I must have an affair with a scientist. This is how it will work

I have always wanted a pretty intense affair with scientists. I will not be the first. Science journalists have affairs with scientists that have linked the newsroom, labs and people into this intimate space of disease pathology, nutrition, and food security among others. It is a beautiful relationship. They have given us their knowledge on Aids and other killers and with our descriptive flair, we have educated the public about these diseases there is hardly any stigma around them and the medical seeking behaviour is positive.

Now, take a look around. Kenya, as is the rest of the world, is being brought to its knees by many things: malnutrition, devastating effects of climate change, ill health… Let the earth stop rotating I want to alight. The solution to some of these challenges is going to be scientific. That will need the participation of the public and the scientist. I will be right there in the middle to make sure that both the scientist and the public are on the same page through journalism. The relationship I have with the public is solid: they are my primary interest. However, I need a little bit more intimacy on the one I have with the scientist. The thought of this seduction reminds me of that man who tried to take a selfie with an elephant. He died.

Science as a beat, unlike, say politics or entertainment, requires some tact and finesse that defies usual journalism standard operating procedure. The subject…never gets anybody’s writing juices flowing. Pick any published paper from a journal and read the headline. It is usually some jaw-breaking title that need a ceremony to pronounce …hey y’all, gather around, we are about to read the title of this paper. You see that face you have when I read the paper is the same I get from the editor when I pitch that story to the editor for publishing. This is the editor who has edited these kinds of stories since I was in my diapers. So what will the public, for whom I am supposed to make the information less complicated, say?

Then comes the issue of the person I am trying to seduce here: the scientist is a skeptical, uptight and sometimes condescending human being he kills my sentimental vibe. In fact, he does not crave my attention like the politician. I will meet him for an interview on a topic that I may have read about intensely for a week and before I say a word, he will be like “you journalists like sensationalizing stuff, you write silly stuff that do not matter”. I will smile, genuinely like a doll. At the back of my head I will be like “Professor, if you only knew that I was that girl who finished her math an hour before time and got As anyway”

But you know what, I get it. Before his paper(s) was published, there was peer review. I know that is just a polite name for the ego bruising process where overly critical scientists comb through a paper he submitted for publishing with a toothpick. These mean reviewers will try to find flaws in, among many other parts of the paper, the methodology. Then they will give the scientist their unkind comments and he will have either have to back to the field to carry out more tests or respond. These mean people may even reject the paper. Godamned it. So I know. Science is annoyingly slow, time consuming and resource intensive that when you cross to the other end the only fuck you give about is whether the bacteria you were studying has mutated.

Now that his paper survived and got published—wait wait, let us toast to that—he has little to gain from media coverage. In fact, he could lose should I overly simplify his findings in an effort to make the information palatable to the public. So when I—a journalist with no back ground in science at all, well I know the position of Barium in the periodic table—approach him to write about his study, I understand why there is a wall he has erected between us.

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 Prof Andre’ Swart,Executive Dean : Faculty of Health Sciences of the University of Johannesburg when I visited the university last year

I have a few needs that I intend to make very clear at the beginning of the affair. One, the scientist has to try very hard to be available when his woman needs attention. There are deadlines in the newsroom that if missed could cost the company millions of dollars in revenue. When that happens who is going to pay my salary? This is what I mean to say when I say an article meant to be published on Sunday but has to be submitted to the editor on Wednesday by noon: The graphic designer has to read the story and come up with appealing and appropriate designs for the layout; the chief subeditor has to cut what I wrote into what will fit the page and careful enough not to lose meaning; the revise editor has to make sure the language fits the paper’s style; if there is data, the coding guy has to make those interactive stuff for the website; the photo editor has to find appropriate pictures; I have to call some of his colleagues just to make sure that I understand what he was saying.

Two, I would like a little simplicity. In his circles the cabbage is brassica oleracea. To me, it had better be a vegetable.

Three, this intimacy has to maintain some level of boundaries to allow me to keep him in check. There is commentary on that prestige journal Nature by Boyce Rensberger. Boyce was director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1998 to 2008, and a science reporter for 32 years, chiefly at The Washington Post and The New York Times, very premium papers if you ask me. So Boyce says that there is a danger in journalists persuading the public to believe that science and the player in that industry will be the solution to all their problems. But of course, the scientist is a saviour. Are they? There are some papers with falsified data, which pass through peer review and then get published anyway.  So if I put the scientist on a pedestal where whatever he says is a “decreed truth”, I will not treat him with that healthy dose of skepticism when I should because science is not, after all, perfect. If it was, the number of papers being retracted have would not have increased tenfold since 1975 and you can follow those retractions here

So many demands Verah! What will you do?

I am very easy to love because I teach you how I would like to be loved. Like how to make sure you get and keep my attention from all these suitors. I am a very attractive intelligent woman and everybody wants a piece of me. Just come see my email: there is a schools pitching a new programme they have launched that will teach students about entrepreneurship… that needs coverage. A public hospital with a new cancer machine… I should write about that too. With all these suitors, he would throw Yego’s Javelin to get me to see there is something of public interest from the ridiculously unappealing titles his kind gives his work. When he calls or emails about this study he and his colleagues have conducted on some drug that may alleviate the pain in cancer patients, I will answer. Fast.

Honestly, I have never understood why he is perpetually running from the social media. Imagine the dude comes from culturing the ebola Virus in the lab but finds the social media dangerous. There is something that that much reading does to their brains. So I will teach him how to hide in plain sight in the media. I have done that for five years. I will encourage him to blog. I will show him how a science blog looks like and how that easily grabs my attention in the mainstream media and not lose out on other lovers in the vast space in the internet from other media houses. This relationship is polygamous. I would genuinely love to know what goes on in his mind when he is out there in the field and a blog is an awesome avenue to let me in. I would write well about his work when I understand his world. So lover, let me in, and you will be surprised what my kind find fascinating about your work. In 2013, one of my lovers took me to Netherlands in a multinational that manufactures medical equipment. Imagine my shock when I learnt the cost (money, human resource, water and electricity) of having a linear accelerator. I thought “oh well, even if Kenya bought this machine, these demands would make it useless in many hospitals in Kenya”.

