My mother was an angry lioness most of the time but her fury rose to uncontainable levels when it came to romance. “If you have sex, you will either get a baby, HIV/AIDS or both,” she drilled that line as often as she could. Even though it was directed at my older siblings, being in the same house, I somehow picked the cue. I was afraid of women I didn’t feel comfortable sharing a seat with one. I was afraid of imaginary consequences transferable by air or through osmosis.
One day, like the swiftness of thunder, a bold queen makes a move on me. I was in class five. Even though I was naïve, the attention stirred a strange feeling in my heart. For the first time, I knew the trouble a blessed chest (hers was richer than the DRC) put me through. I vividly remember her glowing skin and how it played with my emotions. She was in class seven and obviously older than me.
She was arguably the hottest woman in that rural school. She was clean you’d think she dipped herself in honey like Cleopatra and repeated the ritual between lessons. Her sandak shoes were clean she stood out like a sore thumb in the assembly. Teachers often used her as an epitome of hygiene and focus.
The son of Kano, on the other hand, was a man whose esteem had been whipped off by poverty and lack. We were so poor the poor called us poor.
I spent most of the primary school days combing the grass with my toes. Shoes were such a luxury in our home it was uncomfortable to wear one when we got some. Even now, if you keenly observe my legs, you can see the influence of that season in their shape.
My head was ravaged with ringworms I couldn’t lower it lest they fall off on other people. I fought off flies relentlessly to leave my head alone. My teeth were falling off from the excessive sweets my uncles gave me when I came to the city every holiday.
Short in stature and small in size, my academic results placed me in the league of legends. To miss my name in the top three positions was a miracle.
Once upon a time, the village gathered around a fireplace to ‘beat’ stories while you shone brightly in the sky. Darkness melted like wax in your presence. Like swimming is to fish, you never struggled to shine. You needed no permission to do so. You shone bright like a diamond. That was before the world defined you!
One day, as hailstorms hit a dry ground with fury, subtle comments arrived. If it wasn’t about your personality trait, it was your looks. “Your hair is so tough, how do you comb it?” a person jokingly commented. Their comments were innocent but they landed in the soft underbelly of human insecurities. Even though you downplayed the comment, it never left your mind. It became the invincible remote control that flipped you like TV channels.
Perhaps the comments were about your academic performance. The teachers didn’t know anything about unique forms of learning or dyslexia. “You are so slow in class people walking from Nairobi will arrive in Kisumu before you grasp one sentence,” a teacher shouted before classmates who laughed hysterically because it was funny.
Maybe it came from a parent who jokingly mocked your handwriting when you brought the assignment home. “Why do you write like a duck’s web on mud? You should be writing like so and so,” he/she commented and redefined your uniqueness henceforth.
Perhaps people mocked your speech. The stammer, the village accent you had, the lisp or your sense of fashion that didn’t quite meet their specifications. The comments came in thick and fast (Jeff Koinange’s voice) and they caught you flat-footed.
A casual comment at home that compared you to a sibling, a neighbour, a classmate or a friend rewired who you are. Your benchmark became the people you were compared to and you forgot that your best competitor is yourself.
Perhaps it’s an ex-lover who chipped into your self-esteem by their comments or unrealistic expectations. Maybe they spoke unpleasant words to you in the heat of the moment and you believed them. Or a spouse who didn’t quite appreciate a certain part of your body and you hated it while you had no problem with it before.
These comments were not intended to change how you viewed the world around you but they did. It didn’t matter they came from the people you loved, looked up to or were entrusted to nurture your gifts.
Then you grew conscious about aspects of your life you didn’t pay attention to. Fitting in became a coping mechanism. In the process, you paid attention to the voices of critics in your head except yourself. Your spark snuffed out. You became a copy of someone you used to be.
Your self-esteem vanished like dew on the grass. It didn’t matter whether you believed in your abilities before you met them; their comments defined your worldview. You became a prisoner in their worlds.
I grew up in Kano plains when it lived up to its name. Floods swept villages. People moved to temporary camps until floods subsided. It didn’t matter whether there were no roads to school or not, you had to go to school. With floods everywhere, we swam to school while balancing books and uniform on our back.
