Musings

Dark and Full of Terrors

Image of a house on a moonlit night

For kawaida Kenyans who are just trying to make a life, Nairobi is bad vibes, we know this.  But after spending the better part of 2020 at the coast, I had missed some of the comforts of home: fast food that gets to the house half an hour after I’ve ordered it, constant WiFi (when Zuku and KPLC feel like doing their job), my friends, haircuts from my barber and the massages those babes at the kinyozi give, even though they do mine reluctantly because I’m not a man. I knew, though, that as soon as I was on Mombasa Road, the bad vibes would begin seeping into my skin, like poison, eating away at the zen I had cultivated over 5 months.

I enjoyed my first couple of months back home. It was nice to not look homeless for the first time since the pandemonium began: I did my nails; I got a fire haircut and dyed my hair blonde, thus imbuing my essence with the bad bitch energy I have always so sorely lacked; I got drunk with my friends (to anyone who saw me embarrazz myself at Geco Café in October, no you did not – Drunk Michelle and I are not the same person, please and thanks.); I even went on dates! But even deep in the (panini-conscious) enjoyments, I knew they were coming, the bad vibes. And they did. By the end of January I was in another town, running away from the stress that has always come from just breathing in Nairobi, way before the pantomime rudely interrupted our lives. I came somewhere green and quiet, where I could see the food vendors I follow on Twitter and know that I didn’t have to throw my money at them.

I was supposed to return to Nairobi a short while ago, with my family. But then I thought about the Twitter food vendors and looked at my bank balance and decided it didn’t make sense, so I would stay.

2:15 pm: But it can’t be a good idea to stay on my own in a new town. It’s too wild. I’ve been here for three weeks already. I will go.

4:00 pm: But this environment is good for my writing. I can finish the first draft of this novel. I’m going to stay.

5:45 pm: No, I have to go back home. I can’t miss Melissa’s birthday. Everyone will go out for a nice dinner and I’ll be here eating egg sandwiches. Final decision.

5:30 pm: But Melissa will be spending her birthday with her friends anyway, and I love a good egg sandwich. I can’t afford my Nairobi self right now.  It makes more sense to stay.

7:00 pm: No, I’m going. I badly need a haircut. And my skincare products are running out. Plus, it’s been So. Long. Since I ate chicken wings. What better reason is there to go back than chicken wings??

Later that night, after roughly 78 cycles of this, I decided that I am turning 26 this year goddammit, and I have to start facing my fears at some point.

And there it was. Fear.

There is a show I love, Criminal Minds. Anyone who knows me knows it makes no sense that I can watch this show. Somehow, I can’t stand the sight of my own blood and feel overwhelming nausea whenever I am in a hospital, but I can watch an episode of this show where a serial killer breaks the bones of his victims one by one while they are still alive and conscious because when he was a boy his mother once fell off a ladder and he heard one of her bones break, which, in turn, broke something inside him apparently. But people are multifaceted and full of surprises, no? (I mean me, not the serial killer.) I have a no-gore policy for the fiction I consume for leisure because the real world has more than enough of it. But for Criminal Minds, I make an exception. And from time to time, I regret it.

My first night alone in this house the lights went out. I was in the kitchen, playing Joe Boy from my Bluetooth speaker, getting ready to wash the dishes. When the lights disappeared, the darkness was thick, like a second presence. I was still for a moment, listening. I needed to find a lamp. As I walked up the stairs by the light of my phone, Joe Boy the only sound in the suffocating black, all I could think about was this one episode of Criminal Minds that opens in a lovely home, table all set for dinner, joyful Christmas music playing… before zooming out to show that the family at the table had been slaughtered before being positioned at the table, like props. The music and the scene made a terrifying combination. I couldn’t help picturing the same thing happening to me; they would find my corpse on the floor days later, and Joe Boy would still be playing.

The rest of that night was long. I lay awake in bed, listening, trying not to listen. I heard the thump of a footfall on the tile floor. A man had succeeded in breaking in, it had finally happened. My worst fears.

But no, it was my own heartbeat, strong against my ears. So I turned and tried to sleep facing up.

I heard the clang of metal against metal. A man had succeeded in breaking in. This time it was happening for real. My worst fears.

But no, it was one of the university students who live in the rooms next door, closing a door.

I turned the facts over in my mind, again and again. I had closed all the doors, all the windows, the gate. I fought the urge to get out of bed at 2:00 am to check, even if I hadn’t set foot outside the house that day, hadn’t opened either the main door or the gate.