Me at a Philips Museum in Netherlands in 2013
Me at a Philips Museum in Netherlands in 2013. After this, I went to see the medical equipment like the one below

 

I saw this and said: "What a cool thing...but I wouldn't want to need this because it will mean I will be sick
I saw this and said: “What a cool thing…but I wouldn’t want to need this because it will mean I will be sick

Take a look at this poorly recorded video of me with another lover of mine in Guateng in South Africa last year.

Then I would encourage him to tweet his opinions, like Dr Ahmed Kalebi here

Buzz Amos and Josh 3

Kenyan duo Amos and Josh sang about death: I fell in love with them

Being a health journalist, there is the immense feeling that comes with people letting you in on their struggles. That look of trust in your ability to tell their stories of pain and victories and let the world feel it as they are in it. With permission from the subject of topic, let me tell you about an experience I had. Early this year, some prominent woman approached me, seeking my story telling skills to help her put up some literature of the struggles of an older woman she loved who was “terminally ill”, she told me. “This book will be read by many generations to come”, she emphasized. I sensed an urgency in her voice but I was too excited to think much of it. I considered this as another chance to learn something about another country, another culture. One evening in that country, I lay in this palace-like setting. Skinny and disheveled –I was just too skinny in January— I wondered what it felt living in this opulence, surrounded by body guards and servants. I thought about my assignment. I had five days to put into words, a history of a matriarch of a family of a culture that deeply contrasted the one I grew in. My twenty page book would explain to her grandchildren who she was, her values… Deep.

The following day, I walked into my assignment. When I saw her, I understood why this was so important. She was in her last days of battling cancer. I sat there talking to her, taking notes, recording, and with using every ounce of my energy to remain composed. For the three days, walking back to my room after spending hours with her, just the two of us, I was acutely reminded of how little I am as a human being. That evening, on the rooftop where my breath was taken away, I said to myself “even all the money cannot save me some time”… Truly life and health is a gift.

She loved what I wrote. Just a couple of days ago, I went to attend her burial. It broke my heart. Not one to display vulnerability in public by crying and stuff like that, I went to my room and processed what I was feeling over music. I listened to various artistes who had penned down fall-down gorgeous and emotionally devastating masterpieces about their own grief. As a lover of country music—you know there is a very interesting history of me spending a portion of my teenage near a 54-year old Dutch who played the guitar and loved country music— I found Darryl Worley’s I miss my friend quite consoling. The song made me cry a lot, and it got me curious about the structure of sad songs. Why would it make me cry and yet soothe me at the same time? While at it, I was surprised that while death is a very big part of human life cycle, contemporary artistes in Kenya rarely draw inspiration from death. There are musicians who have become famous by letting people mourn through their sings like British Robbie Williams’ Angels , Diamond Rio You’re gone . … the list is as long as your interest in music.

So I took three days looking at playlists in local radio stations, YouTube and music programmes in TV in Kenya sampling the subjects that many Kenyan musicians sing about. I discovered that while loss featured prominently, it was about heartbreak or failed relationship. Then I stumbled on “Baadaye” by Amos and Josh.

Finally something about death from a Kenyan. You will read the review of the song on our weekend paper Saturday Nation this weekend, and I will update this blog to reflect that. Kenyans may remember Amos and Josh from Tusker project fame, giving a Kenyan touch to KCI and Jojo’s single “Tell me its Real”.I asked Cedric Kadenyi who produced “Baadaye” about the structure of the song and true to what I suspected, the piece adhered to a widely held— albeit vague and disputed by composers— notion that sad songs are written on minor keys, and have a slow tempo. So I decided to check Amos and Josh other pieces and I just fell in love with them, for many reasons which I am about to mansplain.

One, there is nothing as musically intoxicating like an artiste with a great command of his voice and has a great vocal range. I love it that Amos and Josh can sing along tunes that you play on the piano at this end of piano and still be comfortable when your hands move to the notes on that extreme end of the scale. Two, lyrics—the poetic flow, rhyme, choice of words—set each musician apart. Music is “shallow” when the words do not connect with the feelings it is trying to evoke in you. I am a very sensitive human being and the fact that I can sense happiness in this duo’s music, is a big plus. From the lyrics in their single Moto Moto , I gather the two may have grown up in the church, read the bible or are Pentecostals: The similarities of certain verses in the song from the book of psalms or normal Pentecostal statements are notable. The song’s bridge goes like “Jua likiwaka niwe nawe, mchana kutwa, jioni likitua jua, usiniache (As the sun rises I will be with you, the whole day, in the evening when it sets, don’t leave me) … very close to Psalms 113 verse 3…from the rising of the sun to its setting The name of the LORD is to be praise”

Amos and Josh, I got my eyes on you. Well, if you release a crappy piece, I will come back and nail your asses on the cross

BouBou2

I will marry and have sex when I want

Sex. Begin any topic on the exchange of body fluids and see how passionately opinionated Kenyans get. I have written about HIV and the counties with high prevalence and I get questions like “you mean to say we have more sex than others?” Do you see how fast Catholics oppose polio vaccine when they imagine it will stop women from giving birth? Don’t look at me like that! I know what day it is. It is… you will read this on Monday even though I am writing it on Sunday and scheduling it on my blog. I am certain you must have borne this subject in the morning radio shows. You know I should have just developed a deep baritone and joined radio and after a few failed singing competitions and nude pictures—my godfather who is a pastor would have a heart attack so I won’t do that— I would be a “relationship coach”. This is Kenya, you can be anything you want, including a “marriage counsellor/coach” … with no standing marriage or raised children.

How are you, reader? How unAfrican of me. How can I begin talking to y’all without greeting? I missed y’all. While we are at the pleasantries, I would like to flaunt my very “mature” boubou dress. My very own design, tailored by my buddy Sally.boubou3

I could pass for pastor/prophetess Verah right now, right? You know, I derive so much joy in being African. How else would I wear that on my sleeve if I don’t wear tribal outfits?

