Strong me wanted to cry in public… I didn’t hold back

Earthlings, gather all your drums and percussions because we are going to clap for me. I got into the swimming pool! I did! In the baby section. I did not swim but hey, it is a step towards the right direction right, right?

Y’all should have seen how brave I was…along three year olds who left the edge of the swimming pool

So I am in some really awesome spot, and it is feeding my energy with creativity I just got inspired to blog about something personal, that I know most of us, if not all, go through… wow that was a long sentence. I should probably crack a joke that because I am Luo, I have a taste for fine things in life. I am the real deal, you are looking at it baby ahahaha. What I do know is that after travelling and being blessed with the opportunity to dine and wine with some very refined and wealthy people—journalism is not that bad folk— nothing has ever come close to sweet potatoes served with African tea, brewed on the traditional three-stone stoves and served on a huge plastic cup where you can see traces of firewood in the cup. True story! I am those girls who would ask for corn flour (ugali) and Omena in a five-star hotel in the middle of Nairobi and not blink an eye. I mean it. Well, the waiters always come smiling with “whatever you want is in the house”. So why would I not ask for the damn delicacy?

Behold, omena and Ugali that was only made for three but I ate three quarter of it… My colleagues George Ogutu and Munyao Mutinda asked me today “”You are always eating, where does this food go?” I told them “When you get an answer, invite me for the press conference”

These are the perks—or curse? — of growing up in a rural set up.Once, in campus, I did not know how Weetabix and milk are eaten, so I drank all the milk and then my host was looking at me like Lazarus just woke up from his beauty sleep in the tomb. Let me not get started with how I used talcum powder meant for the feet on my face… we thank God for Arimis milking jelly my friends as a dermatological intervention

Why is this story even important? Stay with me. As I think about my culinary peculiarities, in this place that I am in, I feel a subtle nudge to eat something that I know would make my tummy summersault. I do not want to tell my host that I have acidity issues because I do not want to appear ungrateful. I do not want to tell him that what I am used to, and would love to have, plain old cornflour (ugali) and skuma (kales). As I smile at him, I run my thoughts through several mental programs to establish why this situation is shaking my energy so much, and I realise it reminds me of what I am and how that affects the way I relate with people.

Like very many of us, I work so hard not to be vulnerable-you know like I could not admit I did not know what Weetabix is. Last week, I was chatting with a friend on Facebook with whom we went to college and even attended Christian Union together and she told me “You always seem to have it together” I wanted to laugh because she couldn’t have been further from the truth. Like many people, I am heartbroken when those I care about walk out, but I would never give anybody the satisfaction of seeing that they have that much power over me so I hold the door for them. Towards December, I was nursing my psychological and physical wounds at the home of my friend and philosopher Professor Father Charles Oduke in Bondo. He and I love books and are curious human beings we are always questioning stuff in life. So we can talk for 48 hours non-stop about why he is taller than I!

Me and Father Oduke talking about….. A mango I think ahahahaha. By the way this may look upside down if you are reading this with a phone so I apologise.  PHOTO/Sandra Ruong’o

This time he told me “Verah you must be exhausted trying to control the world and outcomes of everything in it”.  Of course, I was defensive and I dismissed his observations and then a week later I stumbled on those TD Jakes’ half hour sermons talking about the same thing, talking deep to my soul I was shocked. Maybe it is the past we came from that teaches us to be masters of disguise. The last time you opened up to people, showed them who you really are, they rejected or ridiculed you. You told him you had had an abortion in your teenage and he called off the engagement. You asked her to pray for you about your finances and she shared that with the whole prayer group of strangers. You told her about your insecurities at work and she used those against you in an unrelated disagreement. Believe me, there is nothing as scary and galling as being set up for the kill with the very weapons that you know you would not survive against, your Achilles heel. So we put reinforcements to shield ourselves from that kind of pain which we cannot go to the doctor for. Then we walk around life, looking like perfect people, desiring relationships that would shake our worlds and make us better people but afraid of paying the price for it.

Have you stood before unconditional love and let it look you right in the eye? There is no feeling in the world that can compare to that. Then the only thing standing between you and it would be “unverbalised” questions of If you knew who I really am, would you still love me? Do you think you could overlook all these wounds and let me…feel like I am able to stay here with you, marry you, be your friend? So the fear of getting an unpleasant answer to these questions we wear a persona that we think the other person will love, a fake, a perfect person that always has an answer for everything. We, I included, become manipulative beings who have a certain look for that disagreement, a perfume for that insult. Sadly, as Prof Oduke told me, in avoiding pain, I miss out on the joy too. It is okay to say I am broke and I need your help, friend…I am hurt that you fired me, boss… I am confused and I need you to guide me because you have been here, sister…Personally, I think the privilege of being alive needs to be crowned with being present and feel every blessing that I could have gotten it.  Do not want to work so hard to be perfect that I seize doing the lie that I become lie itself so much that I wouldn’t recognise the real thing when I stumbled upon it. I want to gather the courage to be real because it is only then will I want to be present in my life.

