and precious cutlery was usually stored there. Cutlery for visitors, never to be used by the peasants who lived there; read, you. It was like a museum of cutlery, to be seen never touched. What was missing was a sign: Please don’t lean on glass. A Wall Unit was a status symbol, the bigger and fancier you had the more uppity you seemed. The TV went on the Wall Unit. As well as the music system. Don’t even get me started on the music system. So don’t be too cruel to us Generation X, we are already gravely damaged by our pasts because we lived with coffins in the same house.
In the third term of Form Two the wheels slowly started coming off: Jumping over the school fence to go smoking and drinking in little village dens where men drank and hollered like medieval savages. Mostly muratina and chang’aa. At the end of Form Three – with KCSE looming – he performed dismally and got an index number towards the bottom of the class.
Fourth form came with more drinking. “I was rowdy. I would go for roll calls smelling booze. I didn’t care for rules or order,” he says. “Alcohol suddenly gave me guts. I could speak up. I could say things I was unable to say. I wasn’t afraid of my father or anyone else. Alcohol made me become what I wanted to become all along.”
Then he was caught drunk in school and he was asked to apologize before the whole school during assembly. “I took the microphone and said, ‘…now that I have quenched my thirst, I can study…” The whole school cackled in mirth as the teachers stood there with bemused looks. Of course the authorities didn’t take kindly to being mocked so he was told, “It seems you want to be a comedian who drinks so we are sending you home to go and work on your comedy material and your drinking.”
He was suspended.
When he eventually came back to school, he continued to sneak out and go drinking in Wetaidhe village, the mabati slum. “I preferred muratina,” he says.
Over the holidays, he’d be shooting pool and drinking alcohol. He’d be drinking 15 sachets of cheap rum mixed with milk stout. Back in school, he was fighting prefects and sneaking out and smoking and being blacklisted and punished but he kept going. During his KCSE, they sneaked out of school and ended up in K2 along Baricho Road. They were already out of their head. They started a fight in the club with the bouncers who threw them out. The skirmish attracted the police who grabbed him and he pleaded and told them he was a student of Mang’u and he was currently sitting for his KCSE.
He scored A-Minus in KCSE.
He wanted to do electrical engineering but didn’t score enough points so he joined the parallel program in Moi Uni. As he waited, he was drinking hard. He was 19. “I really thought I had a gift of drinking because I could drink one and a half bottles of vodka and never stagger,” he says. “I would walk into a bar and the whole bar would chant my name. I was sort of a legend. You know Karl Marx of UoN? We drank with him all the time.”
First year wasn’t so bad, he did well. Second year the drinking got worse. They’d drink chang’aa full-time from Mabatini, a raggedy joint popular with cheap liquor. He drank daily in Uni, missing lectures, missing exams, failing, being called to sit before the senate and not going because he was too drunk to remember. Whenever he stopped drinking during exams he’d have serious nightmares. “When you go cold turkey, you suffer from hallucinations and nightmares.” In fourth year he was in Uni but never stepped in class. He drank all the fees. He dropped out of Uni and went back home. His father said, “You dropped out of university because of alcohol? Alcohol?!” Then just shook his head.
His father got him into KU’s parallel program, a different course. He was grateful. He gave himself some pep talk; promised himself that he’d be good, he’d stop this madness of alcohol, that he’d get an education. And so his first year wasn’t so bad but in the second year the demons woke up. “I was a nuisance, drinking so much and coming home in the wee hours of the morning. I’d get constant blackouts. I’d be so desperate for a drink that sometimes I’d want to beat up the House Help for Sh20 to buy alcohol. I was now a vagabond,” he says. “My dad then rented us a different house along Denis Pritt, because one; my brother was not getting along with his wife and two I was drinking out of my mind. He figured these boys were going to ruin his marriage. He’d send money for food and transport for the whole week and I’d drink it all in a day and then ask for more. He devised a way where he would give me money just for the following day the night before.”
