Funny, you could grow up in the village, at the foot of a rocky mountain with a long name. Or in a house in Buruburu with its old bricks, not too far from the city’s tricks. Or in Mombasa, in a house squeezed within a narrow street, the line where your house begins and the neighbour’s ends blurred, an understanding of community, you joining other kids in Madras classes, climbing coconut trees, ignoring the sunset over the ageless city. Or you could grow up in Ugenya, born to Legio Maria parents, your childhood vibrating with the drums of religion, or in Meru where you mirrored the ethos of the miraa trees. Or in one of the thousands of small towns, one street, one clock, a post office and a chief with an ever-expanding girth. It matters little because then, chance, fate and education, this pipeline of life, funnels us all into Nairobi; into this reservoir of characters, frothing with ambition, our necks barely above choppy waters.
Eventually, our paths collide. Or they don’t. But when they do; we see people at their best, fully dressed, hair done, shoes shined, and they extend their hands, or elbows, during these COVID times, and say, “I’m Timothy.” Or Jenny. But they come with great history and sometimes with great baggage from their pasts or their childhood or from jail. But somehow, everybody looks normal.
I was looking for a manager. Someone who would hide the stark nakedness of my disorganisation. My lack of planning. My forgetfulness. My lack of follow-up. My inability to chase and hunt and kill. Someone who would remind me to block dates and appointments. Deal with clients. Talk money. (Money talk always leaves one with a bloodied nose). Negotiate. Plus I had been sick for a while – still am. I suffer from an acute case of what Latin doctors call “procrastinare.” Pro-meaning forward, crastinus meaning till the next day. I particularly resent emails. I believe that when you ignore emails for a while, it reduces their self-esteem so much that one day they say, ‘huku hatupendwi’, and just walk away dejected. When I open an email, I tend to scan how long it is before I decide to read it or not. The one function I use most on my emails is “Mark as Unread.” It was invented for procrastinators. So yes, I needed help. So, I started asking people to introduce me to people who could manage my affairs. And I met several but nothing stuck. Our energies were different, most didn’t see where I was going. Then a lady called Mutindi attended my writing masterclass and she said, “I know a girl who would be perfect for this job. She just quit her job at an agency.” And that is how I met Ivory.
We met up in a cafe at 9am. She kept time. I liked that. I didn’t know she was not “a morning person.” That her mornings started at 11am and her days ended at 1am. Although light in complexion, she was wearing a long, dark face and a matching black top. She was hungover. She had fur all over her black top, which I later learnt was from her cats. She lived alone with three cats – one of them three-legged, named Kichi, who had apparently been abandoned at a parking lot. Later she would send me pictures of her cats because cat people imagine we want to see pictures of their cats. They were fat cats. They didn’t have necks. Some had double chins. They looked like they belonged to a rich, old, white lady with a will. They looked spoilt and entitled. They didn’t look directly at the camera because they are cats, they think they deserve better. They think they can do better. “Ati we pose for a photo for who? Who is he?” If cats were employed, they would constantly be sending emails to HR demanding better pay. I told her, “Your cats are obese,” and she told me, “f*k off, they are a little plump, not obese.” But they looked clean, I will give it to her. She takes them to a doctor called Dr Apiyo. A real person, it turns out.
She ordered passion iced tea. She looked to be in a foul mood because unbeknownst to me, she was half asleep. Maybe she was dreaming and this was a nightmare. One thing I noticed immediately was how filthy her mouth was; she cursed a lot. I curse, yes, but she was too easy with the “f” word. I told her what I did and what I wanted and I loved that she immediately grasped where I was going. I didn’t have to draw her a map. She asked me for a rate-card, I said I didn’t really have one. She snorted and looked away. She asked how much I charged to write stuff. I told her. She snorted again and looked away and then asked, “Where are you from?” I said I was from Kendu-Bay, from a long line of boat owners. She said, “Then you are doing God’s work here, my friend. You are literally working for free. And I’m not in this town to do shit for free.” she said. I liked her. She was ballsy. And pushy. And courageous. She was also hungry. And quite eccentric. We talked about money and agreed on terms. “If we kosana and part ways it will never be about money,” I told her. “It will be because of other things.” We agreed to meet again to do a thorough “audit” of what we needed to do.