Be present… Like the way that bandage dress is on my body PHOTO/Sandra

I want to love aggressively, violently even if imperfectly. I want to be the employee who comes to work and her employer knows her mind is here, regardless of whether she is hungry or not (By the way sometimes I emotional blackmail my boss to bring me snacks so that I can deliver the assignment). I want to be lover who would come home and her partner will feel she has arrived with her madness, happiness but whatever is in there, she is present. Live. In the Now. When Life calls for the register, show and say “Present”

“You would be shocked at the people who come home every night but never come home…who show up for work every day and never show up who live with and love with you and sleep with you abut are not there with you” …TD Jakes

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A letter to the man who taught me how to love…Valentines day Part 1

I find no coincidence that in my 29 years I have never celebrated valentine’s day… or my birthday. I am, first of all, so forgetful I rely on my diary to remind me to unhang clothes from the line after laundry! The only thing I don’t need reminders for is my time for a plate of ugali and omena. When I am hungry, I am hungry for ten people and the urgency to eat is a multitude’s.

Fellow Kenyans and earthlings, we need to ask nature, and God why I am not getting bigger. I cannot be eating like this and no getting any returns!

Sandra, who has evolved from a friend into a sister and therapist, always remembers. She remembers everything she scares me. So thank God for her I have celebrated my last two birthdays!

As I grow older, I also understand why I do not celebrate those days outwardly: the kind of love that I have been fortunate to have has been quiet, devoid of flair and grandeur and sometimes even from people the society would never approve of, given the religious circles that I have been raised in. So in 2017, I want to celebrate Valentines by acting in a loving way, in honour of the few people who have taught me how to love. Maybe I will wear red for a week- when that happens my Facebook page and Instagram will be all red- or I will treat some random stranger to a kind deed… I do not know, we’ll figure it out.

But I do love red. I counted and calculated and I realised 45 per cent of my clothes are red. Photo/Sandra
I love red so much that one day, one of my superiors asked me “but how can you wear red to work from Monday to Friday?” I said, “I have?” Photo/Sandra

So now, I am in rural Tanzania, in late January 2017. I am wrestling with myself on whether –or not—I should publish my memoirs. If you have been reading my blog or are on my social media accounts, you must have heard me ramble about that book. There is also the monetary challenge there but here is the biggest impediment. The book, like any art that possesses me, is shouting: “You have to release me, because I am meant to live in you, and your job is to package me in words that would best represent how I make you feel, and you are supposed to share me as truthfully raw as you can to the whole world”. I am shouting back at it “I am scared!”. I am a journalist; a career whose perfection draws from so many disciplines that I sometimes lack an answer to tell my seven-year-old when she asks me what I do. Also, journalism has a purpose that is defined and clear: inform, educate and entertain the public. So what, of those three, will my memoir do? So that, right here, is what outsiders never know. There is a lot that goes on between an artiste’s personal space—the crafting, the composition—and the final product that comes out in form of a book, a song, a design, a painting, a picture or poem.

I took this selfie around 8pm, after leaving my cottage to have “fresh air” (That sounds so Hollywood I hate it). The man who had been left to look after me, was super upset because he was afraid I would meet some wild animal to gore me to death. I looked at him and said “Oh!”. Today, as I post this, I am wearing this shirt which I made for a man but  when I finished it I realised his pot belly would not fit in here. So I decide I will wear it because the love I had while making this cannot be shared.

Suddenly, that literary angst dissipates and I smile so broadly I look mad. A moment of contact with nature has just reminded me about one person who taught me about love. He’s the one who encouraged me to keep a journal of every day I lived and publish them before I turned 30. He also enjoyed this communion with nature with me. I am seated here and I am wondering, as he and I used to wonder, how can man possibly imagine he is a separate entity from nature? Right now I can feel the wind trying to blow in tune with my heartbeat, and it will get faster when I go to run in the field. When we abuse the environment and become cruel to animals and children, we are literally hurting ourselves. This down memory lane has given me the courage to write a letter to him even though he will never read it.

Dear You,

Like everyone else, I was also scared, of making the greatest step that would give me the kind of relationships I want in life: the step of being vulnerable. I lived in a “jail”, where there was safety because I did not open myself to anyone and risk being rejected. Communication was barren. Hallo how are you? How is work? How is the city taking you? This is a jail because outside of those walls are people whose contact would change your life forever. Out of this wall are people who would have the gut level communication where you share your judgements, dreams, sins and …warts and all. Who does that without the fear of being rejected, shamed and ridiculed? So we settle for relationships with silence, surface talk. Since I loathe and cannot stand those fraudulent relationships where silence is embraced to “maintain the peace”, I chose reclusion. There, I stayed in my own space, willing to share everything but myself.

