Archives for August 2016

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

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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

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