Some women should never bear children, and it is okay to say so.

Had I the capability, I would deny some women the ability to bear children. I know. That is a cruel thing to say. I am still figuring what makes me tick but I know this one thing for sure. For as long as I live, there will never be a stronger urge that engulfs me like the need to protect a child.I have always felt that their sheer innocence and helplessness should move any human being to keep them safe and loved. They could be my nephews, niece, my husband’s love child, a neighbour’s… it does not matter. Peculiarly enough, I have been in conflict with women over the wellbeing of their children. Surely, they would now what is good for the kids, right?

baby1

When I want to design and participate in the tailoring, she wants attention

As a journalist, not all stories that I take interest in are published. The story may not have met the editorial threshold:  not be enough facts to back up the accusations being thrown thereabout; sources changing their minds and decline to talk to me; an editor may not be convinced that story is worth telling at all. One thing remains though: I cannot rub some images off my mind. I still remember the cry of a little boy in Kisumu’s Russia referral hospital who had lost his penis in the hands of an angry step parent; while riding my bike through Rangwe early one morning to follow up TB stories, I remember seeing a girl who I thought was barely four carrying such a huge bucket of water and shivering. But the incidents that punch in the gut the hardest are where a child suffers such great and sometimes irreparable harm in the hands of those with a sacred duty to protect them: their biological mothers. Normally, people around this child would have raised the alarm to the authorities already, but Kenya’s weak systems have very little regard for children. They would leave that child in custody of the mother as they look for a “sustainable and multipronged approach to make the system ok”.  For as long as the system is damaged, I wager, the babies will remain there. The society does not do anything because Kenyans think all women love children. 

The truth is, some do not. I do not have statistics to quantify my statement but when postpartum depression or any other mental illness is ruled out, there are mothers who would not be moved to joyful tears by their offspring at all. They are incapable of giving the nurturing and devoted patience that a child needs. They cannot handle the adjustments that come with being a mother like less sleeping hours or the anxiety that comes with the baby being sick. Does that make them evil? Not at all.  What makes it evil is a woman knowing that she does not love children and go on to give birth to one to meet some selfish reason. It could be status. Others have children as a ticket out of their economic misery. Go to the children’s court where you will be shocked at how loathsome greed is.

A childless woman in Kenya is an incomplete human being. Just look around. Even women consider women with children that are not biological as “not mom enough”.  I remember posting on Facebook asking mothers to take their babies for vaccination to protect the little ones from diseases that science has managed to conquer. A mother of two, and I should add a Christian, commented rather cruelly “na wewe utazaa lini?” (Swahili for “and when will you give birth?”). It was like because I did not have my own, I was not supposed to comment about their wellbeing. A woman who has managed to separate sexual intercourse and procreation because children are not in her to-do-list, is pilloried with named like “too educated”  or be seen as being punished for a sin she committed like aborting or being promiscuous. She will be considered unworthy of any respect or love for passing up one of woman’s evolutionary duty. The media is awash of stories of the dangers of delaying motherhood. I am not a gynaecologist so I will not enter into that argument.

There is  even a study by Satoshi Kanazawa, a psychologist from London school of Economics, which said that said maternal urges drop by 25 per cent with every extra 15 IQ points a woman garners. In his book The Intelligence Paradox, there is a chapter titled “Why intelligent people are the ultimate losers in life”. The opening statement of the aforementioned chapter groups women who decide not to have children with ignoramuses. He writes: If any value is deeply evolutionarily familiar, it is reproductive success. If any value is truly unnatural, if there is one thing that humans (and all other species in nature) are decisively not designed for, it is voluntary childlessness. All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end of all biological existence”

Maternal instinct is not innate in all women. Some women damage children verbally and physically without batting an eyelid, and should not be allowed near them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that. In psychology circles we would argue about the use of the term “instinct” or “drive” interchangeably. Either way, something instinctive or one that drives a human being insinuates that it is automatic, irresistible, no training is needed to acquire it and it is unmodifiable. So when maternal instinct is missing in a woman, no amount of social approval, money can drill it in her. I was listening to writer Elizabeth Gilbert on Oprah and she was explaining her decision not to have children that there are three women when it comes to motherhood: the natural mothers, the auntie team and those we do not want near babies. every woman should search within themselves and find out where they belong. For now, I am in the auntie team. Where do you belong?

