The food at our office canteen tasted a lot like my job felt—bland. I cannot say that it was always bad. But I’d lived with a Senegalese woman and a Zanzibari woman for a total of two years and the transition from their delicious food to the canteen was brutal.
Still, I can’t say the canteen food is bad with the confidence with which my colleagues do. I have a fear of trivializing people’s work. But there are things I like about the food that I cannot say out loud for fear of martyrdom.
For instance, I like Chapati Chuesday. I think the chapatis are done well and with a little pepper in the stew you can close your eyes and imagine you are in your grandmother’s kitchen in Siaya and people have convinced the favorite cousin—favorite because she cooks the best chapatis—to make lunch.
It is a bit of a stretch, but the smoke at this Nairobi canteen rivals that at my grandmother’s firewood kitchen. It is especially smoke-filled on the best food days—Tuesdays, and then Fridays when they make fries and fried chicken—like a good omen.
I have been feeling very heavy this year.
I often feel that my soul is too much for my body and that I am holding some of the extra soul in the palm of my hands. I try to press my fingers tightly together but my soul pours out and pours out and pours out. It is not watery, my soul. It feels like the time I tried to “be a lady” and made a nutritious mix of oils for my dreadlocks and the bottle filled faster than I planned and the coconut-castor-argan oil poured out and poured out and poured out.
I loved a girl once. Very much. She loved me too. Very much. On Thursday afternoons which the New Haven winter baptized into nights too soon, I talked non-stop while she baked brownies with a kick. When they were ready, she would get them out of the oven and she would say to not eat them until they cooled. So I would talk while we waited. Or we would watch too many episodes of Brooklyn 99 or something else that had the kind of humor that could make us feel smarter than other people. Make me feel smarter than other people; she was not conceited like that.
When she allowed it, we would eat the brownies—two and a half each, sometimes less for me, and sometimes more for her.
Then I would start talking proper. Non-stop. She was a quiet one, and she became quieter after the brownies were in her. She’d never tell me to stop. But she’d say that I talk a lot and make The Face.
The Face is a reaction people sometimes have when I speak.
It looks two ways. The first and the more common is a raised eyebrow that is somewhere between a question and a frown.
The second I have seen most often in white people, or black people who only hang out with white people. One side of the mouth stretches into what looks like a cringe but changes its mind at the last minute and becomes a full-mouth smile.
Both are extremely subtle but when you have been seeing them all your life, you know.
Sometimes, as I talked with the brownies for fuel, I felt gradually lighter and lighter until I was twenty-one again and it was summer again and I was lying face up in Central Park and felt like I could laugh into eternity.
But then the lightness from the brownies would become emptiness and I’d dive into myself to fill the vacuum in a panic but inside the vacuum my drained soul would look back at me with such accusing eyes that I’d pack my things and leave my body in fear.
Once, after I’d eaten the brownies, and we were taking a walk, I imagined myself zipping my mouth, and the woman I loved asked why are you quiet and I said I do not want to change you by forcing you to deal with chaos and she said I do not want to change you either.
I watched a video once that said we are all so appalling that we should never show anyone the full extent of our true selves.
It is brutal but some of it made sense to me, especially because the people around me are kind, and because I can be overwhelmingly myself in the way that I crave company at dinner and savour conversation, because being so shifts the responsibility (not burden, I know now) of dealing with myself to other people who are comfortable with their own company and are juggling 8,000-hour work weeks.
I have been watching The Good Place (yes, it makes me feel smarter than other people). In one episode, the guy who plays Kevin in Brooklyn 99 acts as a Supreme Judge. He listens to the characters make arguments and whenever they become emotional, a green goo covers him like a flower blooming backwards. The characters then have to calm down and “lose their emotions” so the slime disappears and Judge Kevin returns.
I feel two things.
The first is that Judge Kevin would be a perpetual goo if he ever had to deal with me.
The second is that I wish I had this shut-down mechanism but designed for the moment when too much of my soul is leaking out—when I talk so much that people make The Face, and when I ask for help.
This year, I have been trying out some plumbing to control these leakages. I have spent much more time alone and made much fewer phone calls (which everyone but my telco is happy about). Sometimes, when I am about to say something out loud, I think it instead. I record Whatsapp audios and instead of letting them send, I select the trash icon and delete them. It’s like journaling into the abyss.