BouBou2

Let us get back to our topic. At 28—God I am aging fast— a Kenyan woman is forced to think about sex for two reasons: one, where she falls in this “sponsor” debate… like is she using her sexual organ to get herself the high life? Or two, why she has not gotten a man who will have sex with her every day for the rest of her life with whom she can make babies. I am not worried about the first option because try as I may, I have not mastered the art of getting morsels of their time. I am an artiste, a sentimental neurotic clingy bastard. There are days I wake up dressed like a Goth queen and sing along Bon Jovi’s You give Love a bad name word by word. The following day, I would be Prof Kairuki the microbiologist telling you in detail how the Tuberculosis bacterium has mutated to become drug resistant. I mean you get to have free entertainment watching me switch from one to the other of the 500 personalities that live within me. No, you do not get to meet women like me. So you either love me devotedly and obsessively or you get sublime into oblivion.

Now the second one. This is really creasing my brow. When my age mates are marrying right and centre, women my age are tired of hearing questions like “When are you naming someone after me?”, “Where is our in-law?”. Nobody ever asks us when the master’s degree is coming? The mark of a successful woman in Kenya is the one who is getting married, even to a bohemian savage. Be a graduate with dreadlocks like me with a few tattoos on your body and ride bike to work like me and you will hear statements like “She smokes weed”.

Before we get into the reason why I find the pressure to marry downright annoying, let me stop with the emotional bastardy and wear my objective hat of a journalist. Take my hand, let us take a walk through my mind. There are no official statistics, at least none that I know of, but the rate of separations and divorce are at an all-time high in Kenya as is globally. Professional counsellors tell me so. It would be difficult to explain the tragedy of a broken marriage because we are a society that has clichéd anecdotal quotes and remedies for everything. “Take the high road, change your wardrobe, work out and you will feel new”… and other shallow pieces of advice you will hear being told to men and women hurting from a broken union. Go to YouTube and there will be some cheesy video on “How to forget your ex in 5 seconds”.

You have heard break ups of long term relationships being described as ‘devastating, painful”. Here is something about pain. It is hard to describe a positive emotion, such as happiness or lack thereof, when you are happy. I have fallen in love once—or twice…? — And when in that state, I was busy loving and being loved I couldn’t write any song about love. When all went awry, I took my bleeding heart, placed it on my hand and analysed from all angles and put those thoughts into a memoir. So unless you have gone through it, you cannot possibly know a thing about divorce. It is all personal and unique it makes you emotionally, and sometimes physically, sick

Then there is a very interesting statistic that nobody has come across: the divorce is alarmingly high between age 25 and 30. Let me tell you why. My age mates know what they want in their “ever after”, the A to Z but have not the slightest clue about the B-to-Y of that process. We are told of the happily after. We are not informed of how saying “I do” is the beginning of another complex process of trying to fall in love with and normalize annoying behaviour like the snoring, lip smacking of a grown ass human being. The thought of a snoring husband…let me get on my knees and pray harder. The society pushes women to marriages when they, and the men they are going to marry, may be at the point where they base everything on fairy tale promises. Marriage is made in Heaven and by God, you say. So is thunder and lightning. You pray about it, they tell me. No amount of praying will fix a wrong choice of a partner.

I heard in one of those many Ted Talks I tune to that one of the greatest battles we fight as a human being is with our egos. You make peace with it either by having a sense of grandiosity (superiority complex) or an unhealthy modesty (inferiority complex). The society wrongly interprets superiority complex as boldness and inferiority complex as humility yet these are people who are so affected by what the world thinks about them. We should instead celebrate the one who falls in the middle, a man or woman who is independent enough to resist the obsessive clutch of the world which tries to fit you into a box when we are all different. This person is the one who will have mastered the three traits that psychologist and researcher Joanne Davilla spoke about: Insight, an awareness of who you are, why you act the way you do and what emotional and spiritual needs you have in a relationship; mutuality, the ability to know that the other human being has needs too; and emotional regulation, which is the strength to weather very difficult situations like a grown person…say a break up.

So stop with the pressure. When we bow down to it, women marry men they are not compatible with and the two end up destroying each other. It gets messy when there are children involved. You know if you give a 10 year old man a shaver, they will hurt themselves. Give it to them at 30 they will find it useful. Allow people to grow. There are women who will find love in men who earn little than they do, or are disabled. There are men who will find love in women who are older than them, or from a different race. It will look so socially disjointed but they will be so happy and fulfilled. Yes, I will marry and have sex when I want.