University wasn’t happening because drinking was. It was hard-drinking mostly in downtown Nairobi, dingy smoky bars that didn’t have windows and never saw the sun. Men peered back from them like alley cats. These bars never closed down, you would walk in anytime and you’d find people drinking. Everybody was a friend if they had a drink in front of them. These men were no riffraff; they were doctors, engineers, philosophers, men from rich families, languishing away at the bottom of the barrel, imprisoned by the bottle, a bond of booze.
“Alcohol had completely taken over my life by now. Here is how bad it was,” he says. “I’d promise myself that I’d not drink, stay in the house. I’d manage to stay the whole day, on my computer or watching TV. Night would fall and I’d eat something and get into bed. I was the kind of drunk who always ate. Then I’d start thinking of alcohol, it’s almost like it’d start thinking of me and I’d brush that thought away and stay in bed. Then I’d not be able to sleep. I’d be so restless I’d pace around the house like a caged animal wanting to flee. Literally. I’d want a cigarette, just one cigarette, but a voice in my head would say, no, don’t do it, if you leave the house for a cigarette you will go to a bar. I’d listen to that voice and then stay still. Then I’d get up and walk about and leave the house and sit outside the gate. Then go back in. Then leave the house and sit outside the gate, then go back in. Then at midnight, I’d be like oh screw it and I’d succumb to the voice. Then I’d go drink. And when I started drinking there was no stopping.”
He’d lock himself in the house and keep away the key to avoid going drinking. But the urge would break down the door and come for him like a rabid animal. He’d walk for two kilometers in the middle of the night for a drink. He’d fall into ditches and wake up in trenches. He once fell into a pit latrine. He fell down a staircase. Months and years fell off the calendar. His twin brother finished Uni got a job and got married as he drank. He was still drinking as his small bro, five years younger than him, completed university. Now, he’d moved back to his father’s house. “One day I got back home in the wee hours, jumped over the gate, removed my clothes at the front door and slept there.”
I blamed chang’aa for my problems. I told myself, “I don’t have a problem with alcohol, I just have a problem with chang’aa. If I drank any other drink I’d be okay,” he says. “You have to realize that some people become drunks gradually, by starting with beers, then spirits then the harsh ones. I started from the end, man. Then I went hard.
“When you drink a lot, you become an embarrassment to your family. A black sheep in the family,” he says.
“Do you realize it?” I ask. “Are you aware that you are a nuisance?”
“Of course. You do. People treat you differently. They talk about you. At my bro’s wedding, my father gave me some money to go away so that I wouldn’t completely ruin that occasion. He was embarrassed by me. I embarrassed myself. You are also paranoid, always imagining that people are talking about you, judging you, even if they are not. I would hear people laughing and think they were laughing at me. Your self-esteem is ruined completely. You don’t have any. You feel your failure. It’s with you, man.”
“How do you feel when you are sober?”
“Shame,” he says, and I recall a recent interview of Ben Affleck in the New York Times about his alcoholism. He talked of shame having no positive byproduct, that it’s a feeling of stewing in a toxic, hideous feeling of low self-worth and self-loathing. “Yes, deep shame. Very deep shame. And guilt. In the morning when you wake up, or whatever time it is that you wake up, you find this bad feeling of shame and guilt waiting and it gets worse with time. You are guilty for things you put your family through. You are ashamed of what you have become. You are so remorseful, very sorry for everything you are doing and the shit you are putting people through. You feel worthless. You don’t want to see anyone, because you will see judgement in their eyes. So you stay away, you make promises, that no more alcohol but then later, the urge, it’s the urge of Satan, man, it comes for you and you are back in the den with all these people who are like you and who don’t judge you and you are drinking again and you forget who you were; this shameful and worthless person. When you drink you are yourself again, you can face the world. You are no longer anxious and sorry. I could face my brother now if I was angry with him. When you drink you are human again.”
Then you see people dying. Drinking friends. “One of my friends killed himself. Another was beaten by thugs when he was drinking, I think he tried to resist. Another died in a hotel room.”