I grew up as a confident kid. Second last born in a family of six, I brought the best academic results at home. While my siblings were in the kitchen cooking, I lit a kerosene lump in our grass-thatched house and read. When exam time came, I occupied the top three positions for a long time. My parents were proud of me and they didn’t keep quiet about it.
In a school where repeating class was the norm, I was fast, especially in languages and humanities. The deputy head teacher Mr Mika Dola couldn’t hide his pride. He hid tea (with milk) and bread (with margarine) in his office and pulled me out of class to consume away from other students. It was a great honour to eat bread (leave alone with margarine) in the village.
Whenever I passed by the staff room, he called to parade me in front of teachers. His praises flowed endlessly until I was uncomfortable because I somehow hated the attention. I never disappointed him especially in Geography where I mastered all the rivers in Africa like the back of my hand. When he asked a question about a particular river and no one in the class had an answer, always animated, he turned his back & while facing the board, like a master performer, he lifted his hands and shouted, “Odongo, tell them.” I always got the answer.
Still, at home, I was a well-behaved kid. Whenever I was sent to the market, I not only brought the best product, I got it at a reasonable rate. I became my mother’s favourite errand boy in her omena business. Even when turbulent teenage years arrived, I never forgot who I am. I believed in myself fully it didn’t matter the academic results I brought home because it wasn’t a reflection of the capacity of my brain. I continued like that for years until I joined the corporate world and excelled at Stima Sacco. But even the most confident of us can succumb to the pressure of emotional abuse.
When the previous job I held ended in March 2018, it hadn’t dawned on me just how wrecked I was. The season had been tough coupled with a difficult romantic relationship that lasted for three years. Before all that, I was a confident young man who was driven by results. When I left, I doubted my abilities.
I believed a lie I was ineffective and hopelessly irredeemable when evidence showed contrary. The organization was perfect. It provided an opportunity for people to soar despite their backgrounds. I had one of the most noticeable career growth while there. Sometimes bosses don’t espouse the ideals of the organization they work for.
I started the corporate journey in August 2008 burning with ambition. I joined Stima Sacco at the age of 22 on a commission basis without a retainer, a working desk, medical cover or a pay slip. My boss gave me an opportunity to soar. He saw potential beyond the restless soul I possessed. He was firm but objective. Above all, he demonstrated leadership by being on the frontline. When I was leaving 4 years later, I had climbed the ladder to be the regional marketing officer. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I could be a victim of a mental health breakdown.
The shock absorbers I painstakingly built over time were slowly eroded. In the end, I suffered a terrible mental health breakdown that got me admitted to a hospital in December 2018. While I was on that hospital bed, nothing else mattered except getting well. Material wealth made no sense whatsoever. I desperately wanted to get better.
My insurance provider (Jubilee) bailed out on me citing preexisting condition clause while I hadn’t been diagnosed before. I wiped my savings to pay for the bills. Since the admission, I’ve not done a meaningful income generating activity. I spend about eight thousand shillings per month on medication and doctor’s fees. The journey to recovery has been costly, lonely and difficult. I’ve ‘wasted’ half of the year trying to get back on my feet.
I know too well how difficult it is to walk away from an abusive job that pays your bills. I understand how difficult it can be to walk away from an abusive relationship because babies are involved or you are afraid. I struggled for long. Looking back, I wish I knew how costly it is to stay in a toxic environment.
Even when we talk about emotional abuse, it’s too abstract many people struggle to get it fully. We are not told how damaging an abusive situation can be to our entire system.
With my experience, let me encourage you; it doesn’t matter what reasons you have to stay in that abusive job. It doesn’t matter what reasons you have for staying in that abusive relationship. Abuse is costly, addictive and damaging in the long run.
Get allergic to nonsense. Fiercely defend your sanity. Bravely live in the moment. Worry not about what the future holds but savour the now. Let no regret govern your life. Let go when it no longer fulfils any purpose. Walk away from toxic situations with your head up. Value yourself.
Don’t justify why you have to stay but pack your bags and run for your life. I pray you may find grace to walk away while you still can. I pray for God’s grace as you make tough decisions for the sake of your sanity.
The greatest wealth is a peace of mind. Guard it jealously.