Last year I sat next to my dad’s cousin, Ross, at a funeral in shags. Genius of a man and a recovering alcoholic. He’s been clean almost eight years now. We were seated on the stoop of a house, our backs leaning against the wall, listening to the droning eulogies. Out of respect for his age, I’d never quite asked him what life was like as an alcoholic but it seemed like a perfect opportunity to do so then given that we were at a funeral and misery, surely, still loves company.
So I plucked up the courage to ask him what it was like at his lowest point as an alcoholic. He turned and studied me briefly and for a moment I thought he was going to ask me to go and sit with my peers over there. He asked, “will you write about this?” I said I might. His face – ravaged by years of drinking – was like an old canvas of liquid history; puffed lips, red eyes, sloppy look, scars from falls in ditches, from running into stationary obstacles and, probably, into a few fists.
When he answered me it was a simple answer but with so many layers: “ At my lowest my teeth started falling off on their own.” As I tried to process this, he added on second thought, “Or maybe not, I think the lowest was moving in with this old woman who brewed chang’aa so as to be able to get free drinks.”
At some point everybody had written him off; now he never travels without a Bible in his bag.
People rise from the very basement of sewers.
In my head, when I think of alcoholics or recovering alcoholics, I think of Ross. And so meeting Maxine “Debz” Peku is a bit surreal. She’s bright-faced, healthy-looking, big smile and voluptuous. Have you ever seen the point where water from a stream gurgles through pebbles causing these little bubbles and making soothing gurgling sounds? That’s how you would describe Debz’s personality.
“I spent my 20’s drinking heavily, running around with married men and basically being reckless. Wild would have been an understated description of me, back then.” Debz – a mother of three now – tells me while cutting into her steak. We are having lunch. “I was young and youth comes with a feeling of forever. I got pregnant at some point but that didn’t stop me from drinking. I drunk through that pregnancy, and this is not just ati drinking a tot or two, I’m talking heavy drinking. I drunk rum until a month before I went into labour!”
“Is your baby okay?
“Thank God! She is!” She says.
“I gave birth and a few months later I was in the bar. I continued drinking .” She continues. “ I think because my first child came out okay, I figured, ah, this whole don’t-drink-during-pregnancy song is a myth so I drank for eight months into my second pregnancy. It was mad. One day I remember coming out of my car after a night out – I must have been six months pregnant and I had no balance because my stomach was big and I had had too much to drink – I simply fell down on my stomach! I was certain I had killed my baby because for two days the baby didn’t kick but then she started kicking again and I resumed my drinking.”
“What was your husband saying about your drinking?” I ask.
“Nothing. He was drinking too, more than I was actually. He still does.” She says.
They met, not in a bar, but in a hangar at Wilson airport when she used to work at AirKenya Express. She tells me how he – an air-conditioning engineer – was working on a unit under a helicopter when he saw a pair of good looking legs passing by. “He says he saw my legs and loved them first before he saw me.” She laughs. “We dated in the bar and got ‘married’ in the bar when I was 32. I took breaks to give birth to two babies and went back to the bar. But my first child isn’t from him.”
“No. She’s from the guy I was dating before him, a married man who had convinced me to give him a baby because his wife couldn’t give birth. I was in my 20’s.”
“Of course.” I say.
“But then my best friend – as in my BFF, you know that chic who knows everything about you – one day went and told him that the baby wasn’t his and he was so furious we broke up.”
“Was the baby his?”
“Yes, Biko! It was his baby!” She says.
“You know you can tell me the truth.” I joke.
She laughs and says, “It was his baby.”
“Are you still friends with your BFF?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Anyway, it was a time in my life that I was just drinking so much and making all the wrong decisions in my life. There never seemed to be anything I wasn’t down for. We would wake up and go to Mombasa to drink, or Maasai Mara, or Nanyuki, there wasn’t a bar we couldn’t drink in, be it Dambusters or Tamasha. It was torrid.” She says.
“Torrid. I love that word!” I say and she laughs. “People don’t use words like that anymore,” I then adopt a bad British accent, “‘It was torrid, me luv!”