“Does that dissuade one to stop?”
“It should,” he says softly. “But it doesn’t. You can’t die. How can you die? You are a legend. Don’t you know guys would chant my name in bars?”
“How does it feel like to sleep and wake up in a trench?” I ask.
“I told you that I’ve woken up in many bad places, yeah? It’s surreal. I woke up in a trench along State House Road. When I wake up, I wonder why it’s so bright, why the sun is in my face. I turn and look up and I can see the sky. The sky! And I can smell grass. Why do I smell grass? Where is my bed? Where am I? I get up and I realize I’m beside the road. There are cars and people. People stare from their cars. It’s, I don’t know, dehumanizing. You feel small and worthless. You are so ashamed of yourself. So so ashamed. I have blacked out several times and woken up in places you’d never imagine. Strange hotel rooms, strange houses, on a bench in a bar I don’t remember going to. In a police cell where the inmates said when I was brought in I was doing press-ups. I once woke up in a bus headed to Busia!”
I laugh. I can’t help it. I can’t imagine him looking out the window and seeing a weird landscape running outside; green hills, men in big chagets, old beat up Proboxes carrying 30 people, a stage, a man with an afro selling tea leaves and yogurt. Him turning to his neighbour and asking, “Boss, hapa ni wapi?” and him telling him, “Kericho.” And him thinking, what the fuck? “Kwani tunaenda wapi?” and the man saying, “Busia!” and he thinking it’s a dream and he’ll wake up along State House Road.
He soon started getting violent. Towards his family members. Beating his small bro to get to his dad’s bedroom key where he thought there was money or booze. Breaking stuff in the house. His twin wrote him off from his life. His father had talked to him several times; his family members had sent people to try to talk to him. He told them to eat his shoes. He had no problem. But he had, now he was an animal, an ugly animal. One day he couldn’t take it anymore. He woke up with a bad headache in his heart, an absolutely terrible hangover of the heart and he sat down and wrote to his father.
“Were you sober when you wrote the letter?”
“I was high,” he says.
“Where did you write it?”
“In the house.”
“Where was everybody, what time was it?”
“I don’t know…morning hours, guys had left for work or whatever,” he says. “In the letter I told him that this thing was killing me. That if I didn’t get help I was going to kill myself. That I was sorry for being this person and that I was tired of being this person and I needed him to help me.”
“Were you serious about killing yourself?”
“Yes. I was. I had thought about suicide for the past two years. Literally, thinking of how I could kill myself. These were mostly mornings after I’d wake up in shame. I had nothing. Guys who I knew, had wives and jobs, I had nothing. My bro had a wife and a job. I had nothing. I was just drinking. My life, I felt was in limbo. I couldn’t move. I was stuck in this rut.”
It was a Thursday when his father read the letter and said, “You will be fine. I will get you help. I will take you to rehab over the weekend.” But then he told his father, “No, can we go on Tuesday?” His father said sure and that weekend he drank all the alcohol he could. He drank so much, he couldn’t recognize his arms. He’d look at them and think, “Whose arms are these? Where are my arms?!”
On Tuesday morning, his father knocked on his bedroom door. He opened it without a shirt, drunk as a skunk.
“Ready?” He asked him gently, looking at him with a cocktail of sorrow and love.
“Is it Tuesday?” He mumbled scratching his head.
“Yeah,” his father said.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
“Wear a shirt,” his father said.
He packed some clothes. He was checked into Redhill rehab centre in Limuru at midday. Massive place.
“What do you remember about the day you were checked in?”
He pauses for a bit.
“In the brochure, they had put a picture of a swimming pool. I was looking forward to that pool but when I got there, the pool was empty. It didn’t have water. I remember being very pissed.” He laughs. “I also remember a guy who would laugh at nothing every five or so minutes, completely unprompted. As in he would just start laughing.”
“Like the Joker.”
“Yeah. I felt like it was an asylum.” Ha-ha.
