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My Journey with Unspoken Traumas

My Journey with Unspoken Traumas

Daddy and me, first years

Unspoken traumas. When I was 5, daddy would put me up on our living room table whenever he was home, switch his Sanyo radio on and ask me to dance for him to soukouss and rhumba hits. We took evening walks around the neighborhood, visiting his friends’ houses while holding my hand. Every Tuesday on KTN, he and I religiously waited upon Jimmy Gathu to present Kass Kass so we can jam to Lingala videos and hum along. Before that, it was Fred Obach Machoka on KBC’s Music Time, a family favourite.

This is how I was taught love. You dance on tables. And dance I did until I was about 14 years old when the tables couldn’t sustain my weight no more.


Daddy would buy me Taifa Leo Newspapers and teach me to read Swahili. He was a teacher at Athiriver Prisons Primary School those years. And quite a flexible gymnast too. And a school referee. I adored seeing him in action. When it’s your father on the field with a whistle on his mouth officiating a game you are filled with a sense of pride. Like nothing else in the world would ever matter.

We had a Panasonic black and white TV, which he bought after, I suspect, feeling embarrassed that mom spent her evenings at the neighbor’s watching No One But You and Wild Rose. We’d watch football games and pick sides to cheer on the weekends. He’d often pick the team in black and I’d pick the team in white. Life was simple, and I loved it that way.

One day I won a soccer ball from a CocaCola competition. We called them adida. It was every boy football lover’s dream to own one. I remember going to pick it with him from the CocaCola company. Can’t remember where it was, but there were a lot of soda crates everywhere.

When I got older, there’s a channel that once existed named STV. Every Friday from 7-10pm they played strictly Lingala music. Dad and I never missed. Those were great bonding years.

Being the teacher he was, often moving schools in search of greener pastures, sometimes we’d walk to school with him. We lived in Huruma Estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands. One time he worked at Mountain View School along Thika Rd. And sometimes we’d walk together passing through Mathare. It was worse on rainy mornings, reaching class with muddy shoes while your friends were driven to school. I moved with him to the schools he taught. It was no different for when he got an opening at St. Mary’s School in Donholm. We’d walk from Huruma to Donholm on some mornings. It seemed far for my 9-year-old self at the time. I actually remember witnessing a robbery chase on Outer Ring Rd between CID cops and some thugs who I later saw in the news were eventually gunned down. Huruma was wild. That whole area around Kariobangi too.

Coming to birth in Huruma Estate

It is in Huruma that I had my first mutura. And learned how to ride a bicycle. And my younger brother got lost. And I saw a mentally ill man who’d run naked below the road next to our apartment. We played with plastic paper-made balls that would keep rolling to broken sewer lines and play would continue after drying the dirty water out. It is in Huruma that I learned to play draughts. I was an ardent football fan.

We chanted songs praising Harambee Stars players;

“Harambee Stars Kiboko yao!

Musa Otieno!

Harambee Stars Kiboko yao!

Eric Omondi!

Harambee Stars Kiboko yao!”

The year that was 1998

They beat Djibouti 9 goals to 1 at Kasarani in 1998. A week after the August 7th US Embassy bombing. I think the latter is one of Kenya’s unspoken traumas.

But those were not the only major events that I remember from that year.

I turned 10 that June. Our apartment had a noisy bar on the ground floor and we lived on the first. It was a single room with a small corridor for a kitchen. The place I also cooked my first ugali.

The night that changed it all

One evening, just as everyone was going about their business at home – daddy embarked on searching for a Bill Cosby novel he had borrowed a student he tutored. Bill Cosby was huge those years. He somewhat had misplaced yet the owner needed it back. It must have been an expensive book by the standards of the time.

He checked through box by box to no success. We had a lot of books in the house. Barely any artistic or creative. 90% were syllabus based and full of school stuff. In fact home felt like another school. I hated it. And dad was obsessed with grades and reading to pass exams. Me, I just wanted to be a child. Unspoken traumas.

He couldn’t trace the novel. After an hour’s searching.

“Ama ni wewe umechukua hiyo kitabu?”

I was not ready for how that question was about to change my life.

“Dad, sijachukua.” I denied.

I was a fairly cheeky boy. Steal some 5 shillings here and there for mutura, patco and Brittania buiscuits. But a whole novel? That felt like a bank heist to me. I was already bogged down with BODMAS, it was enough reading.

“Mama yako anaeza iba kitabu? Si ni wewe unaenda shule kwa hii nyumba?”

True to it. I could not picture my mother stealing a book, neither the house help or our uncle whom we lived with at the time.

So he began beating me up to produce the book.

I was accustomed to beatings. My dad would beat you with his soul. To a pulp! All his angry moments would converge in that moment and he’d lash it all out with the height and speed of the weapon he would use to whip my sorry back. I don’t like talking about it.

But this night was not like any other day of beating. He walked out and returned with a folded roll of a hard copper telephone wire that mom would use to hang clothes with.

Then he stripped me naked. And started beating.

 “Toa kitabu!”

