After I quit my very brief stint working for the evil interracial couple in 2012 I received an email from a guy called Fred. He said that he developed websites and that my website looked like it needed a new heart. I wrote back and told him that my website was fine that way and besides, I didn’t have a budget to build another one. This was way back when we used to call this place High School. Before things went pear-shaped and strange people found us – people who comment before reading. Fred wrote back, “Well, I will rebuild it for you for free.” For free? I emailed him, “Maybe the site does need a little work on it,” because I’m Kenyan and we don’t say no to free lunch.
So we met. Fred had an office in Office Park on Riverside Drive, running a digital start-up called Belva Digital. He was the only employee. I say office but it was actually a cave, a hole in the ground. Someone who sold medical hardware upstairs had sublet to him a small room in the store area downstairs. To access it you had to go through a dark (the lights never worked) maze of shelves leading into a very tiny space with hardly enough room to swing a cat in. There, at a small table with three hand-me down chairs that squeaked when you eased your weight on them, Fred sat. A glass door led out into Pots and Pans restaurant. The place smelled musty and cold and sinister. The first time I went there I was sure Fred was into organ trade. Or was illegally exporting Pangolin scales to China. One of the two. Or both.
One night we built the new website late into the night with Fred and this graphic designer – a moody University student who hardly spoke a word. He was frustrated with me, that boy. I would say, “I don’t like that colour for a website,” and he’d say, “I thought you wanted this colour?” and I’d say, “No, I didn’t think it would look like this?” And he’d sigh and say, “How did you think it would look, a brown colour looks like a brown colour, a green colour looks like a green colour etc etc,” (Don’t you just hate people who say “etc” in speech?). I’d look over at Fred for help but he would be pretending not to listen to the conversation. “I just don’t like it,” I’d say with finality because I was the (non-paying) client and I wanted what I wanted even if I didn’t know what I wanted. He’d be quiet for a while and say, “Fine then,” like he was on his periods. Feeling guilty, I’d put my hand on his shoulder and say, “Look, it’s not a bad colour, it’s just that it makes the website look like an Akorino blog.” Fred would chuckle heartily but his designer wouldn’t even crack a smile so I’d ask him, “You are not Mukorino, are you?” I think he was an undercover Mukorino.
After the website project Fred invited me to join him in his office if I wanted. There was space for one more. I wondered where the space was, unless he meant his web designer’s laps and I wasn’t keen on sitting on men’s laps then. (Neither am I now, to be clear). So I joined Fred. That office was so small that one person always had to stand and step aside to allow the other person to pass to take his seat. During lunch the smell of the buffet would drift from Pots and Pans, where the bankers from the neighbourhood in their blue ties and important corporate smirks would come to eat. Some evenings when we worked late we would order a drink from the bar and drink it in the office as we worked. One day just before lunch a gas cylinder blew up in the kitchen and we saw a burning chef running across the floor, clothes aflame. Such good times. The Hole In The Ground worked for us. It was a hole full of dreams.
For the loos you either went to the Pots and Pans loos or upstairs to the medical hardware suppliers office which had one unisex loo with a door that faced the open plan office so everybody knew what you were doing, which meant you never wanted to stay in there for too long and you certainly never went for number two because then you’d have to spray the air freshener and everybody would hear you spraying it and when you opened the door they’d stare at you like you were assembling a bomb in there and you’d be ashamed for obeying the natural call of nature.
One time I went to fetch drinking water from the dispenser upstairs and this beautiful, big-bodied, vivacious and very brassy girl I’d never seen before walked up to where I was, bent there at the dispenser, and asked, “You are Fred’s guy?” and I stood up to my full height and said with the most indignation I could muster under those circumstances, “No, I’m nobody’s guy.” Then she asked, “Do you smoke?” I said, “No.” Then she said, “I’m going for a smoke outside in the garden, come, I need company,” then she turned and walked downstairs!! The f*k?! It wasn’t a request, it was an order and I thought, “The hell does this chick think I am? That I’m so idle that I have nothing better to do than just join her and stand around while she smokes?” So I followed her to the garden. He-he. And that’s how I met Grace. Grace filled everything hollow in a room with her personality. If you left your tea cup empty, you’d find her personality in it. Grace was sunshine.
Then beautiful things started happening for Fred because he works very hard and he’s extremely sharp but most importantly he’s a good person to do business with. God started really smiling at him. He got more clients and he needed more space for his new staff so he moved to Lenana Road and I had to move to a different office briefly to do other things. We stayed in touch and did some jobs together. A few months later, he said he had a project for us to do so I joined him on Lenana Road in a big office space that we shared with some hustlers like Taurus and this pilot guy named Jimmy who, on top of being a pilot must have been doing other IT-related businesses. We were all jua kali guys. You never knew what other people were doing and you never quite wanted to know.