We’re not making love no more…

It was a kiss so passionate it left me shaken, warm and tender. I told him, amidst sobs, to leave me alone. Instead of walking away, he pulled me back into these strong powerful arms and silenced my resistance by a kiss. We had fought. Yet in the turmoil within me, I breathed the safety of his masculinity. I allowed myself to smell his sweat as he cupped my face in his hands. He looked down on my face and whispering “I am sorry”. Then he covered my mouth with his again, taking me in his arms so ravenously I felt my anger melt away in his love. My body was so acutely aware of how much I needed him. He and I had always had this fiery love that vibrated and everybody felt whenever we were in a room together. We both awakened so much passion in each other. And that evening, the love we made was long, intense. I swear with every touch, every stroke I could feel him tell me how much it meant to him that I was here. From the first day we saw each other, we stood looking into each other’s eyes and he said “You” and I responded “Yes, me” before we both smiled and walked away. He was my soul mate, girl…. But I am never going to hold him like that again and that is killing me, Verah.
Say what! I responded rather distractedly, hardly raising my hands from the fabric I was cutting. Mary (of course that is not her real name) was blowing her nose miserably as she narrated that sentimental bastardy to me about a man with whom he had established THE connection. Mary and I met each other in Facebook (weird…I knooow right?) and I do not want to label it karmic stuff, but this girl and I understand each other in a level that even I, who is never lacking in opinion, cannot explain. Strangely, she and I deeply contrast each other: She has the grace, tact and finesse of a 50 year old debutante, always forging these genuine relationships with people. Mary’s nails are always made, her hair neat and her outfits are neatly ironed.
It was funny that we sat here discussing men and dating, two topics whose understanding I could not pin on my lapels like a carnation. I was about to tell her to give the man her all and tell him she loved him. If he did not reciprocate her affection, she should drop his ass and move on. I could not tell her that because I knew it would take years before she even hugs another man. No, she is not ugly. She is actually a show stopper. She has a very difficult time establishing contact with anybody. She – I believe they call her type empaths, no? — will reject you because her intuition told her so. She sees a spiritual angle to everything, like you are her friend because your “energy agrees with mine”. She is naturally inquisitive with a very rich emotional life—that makes her a great story teller I suppose— and I understand because I am like her.
We love art so that our many temperaments can find a home. Take a look at me for instance. My expressive self loves music, and a wide variety of it from rock to country and flamenco. My serious I-mean-business nature loves science. Mary’s calm nature loves literature and painting. She combines cooking and hosting so perfectly she always attenuates my social skills but find her in a court of law in litigation you would not believe there is a soft bone in her. Despite her sensitivity, my girl has managed to build herself vibrant social life in Nairobi. She finds my inability to go out on a coffee date once in a month rather unsettling. She blames it on my geeky glasses, aversion to wear make-up… and jeans. Can you believe that? I rubbish her concerns every day. I know she knows that while many may not want to admit it, it is possible to be lonely in this big vibrant city, surrounded by people whose presence provide an ingredient of cooking up a near perfect façade in those airbrushed pictures in the social media. Let me get a little deep on that. Loneliness here is not physical solitude. It is the paucity of connection, kinship, the absence of finding intimacy that a soul requires. In an age of consumerism and where sex is easily available, genuine love has become elusive. As a journalist, I interact with people every day and on a daily basis, I rake my mind trying to understand human behaviour.
So when Mary tells me I am lonely— and by her standards I have been for a while. This is a phenomenon I find much comfort in because it is in solitude that the greatest pieces of my award-winning articles, clothes design or music were born.
Don’t let go of me baby, this rambling is going to land us in some philosophical bullshit at some point. Mary and I are in that age—I in my late 20s and she in her late 30s— where not having a man, any man, by our side communicate that we possess an unhealthy dose of rebellion, deviance from the norm…or failure. I have listened to pieces of advice on what a woman needs to do to “get and keep a man”. I will refrain from belaboring on that and explain something here. But it is never that simple.
For people like Mary and I, there has to be that feeling when you meet a person and smile at him and you look at each other with the I-have-been-waiting-for-you look. Life is such a wonderful gift, so beautiful there is nothing wrong in taking a turtle’s pace and just…breathe. Now that did not come out right, it is lame but you get it, right?
So when Mary met Nathan at a book launch, she came back home radiant and flushed. She announced rather dramatically “I think I am in love”. I looked up from my books, and yes she nagged me about why I had not taken time in my leave to change my geeky spectacles, and I noticed it in her eyes: the intimacy of being understood. Man that was a hard thing for a woman who has known pain to get. I smiled and continued typing away furiously.
When I finally met Nathan, I knew she was not lying. He loved books, as madly as Mary did. Then there were a series of coincidences. Mary would post a link on twitter and that very minute Nathan would have shares a similar thing. Each would both be in their house and then they would be reading the same book and watching the same series! What scared me was when Mary fell in the bathroom and he called to ask what was happening to her because “he could feel her hurt”. In 2010, before she had known of his existence on earth, Mary had visited Cape Town in South Africa, a week before he visited the same place. What surprised me is that when I stalked their Instagram accounts I noticed that both of them had chosen the same places to take their photographs. That was 2010. When they met, he became the first one he wanted to share anything with. Surely wasn’t this the proverbial match made in Heaven?
I was really interested in knowing what would keep these two apart. The answer knocked me off my chair. Nathan came from the same clan as Mary’s mother in K’akrao in Migori County. They were not related in any way, but culture forbids them from being together. Medically, any baby that they would have made would not have any genetic malformations. It is just that in the Luo culture, there are clans that are considered to be so closely related from the fifth century they cannot intermarry! That is the crazy –but sometimes good— part of an intimacy between two people: a relationship needs to be accepted by your community. Damn poetic justice, right?

fathiu-14

Clothed in the love of the women who wanted to die

Early this week, Sandra (whose blog you should check out) and I had a little photo session to capture my awkward moments as a model for a beautiful red shift dress. I have to confess that even though I am not very maternal, I wished I was pregnant in this red dress.I could have been such a hot mama. I knooow, right? You can check some of the photos here on my flicker page. You know I sincerely hope this bold move to share my pictures will embolden me to be a little more expressional of my fashion. An artiste’s work is an extension is who s/he. They fear it being criticised because when we make it, it is not about whether it is good or not. We were going through something and we communicated through art. Back to the dress. Yes the dress. The reactions on the photo below- its height, colour warts and all- has been… profound. Let us just thank God my pastor godfather does not have access to my inbox.

Red shift dress with jewellery from Tuinuke Tuendelee women's group PHOTO/Sandra Ruong'o
Red shift dress with jewellery from Tuinuke Tuendelee women’s group PHOTO/Sandra Ruong’o

On this red dress, you can see my very colourful jewellery. These beads are a story of two women who were on the way to the grave and refused to die. Last month I met two women—Lucy and Rosemary— HIV survivors whose story I wrote for one of our magazines. I met them through my friend from campus Chris Sunday. Chris works for, Fondazione L’Albero della Vita, an international organisation that has assisted Mary and the women in her care on how to manage their money, sell their crafts and use whatever little is available in their sorrounding to survive. It looks so easy when I put it like that, right? It wasn’t. Poor and ostracized, their neighbours barred them from even using the public toilet sometimes. That was not what touched me. The stories that usually remain etched in your mind as a journalist are the “off the record” statements.

Rosemary(Left) and Lucy(right) in their workshop in Nairobi's Mathare area.
Rosemary(Left) and Lucy(right) in their workshop in Nairobi’s Mathare area.

By all means, Mary and Lucy had been shortchanged at life. They had given so much and yet gotten so little out of it. Yet here they were, taking in other women to hold their hands and walk with them through greater or lesser problems that they had encountered on their own. In their three bedroom house at the heart of Nairobi’s Mathare area, young women with children came in and they took them in so lovingly you would imagine they have lived there with them forever.