Secondly, I have been trying not to ask for help because it feels… like asking other people who know to keep their souls somewhere proper like inside their body to take on the responsibility of holding my own in their palms because I was not even smart enough to get soul Tupperware.
At first, when I was overwhelmed and panting from trying to hold my soul all on my own, it showed. But after some time, I learned that, like the canteen food, you can put pepper on your soul and it can become more palatable. You do it right before receiving a phone call and you do it right before meeting a friend for dinner and you do it right before sex. And for two or three hours, you are palatable.
As a plumber, I am proud of my handiwork. But deep down, I fear that I am doomed to the life of the toilet in my father’s bedroom, forever leaking a little, but always little enough to survive another day.
I have been thinking about being a happy soul, then going through dark times, and feeling like you are haemorrhaging sorrow from your soul in the same way you once haemorrhaged joy. And instead of showing the blood from the sorrow off like the priest does the wine glass at Mass, you hide it the way a pubescent girl does menses that come as a surprise.
I think of my new darkness as a false advertisement, like the disappointment when the food tastes nothing like the glossy picture on the menu.
I told the trees once that I felt bad that the people around me had been forced to be part of the darkness and that I tried very much to hide the extent of it.
The leaves rustled and said what will happen if they found out?
I said they might get tired of dealing with it. I was.
They asked what will happen if they got tired.
I said they will leave.
They asked and what will happen if they left?
I said then I will be alone.
They said and what will happen if you were alone?
I said I will hate it very much.
They said will you hate it so much that you’d rather live a lie?
I did not know whether to answer correctly or honestly.
This is what I tell Linda in a voice note in May when the greyness of rain clouds in Nairobi has passed and nothing jerks me back into winters and makes my limbs, including my brain, feel like something that needs ironing.
“I dislike the fact that I need people, not just that I prefer people. When I am absolutely stressed, for me to get good vibes, I hang out with someone. But then sometimes absolute stress means spreading negative vibes so it’s a very confusing thing because you don’t want to spread negative vibes at all and sometimes hanging out with someone even without explaining injects positive vibes into you,” I say.
“But I have been trying to get out of sunken places without people, just to like heal yourself, you know, like Jesus resurrecting himself. I have a great fear of needing,” I add.
“I think my first ex, the way he left, he used to be the person I hung out with for everything and I think subconsciously my psychological reaction to that was OK now I have seven close friends who I keep up with so that there is nobody who is centred and absolutely necessary in my life and whose absence leaves a hole that looks like what that guy left,” I say.
What an unkind and selfish thought that is when stripped bare—that you have many friends in order to make sure each of them is disposable.
This is what Linda tells me:
“We are social creatures and it is a biological need of yours as a human being that you need other people. Humans, the way we are designed, we do not function without other people. So I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself. I don’t think it is a flaw at all. I think it is very human to feel that way,” she says.
“And it is hard, I know, when like you have negative feelings, you feel kinda low and you want to hang out with other people. If you wanted to hang out with me low, you would just sit in a corner and it would be OK and I am sure you have friends who would do that for you in Kenya, just to sit with you and talk to you. Or not even talk to you, just so you can be with somebody but in your sorrow,” she adds.
She finishes with: “It’s hard but what I don’t want you to feel like is you have these feelings but then like close yourself off or feel like you can’t say what you feel. I really think you should just let it all out and be with other people even when you don’t feel… when you kinda feel negative because your real friends they care about you even on the bad days and it’s ok we all have bad days.”
Linda’s audio note carries the scent of beef, sukuma wiki and not-yet-burnt ugali which she would call ugali around me even though she grew up calling it sadza—a meal she somehow managed to put together for me in a cold faraway land.
It is not that I do not believe her: everyone has bad days. But I want to explain that you can be too much, that you can be in a state where it is a kindness to hide yourself from your friends and to seek help from someone who will not scream with terror when you reveal your darkness to them.
The first time I saw a psychiatrist was in New Haven. I told her that I felt that I may not be alright and wanted to check—the way one feels woozy after travelling to Siaya and checks for malaria just to be sure.
She said she feels like I may need some help, because I was low-income, black and in a new space. I disappeared. I wanted to be mad on my own. I did not want to be mad because if one is black and not rich and spotted an African accent, then one is mad.
She said she would call me back but my bank balance did not allow me to pay for my phone bill for the two years after.