Around this time I had been exchanging emails with a boy called Hanafi Kaka from Mt.Kenya University. He had the promise of being a good writer, just like Joe Black, and I was looking at his work and offering comments. When he was done with Uni he said he wanted to come as an intern to see how I did my thing, so I said, fine. I gave him the job of transcribing my interviews. Then I started a tech section on my blog where he would write about tech and stuff.
While I was looking away, Fred hired him to Belva Digital. I always tell him, Fred stole you from me and he says, “If you put it that way I look like a fairy princess that was the prize for a duel between two knights. Fred made me an offer I couldn’t resist.” God continued smiling at Fred. He got more staff and moved to another office down Lenana Road. I followed him because, well, I love to be in the presence of people who are smarter than me. I also liked his work ethic and energy and his depth of knowledge of digital marketing, and we did some projects together. Lastly, I suspected he needed someone to keep reminding him where he came from- the hole in the ground. Then we moved to a much much bigger office on Ngong Road at the very top of a building with a great vista. There is no telling where he will go next but I suspect it’s only up. Fred hasn’t changed a tad. Well, apart from his clothes, I have seen them become less and less kao over time. I’m very proud of what he’s done for himself – from watching a chef burn to watching the windmills turn out on Ngong Hills in the horizon.
Hanafi Kaka, my former intern, has also always worked for him. So do many other millennials who do digital marketing for Belva. The space is youthful and productive and volatile because they operate in freedom and in this freedom they all bring strong personalities even in their silence and loudness. When you put all these young people in a room to think and create it sparks and sometimes it combusts. It’s a cesspit of youth. A millennial smorgasbord. They come and they go. They are restless and ambitious and they are young and look bold even though I’m sure they don’t feel as bold inside. They work late and they come in late. They wear strange shoes, listen to strange music and believe in things I can’t start to fathom. Some days, I’ll be in the kitchen early morning making my breakfast and in the trash can I’ll see empty bottles of whisky, a testimony of the previous late night. They are the millennials. This is their time. Their moment. Their space. Their internet. We are just furniture. I’m just an old rocking chair. You, reading this, is probably an old cracked mirror. Or an aged broken clock. But at least you are right twice a day, right? Right?
As I have seen Fred grow from terrible kao shirts, I have seen Hanafi Kaka grow as a creative, a writer and a designer and a curious and self-aware animal. He has always handled the technical bits of this blog, stuff that I know nothing about. He has a blog of his own. When I needed the cover jacket of my book – Drunk- designed I didn’t look far. He also designs my proposals and logos. He has an amazing work ethic. He’s moody sometimes. Strange most times. But always ambitious and fastidious and curious. I’m mentoring his writing, giving it form because he can write, he only needs to steer it. His writing is introspective and it searches for something, it’s seeking heat, it wants to anchor onto something, to identify itself, to announce itself, but for now it bobs and it drifts and it chases the wind. As it should. He’s only 25-years old, after all.
This one time I was walking past his desk when I saw him popping a pill so I stopped to ask if he was sick and he said casually, “No. Just an anxiety pill.”
“Anxiety pill?” I asked. “Which one?”
“Why do you need an anxiety pill?”
“Because I’m anxious,” he says like a smartass.
“What’s making you anxious?” I ask him.
“But what about life?”
“Just…things…relationships, work, anxiety over the future…” he says. “The pills calm me down.”
“We are all anxious about something at any point in our lives. But at 25-years, my God, you can make a million mistakes now and still have time to spring back. Hell, I can mistakes now and still spring back,” I said. “But you don’t take pills for anxiety. You live life. You overcome them or accept them or change them.” He stared at me with an impatient smile. He had that look of Just-go-I-have-shit-to do.
I went to my desk to stare at Toni’s thighs. But then he stayed in my head. What else are they doing? I wondered. Or thinking? What if they all belong to a cult in this office? What if Sidney, the quiet dreadlocked designer downstairs, was told by his cult leader that he needs a beard from a 40-year old to burn so as to up his creative juices for the next ten years and so Sidney has been eyeing my beard and waiting for the right opportunity to drug me and drive me to Ngong forest and harvest my beard? And what is Yvonne hiding behind the make-up? What about Lucy? I’m pretty sure Lucy belongs to a cult.
Next time I saw Hanafi at the balcony I went over and said, “I think I will start a small series on Millennials. Do you think I will get good content?” He said, “Oh you will get a lot of content from millennials because we are all fucked up. All of us.”
“Who fucked you up?”