I love TD Jakes, and he said something today that reminded me that we cannot allow circumstances in our lives to silence our thirst to achieve what is big. Within us, there are dreams bigger than us. When we allow ourselves to be silenced, even the voices of those that would have benefitted from us get silenced too.

The women in Rosemary and Lucy's care at work
The women in Rosemary and Lucy’s care at work

Look at Lucy and Mary. They never felt the pressure to respond to what looked like “normal”. In a world that was cruel, they chose “gentle”. In an environment where everybody gave politically correct answers on controversial issues, Lucy and Mary chose to stand by single mothers. As you draw your inspiration from their lives, please pass by Chris Sunday’s wall and let him guide you to where you can buy the beautiful stuff that these women make.

Madam laywer! clears throat...

I love them older… really!

Hold it! Did I just say that? First of all, can I get a little space to rant. I loved math in high school. In fact, I was one of those girls people came to and ask “Verah can you show me how I can get an A in math too?” I loved it because the simplicity: there is a formulae, apply it on the question, calculate, get an answer. However, I hated it when math was applied in real life like in business where we would be talking “liquidity” and some other jaw-breaking business terms. Then I loved the civics part of History and Government – you know the law making process, those Latin words like Jus sangurus and all that shit that made me look like some Athenian philosophical goddess. I wanted to be a lawyer those days in my teens.

Madam laywer! clears throat...
I could have made a ball-bursting lawyer like Jessica of Suits. Damn Kenya’s education system!

But I hated the history part of History and Government. A question reads “account for the downfall of Lobengula.20marks”. Then I was like, wasn’t he Zimbabwean? How is that going to help me as a Kenyan? The potbellied man, resisted colonialism, white man did not like it, white man beat him. Simple. Then there was that fellow from TZ, Kinjekitile Ngwale?.. damn didn’t they have names that take a ceremony to pronounce? Hallo everybody gather around, we are about to term the name of that resistor from TZ… Ki-Nje-kitile.

But you know, you need the complexity of history and the simplicity of math. The Kenyan budget has been read and I need the math (which I am good at, smiles) but I need to remember previous history(which I loathe, frown) about this annual exercise to put everything in perspective. My mentor Catherine Gicheru has already sent me five angles from where I need to analyse that document. Before I loose you, let me tell you how that brings me to why I love them older. Fashion. Music. Friends. I am wondering whether I should add men to this list because I saw a 43 year old with the attitude of my 13 year old nephew. Of course, this love for old stuff comes with a healthy dose of what is current.

Shift dress
Shift dress with 1970s pumps

 

I cannot begin to tell you about the men and women, some who are twice my age who have held my hand through emotionally draining moments and taught me how to rise over them like a champ. My friend Zipporah Musau tells me “You must learn to rise over petty issues when you are angry, Verah”.

My 1980s lace dress and pumps
My 1980s lace dress and pumps

So whenever I wear the retro fashion- the 1950 pumps, the 1960 shift dress, the 80s pleated skirt- I feel like I am wearing this wisdom. Let me not even get started on the shoes.

My red pumps
My red pumps

 

My friend, ex run way model Damaris Muga,  knows how to buy these shoes for me.  When you have time, check out her blog here.  Journalists who are perpetually in the field like me cannot have smooth skin, so do not criticise the leg above loool.

So do not fear old. Embrace it.

Ain't these shoes retro?
Ain’t these shoes retro?

 

PHOTOS/ Sandra Ruong’o

WARDROBE: Verah Okeyo designs

I am awesome

He’s weird, awkward, I am going to marry him…a guide to loving a strong woman

It is noon. I should not be on my blog because it is company time and I give to my employer what belongs to him which is my productivity. Yesterday I was unable to sleep for 90 per cent of the night. That is hardly newsworthy because journalists are neurotic walking insomniac zombies. Otherwise how do you explain those WhatsApp messages to your boss at 1a.m beginning with “Sir we need to have an intimate conversation about how you mutilate my stories from 2,000 words to 800”? So because of this deprivation, which is usual but is always surprising to me all the time, I look and feel like crap.

So I let my mind wander a bit and it takes me to my late father. Damn I loved that man my breath is laboured whenever I think about him. This is that part where I should sniff and blow my nose miserably but I am such an ugly crier I don’t want to add that to the crappy look I have. Charles Okeyo, my his soul rest in eternal peace,was a man with a heart so big it could not fit his rib cage. Fuck death. So yesterday, a man, a good man texted me “Verah, what do you want in relationships? Nothing seems to be good enough for you”. I was about to answer him and tell him a little about my father and his ideals about compassion, altruism and relating to people. Then I figured he, just like many people before him, would not have understood.

I wanted to tell him: “I want many things, and nothing at all when I run my checklist against the consumerist society that we live in”. I wanted to ask him whether he had ever been at that point in life where he asked himself “Why am I alive?” I have been there. Many times. In my line of work, we sometimes arrive at a crime or an accident scene before the police. Ask my colleague Stella Cherono who covered the Huruma tragedy. After the bodies had been moved, press statements issued by the county government, she stayed there to talk to women whose children would live without a father. Then, it dawns on you that you could have easily been that widow whose children were orphaned and there is not much precaution you could have taken to prevent that. You were just lucky to have left your kids at home, kissed them goodbye and come back to hug them again. Others never have that last chance in that pattern.

Stay with me baby, I know it is a long read, but don’t go yet.

Once, in Nakuru where I began my career, I stood beside a gangster whose chest had been sprayed with bullets. Next to him “dear wife” was calling incessantly. Even for this thug, whose life the police and the society had judged and decided was not worth sparing, a woman cared for him was worried sick that he was not home. Maybe they had children who jumped into his arms whenever he came home and called him “dad”. When you have been there, you appreciate every second given to you as a healthy human being and you live for little moments.

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That is me and my colleague Faith Oneya(in a blue dress) and James Ekwam (in a white T-shirt) taking a photo with our “children” from Kibera who we coach on basic journalism

My little moments is a man taking time off work to come go out for lunch with me. I don’t care if it is a dingy joint—although we will have a blog post about hygiene and food borne diseases later— or a five star hotel. These moments are not having a plan, a set of rules to govern how I relate to him. I do not want to guard myself around a man I love. When and if I want to tell him “I love you” I should say it godamned it! I don’t have to worry about “ooo it is too soon, you should say this after two years, and you will look vulnerable and needy”. When I want to see him, there shouldn’t be a ceremony about it because I don’t have to worry about makeup and looking like Naomi Campbell off the runway. My need and ache for him should overwhelm him that he won’t notice that my dreadlocks have not been to John’s Salon for a month.

