I was from a memorial with some friends when my brother rang. He never rings me at night, he Whatsapps, so I thought shit, I hope nothing has happened. I looked at the phone then pressed the answer button gently, as if that act would slow down the process of connection. “Julius?” I said cautiously. There was loud music in the background – a good sign. He asked, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m having a drink.” He said, “Guess who I’m with?” I said, Forest Whitaker? (Always say the first name that comes to your head). Over the loud music he shouted, “Who? Hang on, let me move away.” He said, “Willis.” I said, “Willis? Which Willis.” He said “Willis Oketch.” I said, What?!
He went to primary school with Willis. I went to high school with Willis. He was a few classes behind me but we were in the same dorm – Bowers 2 – he slept on the bunk bed on top of mine. He was tall and skinny – like most of us were in our teenage years, surviving on the school’s weevil-infested githeri and tepid, sugarless tea – the nourishment of the X- generation. He was also very quiet and laid-back. He spoke softly, never got into trouble, kept his head low and his nose clean, did his homework and always minded his own business. He was visited by his parents a lot, which meant he always had milk powder and sugar in his box. (Sugar was currency, legal tender). Clean guy, Willis, meticulous, his box arranged neatly unlike my box that was like a place a pig could turn its nose up at. We toiled in teenage. The last time I saw him was 24-years ago.
“Is he back from Australia?” I asked. Julius said, “Well he’s here now and he leaves on Tuesday and he would like to see you. I also just left the house at 8pm to come meet him.” They were at Pitstop, which was far from where I was but then I thought maybe this was a chance for us to meet again, you never know when this opportunity will arise again, if ever. Based on his demeanor in high school, I didn’t think he would have the summer bunny affliction. Nobody really jumps at a chance to meet a summer bunny because sometimes the conversations can be alien. You try to avoid that, especially at this point in our lives. One told me one day that it “feels good to see so many Kenyans taking health seriously” because he saw “many people jog around the bypasses.” I said, “People who run around Kilimani and Kileleshwa are not a representation of Kenyans. Actually people in Kilimani and Kileleshwa are only a representation of people in Kilimani and Kileleshwa.” If Willis was the Willis of 24-years ago – chill and all – we were not going to talk about “Kenyans,” like they are a different, faraway nation that you have to take two boats and a donkey to access. So I went.
When you haven’t seen each other in 24 years you don’t even know what to say to each other. There is such vastness between those years, an ocean of it, so much in happenings and movement and transformation and change and emotion and babies and heartbreaks and deaths and lessons that you don’t know where or how to start. It’s hard to find a common language to fill that time. It’s like trying to dig a grave using your bare hands. So what’s left is to touch your glasses many many times and say, “To your good health, my friend. God has been kind to us, we meet again.” And drink. And drink. Then when you see someone you know pass by you grab them in a headlock and drag them to the table and tell them, one arm draped over Willis’ shoulder, “And this is Willis, we were in school together. I last saw him 24 years ago, can you believe that; 24 years!” And the poor guy – trapped in this strange, foreign nostalgia – will pretend to marvel at the lost time and age when all they want is to leave that 24 year rabbit hole and get to the loo without a bruised neck.
At some point my brother held my hand and pulled me aside and under the flashing kitschy disco lights, wore a face that he thought was serious but which in fact wasn’t. (Nobody can successfully pull off a serious face when they are tipsy.) “Listen,” he said, “I didn’t like how you called X an idiot that day.” In December I had had a tiff with one of our friends in a group we are in. Long story. I told Julius, “I didn’t mean it in the true sense of the word. Come on, we call each other names all the time in that group but it’s never that serious, you know it. He behaved idiotically but he isn’t an idiot. You know it.”
“Well, yeah, but go easy on him. He’s going through a lot,” he said gravely. I asked him what a lot is. He said, “I don’t know much, he hasn’t told me, but it’s marriage, I suspect.”
I didn’t know how that is. “How am I to know how that is when he doesn’t tell any of us?” I asked him. He sighed. “Well, he doesn’t have to talk to us, you know. All I’m saying is let’s go easy on him. Let’s cut him some slack, he will come around.” I said, “Sawa. By the way, where did you buy this jacket? I like it.” He said, “I have a guy.”
Of course our friend isn’t going to talk to us about marriage. We only talk to marriage to our marriage counsellors, and even for it to get to that point things are so bad the marriage is hanging on a string. Sometimes we will talk to our church elder because, well, that’s like talking to God’s representative and God’s representative signed a non-disclosure agreement with God.
So who do we – men – really talk to when our marriages are going pear-shaped? When you spent 2 million on a wedding two years ago but now its wheels seem to be coming apart and you hang tight hoping for something to give? Who do men talk to when their “sense of manhood” is diminished in marriage? When they feel their voices going? When they feel like they are standing on a quick sand? When they are in way over their heads in debt and the wife has no clue? Because we know most women sit over wine or sangria or whisky with what they call BFF and they pour their problems in a corner of a bar or restaurant and sometimes even cry in a serviette. First, I can’t even imagine crying in front of another man. Even if he’s crying with me. (That would be double worse). Secondly, even if I’m to tell another man my problems I won’t go too deep because that means I get vulnerable before him, burden him with my woes, get weak before him and perhaps end up embarrassing him in the process. Lastly, I ain’t drinking no sangria.
When men talk we talk superficially. Our conversations go something like this.
“So last time we spoke you mentioned that mama was threatening to go to her folks.”
“Ah, she didn’t. Threats tu, si you know.”
“You resolved things.”
“Ati resolve? Can you really resolve these things? You fix this, another comes up. They keep coming up like boils, man.”