“Our parents,” he says. “We’re a product of another fucked up generation.”
“How old is your father now?”
“He’s 45-years old. He had me very young,” he says. “His generation tried to fix the problems of the previous generation, how they were raised. I’d say my dad was fixing his dad through me and then while doing that he focused on correcting the mistakes of his dad and forgot about who I am as an individual. So that is where the disconnect came from as I grew up.”
This “I am individual” narrative seems like a big thing for millennials. “Treat me as an individual!” “I want to think as an individual.” I’m an individual” But who are we? The rest of us? You reading this, who are you?
“So, as a result of this you were messed up by the past generation…”
“It’s messed up big time. Social media has messed our heads. We want to be who we are not, we see people who we want to be but when we get to know the people who we admire we realise they are just like us with our problems. Plus you people don’t understand us or what we do.”
“You are individuals,” I say tongue in cheek.
“Can I ask you a question?” he asks, squinting in the sun.
“When you see a selfie, what do you see?”
I look out over the buildings on Ngong Road. What does one see in a selfie? Is this a trick question? Will I get a cookie if I get it right? Will I be inducted in the millennial cult they are running downstairs? I have to be very careful with this question here.
“Vanity?” I offer cautiously.
“We have a lot of angst,” he says, “and the mediums we have to express it don’t match up with the right way we feel. So whoever is watching from outside the generation won’t see that that’s what we’re doing, we’re expressing these things that you think we don’t have. Because when you see a selfie, you’re seeing someone vain, right? But on the other end, this person may be going through a certain physical insecurity and by making that selfie as beautiful as she can make it, when she looks at it, she reminds herself, ‘Oh, I don’t care what so-and-so said about my nose, I’m beautiful.’ So that’s what guys see when they look at a selfie.”
I look at him closely. That is profound. I chew on that as I nod. “Some people have abused selfies to make themselves look better than others,” he plods on, “but if you go down, deep down, people are trying to say something. The generation is screaming out. Just not as loudly as you guys learnt to scream.”
Well, we were not allowed to scream, us the X-generation. Or express our feelings. Boys were men before they could spell “men.” Nobody held our hands. We were not “individuals.” You were the son of Ogum, Ogum was the son of Ougo, Ougo was the son of Okeyo. You hunkered down in this patricachy. You gazed at your own horizon. You didn’t look at your father in the eye. You didn’t say “Nobody understands me,” because that was considered weak and whiny. And nobody wanted to be weak and whiny.
There are days that I randomly stop by Hanafi’s desk and ask, “What are you listening to now?” because I always wonder how they walk around with music in their heads the whole day! [“It’s mostly blocking out the noises in my head. They never shut up. So if I can give myself another noise to listen to I think I can get through my day without crashing.”] With one earphone off his ear to show that this conversation will not and should not go on for too long he would say, “Bon Iver. Heard of him?” I’d say, “Of course,” then he’d get excited and say, “really?” and I’d say, “No, of course not. Who is he and why do you like him?”
“He has an album called ‘22, A Million’ which describes how fragile life is, the importance or value of God in life, and if any of it matters after life. So that whole album, there are some songs where he is directly talking to God asking Him ‘Is the company stalling? We have what you wanted, you have let us come to this earth, we’ve learnt a few things, but we feel like it’s enough, we can’t handle any better. So just bring whatever you were to bring after. Is the company stalling?” Not knowing what the hell he just said, I’d go to my desk and stare at Toni’s thighs. Then later, I’d Google this artist and (try) listen to the album. It’s got odd titles like “00000 million” and “_45_” and “666 [and an arrow sign I can’t find on my keyboard.]
The next time I find him making a cup of tea in the kitchen, his headphones are dangling from his pockets like a tendrils growing from his clothes. This is a sign that he is willing to let the world in so I josh with him. “So your usual; two sugars and one Valium, right?” He laughs. He’s wearing a cap with a flat bill, like the ones rap artistes wear.
“When did it get to a point where you said, okay, now I’m so anxious I need Valium to calm me down?” I ask him.
He stirs his tea thoughtfully. I throw my ndumas into the microwave. “It started last year,” he says. “I reacted to an emotional situation. And then my reaction provoked a chain reaction and then suddenly, everything came at me at once and I had not expected that. I don’t think I had even grown enough or mature enough as a person to be able to handle that kind of chaos coming at me.”
