The call came in when I was at my cousin’s place. It was during those early days of the pandemic when tissue paper was more valuable than common sense, curfew was at 7pm, and the roads were clearer than a glass of twenty-twenty vision. We were having a small get together, and as it happens these days, I was the designated bartender for the evening. Problem with being the bartender at parties is that you miss out on the juice of the evening; always in the kitchen fixing the next person’s drink instead of listening in on conversations. You laugh after the jokes have dried up. But I didn’t mind it. It’s family. So I stayed in the kitchen mixing this undefined concoction of tamarind juice, lime, sugar and rum.
The person on the other side of the line was my editor. She never called, except to ask where is my story, and because my deadline for the next submission was not due for another couple of days, it had to be serious. It was. She said that my story for the previous week had rubbed people the wrong way up the chain and orders had come in that I should be cut loose.
Here is the thing.
This job was a big deal for me. Massive. I had dreamt of writing in that space for most of my writing career. Now that it was at the tip of my fingers, I felt like it was slipping away.
Well, what did YOU think of it? I said.
I thought it was fine, that is why I ran it, she said. Then she kept talking and talking, but most of what she said became a blur. Drowned out by the daunting realization that I had messed up my dream job. I came back to concentration just in time to hear her say, they said I can keep you on until the end of the month, though, so you can still send in submissions for the two remaining weeks.
I said sawa, then the line went dead.
First thing I did was call three of my friends – fellow writers at the paper – to say they are firing me for this, kwani what did I say wrong? They all couldn’t believe it, because the paper had run even more risqué stories before. The general consensus was that there had to be another, more sinister, explanation. Then they all said pole. Last person I called was Lakwan, and she said come home.
Of course that was the end of the party for me. I am not sure my cousins saw the storm of tears brewing in my eyes as I hurriedly bid them goodbye, got into my car and drove off.
I was confused about the circumstances leading up to my dismissal. I was angry then – and sometimes when I think about it now. I couldn’t tell whether I lost my job or whether it was taken from me. And while it was not necessarily what paid my bills, it still sucked that this was happening in the middle of a pandemic when money was tight. We had no idea whether this COVID thing would last, and if not, how long it would go for. Everyone was bracing for impact.
This was not the time to lose a job. The crux of this story, however, is not so much in what happened with my dream job – rather, how I took it. I did not take it like a man. I did not take it like a G. I crumbled like old bread. I broke down in the parking lot, in my car. I wept. I tried to steel myself, but failed. When I got into the house, Lakwan tried to hold me in an embrace but I pushed her away. Not because I did not want the warmth of her comfort, but because I was fighting something more insidious. The discomfort of heartbreak as a man to the point of, well, premium tears. I know I had wanted that column badly, but this much, brought to tears over it? Come on. This grief shocked even me. How it engulfed me and put me to sleep, and I woke up the next day with lines on my face.
Perhaps this is the time I should have heard of Aldo Oluoch Olunya, a counselling psychiatrist who had – since the pandemic began – teamed up with a friend of his to do Instagram Lives to talk about Men-Tal Health. I didn’t. Or perhaps I did, but then brushed it off like most men do, because we live in a time when mental health for men is a buzz phrase being thrown around by liberals. It makes a lot of noise, but not that much damage. Just like its relative, toxic masculinity.
Aldo would tell you that at that point when I lost my job, I needed therapy. To ‘unpack’ what it is that was going on in my head and heart. That is what his career has been about. He works at a school in the city, in which his main role is to ensure the overall wellness of students. But when he is not talking to angsty teenagers, trying to help them get the lay of this treacherous land called puberty, he also talks to grown-ups. People like me – men who have never truly embraced the need to clear their heads. The fallacy of age is that it comes with the assumption that you know what to do.
So he hosts Instagram Lives every week with his friend, Colo, and they talk to their followers about these things.
When I finally spoke to Aldo, it was not because I wanted to unpack anything. I still do not get the need to unpack things. Unpack and then what? What do I do with the things I have unpacked? See, I am a traveller, and unpacking is the one aspect of travel that we hate the most. It brings no joy whatsoever. It is just a tedious exercise that makes you confront your dirty socks and unwashed underwear. But then at least with this kind of unpacking, you know where the dirty clothes go. It ends in a kind of definite order. Not so much with feelings, right? What do you do with feelings you have unpacked? Who washed them? Is there a dirty laundry basket somewhere for you to dump them in? What is the point of bringing back trauma that you have successfully stashed away for months, even years?
I did not ask Aldo any of these questions, even though he probably has the answers for it. In fact, our conversation did not even touch anything on to do with my job loss. Hell, that is not even what instigated it. Someone else entirely had reached out to me saying that Facebook Africa was doing #RealPeopleRealStories, in which they were highlighting profiles of people who have been doing phenomenal work on the internet, and would I be interested? I have never been the one to turn down a good story, so I said why not?
We spoke on the phone for a couple of hours, or less. If I am to tell you about Aldo, I would tell you he sounds like someone who went through a different kind of education because he talks different. He says apple instead of apple. He says he got interested in how the clocks in people’s brains tick when he was in Grade 12. So clearly he started riding yellow school buses long before Matiang’i made it compulsory for everyone. He is a ‘counselling psychologist’ and ‘therapist’, but not a ‘psychiatrist’. Very particular about that, which is good because the rest of us use those titles interchangeably. Kind of the way Bartenders get offended when you call them Mixologists. Or when Content Creators get hives when you call them Influencers.
A psychiatrist – turns out – is a medical doctor and can prescribe medicine. A Counselling Psychologist doesn’t. Psychiatry, in Kenya, is a male-dominated field, but therapy and counselling is a province of women. Aldo’s approach for mental wellness is in this province, and while he will talk to anyone willing to share, he has a keen focus on men. Because men have not yet embraced talking things out, except when it is a peace treaty or a business transaction. Deeper vulnerability is not a thing for us; it is a weakness. You are not permitted the full spectrum of emotion, limited only to the two extremes of joy and anger. Break down and cry? You lose bonga points.
The moment this pandemic struck, it did not just kill people. Its death toll was far more devastating. It killed relationships alike. Back when I was being fired from my job, during the lockdown, married couples were losing their minds. Put a man to look at his family the whole day for four months and apparently it is a recipe for disaster. Relationships change. For some people, it put a distance between them, while for others, it brought them closer to each other and made them look, really look, at their unions.
It was during this time that Aldo Oluoch Olunya started doing Instagram Lives on his handle. To try and diffuse as much of this tension as he could. If you ask him how many he saved, he honestly cannot say. Around sixty people tune in to listen whenever he goes live. A significant number, yes, but not in the grander scheme of things.
This blogpost was supposed to be about that man, but then when I sat down to write, I made the rookie mistake of making the story about me. My own nagging demons wouldn’t let me get this one right. My fingers kept gravitating to what happened seven months ago. To how I cried over losing a job, and how strange it felt. How embarrassing it was to break down in front of my woman like that. I had never cried like that – not even for love. And it is not just that she saw me like that, but also because I did too.
Maybe it is time to do my laundry. Maybe it is time for me to unpack.