This is what I wrote to myself after I walked out on a psychiatrist in Nairobi who may or may not have said that being queer and irreligious is the reason I am mad: “I feel like my mind is rushing fast towards a cliff and jumping and then changing its mind and jumping back onto the cliff and laughing at me and telling me to stop being so uptight… I always knew the nights I felt my mind waking up, stretching, yawning, packing its bags and starting to leave me were a lie.”
In the months that follow the second visit, it feels like everything in my brain got a pair of black combat boots and camouflage uniform and is singing I am a sooooja inthiaaaaarmy nonstop, matching, running, panting and keeling over, all of these things at once sometimes.
At night, I feel that I have unlocked another level of my mind, that I am living in a different realm, that I have in fact created a simulation and all the people that love me I have imagined as a coping mechanism for loneliness, and that I am alone, and that it is both terrifying and, what is that feeling seating at the very back, beautiful.
Of all the things that first ex did, what annoyed me the most was not something he said maliciously.
He said often that he would take care of me. Unfairly, that translated to him saying I would not take care of myself.
I detested the thought that I would not be able to take care of myself, that he would take care of me. In my intimate spaces, when men give women money, it translates into a power, an ability to cheat, to insult, to ignore and to demand labour.
Before walking out on the second psychiatrist, she says this must be a rough time, coming home, looking for jobs. In denial, I insist that it is not the coming home that is hard, because surely the away time only lasted four years of my twenty-five. It is the anxiety that despite surviving New Haven winters, and all the things that preceded them, coincided with them, and proceeded them, I may not be financially comfortable if the job offers I was getting were anything to go by.
Deep down, what I am saying is in these few months of trying to find myself I have convinced myself that I will have to depend on a partner for financial stability. A friend tells me I catastrophize things. She is right.
Although I am learning to give myself in doses, I find myself telling Sofia, “The first year after graduation is really really difficult.”
I remember the look on her face when she turned to face me with that attentive look of hers that makes you think your words are the only ones that matter and said, “Thank you for saying that.”
Once, I went to New Orleans with the woman who made me brownies. We found a Caribbean restaurant in the back of a neighbourhood with flowers and houses so colourful I thought the first thing I would do when I got back to New Haven is look for jobs in New Orleans. We met a man who looked like an Instagram photo in motion—skin the colour of almond nuts and eyes that intimated to you that they laughed a lot but you were not worthy.
“How is Yale?” he asked and nobody responded.
“It gets better after graduation,” he said, and when we all looked at him quiet, thinking the same thing, that not in my particular case it won’t (I had just received four rejection letters for post-graduation opportunities the previous afternoon), he added, “I promise.”
Linda tells me: “Life gets so much better after graduation, even if we don’t have jobs even if things are tough, I feel so much better than when I was at Yale, and like wow, like what was Yale that it was just so terrible?”
What else she said: “I started dating a coloniser. Can you believe? He is very sweet. I am always feeling like I need to do more, I need to do better, I need to do more, I need to be better but he is my space to just be, which is troubling that he is that space for me but I am just really embracing the moment.”
I too am always feeling like I need to do more. I hated a perfectly alright job at first because it felt like going all the way to college to once again start kindergarten, and that every time I did not do something groundbreaking and I needed help, I was not pulling my weight.
It might be true that we are not able to show the entirety of our selves to other people, and it is starting to feel powerful even, that there is a poetry that will always exist only in my soul. However, some friendships are for seeing your soul speaking to you from someone else’s body every now and then.
When I was a child, I used to play a word game that plagued my brain nonstop. The rules were that I would replace every letter in a word with the one that follows it in the alphabet. If it was a vowel, I would change it into the next vowel. Like this:
like => moli
this => uiot
I would get really excited when the word formed after the transformation was intelligible, the most memorable being the transformation of six to toy.
As a grownup, I play a game in which every time someone says that they have found in their friends/ family/ most especially partner something treasured, I replace the people in the sentence with myself.
I get really excited that the sentences formed after the transformation are intelligible, the most memorable being the transformation I have found in my girlfriend a love for all parts of me known and unknown to I have found in myself a love for all parts of me known and unknown.
This story appears in the Ritual issue of drr. Get your copy here.
Image: Clifton Gachagua
Ivy Nyayieka: Nairobi-based writer who loves to dance. Words in Huffington Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Yale Daily News, Daily Nation, Business Daily, Yummy Magazine, Nomad Magazine, Commonwealth Writers’ Forum and my personal blog Okasungora.