“It was personal, relationships, romantic relationship, my father, my mother, my siblings. So yeah, I started with 2mgs cause it was the first time. The effect was something I was very grateful for. I calmed down. All that noise quieted. It was like a very holy silence, I swear. And then because these things were still happening, the valium suddenly stopped being enough, the 2mgs stopped being enough. So I upgraded to 5mgs. And even then, whatever I was dealing with kept escalating. So it was like the valium had to keep up with my problems. At some point I realised I needed an alternative way to deal with my problems. I made a list of those problems then I started with my dad, we solved it. We went into a place of silence because we both shared some truths about each other in the situation so we gave each other time to process it. And then I switched to my mom. My mom is explosive and a very strong personality, so she won’t give you time, she’ll come at you. (Chuckles) And then I took a moment, internalized all of that, and then I went to the relationship and fixed it. And then I put all that in my hair. Nobody ever sees. Nobody will see it.”
I stare at his hat. Curious as to what is in there. Is it a squirrel? Does he walk around with a piece of moist charcoal in there, as a metaphor of healing? Now I’m dying to see what’s in there. I’m piqued. “Can I see it?” I ask. He thinks about it for a second and lifts his hat and I’m disappointed that no hare jumps out. Just hair, cut off on both sides.
“So like this cut back here,” he shows me one side of his hair is completely cut off, “this represents that anger I had with my parents the first time. I felt like I’d lost a certain trust or understanding of them as parents that I thought was granted. So I basically chopped it off, that expectation of my parents.”
“So your hairstyle is a manifestation of your relationship with your parents?” I ask hoping he will say no.
“Yes,” he says, putting his hat back on.
“And the message is to who?” I’m still staring at his hat.
“Myself. I don’t think anybody would understand if I gave them that message.”
“I don’t!” I say laughing. “So why don’t you keep this message inside? Why do you have to express it with your hair?”
“Because I’m a very introspective person.”
I take my nduma away from his hair. The next time I go to his desk to see some designs he’s done for a Digital storytelling masterclass we want to do for NGOs and corporates. I tell him to change certain designs. Remove this Akorino colour. This font doesn’t make us look serious. This one makes us look too serious. Can I see more options? Would you look at this logo and think we are fun but serious and we know things we want you to know? How soon can I see something?
Before I go I ask him, “So, what is your biggest struggle as a 25-year old?”
He leans back in his chair. “I’d say identity. Different people in my life need me to be a different person to them. So it’s like for the last 25 years I’ve been a different person to each person to a point where I don’t know who I am. It becomes so much to internalize. It’s like I even take a break from life. And now I’m doing a lot of me-time to see what I am. So many reactions are happening, too many things happening. And you can’t really say is that an explosion, is that a star, is that an atom reacting? We don’t know what it is. But what I can say is that there’s something busy happening inside a bubble and we need to give it a name.”
“Why do we have to give it a name?” I ask. He is beginning to sound like Kanye West.
“I think we’re scared when we can’t identify something, especially myself. I think that’s way more scary than ever. Because if you know who you are nobody can tell you who to be. So that scares me. If I don’t know who I am now, I think I’m in a vulnerable position to shape me into the person they want me to become. So I need to make sure I know who I am. So nobody can have that power over me. Cause that places you in a situation where anybody can manipulate you.”
I nod and stare at him.
“There is a difference between who I’m expressing outside, and who I am feeling like inside. ‘Cause the person I’m expressing outside is the person I want to become. But the person I’m feeling inside is a big combination of identities that I still can’t consolidate.”
“What do you think of Kanye?” I ask him and that gets him excited.
“I love Kanye. He is the only person I follow on social media after I unfollowed everyone! I have had to step back from social media. Si I told you? Oh, that whole situation of I’d set some goals for myself, and when I saw they weren’t happening and these goals were reflected by other people I had seen online, I started judging myself, so I felt like I was failing and I didn’t like it. So I disconnected and unfollowed everyone.
“Is Kanye your hero?” I ask.
“No, my father still is my hero,” he says. “He’s been my biggest influence, I love him so much. Anyone who knows me will tell you I never stop talking about my dad.”
I leave his desk and go and stare at Toni’s thighs which by now might look like it’s all I do in the office, but the truth is it is, most afternoons. I like what he says about his father. I wish Kim can say that about me when he’s his age. Minus the messages on his hair. And the valium. One day I call him to my office and I tell him to close the door. Then I ask him, “Who do you think you will grow into?”
“I hope, I grow into someone better than my father.”
“Is your father flawed?” I ask biasedly, not as an interviewer but as a father.
“I didn’t say he’s flawed, it’s just that we don’t see things the same way which brings a lot of conflict. But he’s a great guy. I buy him hats. I try to make him cool.”
Linda, one of the editors here read this story and asked me, “What is he saying? I don’t understand some of what he’s saying. He sounds cryptic.” I said, “Who knows what he’s saying half the time, he’s a millennial.”
To mean, he’s an individual.