I am awesome
One time my boss asked me “Verah what do I do to get you to the salon?” Surprised, I put my hand on my head and was like “By the way when did I last go there? Whaaaaat, it’s been over 7 weeks I completely forgot” (PHOTO/SANDRA RUONG’O)

I am a strong woman, and I am not talking about “strong will” or those sentimental bastardy shit people hide behind when they are just being plain nasty. I am talking about I-can-challenge-you-to-a-physical-fight kind of strength. Be that as I may, I am still a woman by the end of the day. I have things I am afraid of that are beyond my control. Like failure. Like losing people I love to disease. I should be able to tell you about that shit too and not feel like you will use that against me at some point. These funny rules of hiding this portion of you, and that portion of you and when you twitch your mouth like that it communicates ABC… That fuckery is a futile full time job I should be paid when I engage in it. So, I want to hear all about your worries, weaknesses, warts and all. I should know, and connect with, him that when his tummy is aching in Timbuktu I would feel it when I am across the Atlantic Ocean. And that is not Nigerian witchcraft oh

I love outdoors. Take me home to your parents, then we can spend the whole weekend there milking disgruntled surprised cows who will be wondering “hey is there something different with these hands and the ones that usually touch our tits?” There are needy children in Mandera, we should go there, put our money into working with a community organisation to help them build a makeshift classroom in that harsh cruel climate. While we are driving to that place we would be singing loudly, perhaps off key to Glee’s version of James Taylor’s  Fire and Rain .These modest choices are not made out of lack but a preference over the norm, a chance in which you can learn about people without the convenient link of technology where messages are edited before being sent.

New friends I made in my last trip to Lewa, Laikipia County
New friends I made in my last trip to Lewa, Laikipia County

What I am describing, is my understanding of what being real is. Sadly, this is what is frowned upon today yet for getting off this natural path of relationship, people are tired of unions after two years. For seeking this kind of connection, people like me have been pilloried with all manner of mean descriptions. She is always weird, her man went to the UK and when he asked her what gift she wanted, she asked for the UK flag instead of an iPhone… that man is shady, he told me we are going for a romantic gateway over the weekend and then he took me to a faraway isolated place with no TV and made me eat seated on a mat on the grass… He is so funny he asked me to switch off my phone and then we spend an hour looking into each other’s eyes.

To get to this point where you take delight in and derive fulfillment from little things especially when they come from a person with whom you have that kind of connection takes time, honesty, selflessness and genuine concern for the other person. It is easy because when you meet those people you will feel it, and it will flow you won’t have to fight for it. I hate that statement “I am fighting for my man/woman”. But this is also hard because it demands that embrace what we are easily compensating for with money and material things: openness, a willingness to be vulnerable and tell the person “hey, I am giving you a loaded gun but I am trusting you not to shoot me”. The journey to get here is laborious and everyone goes through it is just that some learn from it and become stronger.

You needed to have experienced life in a manner that shook you to the core and made you realise just how small you are. You need to have been betrayed, hurt and trampled upon by people you trusted and family that the money they offered did not heal you. After that you realised the best you could ever get from any relationship, be it a marriage or a friendship, is that person in their true honest self. Not the money or the status that they may bring to the table. That is a life lesson you cannot coach someone on. After you have gone through it, and survived enough to take all the scars as lessons, you cannot waste that unconditional love on an entitled vainglorious shallow prick who misinterprets a deep me for a charlatan. So for that reason, some of us wait for our weird, awkward prince(ss) charming because… there is nowhere else we would rather be.

Now y’all can email all those concerns and thoughts about this to talktoverah@gmail.com or WhatsApp me +254732324609. Can I go back to banging copy? Burrofcourse

Me receiving my congratulatory greeting from Nation Media Group's CEO Joe Muganda. Looking on(in red tie) NMG's Editor in Chief Tom Mshindi and my other colleagues  PHOTO/Jeff Angote

Why you should kill yourself sometimes:what my third journalism award taught me

Hey y’all. I have missed you all. Really. And I could not wait for Friday to initiate a chance that would allow me to receive those interesting emails from you when you react to what I have written. First of all, help me appreciate my friend Kelvin Momanyi— such a sweet guy—for taking his time and skills to make my blog look better.

Early this month I won an award for gender reporting. This is my third journalism award since I started practising journalism three and a half years go(one continental and another national last year). This particular award brought such an avalanche of memories and introspection. The applause that it drew made me want to continue with the journey of trying to kill myself. Hold on. Can I get a little deeper on that?

Me receiving my annual journalism excellence award for reporting on gender from Kenya's UN Women director Zebib Kavuma PHOTO/Moses Osani
Me receiving my annual journalism excellence award for reporting on gender from Kenya’s UN Women director Zebib Kavuma PHOTO/Moses Osani

 

My godfather had always dreaded the day I would start dating. I am, he thinks, too “intense”. He said he liked it that I gave my all to everything I did, but hated that I always thought it would work. He would always say frustratingly: “Veroh, you must make provisions for how you are going to deal with stuff not going the way you plan because that is going to happen at some point”. Last year, looking at him with my large tear-stained swollen eyes after a major heartbreak, he said lamely: “You know one day we will remember and laugh about how you are such an ugly crier”.