Our next meeting was at Gecko Cafe on Mbaazi Avenue. We met for breakfast. She looked completely hungover. She ignored the menu and ordered two Heinekens and two shots of tequila. She must have read my expression because she said, “It’s 4pm in Bali.”
Then she stepped outside and smoked a cigarette. Her mind was sharp and she read voraciously. She was quick-witted. She mentioned books I had not read and quoted people I hadn’t heard of. She loved the classics. She loved movies. And travelling. Her left arm was heavily tattooed. She sported dreadlocks that she styled like a beehive, giving her an indomitable aura. She carried a darkness with her that she concealed beneath her witticism and moistureless humour. She told me vaguely, and I thought she was joking, that she has been homeless. She also told me how she quit university in her second year at UoN where she was studying architecture to pursue her love for advertising.
When I wrote my second book, one of my main characters was loosely based on her. The character is Halima who also has tattoos and dreadlocks and studied architecture in university, which she wanted to quit. We spoke about native advertising and about storytelling in this era. She wore a very pricey-looking timepiece. I was certain she had acquired it off a highway robbery. At some point I learnt (the hard way) that one of her pet peeves is people stepping on her sneakers. She’s a sneaker-head. Even though I liked her spirit, I was bothered by her spirits. After the meeting I texted Mutindi and said, “This chic drinks in the morning.” She told me not to worry, that it wouldn’t be a problem.
During our next meeting – two weeks later – she was hungover again in the morning in the middle of the week. She had a big greasy breakfast and mumbled that she needed to smoke. She rummaged through the breast pocket of her jacket for a packet of Sportsman and a blue lighter, said, “Hold those weak thoughts,” and stepped out to smoke. I sat there thinking about her Sportsman. I don’t know jack about cigarettes but I imagined Sportsman to be smoked by long-distance trailer drivers with stained nails and large Adam’s Apples. When she came back, she told me about the strippers at Millionaires Club, a bar she frequented, and about a stripper called Cate, who she told me, had an ass “as soft as clouds.” Or of her other forays into the night, how she once smashed a bottle on someone’s head at Mercury Lounge because he was being “disrespectful.” She has this dry sense of humour and so when she was telling these stories she would tell them in this monotonous voice, as if she was describing going to choose seedlings at a nursery. She was out of her mind. I thought to myself; what the hell have I gotten myself into?
I told her, “Look, I think you are an alcoholic.”
She looked up from her iced tea and regarded me with a dry, aggressive look.
“You f**kn don’t know me,” She hissed.
“Yeah. But I know that the drinking you describe is not normal.”
“What is normal?” She demanded, visibly angry now.
“There are two types of alcoholics,” I told her, “The ones who fall in ditches and have scars on their faces. And then there is you.”
“Me?” She scoffed.
“Yeah, you drink daily, or every other day, and copiously, you drink into the wee hours of the morning and you never miss work. And you are probably good at what you do. You are a high functioning alcoholic.”
“That’s bullshit.” She growled. “You don’t know me or anything about me. Or what I’ve gone through. You can’t judge me.”
Over time, fragments of her life fit into a jigsaw. It explained her gloom, her quick flash of anger, the looming darkness. Her life, she said, was like a pebble that rolls downhill, gathering debris and snowballing into a monstrous avalanche. “One issue can be a dominating factor in your life,” she told me. “For me that has been the sense that I didn’t belong. I’m a bastard.” She was the result of an affair her mom had with a married man. They lived in Upperhill and they had a tumultuous childhood. Fear reigned in their home. Her father was violent. He frequently hit her mother, once breaking her arm. “Have you ever smelled blood on tiles?” She asked me. “I have. My mother’s blood. I haven’t forgotten that smell of blood on tiles.” Her mom, she added, was openly disrespectful of her father. She called him stupid. And other names. She also cultivated the fear of her father in her and her older brother.