Debz is 41 years old now. She drunk through all of her 20s and pretty much through all of her 30s. When she turned 30 her drinking escalated and she would change jobs because she was constantly unhappy. “I’d drink until the small hours of the morning, sleep for two or three hours, shower and go suffer bad hangies at work. My main drink was rum and my hangover drink was a beer. My husband went to rehab three times but it didn’t help him. I didn’t go because I didn’t see my drinking as a problem, I was just having fun with my friends. My mother was worried, she used to think I’m a prostitute because of my drinking and smoking.”
While setting up this interview, I had asked her to meet me in Kileleshwa and she had declined (phobia/memories). Now I ask her why and she tells me the reason. They had once drunk at a friend’s house in Kile until 3am when she got into her car to go home in Karen where she lives. Because she was zonked out she made some wrong turns and instead of heading to Karen, she soon found herself passing the “great wall” headed towards Limuru at 3:30am in the cold dark night, long pine trees rising from the side of the road like the hands of satan.
“You know when you get to the great wall there is no turning back, right?” She tells me. “So imagine I had to drive until Limuru to turn back.”
“I’m surprised you never died or killed anyone.” I say.
She tells me that drinking heavily was the norm even when alcoblow was introduced. There was a time when she was working at Radio Africa, her last job, when they had been drinking at Reminisce Bar. Somebody suggested they move to Thorn Tree to join other people but she was already too drunk to drive so she left her car and hopped into a colleague’s car for a ride. At Thorn Tree, they continued drinking and at 2am when they were to leave she realised that her colleague was more drunk than she was and couldn’t drive so she got behind the wheel.
She managed to drive the car but at Nairobi West they saw the alcoblow roadblock and her friend said, “Shit, don’t stop, run over that roadblock!” and she said, ‘Are you mad?’
They were flagged down by sirkal who stuck the breathalyzer in her mouth and that shit went nuts. Not believing results (because it was very high) they tried a second and third one. The NTSA guys were astonished that she could even drive in that state.
“Meanwhile my drunk pal is literally screaming at the NTSA guys,” she recounts laughing. “ He’s telling them, ‘Do you know who I am, eh? Do you know who I am?”
“Oh boy, you are friends with people who say that?” I ask laughing.
“Oh yeah, anyway, so he’s screaming at them, ‘Do you know who I am? I can call Kimaiyo right now! You guys won’t have your jobs by sunrise!” We laugh.
They are the same guys who say, “When I’m done with you you will not be able to work a single day in this town! You will be jobless, and poor! POOR I tell you! Your children will come with bowls to beg at my doorstep like street urchins! Your wives will till my land and wash my dog. I will turn all of you all into slaves.”
Such guys deserve a permanent slot on Churchill Live.
Anyway, because the unimpressed NTSA guys had seen the worst, her drunk-ass was bundled and taken to the coolers at Muthaiga Remand. (I love that word Remand. For the longest time I thought it was a Luo word when I’d hear my mom say, “Ne onindo remand.” You can imagine my shock when I grew up and realised it was an English word.) On her way to remand she called her husband who showed up drunk as well. When he got there he ran into some drunk man (her drunk colleague who is buddies with Kimaiyo) holding her car keys that had this colourful beaded key holder.
“My husband didn’t know this guy who was holding his wife’s keyholder so he tells him to hand over the car key and my colleague says, “Boss, I’m not handing out my girlfriend’s keys!”
I’m chuckling like an idiot. “Did he punch him in the throat?” I ask a little too hopefully.
“Mark you I’m in the cell, he hasn’t even seen me, he just ran into this guy outside the cells, making calls. Anyway, he comes in and I ask him to give me his warm jacket because I was freezing in the cell… it was so cold, my God. He looks at me and tells me, “Ask your boyfriend out there for a jacket” and he leaves the chips and kuku porno he had brought me and walks out and goes home.”
“Good man.” I say laughing. “You could have saved that situation by taking an Uber while drunk like any sensible person does now. No use dying because you refused to spend 500-bob while you left 5K in the bar.”
“True but also that time Uber was not available in Kenya,” she says. “Plus, I have seen what you have done there with the Uber mention, Biko.”
“Aren’t we all just trying to take our children to school?” I say with a grin.
