This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, (In)Sanity, What Crazy Looks Like: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
Editor’s note: I’m thinking about what it is to read this essay and think of the several iterations of violence that have happened since Westgate. What does it mean to live with the presence of this present?
by Mugo Muna
“So all those people in Westgate should get therapy?” he asked.
“Why not?”, I responded.
“Even if you managed to get therapy for all those people,” he said, “what are you going to do after the next incident?”.
He had a point. After this incident, there would undoubtedly be others. Matatu Madness. Insecurity. Natural disasters. These are all real threats that could bring distress and misery back into people’s lives.
He explained that because of these constant occurrences, you would need to be in constant therapy to just keep on living. So instead of living such a life, Frank thinks it’s better to come up with your own way of managing and just press onward.
Or simply: just deal with it.
This solution sits poorly with me. But I have my own coping mechanisms.
Whenever I am in a big shopping mall and everyone is happily walking about, I’m still thinking about how poorly the security guards search people coming into the malls. I’m thoroughly convinced that I will be caught in an attack at some point. Because of this certainty, I’ve decided that I am okay with losing a leg. Either leg. Just leave me with the ability to sit in front of a computer and churn out words. That’s all that is needed. But I doubt the aggressors would be so kind and listen to my pleas. Nevertheless, I have come to terms with it.
Okay, I am underplaying my acceptance a little bit.
Not only is the leg loss okay, but I have also been mentally designing the prosthetic that I would have made for me. It would need to be something that mimics the function of the lost leg but the form would be radically different so that you wouldn’t think that it was a real limb in the first place. Think chrome and jagged edges.
But that’s crazy! Right? These shouldn’t be the thoughts running through my head, which I admit, but they are present.
A friend of mine recently returned to the States after working in Kenya for a little over two years. Her friends said that she was acting strangely and that she should go and see a therapist. Upon visiting the doctor, she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
She later made the claim that most of the people she knows who come back to the States after being from Kenya also end up with PTSD. At first, this statement can seem a bit hyperbolic. Because it could be interpreted as saying that everyone in Kenya has PTSD, which is ridiculous. Then I remembered that I’ve never seen as many dead bodies as I have in my time here in Kenya, and it is impossible to really know how those snapshots of suffering affect a person. Can you really be okay after seeing a recently deceased human being? It changes you. Maybe not immediately, maybe not intensely, but there is a break between your past and present self. And what about the second time and the third time? What does this compounding of experiences do to a person? So maybe there is something to that post traumatic stress thing.
But just being aware that something is wrong is not the same as dealing with those sensations. My aunt once said, “if it is your day, it is your day, but don’t jump up looking for bullets.” On one hand this is fairly sound advice about bullet evasion. On the other hand, it is a really fatalistic approach to dealing with your emotions. I hate this idea of giving up all my agency and just seeing where the chips land in the end. Is there a more proactive approach? Can these feelings of helplessness be combated instead of accepted? What options are available? How do you deal with it?
Despite all these questions, I find it impossible to talk to people about my mental state here in Kenya. Often after hearing a traumatic story, someone within the group will utter the phrase that grates against the fiber of my very being. A collection of words whose frequency is irksome but persists nonetheless.
This is Kenya.
A statement that is suppose to summarily explain and codify the experiences that we intake every single day. It is an expression that is both meaningless and offensive. Just because the lived sensations do not equate to the ideal does not mean that we must blindly accept the present. Such a brief assertion serves as a catch all to end all discussion about a topic. It is a phrase that shuts down any dialogue and engagement with the emotional core of the situation. And does its continual use speak of a fatigue of discussing these experiences. That it is easier to heap the blame elsewhere than to confront those troubles? Do the people using this saying truly believe that it is a satisfactory way to explain someone’s experience? Whether or not people truly accept the ethos of the phrase, it serves as means of terminating rather than furthering any meaningful dialogue.