“Sijachukua kitabu!”

“Toa kitabu!”

“Sijachukua kitabu!”

Back and forth, back and forth.

My body disintegrating

15 minutes in I started feeling my body disintegrating. I was 10, just 10, and tiny bodied. My mother watching helplessly coz dad was unstoppable whenever he engaged that gear.

My body was bleeding all over. I was sweating and sighing. My little child intelligence urged me to lie I had taken the book. Coz it really felt like dad was out to finish me that night.

And so I said I took it. But I can’t remember where I said the book was.

He gazed at me angrily deep into my eyes and said, “I’ll do something to you that you’ll never forget.”

Walked out as if he had planned it all, and returned with a sisal rope. I sat on the floor still crying. Helplessly. I hate the memory of that night.

He tied my hands. Walked into the kitchen and came out with the 5 litre kerosene jerrican. And a match box. Opened the lead. Poured some kerosene into it. Smeared it on my left hand. Struck a match stick and set the flame upon my hand.

My brain blocked out the memory of the physical pain of that moment. It was too much. All I remember is I couldn’t walk for two weeks. My body was shattered. I was, after all, in my father’s house, a very stubborn boy who could, by his understanding, only listen by battering. Violence was his way of communicating discontentment, discipline and to some extent, love. My unspoken traumas were building up.

Something broke

Something broke inside me that I have never gotten the words to properly articulate. I felt violated in a kind of spiritual way. I could not believe my father would do that to me. All for a book.

From then on my world caved in. My battles with anxiety began. Constantly afraid of people because of the trust issues. The whole world felt unsafe. I mean, if my own father would do that to me, what about strangers? What would they do?

Onset of trauma

This was the onset of inhabiting trauma in my body. My wounds were too real. Too raw. Too physical.

After this incident, everyone went back to normal life, but I was never normal again. I stopped talking. I started asking myself about the meaning of life at that age. As life continued, beating went on. Mom and dad continued fighting. That was our normal. Sometimes I’d get in between their physical fights and dad would throw me back out. Unspoken traumas building up.

Depression kicking in

5 years later as a Form 1 student at a school in Nyanza, depression kicked in. The unresolved trauma was starting to catch up with me, taking deeper roots inside my brain. I stopped going to class. I stopped bathing. I stopped doing my laundry. So I’d steal my friends’ clothes from the lines. My box was broken, so I’d bundle the dirty clothes in there and go fish for more. I stole money and was eventually expelled.

At 16 I platted to run away from home. First time was in April 2004, just around the time Sean Paul came to Kenya. I ran to a family friend. My mom easily found me.

The second time I walked from Mlolongo, where we lived, to Nairobi CBD. Which is about 30 kilometers. And became a street boy for a while, shoplifting Dairy Fresh milk to survive until one day I was caught and mob justice administered on me.

Third time I stole my dad’s ATM card, plotting to die by suicide somewhere nobody knew me. And that was Mombasa. So I set out to the coastal city on the 500/- I had withdrawn from dad’s account. I didn’t need money. I wanted to die. So I didn’t see the use of withdrawing so much. The plan was to arrive Mombasa and figure a way to self-destruct.

When we arrived at Mtito Andei something told me to attempt getting to Malindi, where I had some school friends. The voice was convincing, and that is what I eventually did.

15 years later at 29, depression returned. I didn’t have a job and was coming off a toxic situationship. I went under. One day I came home and took a 2-hour long shower. The suicidal thoughts came to me again. It was at the backdrop of having lost two good friends to sudden death. One had taken his life away and the other died by low blood pressure complications. And I thought to myself, they didn’t have to worry about their next meal or traffic or rent money. They were resting. I might as well join them.

Writing rescued me: Coming out on Facebook

Like it was for me at 16, writing would come to my rescue again. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I just wanted the pain to stop. So I left the water running, walked with my wet naked body to my laptop, opened it, and wrote about my mental health struggle on a Facebook post in January 2017.

My life changed.

I received so much support from my readers. Many citing that they intimately identified with my ordeal. Many more reaching out via my inbox saying they related too well with my words.

And I thought to myself, if so many of us are going through this thing, why aren’t we talking about it? I couldn’t find Kenyan or African stories about mental health. Many of them that I had access to were euro-centric. And that is how I began documenting my healing journey.

What therapy did for me

To the point of taking up therapy, thinking to myself that if I didn’t understand what was going on within me this time, it would take me out next time it returned. I wanted to be equipped.

Learning about depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and all these other mental illnesses made me feel so cheated. In all the years of my education, nobody had ever taught me how to take care of my mind.

And I said I want to dedicate the rest of my life teaching my people about trauma, first by healing from it, and secondly, by urging them to tell their stories, because many of us who are dying in silence, deserve a life of peace and healing.

Onyango Otieno

Onyango Otieno is a cultural designer ardent in maximizing the power of storytelling for healing and connection. Onyango believes in the potent spirit of humanity collectively creating safe spaces for interaction, development, business and movement, for a more cohesive world.

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