The waitress comes to clear her plate but she says she isn’t done. There is a sad-looking wedge of steak still on her plate. Her phone rings and she says it’s her mom and she launches into Kuyu.
“I didn’t know you’re Kuyu.”
“I’m Luhya, but my mom is Kikuyu, so I speak it fluently.”
Her drinking problem slid from really bad to crucially bad.
“There is a point I’d run a tab in a bar we frequented because they knew us and I would drink on credit. But since I was drinking more than I was making I soon ran into debt at the bar, which meant I would stop going back there and stop picking their calls. But then when I got money I would go back and pay off the bill and remain with only like 1k to drink. It was pathetic. There were days I craved a drink so much and didn’t have a single cent, but I would go to a bar and sit at the counter and order one drink and hope that someone would offer to pay for it.”
The turning point came when she met a lady who runs a brothel, I think they are called Madames. She was 38-years and was looking for ways to support her drinking problem because it had become almost impossible to afford a bottle of Myers rum every other day. She went to meet the Madame in her brothel in Hurlingham, the exact location of which she refuses to disclose. It was a house with a deceptively bland living room and bedrooms that were furnished tastefully. A few candles were lit. The girls, consisting of mostly university students, sat away from view in a different room killing time on Facebook on their phones as they waited for clients. Debz sat in the living room and chatted with the Madame.
“I admired her because she seemed so successful,” she tells me. “ She was driving a Mercedes, her child was studying in Braeburn and she seemed so connected in this town. I just needed an alternative source of income and she seemed like the right person to accord me that. The only thing that I was hesitant about in the whole thing was her remark that some clients prefered to have the madame instead of the girls and you had to oblige because it was business. I wasn’t a pious girl but I wasn’t too enthused about that. As we continued to talk she started dropping names of some of her prominent clients; politicians and public figures and people we all know. Eventually she mentioned the name of someone I knew and I almost fell off my chair with shock. I left immediately.”
“Who was that?” I ask.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Come on, tell me.”
“Debz, it’s me.”
“I don’t know you,” She said firmly but then added, “I can’t tell you, not on the record.”
“I will leave it out.”
“I mean it, you can’t write this in the article.”
“I’m serious. You have to promise.”
She tells me and I’m like, no effing way!
After she left the Madame’s house she went home, removed her clothes and jumped into the shower and as water trickled to a pool at her feet she thought to herself, “How low have I sunk as a human-being to think of opening a brothel, or selling my body to get money for alcohol?”
A few weeks later she quit, on her 39th birthday.
“The first Friday after I quit, I remember sitting in the house wondering what people who don’t drink do with their lives on a Friday night.” She tells me. “ It felt so empty, like that loud silence. I had all this free time and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I started stitching – you know, needle and thread? My husband didn’t think I would sustain my sobriety. I don’t think anyone did. He waited a week, nothing happened, two weeks, three weeks, and after one month he said, “Ala, yaani you have quit for real?” She laughs.
“By the way,” I ask her, “Won’t he read this article and get really pissed off?”
“No. He won’t. He doesn’t read you.” I make a dramatic sad long face. “ He doesn’t have the time for reading, especially your long posts. Besides, he knows me. I’m open, I speak my mind.”
After two months dry she relapsed. A friend invited her for a drink that she turned down and an hour later the friend was at the gate with her husband, to pick her up. So she went and drunk but then stopped again.
“There are things in AA called triggers,” she says. “Your drinking friends are some of the triggers you have to do away with if you are to recover. I cut all my drinking buddies loose except one who I still talk to because our relationship was beyond alcohol. She’s my rock. In fact she will pass by here to say hello to me, she works around here. You can’t stop drinking alcohol if you still keep your drinking friends.”
“I don’t suppose you have been a model mother to those children,” I tell her. “Does that fill you with guilt or regret?”
“I think I have been as good as they come.” She tells me and I look at her to see if she’s being sarcastic but she isn’t.
“Oh you think? You don’t think your drinking has traumatised them in a way? ”
“I don’t think so. I don’t pick up on any damage to them.”