Then I met you, and I smiled at you. Somehow, it looked like you had been on a journey of 1,000 lifetimes and you came back home. I knew my hands had held you before. My eyes had watched you sleep before. I just could not remember when. Suddenly, I felt the walls come down, and the inner childlike creative me came to life. It scared me just how free your presence made me feel. There was no ego, no competition, just sharing and being free to fart, chew badly, snore, laugh… there was no pretence.  I gave you everything, and you did give me everything. It did not matter because each of us put the other’s emotional, spiritual and physical well-being as a priority and therefore this “careless generosity” was just us recharging ourselves in a world that treats people like you and I as boring silly unlovable folk. I was emptying and you were filling me as you were also emptying as I filled you. You taught me a lot about music and how to harness my inner emotions—no matter how negative— so as to relate with music and every art in harmony.  From you, I learnt a lesson of the acid test of love which is you cannot say you love anyone until you are able to put him/her before you or your needs before theirs?

Used to control and safety, I was terrified by the effect you had on me. You brought out all the crap in me. The insecurities, my fear of being rejected, my strengths, my creativity… godamned it! I believe I did a pretty god job at annoying you too. I fought you in an effort to get my independence back. Hard as I tried, I could not because my soul needed you to evolve and grow so as to propel me to finish my purpose in this life, and until that process was complete I had to be humble and vulnerable enough to let you feed off me as I fed off you.

I loved you for sharing the most important gift: yourself and everything about you. You were broken, as I was, but every day, you made the decision not to be bitter and angry. Instead, you chose to be kind and compassionate. So I learnt that, when you find someone worth the effort, you have to be vulnerable. They could hurt you, and they do, but they could also give you back with the same intensity as you.

For a while, I blamed you for how everything in my life turned out after I met you. I am sorry. I should have acknowledged that from you, I learnt how to judge who should stay in my life: they have to keep it 100. The person who looks at me the way you did, like I was like some sort of a unicorn who made you curious. The person who touched me the way you did, like I was fragile and about to break. The person who challenged me the way you did, like I was sitting on this goldmine of a talent and I was being selfish for not sharing it. The person who fell in love with all my flaws and never made me feel bad about them, like how a quarter of my hair is grey—and I used to dye it to hide that— and how I sometimes turn into this mean tantrum thrower when I cannot have my way. The person who saw their bodies like I saw mine: that it was a gift to be shared because there was a love there, the greatest part of you that you had to share with another human being. The person who did not try to change me, or find fault in all the scars that life had given me, and the way mu head could be chasing a million things I forget to remove the shower cap from my head as I rush out. The person who calmed my demons as much as I did theirs. The person who thought it was okay to need a person you love, and ask of them, to provide that connection, and emotional intimacy over every material thing. Nobody never taught me that. You did. So now, more than decade later, I thank you for loving me.

Readers, why don’t you share your experience with me? A letter. A thought. I would be honoured to read about your experiences.

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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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A man broke my heart, I almost gave up on life… How I overcame it

Thank you all for the congratulatory messages that flooded my Facebook wall, Twitter and Instagram for my journalism award. It was presented to me by the president of Mauritius! Don’t be mean, dear reader. Raise your glass of wine, water, porridge or whatever and toast to me. You know the first day I walked into my first foster family, in 2006, I had just lost my parents two years before that, and my godmother told me “You are going to be so international you will be so surprised and that is what I tell God whenever I pray for you”. I looked at her and thought “Woman, you are insane. Here I am homeless and you are talking about international”. Nine years later, my godmother Mary Wainaina is still making her prophetic declarations, and she will make a point of reminding you when her prophecies come to pass no matter how little they are!

So in today’s post, let me stop being every title that I have acquired along the way—journalist, writer, tailor—and talk about the fact that I am a woman, a very sensitive one for that matter. Sometimes I hate the heart God gave me. It takes me forever to trust, but once you climb the million and one walls that I have around me, you have my undivided attention, and that is when a betrayal would disorient me.