“True. One old man, he must have been 70, tells me that he still fights with his wife. I was like, aii, what can you be possibly fighting about at your age? He said you will always fight with your wife over something or the other. It’s how marriage stays interesting.”
“Kwanza now ati sijui she is fighting me about colour. She says she doesn’t understand where my money goes.”
“Haha. Do you know where her money goes? Even the CIA can’t successfully trace a woman’s money, you guy.
“Ha-ha. Kwanza huku she’s stressing me where my money goes, her I don’t even know how much she makes. Alafu I do everything. Her she just sends money to her parents, ati they are building a house in shags. That house has been under construction since before Thika road became a superhighway.”
“Haha. Crazy. Things will be okay. So now, we buy another round ama you have to go for that event you mentioned?”
Then that story dies.
We all trudge through marriages in silence, like mules carrying heavy loads. We don’t offload. We never offload like women do. When you offload you get time to stretch a bit and when you get the load back on it seems easier. Carry your loads for years and one day you will collapse. Or you will throw your load in a river. We never meet other men carrying loads at the rest points and ask, “Boss, how do you manage that load of yours?” Because we are men, our load is our load. We die with it. We are stoic.
And so I’m starting a series called ‘Men and Marriage’. It’s going to run pretty much for the better part of 2019, then towards the tail end I will do one on ‘Women And Marriage’. I want to speak to men in marriages. Because I’m curious and because as men we don’t share a lot. When we are mad, we don’t go on FB and write cryptic messages like, “This year I choose ME. I put ME first.” We lay low. When we are happy, we are happy in silence and when we are sad and struggling, we are the same. I want to wear a breathing apparatus and get underneath this male phenomenon in marriage.
To mean I want to talk to all sorts of men; men who have been married for tens of years – like 40-years – and ask them what trick that is; how does one remain married for that long when some are barely breathing in the third year? I want to talk to men who have lost their jobs and still have to be “head of the home” during that period of economic disillusionment. How do you lead if you can’t put a roof over your family’s head? Where does your voice come from? How does being broke as a husband affect your leadership and your relation?
I want to talk to those brave men who have two wives. Two official wives. As in they know each other. As in, the other knows the other’s name and where she works. As in you leave the one house and say, “Babe, today I think I will be spending the night in Regina’s house.” As in, you have two sets of belts and after-shave balm in each house. How have you not even died mysteriously and your body never found? What kind of a woman agrees to that? Is it hypnosis? Do you have something on her that the police might want? Where do you sleep on Wednesday and Saturday? How much do you spend to sustain two families and what does it do to your emotional health? But the most important question is not how, but why.
I want to talk to men who struggle with substance addiction in marriage and how they view the impact of their habit on their marriage. I want to speak to men who can’t father children. Or men who are raising children they thought were theirs. Men who have deposited their sperms in numerous small plastic containers in dozens of clinics in a bid to get a baby and came out short each time. What does that do to you as a man and how does it affect the stability of your marriage and how does it change the marriage. I want to speak to old married men, men in their 70s who were married before Voice Of Kenya and how they view marriage now as men and if there is anything at all we can learn from these men of yore. [I love that word, yore, it’s a first cousin to the word yoke].
I also want to speak to men who are in abusive marriages. Emotional and physical abuse. What amounts to being abused emotionally in a marriage for a man and how do you seek help? Men who are married to violent women who chase you around the house with a pan and sit on your head until your feel your fingers go numb. I also want to speak to violent men and peek into (and hopefully try and understand) that place where their rage boils from. I’d love to know how you can fold a fist and punch a woman who weighs 58 kgs. Not that women who weigh 89 kgs should take a punch, but how do you fold a fist and swing it into a woman’s fragile face? What demon lives behind that punch? Where does that ugliness come from? What ignites it?
I’d love to talk to a married man about sex. Why does it – at some point – become like cutting a tree with a blunt saw? What’s our role in keeping it exciting? Why do we naturally fall into missionary? It would be nice if I can meet a man who has erectile dysfunction and ask him what he would want women to know about that. How women can help help a man with ED. It’s not a conversation I will be excited to take on but I’m up for it. [Forgive me; I had to use those puns].
I want to speak to men who like other men but are married to women. What’s that all about? How is it living a life like that, a life of make believe, living for the image and expectations? I want to speak to men who are about to get into marriage, wedding date set etc and their expectations of their wives in waiting and what they think is their role as husbands in waiting. Perhaps some of you older veterans can tell them that nobody wears lingerie to bed daily because even Christmas comes once a year. Some days it’s a long, old t-shirt written, “Saving people money since 1998.”
I want to speak to divorced men at 29 and divorced men at 54 and what the journey is pre- and post-divorce. I want to speak to senior bachelors and ask why they are still playing the field at 49. I want to speak to men who are married to spouses who live very far away from them in a different country, and hear what distance does to that marriage. I hear those are the best marriages because you don’t have to keep telling someone not to leave their socks all over the place. I want to speak to widowed men and what it means to suddenly be the mother and father and you have to look at homework and learn that the lady who teaches one of yours swimming is called Mary.
I also want to talk to men who are very happy in their marriages. I mean those who didn’t get married last month. What is happiness? What road leads to happiness? What is a happy marriage according to these men? Are these the men who during fights say, “Okay, time out. I think I will go for a walk. Can we talk about this when we have all steamed off?”, and then peck the wife on the cheek on his way out? How does one get to that nirvana?
I will not publish names if you want anonymity. I will call you anything; a city, a fruit, even Pontius Pilate if you so wish. It doesn’t matter. What matters is your story and I will treat it with respect. Oh, and I will also pick the tab.
You have a story? Email me; email@example.com [This is my personal email, nobody else looks at it but me.]
Oh, and Happy New Year. All well with your lovely souls?