“Some damage can be delayed,” I tell her. “Maybe the damage will start showing when they are teenagers or adults…”
“Yeah,” she reflects. “I remember one of my daughters asking me, ‘Mom, you drink and smoke, Dad does too, what will happen to us when you people die?’”
“I didn’t even know what to say, so I evaded the question.” She says. She’s quiet for a few seconds and then says, “I think I was a fairly good mother, I was home every Sunday with them.”
“Wow, look at Debz. Home every Sunday….Mother Of The Year!”
She laughs so hard she keels over on her side.
“What kind of friends did you have, describe them for me.” I ask her, and she talks about friends with whom she would drink from Friday, sometimes to Sunday, only taking breaks to go home to shower and change, check on the kids and then go back to the bar. “I was paying house helps a lot of money to raise my children.” She adds
“When someone called me, all our conversations would start with, ‘So, who’s buying?’ The problem of alcoholism in this city is not appreciated enough. My friends – and so many people in Nairobi – are functional alcoholics. They don’t look like drunkards but they suffer from alcoholism. I don’t look like an alcoholic, but I am, even though I look healthy, because I never drunk cheap drinks. These people drink all the time, they dress up and go to work and they work and they don’t think they have a problem with alcohol because they are still able to do their jobs. Then there are the bingers who can decide to go for one to many months without alcohol but when they go back they binge through the weekend non-stop, or drink for 24 hours non-stop. My friends and I didn’t think we had a problem, but we did.”
“How does one know they have a problem?”
“When your body wants alcohol. When you think about alcohol. When you have to drink to get courage or you feel you need to drink to be interesting, when you wake up in the morning and pour yourself a drink, when you keep a drink in your car or you put it in a water flask and sip it in the office…these are signs…”
“What do you think spurred your drinking? What were you looking for?” I ask.
“Boredom and peer pressure.” She says without hesitating. “Boredom because that’s all I knew. I didn’t know how else to fill my time, so I drunk. And two, we think it’s only teenagers who suffer from peer pressure, it’s not. Adults do as well. Drinking is mostly driven by cliques and these people derive energy from each other. People in this town don’t want to feel left out. You don’t want to hear of a party that happened without you. Mostly I would do these things just to please my friends. So I drunk to belong.”
She got saved.
Her relative from shags added her to this whatsapp group that consists of women in Christ. There are lots of prayers in this group, lots of teaching, lots of sharing and support. When she relapsed twice at the beginning the girls in the group would tell her, “Don’t beat yourself up, don’t be afraid to fail and if you do, come here, we will accept you, God still loves and accepts you.” It offered her courage and support.
She hasn’t drunk in two years now. “Stopping to drink is the best decision I ever made,” she says to herself more than to me. There is always that beautiful moment in an interview when people start addressing themselves rather than me. I find it very fascinating. I call it auto-pilot, when barriers have fallen and we are on cruise control. I could leave, go to my car to pick up mints and come back to find them still talking.
I ask her what was one of the lowest moments for her and she tells me a story of when she was out of a job, she had just quit alcohol and she was doing some stitching to kill time while she watched some TV evangelist preaching. Her period started and she didn’t have a single cent to buy sanitary pads.
“Do you know how much sanitary pads are, Biko?” She asks me.
“Uhm, no.” I say. (I wanted to say 200-bob but I was afraid of being wrong).
“It’s 75-bob. I didn’t have 75 shillings to buy pads!” She says. “So I had to ask my House Help for pads. Can you believe that? Anyway while I sat stitching, the TV evangelist was talking about Moses and how he was reluctant to go to Egypt to go free the Israelites and He asked Moses what he was carrying and he said he was carrying a staff which God said he would use to bring his people back. At that time I heard the TV evangelist or someone ask me, ‘Debz what is in your hands?” and I looked and it was a needle and thread…”
“Aiii, Debz,” I laugh, “ati God spoke to you through the TV evangelist guy, those are now stories you are giving me!”
“I’m telling you, I swear I heard someone ask me that. Anyway, I realised this was what I was supposed to do for a living. Use needle and thread! My mother is a fundi, after all.”
She then started a company called ALL MAX PILLOWS, check her on Facebook here. She makes pillows, poufs, bean bags, cushions, etc. She says it’s doing better than she thought it would; she is in Jumia and her stuff is moving, she has three sewing machines. Life is picking up again.