Sandra wearing a Verah Okeyo suit. PHOTO/Lameck Ododo(Odo Gallery)

How women can use a short,and art,to resist Kenya robbing them of their femininity

Last year, while covering a function in State House, I was infuriated that there were so many tables between me and the “vantage position” from where I would listen to the president and take pictures and little videos with my phone for the paper’s social media pages. After a little thought, I took my heels off and while supporting my petite body with my hand on the table,I jumped over it. My male colleagues looked at me mouths a jar,  shocked with their heads shaking. Then last month, my godfather and I were arguing about whether we will get to a social event we were invited to on my bike or not. After allowing me to express my concerns about the traffic—more like throwing a tantrum— he said calmly: “I need you to be a woman today Vero, something female”.  I frowned. Surely, everybody can see that my chest is bumpy and there is a great distinction between where my waist and little behind is! What did he mean by telling me I needed to be a woman… something feminine?

That month, pacing in my empty house, trying to come up with some philosophical reason for designing the clothes I was going to have at my launch, I found myself admiring my friend Sandra Ruong’o. Sandra is very accommodating. As we run a company together, I will yell at her “well your Koffi Annan moment cost us another client” to which she will calmly respond “and everted a war”. She is tender, approachable and always has a kind word even to our friends suffering from inflicted wounds. I guess the one-word-for-many for her character is “feminine”. So I made a short-suit with her in mind. You can peruse through my Facebook page here and see more designs.

Sandra wearing a Verah Okeyo suit. PHOTO/Lameck Ododo(Odo Gallery)
Sandra wearing a Verah Okeyo suit. PHOTO/Lameck Ododo(Odo Gallery)

You can still see her legs, the soft linen blouse in the coat but it is still a suit tailored like a man’s.

Feminine Sandra wearing a "masculinely" tailored short suits PHOTO/Lameck Ododo (Odo Gallery)
Feminine Sandra wearing a “masculinely” tailored short suits PHOTO/Lameck Ododo (Odo Gallery)

The deeper I thought about “feminine”, I appreciated the history in it: in the Victorian era, curtsying and wearing floral dresses -among many other ridiculous qualities- made a woman the most eligible spinster; to 1960s in the revolution when words like “feminism” took such polarized connotations that women started defying the idea that there is a singular way in which women should be. So powerful was the rebellion that Hollywood started casting lead sword-swinging-gun-corking female characters in action movies. Women were not damsels in distress needing rescue by Rambo anymore.

Let us transpose this topic to Kenya. In this country, a tout will grope a woman’s buttocks so intrusively and the men around will take videos as the woman gets humiliated and later share that on the social media. Men will stop a woman on the streets for a handshake and should she refuse, they will call her unpalatable names. These men will hide behind “I was drunk” which makes you wonder why the intoxication never persuades them to harass fellow men. Enter boardrooms and you will find women earning less than their male counterparts yet put in a lot of work than the men. I was reading Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed” and it surprised me that in the 70s, Kenya did not give women house allowance.  Growing up in Kenya forced me to take cues of survival and ruthlessly competing in a world of inopportunity for us. I learnt, not to cringe at insults like “you whore”, but respond back and ask the man whether he would be a bull enough should I give him the chance to lay me. I learnt to be combatant to defend myself and those who the society will not stand up for. I became so self-sufficient that I fix my bulbs on my own and climb the roof to mount aerials as well. I ride a motorbike to work in Nairobi’s vicious traffic! If you asked anyone around us, they would describe women like me as “independent”. My little brother’s friends say I am “cool”—whatever that means— because whenever they come home, I will give them a run for their money in the basketball pitch.