She was four years old when they eventually moved out of their Upper Hill house. Then came a stint at her grandmother’s house in Madaraka. Before long, she started feeling like they had overstayed their welcome. Her mom was not working then, food was an issue. They left her grandmother’s and started staying at her mother’s friends’ houses, couch surfing even before couch surfing was a thing. When the number of friends who would host them ran out, they moved into a hotel in Nairobi West, living in a single room, stealing soap from the housekeeping trolley. Then her mother met a man and fell in love with him. “My mom never told that man that we were her children. She introduced me as her sister and my brother as her cousin.” She told me this one day, fighting tears because perhaps crying wasn’t consistent with the tough aura she presented. “She was very nasty. I was terrified of her.” She would say. “She beat us like she wanted to kill us. But even worse was how unkind she was with her words. She would say that I’m a ruler, that I had a blocky build like my father. I don’t like pictures to this day because my mom always called me ugly because of my nose. I can never look at a picture of myself now because of her. She was very abusive, physically and emotionally. She was particularly ruthless towards my brother. She called him stupid a lot. She beat him even more than she beat me.”
This man in Mombasa liked her so he took her to boarding school; Utawala Academy, in the Administration Police college. She was in class three. One day, a term or two in, the headmistress called her to her office on closing day and sitting there was her father. She was terrified. “Remember, my mom had put it in our heads that our father was really the bogeyman. So when the headmistress asked me if I knew the man sitting in her office, I looked at my own father and said, “No, I don’t know this man.” My father smiled like he understood and said, “I will always find you wherever you are. I will always love you.” She cried narrating this. She would often cry when narrating her father’s story.
Not long after, her father showed up in school in a Volvo and took her away to his home in Ngumo where he lived with his family. She felt unwanted in that home. “My step-mom never beat me, but she made me feel invisible. She never addressed me. She never recognised me. I was a nobody, I was nothing, not worthy of any recognition. I didn’t exist in her world. Do you know how it feels like not to be seen as a human being?” She would say amidst tears. “I think my step-mom saw me as a constant reminder of my dad’s infidelity. One time, she gave my father an ultimatum; it was either me or them. My father told her that he chose me and that she was free to leave. That day I really cried, Baldy. I have never cried like that. I felt so unwanted.”
She calls me Baldy because I’m losing my hair. She thinks she’s original and funny calling me Baldy. She thinks she can start a career in comedy, that one. It would be a tragedy, a comedy of errors. She talks about her time in Moi Girls and then in Laizer Hill. About jumping over fences with a band of errant boys and drinking. Then came university, the tattoos (she has six), then quitting uni to join an advertising agency and then shit just going to hell because of alcohol and superfluous friendships. “I had a bar in my house. I hosted friends and we’d drink a lot. Daily. We’d go out and drink until the wee hours of the morning. It was wild.” She says. When you are in pain you fill that void with something, anything.
One day her brother came to her workplace and said he was leaving the country. He was running away from the ghosts of their childhood. There was nothing left for him in Kenya. “I didn’t blame him,” she said. “He wanted to get as far away from our mom as he could. He had also wanted to know who his father was. Our mom had told him he was Zambian.” They hugged and he was gone. He has never returned. “Good for him.” She says.
Then her father died and she wanted to die too. He was her protector and defender, the only person who she knew loved her unconditionally.
First, she tried to kill herself with alcohol, drinking daily with friends over at her house. Then when the friends would leave, she would start scrubbing and bleaching the house in the middle of the night, the prime hour when her demons came out of the closet to soiree.