I woke up the next morning surprised I had managed to fall asleep. I decided this was a good sign. I could do this. I got ready to take the twenty-minute walk to town to buy groceries. As I locked the doors, I thought, You’re okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid. Over and over.

I walked past the university, watched the students mill about, thought of my own university experience and how different it was from the one they must be having. I walked past the bodabodas and shook my head when they asked whether I was going to town. I hadn’t taken a walk in over a week and my body was feeling the change. I needed the exercise. Besides, walking here was bound to be a lot more pleasant than walking in Nairobi: the routes were more scenic, the people less desperate.

The main road was quiet, few people. Deserted roads have shown me things in the past, so part of me wanted to turn back and take a boda after all. Calm down. There are open shops on this stretch. You’re okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid. I kept going. I walked past a few people sitting outside the shops, two women walking in the same direction as I was, and even one boy, about eight or nine years old, just sitting by the side of the road in his school uniform when he clearly should have been in class. He was doing nothing, just looking around, and I couldn’t help sending thoughts and prayers to everyone parenting a boy.

The road curved and turned uphill. The two women took bodas. I wondered if I should do the same. There was no one, just me. Up ahead was the police station, which made it only slightly easier to accept the low-fenced prison across the road from it. A man in uniform appeared from a dirt road.  You’re okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid. But I am terrified of the police. I walked past him, sure to avoid eye contact, trudged on, focused on my heavy breathing, hoped no one could hear the sound of my unfitness through my mask.

I was halfway to the top when a man appeared in front of me. One side of his light blue shirt was tucked in, the other side hung out. His hair was thick, wild. No eye contact. A few metres in front of me, he stopped abruptly to pick up something on the road, something I hadn’t seen him drop. It startled me, my step faltered. But I kept walking. You’re okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid. He straightened himself and walked towards me and the closer he got the higher the panic rose in my chest. When he was close enough, I looked right at him and he looked exactly like the men who attacked me three years ago, exactly like the men who pointed a gun at me a few months later. I may have imagined it but there was this look about him, in his eyes. Like he wasn’t just walking towards me, he was advancing. He met my gaze and my fear took over. When he was three feet in front of me, I turned suddenly and crossed the road.

My heart was loud in my chest. My mouth was dry. Tears. I clutched my bag tighter, not daring to look back. I was almost at the top now, where there were people and cars, activity, relative safety. I blinked to let the tears fall. Wearing glasses means it’s a lot easier to cry in public. If anyone sees you, you can always just say your eyes are hurting because of the light.

Then I was angry. What had I done to deserve to exist like this, always feeling unsafe, always expecting the worst, always afraid? That man may have barely noticed me, may have been lost in thought, wondering how he could make more money in Uhuru’s economy. Maybe he only looked at me because I was the only person in the whole town with blonde hair. But how would I have known that? All I saw was a man, and all I felt was fear.

And it clicked. I wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay. There were many, many reasons to be afraid. Trying to convince myself otherwise would not change what the world is. I am not dysfunctional for spending most of my time at home, unwilling to leave the house because the walls give me a (false?) sense of security. I am not dysfunctional for seeing a threat in every strange face, and in many familiar ones. I am not dysfunctional for looking over my shoulder when I walk, for listening for footsteps behind me, for rechecking the doors and windows, for trying to prepare emotionally for worst-case scenarios even though I know that in a crisis, preparation has not helped me before. For feeling helpless. The night is dark and full of terrors. And this isn’t my fault. Or in my control.

I took a boda back home.

The second night was better. And the one after that. I began to accept that this house sometimes just needs to stretch a little; that sometimes, this will startle me. I looked out the window only from time to time instead of every 15 minutes. I began to talk out loud, and then to sing. I reminded myself that I have lived alone before, that I am comfortable in my own company, that I could do this. And still, every night as I checked the doors and windows, the question lingered, its answer close by.

Am I safe?

No.

A couple of years ago I edited a YA fantasy book about a girl who was brought up in a secret women-only commune. The commune had been built by women running away from men, for other women like themselves. I think about that a lot: the concept of a protected community where it’s just women and children and green spaces. I think about the boys that would be raised in such a place, the kind of men they would become. I think about how even in that fantasy story, there were men trying to find the commune and break in to impose themselves. Mostly, I think about the walks I could take in such a place. I could relish the sun on my face, disappear into melody and poetry, know that I was okay, that there was nothing to be afraid of, truly. I could watch the stars in their silence and wonder about life and feel only freedom inside my chest. And wouldn’t that be something.

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