Beyond that single statement, it is difficult to talk to people about sensitive emotions because it can feel as if they are listening not to empathize or support but simply to share that story with someone else. Waiting for all the juicy details so that a transcript of my words can be passed on. Of course this motivation doesn’t describe everyone, but it taints the way conversations unfold. That lingering fear of being talked about. Of other people, snickering in secret over your honest outpouring to a not so confiding friend. Because of this fear of being talked about, I modify what I say and tend to emphasize the positive things going on in my life and neglect to mention the more negative. Call it pride. Call it snobbishness. Call it whatever you want. But I am more likely to talk about a night out dancing than my continual sadness caused by my breakup. So I end up sounding cool but still mull over the same thoughts with no catharsis.
As my buddy George told me, “You guy. You better kill that story. They could tell someone. Who will tell someone. Who will tell that girl you are interested in.” Ultimately, being talked about isn’t about being embarrassed, but also a fear of losing standing in the general community. With so much to lose, it is often easier to just keep those thoughts to yourself.
Which is crazy given the levels of community engagement in this country. We have community support like I have never seen. My cousins’ house burnt down, and the outpouring of support and love that his family received to have the house rebuilt is astounding. I mean who needs 4 sofa sets? But that community support and love is not enough. Of course it is welcome. Of course it is comforting. But there is a limit to what you can share and how open you can be with a group of people. My cousin talks about the outpouring of support, but he doesn’t talk about the fear he had when he was fighting the fire. He doesn’t talk about the thoughts that cross his mind when there is a surge in electricity, the fire was caused by some electrical problem in the house. Maybe these things don’t bother him. Maybe they do. But I doubt he will start talking about his fears of another fire right after receiving another sofa set for the house. And that’s the problem. It’s that willingness to be vulnerable. That willingness to show the flaws around your life that is lacking and inevitably is harmful to our own psyches.
Being open has its risks. Ridicule being the most fearful at least for me. I don’t want to reveal my innermost insecurities only to be laughed to my face after getting the courage to talk about them. Fortunately, I have a group of friends who I feel comfortable sharing my own insecurities and doubts. But not everyone is that lucky to have a support network that they can truly depend upon and what is our solution for them? Keep putting on airs? Keep on keeping on?
And not all people will cope in the exact same way.
I think I cope with my experiences by writing. Whether it is simply writing an email to a friend to detail the foolishness that I have just witnessed or typing out my own deeper, more troubling thoughts, writing is a catharsis that can’t be provided by any other medium.
This does beg the question on how are you suppose to deal with trauma? How are you suppose to deal with those complex sets of emotions caused by some black swan event?
I think we have to be more open with one another. Yes life in Kenya is hard, but that doesn’t make your emotions and experiences any less valid or real. We can’t continue to stigmatize those who are struggling with their own mental challenges.
Imagine the relief just from hearing some else talk openly about the aftershocks they experienced from a traumatic experience. That feeling to know that you aren’t the only person trying to figure out how to keep moving along everyday. That you aren’t the only one who gets pulled back into those moments and it feels like you can’t escape it in the present. For the walls of perfection to be let down, even for a moment, and for imperfection and flaws to shine forth for the rest of the world to see and scrutinize.
“What do you think they are going to do with the Westgate building,” I asked recently.
“They’ll probably just refurbish it and reopen the mall,” my friend responded.
I don’t know if I like that thought. Just to add a fresh coat of paint to the veneer of our suffering. We can’t keep rearranging the emotional furniture in our minds. There has to be a realization that mental health is as important if not more important than our physical health. You wouldn’t hesitate to go the doctor when you feel something is wrong with your body, but when you can’t move on after a shocking event, you just hope that time will help you forget?
This is Kenya. This is the how it is, but not how it should be. Let’s talk about our fears and anxieties since silence isn’t really working.
Mugo Muna is the founder of Bora Wear, a company that makes belts that matter. Follow him on Twitter.