“You know, I can offer to make a cushion for those people who rush to your blog to say they are number one to comment. A nice little pillow with some writing on it. How about that?”
“Let me sleep on it,” I say.
“Oh, no problem, take your…”
“I meant it as a pun, as in “Pillow? Sleep on it?”…hallo?”
She laughs. “Ohhh…that flew over my head.”
(Don’t you hate it when people miss your hard-earned puns?)
A friend of hers passes by to say hello. Dreadlocked, sunglasses wedged over her forehead, a packet of cigarettes and mobile in one hand. Trendy-looking bird, good-looking, curvaceous. The type you would see seated on a blanket at Koroga Festival smoking shisha and managing not to smudge her loud, red lipstick. We are introduced. They make small talk as I pretend not to listen. She’s from having a “liquid lunch”, she says. When she leaves, Debz tells me she is the one friend she has kept. “Don’t write her name in this piece.” She warns me. (People are always threatening me with bodily harm)
“Do you regret wasting your 20s and 30s drinking?” I ask her.
“I don’t regret it, but if I was to do things all over again I would start my life at 39-years,” she says. Then she’s quiet for a while. By the way, I forgot to tell you that her steak was eventually taken away. The cold wind from Wilson Airport blew it and it became cold and started looking like a carcass.
“You know the irony is that my marriage got strained when I stopped drinking. I thought it would get better than the days we would drink together and fight physically, but my being off alcohol simply strained it because I think he thinks I betrayed him and left him alone in the bar. I don’t regret being sober.” She’s talking to herself now. “ I’m a better mother and a better wife. I spend all the time I can with my children.” She pauses. “You had asked me what good has come out of my alcoholism? I think I will never wonder what I might have missed. I completely did everything I could have done in my youth. I will never be that person who says, ‘I wish I did this or that when I was younger.’”
She’s wearing this wonderful sweater that has no arms; you sort of just throw it over your neck. What are they called? I ask her about the tattoo of a bird on her left arm and she tells me getting that tattoo in 2006 is probably the only regret she has in her life. The tattoo symbolises how God takes care of her as He does the birds in the air. “My regret of it has spiritual connotations.”
“What is the conversation like when you run into your former drinking pals?” I ask.
“I always have to ‘reintroduce’ myself because I’m not the same person I was,” she says. “I tell them I found the Lord and they say “Well, praise the Lord,” in that mocking way. I hear some say that if Debz could stop drinking then anyone can. And indeed anyone can. Drinking was stopping me from fulfilling a lot of my potential.”
“Or maybe it was also preparing you for this moment in your life,” I say.
“Yes.” She stops and I see her drift away from me in thought, like incense towards the ceiling. I let her. She stares intensely at one spot. Eventually I intrude in her thoughts and ask her what she’s thinking and she says, “You know when babies are born they are born holding fists, like this,” She shows me her fisted hands. “I think we all come to earth with a gift, a talent, a purpose and God sends us down holding those things in our hands. Some of us never open our fists. Some of us do. Is your fist open, Biko?”
“Yes.” I whisper in reverence to what she just said. Those words fill every space in my chest and I think there is no other question I will ask this lady that can close this interview. Besides, she has to go pick up her children from school.
You can’t hear Debz story and leave feeling the same. Lessons riddle her story like bullets through a rag: No hole is deep enough for God not to fetch you from. Reach out. You are not forsaken until you forsake yourself. Open your fists. Cold steak sucks pipe.
I have listened to your complaints the last few weeks. Last week our resident editor, Yvonne, begged to go under to attend to other pressing matters distracting her. She will be gone for a while. (Yvonne you have been precious, thank you). Going forward I have picked three volunteers to edit and proof-read my pieces; Linda Were (“A recovering perfectionist”), Mutanu Lanogwa (Kenyatta University student, Education, English major) and Andrew Ochieng (News Reporter, NTV). Now you know who to burn should you see typos. Ladies and gentleman, thank you for doing this.
Ps 2: Oh and Happy birthday to my Masterclass alumni, Nyambura Ngare. Send us a postcard and tell us how the land of 40s is from the gate.