How tough it must be to grow up in the age of the internet. To be a man in it. To form ideals in it. To lose yourself in it, find yourself in it and be yourself in it. How tough it must be to be 19-years old now, or even 32-years old, trying to make your bed of life a place you can sleep and call your own. Because when you part the curtain on the internet and peek therein, what you see are people who are having more fun than you. People prettier than you. People who go to better bars than you. Who have much more bourgeoisie friends than you do. People visiting places that you only see on Instagram. People driving better cars on road trips with endless skies and infinite horizons, the small, pretty manicured feet of a female on their dashboard. You see people who can dance gwara gwara. People who attend high teas. People who wear bikinis because they have actual bikini bodies. When you let the curtain fall back, you must be filled with smallness, insignificance and with such little ambition because everybody seems to have left you ages ago on your little island of obscurity. Social media is the mirror of hopelessness. The greatest deceiver of our generation. And many shall fall at its feet in despair, never to rise again, never to live to their full potential because they are afraid. Afraid to try. Afraid to ever find the person they are or could be. Because they constantly measure themselves against massive smoke and mirrors and they come up short each time.
I wrote these words in the Notes on my phone a few months ago and left them there in what I call my Icebox, a place full of whimsical half-thoughts, the composite pit from where stories grow. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I didn’t know if I would ever develop them into a story. I wrote these words soon after a meeting with a 20-year old chap from Kenyatta University who had sent me an email asking me how he can be “cool enough”, because nobody looked at him in uni or outside uni and he didn’t feel like he was worth much in the social scene. Basically, modern day angst. So after a few back and forth emails for a month, when I went down to KU to interview one of their heads of faculty, I called him and told him I was in his neighbourhood, would he come to meet me briefly?
He comes carrying his backpack, a fragile bird with long limbs that end in red canvas shoes. We lean on my car in the parking lot and he tells me about the cool children in uni, a crowd that he wants to be a part of. I ask him to show me the popular people he follows and he fishes his phone out and shows me his snapchat feed, which is full of these people with appended rabbit eyes and ears who look like they were having the time of their lives. On Instagram he follows other students who wear slim pants and moccasins. I ask him to show me the girl he admires the most and he shows me a girl with a weave and big gorgeous eyes, a fellow university student, lips pursed at the camera. “Oh, I can’t have that one,” he laughs when I ask him why he can’t have her. “You are right,” I say. “I can’t have her either.”
We talk at length and he slowly opens up like a full-bodied red wine. His problem is that he wants to have friends. To be popular. He wants to be with (and be like) the people he sees online. He wants to belong. “You should belong here first,” I tell him, placing the flat of my right palm against the left side of his chest. Anybody looking at us would think: Why is that weird guy touching that boy’s chest? “If you don’t belong here first, you will never belong anywhere else or with anybody else,” I say.
I have never been part of any cool crowd my whole life and continue to have no desire for it, I tell him. “There are no friendships on social media,” I remind him. “Just theater. Like a school drama play. Not everybody will be the protagonist, there are villains and then there are extras. Being an extra is also okay, it gives you perspective. You see what the main act can’t see.”
He doesn’t seem convinced. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other. “Easy for you to say. You have cool friends,” he says. I chuckle. Cool friends? This boy must have me confused with someone else. “I know some cool people, but they are not my friends. We just happen to know each other.”
“Meaning?” he asks.
“Meaning I will run into them in a bar or an office building and they will say, ‘Let’s catch a drink sometime,’ and I will say, ‘Sure, that would be nice. We plan for next week?’ and they will say, ‘Sawa, let’s talk early in the week to firm it up?’ But then neither of us will call to firm it up because we are not friends. They have their circle of cool friends and I have my circle of friends. ‘The reason is that ‘let’s catch a drink soon’ is a modern day colloquial.” His brows crease into small ridges to suggest that he’s struggling with that concept even though he’s in his third year in uni.