Then she lost her job two weeks before Christmas. Now she had a good reason to go ahead with the suicide mission. Except there was one little thing standing between her and her plans; a party. “There was a New Year’s party planned to happen in Kilifi with a legitimate promise of alcohol, and that was good enough for me to RSVP. So I postponed my suicide for after the festivities. This party was it! The final encore.”
It was a four-day drinking party, her final party. “Most days my mood simulation was like that of the Newtons Cradle; vacillating through euphoria, depression and rage. While at the event, I remember my mind occasionally wandering as I watched the sea of revellers. I wondered who they were, if they were happy, if they had people who loved them, if they had paid their January rent, I wondered if they could see me. I felt as unseen as a fleeting breath. I felt like a complete failure.”
When she returned to Nairobi she found a houseful of loneliness, the perfect backdrop for suicide. “Here I was, having squandered the little money I had on partying with the full knowledge that January and its 96 days would be waiting for me. I had borrowed from friends I hadn’t already borrowed from, from loan apps. I had borrowed and borrowed till I could not borrow any more. I cried myself to sleep most nights, there was barely any money left to fund my drinking habit. So I had to be present in my murky reality.” She was ready to kill herself until her plans were derailed once again when her step-mom got sick and before she died (it was imminent), she went to her deathbed and told her that she had forgiven her and was letting her go. (It’s hard to forgive people when they haven’t apologised). She died in February 2019. “This meant that I had to look out for my elder sister, who was like this fragile bird. Comforting her, or trying to, was the one thing that willed me up each morning. I put her grief and pain before mine.”
She explored different ways to kill herself. There was hanging. “I felt it would be too traumatic for my downstairs neighbour…and I like her. I also wasn’t too sure about good knots. The last thing I wanted was to jump off the fourth floor and break my legs and I didn’t have insurance.” She danced around pills but everytime she wanted to pop them, the thought of her grieving sister slowed her down because she was the only person she talked to.
Then in April 2019 our lives collided. A few weeks later I told her she was an alcoholic. “You know when you said that,” she says, “I went on to ask some of my friends if I was an alcoholic and they said, ‘naah uko tu sawa’ but then I was curious, so I read up on it. You know, Baldy, I had never imagined myself to be an alcoholic until you mentioned it. I think you might have changed my life.” Ha. I didn’t. We collided when we were meant to, not a day earlier or later. Around the same time, she met a spiritual leader who told her God loved her. “His exact words were, ‘when you start going back to church, your life will change. And you will know that it is Him at work.’” She made a pact with God that she has never told me; that He takes away her alcoholism and she would give Him something in return.
A few weeks later she gave her life to Christ, and in that period, she woke up one day and decided that she would never drink again. “I had done some introspection. Or as Kenyans say, ‘I called myself for a small meeting’,” she says. “My life, the drinking, the people I spent time with. It felt like I was going around in circles. A life of going around the same revolving door. I was tired. I wanted something better, I wanted to be free from the ball and chain that was alcoholism. I was tired of living a treadmill life; running endlessly but going nowhere. I had to make adjustments and I was ready to pay the price for those adjustments. Some people have said I have a very radical spirit; that once I make up my mind about something, it’s extremely difficult to change it. So I dropped people. I became busy, or alternatively didn’t answer calls anymore. I like my solitude, erasing people was no big deal. I knew they would talk. They probably still do, but I was done, and I didn’t care. It was time to fix my relationship with God.
“God made a way in the wasteland that was my life. My story is filled with broken pieces, terrible choices and ugly truths. It is also filled with a major comeback, peace in my soul and grace that saved my life. Not to Bible-thump, but God is the God of the Bible. I’m happier now than I remember ever being. My circle is small and useful. I have learnt to spend a lot of time with myself because I have never loved myself more than I do now. Sometimes my best Friday evenings are spent just watching my cats nap.”
Ivory is celebrating two years of sobriety this month. Not a drop of booze. God took her alcoholism away but I think He forgot her potty mouth. Maybe He will come back for that. Maybe He won’t. I can live with that, though, she’s a diamond. In the rough.
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