I want to let you in my world a bit, as I have done before on one of my posts here. I am a very loud introvert. When you meet me you would think I am the life of the party. On the contrary, I love to retreat in quiet spaces. Believe me in such quietness, I come up with leads for my best written pieces, the chord progressions for my best music pieces. I grew up in the flower farms in Naivasha, co-existing with the most unadulterated forms of nature: wildlife, trees, the sweet aroma of more than 30 species of flower, the lake, horses… A loner, I read everything I lay my hands on. The owners of the flower farm for which daddy worked were Dutch and they always gave me these collection of high end magazines like Vanity Fair, OK! Vogue. This cultivated a perception of the arts beyond the tiny rural world that my life was lived. By 17, I could play a few musical instruments, knit and crotchet, sew my own clothes and write. In high school, I was in music, the school basketball volleyball and handball team. In college, I had registered my tailoring company, got me a few tenders, recorded an album and taken myself through my undergraduate degree, albeit with such material difficulties you would expect of every orphaned Kenyan girl.

fathiu-4
Me celebrating. PHOTO/Sandra Ruong’o

However, amidst the pomp and glory, there was a nagging voice, a constant companion in my internal abysmal loneliness. It kept telling me “Your designs are not good enough. Your writing is crappy. Your music is horrible and you are generally a terrible person”. This voice was always laughing at me whenever I conceived an idea to further my gifts. It ate into my work: I felt like a criminal whenever my boss would tell me “you did well”. It affected my relationships: I felt I am only supposed to give, not worthy of taking at all. I am a good designer, or so people have told me, but with the syndrome in context, it is hardly surprising that 99 per cent of the dresses I have sown are won by me. I never thought they were something someone would pay money for. I recorded an album in 2011, and one single therein was well received in the radios, but I withdrew the album from the market and never got actively in music again after that except a few gigs in weddings after bullying from my friends from college. It is just the other day, I gathered courage to share my manuscripts, and telling the lady “they are nothing really, just some lame stuff I scribble” and she was like “why did you keep this to yourself?”

To my surprise, there is a professional name psychologists use to describe what I was feeling. In 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes called it “the impostor syndrome”. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While I am “highly motivated to achieve,” I also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

Have you been there? You are gifted at a craft, people tell you what an awesome person and then that voice in you belittles that by “Verah, s/he is lying, you may be ok, not that good”. Every time you achieve something, you ask yourself what/who gave you the nerve to imagine you could have that relationship, that job, that kind of health, that sense of style…That is the “me” that I have been trying to kill. I was surprised that I am not the only that has suffered from this. In her book, Lean in, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said how she reacted to being named one of the most influential women in the world and she went around the office asking people not to share that information on their social media until a colleague called her aside and asked her to process that honor properly. She wrote of another woman in her book She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are- impostors with limited skills or abilities”

Me receiving my congratulatory greeting from Nation Media Group's CEO Joe Muganda. Looking on(in red tie) NMG's Editor in Chief Tom Mshindi and my other colleagues PHOTO/Jeff Angote
Me receiving my congratulatory greeting from Nation Media Group’s CEO Joe Muganda. Looking on(in red tie) NMG’s Editor in Chief Tom Mshindi and my other colleagues PHOTO/Jeff Angote

This syndrome makes you talk people out of loving you. You are complimented and your response? Wait for it. “I know you don’t mean that, you know I am just an awful human being”. In some cases, you will just sabotage the relationship altogether so that the voice can say “it was just a matter of time, because you are an awful person, see? Everybody walks away”. You talk yourself out of jobs, promotions when you work so hard and then get comfortable for letting someone take the credit. In one of Joyce Meyer’s books—I have read so many of them I cannot recall the title of this one— she says that there are people who are complimented and they respond with “It is not me at all, don’t give me credit, it is God”.

Sadly, the world can smell this self-depreciation from afar. People will notice the gold that is you and exploit it, use you to advance themselves and because you will thank them for treating you so badly, they will not blink an eye doing you wrong. One day I went complaining to my blogger friend Damaris Muga complaining about how another friendship of mine had just collapsed after all I did to make it work. She asked me “have you ever asked me yourself why these things come to you and the people you think are worse human beings are treated like queens?” I was getting angry at her for even suggesting I had a role to play in this. She said “your mind tells you that you only deserve little and would take all manner of crap from people, because you have some twisted sense of forgiveness that persuades you to let people get away with treating you like a door mat.”

I don’t know how you impostor syndrome took habitation in you. It could be an environment where you grew in where people kept telling you how you are not good enough. Maybe it is constant failure but tonight, the first step is deciding you deserve better.

Next post would be about how I have been confronting my syndrome. In the meantime, I would like to hear of your story about the syndrome.

DN2Deforestation1904ax

WHO:Kenya, top 10 globally in environmental deaths

The Daily Nation has published a story I wrote about the loss of tree cover in Kenya’s Luo Nyanza region. What this link  does not contain is a sidebar I placed on the story about how Kenya is performing globally as far as deaths related to the environment are concerned.

Turns out Kenya ranks among top ten countries in the world with the most deaths and sicknesses that are linked to abuse of the environment, new data released from the global health body shows.

The World’s Health Organisation (WHO) released data from its Global Health Observatory on March 15, 2016 which shows that Kenya lost 46,060 in 2012 alone to infectious, parasitic, neonatal and nutritional diseases directly linked to the management of— or lack thereof— the environment.

If you are not afraid of numbers, you can take a look at the data from WHO here –> GHO 2016. Just a quick analysis on that spreadsheet and you can already deduce that Kenya is  the fifth country in Africa with such a high number of deaths after Democratic Republic of Congo (163,548), Ethiopia (82,032) Angola (53,081) and Tanzania (48,814). That very year, the very data shows, environmentally related non-communicable diseases and injuries claimed 34,663 lives.

The report, “Preventing disease through healthy environments, a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks” (You can download it here),  analysed all the countries covering more than 100 diseases.

Therein, the diseases linked directly to the environment include respiratory, diarrhoeal and zoonotic infections. These are attributed to the public improper manipulation of the ecosystem to encourage breeding sites for disease causing germs and maximise contacts with animals.

The other reasons are sanitation, availability of clean water, improper disposal waste and household pollution. The report comes a few months after the Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014 revealed that more than half (56 per cent) of households use wood as their main source of cooking fuel and that more than 15 per cent of children in Kenya are affected by diarrhoea.

Other deaths are from non-communicable diseases such as cancers and accidents such as drowning and falls into open holes or collapsing buildings. Some of the top global killers listed in the report –Malaria, cancers, heart and diarrhoeal diseases, lower respiratory disease— as linked to the environment are also top ten in Kenya, bringing its healthcare to its knees, according to deaths registered in Kenya’s Civil Registration Department. The latest data, 2014, ranks Malaria as the leading killer in Kenya claiming 22,948 lives. Cancer (21,640) and Tuberculosis (10,986).