I place a fatherly hand on his shoulder and say, “Think of it this way. When you call call a customer care line because your phone has issues and the customer care representative says ‘How are you?’ do you think they really want to know how you woke up today or if this pimple here”- I point at a sore, crater-like pimple on his chin – “is painful? No. They don’t care about it. How are you is a formality. Besides, those calls are recorded anyway and they want to be on the record for being sociable.”
He crosses his hands across his chest, nodding slowly.
“So these guys you follow on social media, these cool children in uni, they are just playing to the gallery. It’s a circus, man. No clown carries work home. You think a clown wakes up with his red nose? No. He wakes up with his own nose but when he goes to work and the lights come on he has a red nose and he makes kids giggle. And these people you follow might or might not have the money…where did you grow up?”
“I know Section 58. It’s their Buru.”
“No, I grew up in London.”
“There is a place called London in Nakuru?”
“Yes.” He unwraps a packet of chewing gum. “Never heard of it?”
“No. So technically you grew up abroad, innit?”
He laughs and offers the packet of gum. I wave it away. He says, “My dad is a civil servant. My mom sells clothes. So we are just struggling, you know.”
“Well, most people are. You know, perhaps these people giving you pressure online have sisters or brothers abroad who send them money and they can manage to drink daily and have girls on their tailcoats. Or maybe they come from rich families who send them allowances every week. Or maybe they are selling drugs when class is out, you know, dropping and picking and making easy cash. Do you want to sell drugs?”
“Ahh no, I don’t think so.”
“Or maybe they have sponsors, you know. You know they may have some 55-year old rich woman who bankrolls their lifestyle in exchange for a shag. Do you have the heart to get it on with a 55-year old woman who only wants your body and you don’t have to say a word because she doesn’t want you to talk because she might laugh? Do you have the heart to offer this,” I poke his taunt biceps – “young body for money?”
He pretends to think about it for a second and we both laugh. “You dog,” I say.
“I know some guys who just spend their HELB money to ball,” he says.
“Well, everybody has one loan or another. A great number of people showing shiny things on social media have them on loans. So you, the son of a civil servant from London, do you want to compete? How can you? And these cool people here in your uni who are balling on HELB, you could do the same too.”
[Speaking of HELB, they have that 30th June 100% penalty waiver for loan defaulters. You pay only what you owe and walk away scot-free. But of course the chaps with balances won’t take this up. They will post a picture of their lunch instead.]
“Nothing is what it is,” I tell him. “There is always a back story. Everything has a backstory. Unfortunately we only show the story we want the world to see.”
“So this is not your car?” he asks laughing.
“It is,” I chuckle, “but if you look at my Instagram and you start feeling blue and losing sleep because it looks like I’m having the time of my life then you are killing yourself because I get lots of free shit. Free dinners, free lunches, free stays in nice hotels, people pay my ticket…do you think I can afford a business class ticket to Europe? I might – if I get reckless, but I’m far from being the guy who buys a business class ticket. I’m far from that guy. So someone pays for it. That’s the backstory. Here is another backstory is that there is no free lunch in this town.” I smile.
He laughs. He has a nice laugh; a long, drawn out throttle. “I see what you mean.”
“Great. So be easy, be you, sawa? Take life at your pace. Look at social media as you look at cinema and you will be fine.”
“Sawa. So what brought you here?”
“I came to interview Dr Theuri. You know him?”
“That’s okay, all he will want to talk about is the role of Vitamin D in extra-skeletal disorders. You don’t want that, do you?”
He laughs and shakes his head. “No, man.”
I open my door and say, “Do you have a chick, by the way.”
“Are you a virgin?”
“No!” that long drawn laughter again. “You are crazy.”
“There is nothing wrong with being a virgin. Virgins are also people. They have family who loves them.”
“By the way please don’t write about me in your blog, but if you do don’t write my name.”
“Can I say you are a virgin, though?”
He laughs. “I’m not a virgin!”
We laugh and josh about, I wish him well and then we say goodbye. From the rear view mirror I watch him shuffle away, his hands holding the straps of his knapsack. I sit in the car for a little while and start typing my Note.
“How tough it must be to grow up in the age of the internet. To be a man in it. To form ideals in it. To lose yourself in it, find yourself in it and be yourself in it.”
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