I am a special woman, very difficult to love

I am an introvert—always masquerading as an extrovert— so the places where I would have opportunities to agree to have coffee with members of the opposite sex are almost nonexistent. I find so much joy creating something out of nothing, alone: am most expressive as musician; I unwind from sewing myself dresses and make sense of the world through reading and writing. These are gifts I perfected in a brief stint of spending my teenage years in a convent, but had learnt from a young age to use to stay sane in a very abusive childhood.

guitar lady
I find so much joy creating something out of nothing: am mot expressive as musician. This is me in 2014, Ageless Music owned by producer genius and musician Dominic Khaemba who was my lecturer and produced my first-and only-album PHOTO/SAM ABARA
I find so much joy creating something out of nothing: I unwind from sewing myself dresses. Here is one of my own, although modelling is not my cup of tea PHOTO/MAKE UP SANDRA RUONG’O

As a music student in campus, I toured with the school band to perform at secular events singing Mbili A bel songs, but my brain usually got so stimulated by gatherings I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel and collapse on the chair. Then I became a worship leader Maseno University’s very vibrant Christian Union and my music was contained on that pulpit, and even my first album was launched there. So I turned 28 in August and I thought “F*** ! I have never even gone out, or agreed for a man to take me out on a date!” I was not thinking about it as a loss, but more like “what stories will I tell my kids about my dating life or what else do I know about life apart from the books and my work?”

Oh I just stumbled on this poster of my music launch in 2011
Oh I just stumbled on this poster of my music launch in 2011 PHOTO/From my archives

I did not see any need for having those dates anyway. I had met a man in 2008, in my first year in Campus. In the supermarket, I had run out of every cent after shopping for my little brother. It was the beginning of the semester, and I did not even have a shilling to take me back to school. There, in the mall, I sat down to cry. He came to me. Teary eyed, I told him “this is my list of shopping of what I need and I have not a cent”. He picked the trolley, bought everything and gave me the bag and my fare to school.

I never saw him for a year, I didn’t even know his name. In 2009 June, in that very mall, I was looking at radios and he comes to me and says “Here is my wife, I have been thinking about you for a whole year. My name is Eric, what is yours Mrs Eric?” Since then, he became my best friend, greatest supporter, the first man I had ever known that intimately and the only one. I was amazed at the lengths he would go, in small ways, to make me comfortable and assured me of my position in his life and the destiny I had ahead of me. He announced to everyone, his colleagues and friends even when the smallest story I wrote was published. When I had my first journalism award, he was happier than I was.

If you have lived my life , in this part of the world, you are accustomed to defending yourself. You learn to fight when you have to, to stop people from taking advantage of you.Around Eric, I think I was a kitten I dropped my claws. I only became confrontational when I felt he was being taken advantage of and as he did not have a violent bone in him, he would forgive too much. I even tattooed his the pet name I gave him (Bunny) on my arm, wrote songs that I have never recorded about him. He had a bakery and he gave it a pet name we shared. Behold! Someone who was not appalled that I am those old school girls who listen to Celine Dion over the weekends and find pleasure in sewing. He was never repulsed by my anger. I would be laughing at a joke, in Nairobi, and he would be in Kakamega and he would call to say “I was just thinking about that drunkard we saw in 2010” and I would tell him I was laughing about that same man now too. One day interviewed by a local radio about the tattoo, I told the presenter “I love my fiancée what can I say?”

The heartbreak

Then this year, a chain of events triggered by a little lie ended what had been the fan beneath my wings. Each of us was so hurt that for a month all we could text “what’s happening to us?” I have always been one that does not suffer much in people. When you walk out of my life , I forget you faster than I blink my eye because I channel all my energy in deleting you off my memory and as an introvert, I do not need to explain how in sync I am with my inner self enough to command it to forget people completely. But when Eric left, I was a zombie for two weeks, then I would cry all night, missing the silly conversations we would have that time. I would not meet my work deadlines and I told my boss “Sir, my heart has just been plucked out of my chest I cannot work”. I lost so much weight in three weeks I was shocked.

Being the tantrums-thrower, I stopped calling him names after a month after which I told Eric “You have hurt me, badly and you do not deserve a pinch of clemency from me but I will love you enough to take us through this if you came back here where I am, because where I am is where your home is”. I reminded him of what we has overcome, what we had seen each other through. We both came from very humble backgrounds and had worked so hard. I stood there, and I watched the man I had loved for six years, the first man whose house I had ever even visited, whose embrace I felt so secure in cry. Amidst sobs, he said “I am sorry, baby, I love you”, over and over again for like half an hour. I told him “It’s okay, and you had my forgiveness even before you asked for it”. I asked him what he wanted and he said a hug. I rose from the chair and hugged him, and he held on longer, tighter, sobbing and I did not know what to say to make him calm down.Let us just say I tried everything in my power to get my baby back and then I realised that there are seasons people have in our lives and when that time comes, there is nothing you can do to stop the change of events.

The heartbreak made me realise that I am strong, much more than I thought. I understand that you cannot talk about love, until you have loved someone so deeply and they would not give that love back or do not deserve it. You cannot talk about love until you have forgiven the impossible, the most repulsive sins committed against you. But you know man kneels down every day to ask for mercy from God- or whatever supernatural being that you know exists up there- and am certain it is granted.So when you have the chance to practice that patience on a fellow human being, you realise just how small you are standing beside the ocean or underneath the sky.

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