Rehab meant withdrawals and restlessness. “I had crazy dreams,” he says. “Crazy. I would dream of demons chasing me. Minions chasing me. Insomnia. Restlessness, just tossing and turning and thinking. You don’t sleep the first, second night or third, but then it gets better. You pray and talk to a therapist. Spirituality is a big part of healing. I was interested in finding out why I was like that. Why I couldn’t just function like other people. Why was I prone to addiction and my brother wasn’t? I was tired of the person I was, tired of being sick with this disease. I realized that I hadn’t accepted that I was an alcoholic, I was just a guy who could handle his drink. I always thought I still had some control left and that things that were happening to me were just bad luck.” There were doctors and priests, rich kids and poor kids, there were engineers and clerks, drop outs. There were women. Professional women and women who were in university. Mothers and sisters and cousins. Lovers.
Three months. He was there for three months.
Then on August 28th 2006 he left rehab.
And he was scared.
“Of being sick again,” he says. “I had seen many people who had gone back to rehab while I was there. Going to rehab wasn’t the true test, staying away from it, being sober, was.” He moved back home with his father. That night he lay in bed and felt exposed again. This wasn’t rehab. This was home. It had a gate and he could simply walk out and have a drink again and none of those three months in rehab would matter anymore. “When you are recovering you don’t think of being sober a month or a year from now. You think of being sober today. Just ending the day sober. Then the next day and the next and days turn into months and months into years and before you know it, it’s been 14-years.”
He went back to university, got a degree in computer science and got a job. He has attended alcoholic anonymous meetings every week for those years. “You don’t stop,” he says, “Because you are still an addict. You have to fellowship. You don’t forget the harm you did yourself but also the harm you did your relatives. Alcoholism is as tough on the families as it is on the alcoholic. The families bear the brunt.”
His twin bro came to see him in rehab and they made up. His father has been supportive. “He never turned his back on me.”
“Do you sometimes get tempted to go back to drinking?”
“When you are an addict your mind never forgets. You still have that memory of how it is to be high. There are triggers that we are taught in therapy, mine is anger and resentment. When I have any of those I feel like drinking, so I try to avoid them or deal with them better. Also, pool is a trigger for me. I can’t be anywhere near a pool table. It’s dangerous because just one drink will undo all the 14-years.”
“Isn’t that scary,” I ask him, “That you have this…this, animal, this beast, inside you, just lying in wait. Do you feel imprisoned?”
“I accepted that beast. It’s a part of me now. I can’t deny it,” he says. “It reminds you it still exists sometimes, like when you see a beer advert and you experience this warm familiar feeling.”
Sometimes he still has dreams, fourteen years later. Dreams of him seated with his friend drinking, or of little pygmies chasing him with bottles of alcohol. Those days he wakes up with his heart racing and he prays.
He got married some years back and now has two children. They met soon after he left rehab. She was working as a domestic manager in his father’s house. This was before he joined university. When he was in the house most days, watching TV, reading books, basically staying out of trouble. Love blossomed. “She’s beautiful and she listened to my shit,” he says. “I’m crazy about her because she was the only woman who ever responded to who I really was. Many girls would meet me and think, there is something wrong with this guy. Not her.” She saw beyond the struggle, tossed away the debris of addiction and found him underneath, the person he really was.
“Did people judge you for marrying a domestic manager?” I ask him.
“They have,” he says. “They don’t approve, but not openly.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Not a damn thing. I’m used to it. I mean, once you realize that some things don’t transcend the physical and that actions and character count more, you will find peace.”
“Does she drink?”
“How does that sit with you?”
“I used to be uncomfortable with it at the beginning but after some time I realized that I can’t impose my will on her because many people tried to impose their will on me at some point.”
I ask him if he ever worries that his alcoholism is genetic (his two uncles died from alcoholism). “I sometimes worry about it but I have come to understand it.”
“What do you miss about your drinking days?”
“I can’t say I miss something about those days.” He pauses. “No, I don’t. I’ve had the best days sober.”
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