Think about evolutionary biology with me for a minute. You see, we all have these two elements in us, male or female.  For instance, I can only operate on my masculine side as a journalist, the same way a man can only hold his baby on his feminine side but these needs to be at an appropriate balance. As a woman I can be 20per cent masculine and 80 per cent feminine. However, in my case, as with many Kenyan women who do not suffer fools, my pendulum has swung so far to my masculinity that I have difficulty accessing my femininity, the God given thing that makes me woman enough to couple or even be a mother. Kenya makes us women so ruthlessly competitive that we are so drained in the evening we cannot be the safe containers on which a man or a child can deposit their love and affection. Life grows in a woman. We are receptive and soft… God created us with a vagina for God’s sake! We are naturally wired to nourish, to be the healers to those around us. To do this, we need to let go a little. That is a thought so terrifying to a Kenyan woman because the moment she lets go of her defensiveness, she will be denied a promotion she rightfully deserves at work. Her husband will walk out on her and leave her with children and no property. The man, or her family, she loves will use that affection she has against her and make her feel foolish for loving.

So I found a cure to seat my feminine queen to co-exist with my
masculine side at a proper balance, by paying attention to my arts. Are you artistic? I am very artistic that sometimes the doctor has to prescribe me something to calm brain down when designs of clothes, sentence structures for stories and tunes of songs float therein demanding my attention at 1 am. Using my music writing let me demonstrate to you how art will teach you to be feminine. One, music teaches me to get in touch with portions of me that I do not like. Music that can grab your attention, is born from an emotion like the fear of
being abandoned, the joy of falling in love that you lose
yourself…those are loathsome to me because it means I am admitting weakness.

Two, music teaches me to surrender and have tender patience,a virtue that does not come naturally to me. I have to cooperate with the musical notes. I have to let the tune carry me on an ecstatic high then bring me down to an emotional low. Sometimes the music is so stubborn not to want that acoustic guitar I want to insert in that verse. I let it take my hand and lead me, sometimes against my will. More like the way you want to slap your daughter’s cheeks and she smiles and against your will, the anger dissipates. The same way, you want to whip him then he kisses you and all your detailed plans of the whipping vanish. I have learnt to listen to just to one minor chord seeking to be sustained amidst the clattering noise of the drums, keyboard the same way you will listen to your baby’s cry for attention amidst her rebellion and bad grades.

Lastly, art has taught me to express yourself and what I am, unapologetically. After making the music, I will put it out here for it to be judged by Kenyans on Twitter, sometimes so unfairly by ignoramuses who cannot carry a tune but as an artiste, I will say “I do not care what you think about the piece, that is what I was feeling then”. More like telling your child you love them and that for that reason everything they do is your business. Or telling a man you love them and you do not care whether he thinks that makes you a wimp.

Let us toast – here is me grabbing a bowl of porridge— to being feminine

Boy,is she treating you like that? Well blame her father

It is 1 in the morning. I have not blinked an eye and it does look like that is going to happen soon. So I am singing loudly to Donna Summer and Seal’s chemistry-laden version of Seal’s Crazy. As I shake my head to the pulsating drum beat, I am looking at the pictures of my latest designs. I like the way I look in this red dress. I’ll be damned! Is it me, the dress, the photographer or the camera? You can check the designs in my Facebook page here and buy a piece.It looks awkward to say, Verah Okeyo wearing a Verah Okeyo but I am wearing my own design PHOTO/Lameck Ododo from Odo GalleryIt looks awkward to say, Verah wearing a Verah Okeyo but I am wearing my own design PHOTO/Lameck Ododo, Odo Gallery

I promise I'll get models who smile better for the next collection PHOTO/Lameck Ododo,Odo Gallery

As my brain struggles to slow itself down from overdrive 500kilometres-per-hour mode that it is on now, a thought stands erect on my mind: that story I wrote about antimicrobial resistance needs a sexually transmitted infections angle. Maybe that will foster some public discussion on the magnitude of the danger of drugs losing their ability to cure. As I am thinking of the lead to take on the story, my phone vibrates. It is a text from my friend. Her date ended badly. Again. I know where this conversation is headed. It will metastasize into what her father would or not do. Bluntly, I would tell her to put her big girl pants and other dismissive statements. Today, I refrain from that because I just remembered how my own father affects how I perceive people on a daily basis.