Globally, 12.6 million people died in 2012 as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment, representing 23 per cent of all deaths. Children are most affected because the genesis of their lifetime problems start when a pregnant are exposed to factors such as radiation, polluted.

Women registered the most musculoskeletal injuries—related to bones, bones and part of the body that coordinate movement— due to travelling far and wide to fetch water for domestic use.

TAKE HOME POINTS HERE?

  1. Living in healthy environments will save lives, and money, as diseases that thrive in unhealthy environments get dehorned.
  2. It is a collaborative effort. The government owes you a sanitation system, but you have to dump your waste properly, minimize on waste. The government owes you water, but its your duty to ensure you take it when its clean.
  3. PREVENTION, PREVENTION. Try as much as you can NOT to get sick. Do not expose your body to harmful stuff when it already has air pollution, stress and all that to deal with. Stay healthy, and that does not need millions of money.

 

It's a chance to grow. To confront your ghosts 
PHOTO /Sandra Ruong'o

Why every woman needs a memoir… Why mine will be explosive

I have been in a really dark corner lately. I have not been able to write, sing or sew. I am happy that I am slowly regaining my connection with my art. Blogging helps. So last year, I had the privilege of covering one of the most monumental events in global development history:the 70th General Assembly United Nations in Newyork. When I landed in Newyork, it suddenly hit me that I was Kenyan and that I had nothing to make me stand out as such. Code 254. The marathoners. The motherland of art. So, in the company of one of Kenya’s delegate(an MP), while strolling on the streets, I dropped by a tailoring shop. After haggling and paying a little money, I convinced the owner of the shop to let me use his sewing machine and made me a quick fabric flowers with Kenyan flag colours.

Taken from my Instagram. The flower that represented in Newyork City
Taken from my Instagram. The flower that represented in Newyork City

In the evening, still in the company of this MP, and exhausted from going through documents with such jaw breaking terms, we dropped at a bar. There was karaoke, and with the cowboy hat of the MC I was singing “Honey I’m home” by Shania Twain. Surprised, he asked “so where did you learn to do all these things?”. I really wanted to tell him how I’d stumbled on my arts. The sewing, in the early 90s confined to immobility after a near fatal fall from a tree, and I’d been left to recover near a tailor in remote K’anyidoto in Ndhiwa. The tailor, still my friend to date, started inviting me to sew buttons. Then zippers. Then a whole dress. My music and writing were a tool to overcome the darkness of living through a difficult and an abusive childhood. As I grew up, the tailoring took glamorised stance through reading magazines, watching cable TV and hanging around designers like Rialto’s Lucy Rao.

I chuckle whenever I think about these thing.  Last weekend, I was with one of my Godfathers (I have two), a pastor, and I asked him why he brought me up with this guilt and dread of sex and feminine beauty. The old man freaked out and began reassuring me. “Veroh”, he began “it’s okay if you’re pregnant, I’ll be disappointed but…”  When he learnt that he was far beyond the theme, we burst out laughing. “My methods, no matter how crude, worked and God will reward me for a job well done it’s not easy raising girls”, he said. Then I was like “Yea, old man your methods were crude”. Then we laugh some more. These here,these moments, where you take each other’s hands and walk back to the past from where we draw inspiration, lessons and insight… These are what I live for.

You look back into the past. For insight, joy, lessons. PHOTO/ Sandra Ruong'o
You look back into the past. For insight, joy, lessons. PHOTO/ Sandra Ruong’o

Recollections are important. For a woman, it’s a chance to carry out a post-mortem of your life and really be honest with yourself. Take responsibility for the wrongs done to you or those you’ve done to others. Accept that there are habits that you need to “unlearn”,courage you need to garner to confront your ghosts. That looks like a full time job, right? It is, but you do it too. We all do it. It’s just that maybe you’re not as deliberate about it as I am. Then there is the sentimental bastardy: the man who’s kiss you’ll never forget, the one who ripped your fragile heart out of your chest and put it under his sole… Godamned it!

My late father, Charles Okeyo, and I were great friends. He worked at the flower farms in Naivasha and our schedules during my teenage years were so far apart. I would leave very early in the morning for school before he woke up but we needed to communicate. So we would write on an exercise book on issues like “I’ve left your breakfast on the table” or “yesterday you didn’t spread your bed properly dad, improve” and stuff like that. Later, and as I grew older, the exercise book mutated to a safe place where I would tell my father about my fears, expectations and observations for the day. Looking at the fragments of that torn book now, at 28, I am acutely aware of the careful way in which my uneducated father chose his words to speak to fourteen year old me. 

See each of us has grown through stuff that make us who we are. Some have caused us great anguish and astronomical levels of pain. Like TD Jakes, I choose to see them as “beautiful hurts”.  Without them, I wouldn’t have known who I really am. Without these pains, there wouldn’t be a promotion of some sort in your life. Pain, anger and offences are an inevitable part of life. So should you learn to coalesce it, you can mine them for growth. A caterpillar had to die before a butterfly with all its glorious colour came into being, right?

It's a chance to grow. To confront your ghosts PHOTO /Sandra Ruong'o
It’s a chance to grow. To confront your ghosts.PHOTO /Sandra Ruong’o

So I am following in the footsteps of my mentor cultural analyst and author Dr Joyce Nyairo. I am going to, as she says, “document, document and document” my 28 years. As all artistes gathering the courage to let people learn from it, criticise and have a history. I’m going to go back to the notes my father and I shared. I’ve kept my diaries and the little notes my friends sent me in high school… Recollection. 

This book may not earn me a lot of money (not that I would mind having a heavy bank account)  but the greatest payment would be feedback that someone whose life has been lived in circumstances such as mine would pick a bullet point on going through life. It’s also a historical moment for me,for my readers. I lived through a musical explosion in South Nyanza where “chomeka”  discos became as famous as Kenya’s father of Benga music,Collela. 

I am excited. I hope you will be too.