Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am excited. I hope you will be too.

 

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