My father—may his soul rest in eternal peace—was an uneducated class three drop out who wore nothing else on his lapels except his big generous heart and integrity. Working in the flower farms in Naivasha, Mr Okeyo watched the perks of being educated through his Dutch employers. Unable to afford the newspaper daily, he would go to his employer’s mansion to get magazines and old newspapers which he always brought home for me read. I am now working for the paper I started reading those days. There is an older editor whose writing I disliked then and it tickles me today when we meet in the lift and I crack jokes about his 1998 articles.

In the late 90s, my father and I spent our evenings in the quiet environment Naivasha ambience like disgruntled lovers. We listened to Mukami Gioshe’s voice –or was it Bill Odidi’s?—on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) as we criticise each other on singing off key. I would have those magazines sprawled in front of me on the concrete floor. Once a week, he would ask me to join him to listen to Chris Kubasu on KBC TV’s In search of An answer. “These people are smart they must be saying something important”, he would say. Occasionally,he would ask me to translate some parts that escaped his little grasp of the English language. Not once, but many times, I would watch a boring documentary about the history of the company he worked for—Sher Agencies, then the world’s largest flower producer but now under receivership— and because I had to obey him, I would sit and listen to him explain why the flower stems were refrigerated in that particular way among many other things. You can imagine how important this background is to me 20 years later when I am assigned to write about how the collapse of this company has affected livelihoods and ecosystems.

So back to our memories. The television was, of course,a Greatwall black and white TV with that hideous detachable “coloured” screen. Once in a month, the old man would buy me a music tape—the very first one was Shania Twain’s Come on over in 1998, and Celine Dion’s Let’s talk about Love. To this, add many Congolese bands like Soukous Stars, Madilu System and my native Luo bands like Collela Mazee, Omore Kings…Damn those old times. Do they bring up children the way they brought me up?

At 29, I am appreciating that while living in the modest estates in the flower farms in Naivasha, as the daughter of a peasant worker, I had access to the latest copies of OK! Vogue, Reader’s Digest, Vanity Fair, The Times and other high end magazines. I am not certain I would afford them regularly at a go now even though I am on salary now. Therein, I read about everything from medicine, commerce, psychology, fashion, philosophy… hell even quantum physics. The knowledge, subconsciously gathered in those books and magazines, give me such insight right now when I report about the older versions of the characters therein. The books and magazines uprooted my mind from the remote tracts of land in Naivasha and perched me inside designer Karen Millen’s shop in London; into the musicianship and troubled relationships life of Veronica Lourdes Madonna Ciccone; into the palace of the late Princess of Wales distress over how the British media covered her life from the affair the prince had with Camilla Parker; into the discussions tables in New York as the United Nations talked about Aids bleed the economies of Africa from the deaths the morbidity.

There is nothing going to Tribeka and dancing to “Bend over”. Nothing at all. I just would not know what to do because my vision of a man listened and danced to Madilu System’s Jean and did all he could to leave me a better human being. The only way he knew was giving me books.

*Excerpts from my memoir.

When you are not vulnerable you are inaccessible PHOTO/Lameck Ododo of Odo Gallery

The power of a vulnerable woman

How have you all been? One of these days I am going to dedicate a day when I will meet those of you, virtually or in person, who email to remind me I have not posted a thing on the blog. You do not know how much affirmation comes to a writer from such emails. I appreciate the intimate conversations that I have had with a few of you on email. This means we are bound by chords of humanity which allow us to foster these fulfilling connections over technology. We all cry, laugh, face uncertainty, and sometimes the solutions in walking through these issues come from listening to the experiences of one another. I love you all for that. I do. I promise you that none of you will lose your dignity in my hands, and in this space, when you open up to me about your own versions of what you go through.I got you.

One day, I cannot remember when, it dawned on me that every one of us has ghosts we are confronting. The demons could manifest with the name divorce on it, self esteem issues, abuse, financial woes, disease… just look at yourself or those around you and fill in the blank. Since then, I have become more compassionate towards even the people that attack me viciously. That is why it is hardly surprising that there is a point when we look at our lives and feel stuck. Have you ever felt like that? All your friends seem to be prospering, marrying and raising families, climbing the professional ladder, as you remain frozen at being broke and alone.  You know you are capable of so much more but what you are getting out of life is far cry from all the efforts you are pouring into it. Your partner does not seem to realise how you are giving your all for them. Your children, friends and family take you for granted. The business is incurring losses. You are not as productive at work despite you raking your mind to come up with innovative ideas. You cannot find anything that you can pat yourself in the back for. I have been here. So many times that I figured a way of dealing with it. I would like to share some of my experiences with you in a two part series.

Admit that all is not okay… that you are not okay

A few days ago, I travelled to some remote part south of the African continent. In the evening, with nothing on except my bathrobe, I stood over the balcony to slow down my brain activity. I walked through the day’s activities and the stories I would file for this trip. After some time, I noticed my cheeks were wet with tears and I was also smiling. My body was responding to the chilly wind blowing over it I could feel my pores shut furiously to protect me from the cold. Instead of pulling the robe over me, I let my body bask in the glory of the second stimuli…the African smell of the thirsty soil getting nourished by the rain. It baffled me why I was smiling so broadly and crying at so inconsequential a phenomenon. Then it dawned on me. I had not felt this way in a loooong time…with nothing, but so connected and alive to the universe and myself. I desperately wanted to hang on to that feeling. Oh how it deeply contrasted the abysmal emptiness that had accompanied me  for the last one year glued to routine: waking up, going to work; relationships are held together by obligation. I said “This is not okay. I am not okay”.

I needed to realize that all was not well. Otherwise, I was not going to deal with the root cause of whatever was blocking me from doing the exploits that I am gifted for. Until you acknowledge that there is a problem, you will hide behind excuses and blame everything that is external for whatever is making you this unhappy. You would think more money would fix it, or sex, or partying or drugs. Accepting that there was a problem and that only I could fix it was a huge step towards awakening that fire that makes me a warm open and receptive person. This acknowledgment will allow me to tap into my creativity and write those articles that fire up debate for the good of my country. I will be able to write songs that would heal or touch whoever listens to them. I will be capable of designing clothes that will sell and inspire beauty in the women that wear them.

Me wearing a Verah Okeyo PICTURE/Lameck Ododo
I will be capable of designing clothes that will sell and inspire beauty in the women who wear them. Me wearing a Verah Okeyo trouser. PICTURE/Lameck Ododo of Odo Gallery

Allow yourself to be vulnerable

My friend Sandra always complains at how I never shed a tear in the saddest of situations. I don’t. Some of us face life with this attitude of strength. We never need anyone. Nobody is capable of making us cry or knock us off our emotional balance. We have our shit together and when you come to our lives, we let you know that it would not matter when you leave because we will be okay anyway. I can understand that. We are conditioned to respond to pain from the circumstances around us. The first time I showed weakness, I was stripped of my dignity. From that moment on I have never allowed to be at a spot where I would need pity or help. I kept saying: “I do not need you”, “Do not worry about it, I got this” statements that are ever so incongruent to what I feel because sometimes I am overcome with worry and fear I need someone to tell me “Everything will be okay”. So I have learnt that when you are not vulnerable, you are not accessible.

When you are not vulnerable you are inaccessible PHOTO/Lameck Ododo of Odo Gallery
When you are not vulnerable you are inaccessible PHOTO/Lameck Ododo of Odo Gallery

You miss out on relationships and the connection you desire. Why? People connect to what you are when you do not have make-up or whatever it is that you use to hide the you that you are sure is not desirable. They cannot find that soft, receptive you because you are always in combat mode with your walls high. The moment someone manages to get closer, you attack him or her so viciously they are left hurting and bleeding. You want a partner who will stick around and be your strength when you are terrified of childbirth or a friend who knows how poorly you process death and grief? We want passionate, loyal and devoted affection from our family, friends, lovers and even colleagues but we are not able to allow the vulnerability that comes with that to take place. How else will they know you need a hand when you are trying so hard to be wonder woman? Vulnerability is not a weakness, and if you are hurt while at it, tell yourself that is a good sign because it means that you are capable of caring about someone else other than yourself.

Next week, and I pray time will allow it, we will continue with this conversation. But I would like to hear how you cope with being (un)vulnerable

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.

DSC_0578

 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?

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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