Have you met Hadi?

When I first started doing the thing that I do these days, I met one of my seniors for the first time. Then at some point, he stopped coming for the annual thing of ours, till last year. But even then, we didn’t say much; we shook hands – can you remember that, shaking hands? And we went our separate ways. But he always had interesting problems for me to solve – problems that almost always made me think a little bit harder than I ordinarily would. He is my senior, so he always has interesting problems, but the ones he gave me at that place had that extra bit of something that made them truly interesting.

I didn’t think about how smokeless sobriety would affect how my relationships would change. I definitely didn’t think that the decisions I made post-smokeless sobriety would affect my relationships the way they have. I sent out a bunch of emails in the aftermath of The Decision; one of the few people who responded is my senior. To call him generous is to diminish how vital “generous” is to the things we do for the people we do them for. He has offered wisdom and guidance – and opportunity – in ways only those who give without malice are capable of giving.

Because of my friend’s generosity, every now and then, I’m able to pay it forward. There was a moment last year when I was unsure about where I stood in the grand scheme of things, whether I had the capacity to hold steady for a minute, an hour or a day. But whenever I talk to my friend, and he gives me the chance to do something truly revolutionary, I’m reminded that Almighty God does not put people in your life without a damn good reason. So when I open myself for the benefit of others, I say a little prayer that my friend, senior, mentor, benefactor and all-round professional saint, will see the right side of tomorrow with grace, wit and joy.

It will be a good year

It’s my birthday.

In the last year, my life has changed. Some of the change was painful. Some of the change was hopeful. Some of the change set me back and some of it built me up. It was a mixed bag of a year, yet I would have it no other way. When I write my memoirs and I arrive at this point, I will be very dramatic, but for the keen readers among us, you will be able to see that I put forward my best foot and leapt into the unknown, fearful but confident of some sort of safe landing.

I’ve seen you, too. I’ve paid attention to what you are and why you are. on a few occasions, I have judged you unkindly, and I beg you to forgive me for my sins. You have been so generous with me. You have stood by me. You have prayed for me. You have comforted me in my hour of despair and celebrated with me in my fleeting moments of triumph. But most of all, you have encouraged me as I have purged my body of toxins and expanded my waistline with home-cooked meals. You have been true to me, and I pledge to be true to you. I love you for that.

I face a hard choice, now. I’m always facing hard choices. But this past year has taught me to face them without wavering, though my heart be filled with great trepidation and turmoil. I have no idea if the future is for me but I know that my path has been lit for me by Almighty God – and you. I will triumph. We will triumph. It will be a good year.

My podcast Damascene moment

A year ago, if you had suggested that I would be listening to podcasts, I’d have assumed that you were mocking me for my apparent Luddite-ness. I’d see many of the people I follow on Twitter extolling the virtues of podcast series they listened to and I’d roll my eyes, sometimes not internally. Listening to podcasts, to my mind, was the sort of pretentious thing someone said they did on Twitter in order to garner more klout.

If you’re reading this, obviously, my media consumption habits have undergone a transformation. When I first started listening to podcasts, it was a more scattershot approach. I’d see something on Twitter or on the many news and opinion sites I frequented, and I’d start listening to that. My Google Podcasts and Apple Podcast libraries were brimming with different sorts of podcast series focussing on so many different areas, that at some point I deleted them all and started afresh.

Now, I listen to a mix of current affairs, business stories (especially stories about rivals), history and podcasts on TV shows and movies. I choose those that I can get through in about an hour – my typical commute home in the evening after work. I choose podcasts that have a mixture of voices. I avoid podcasts that seem to be designed for the more paler residents of Manhattan. All in all, it has been rewarding. There is so much to learn from how people see the world and how they express themselves about their views of the world.

I won’t make “best of” list of the podcasts I listen to; it’s better if you worked out for yourselves which ones tug at your metaphorical heartstrings and which ones don’t. But I promise you this, when you find your groove, it will repay you in many unexpected ways.

Smokeless – One year later

It’s been more than a year since smokeless started and in that time, things have changed. My personal circumstances remain in flux, shall we say, but I’m no longer staring at my life and bemoaning the shambles that it no longer is. Since Kenya declared Covid-19 to be an epidemic and imposed restrictions on many activities, I have come to appreciate smokeless more and more. Because I get a full night’s sleep these days, I have been able to consistently wake up at 4:30 in the morning and retire to bed at 10:00 pm at night without feeling as if I’m burning the candle at both ends.

I have higher levels of energy, especially when I manage to eat properly in the morning. I am present more with my co-workers, supervisors, bosses and clients. I’m less mentally frazzled. I can read more and deeper. I feel as if I can conquer the world. Hell, last Saturday an old friend of mine persuaded me to go ride bicycles in Karura Forest. (If you’re thinking of doing it, get appropriate shoes and clothes for riding along very muddy and slippery trails.)

I have tried to identify the key to by successful abstinence and all I can think of is that smokeless (and smokeless sobriety) occurred at around the same time that I was getting more responsibility at work and working with more clients. In short, I was and remain quite busy. But that doesn’t mean that I am always working – the bicycling is just the latest in things other than work that have come to occupy my days these days.

Because of the pandemic, I’m driving myself more, which means the driving experience has come with more on-the-road confidence and, obviously, less damage to the car and, consequently, less money spent repairing dings and scratches. Though I’m spending more on petrol, I’m also spending less on the car.

I’m eating better, though I’m now gaining weight because of all the driving. Before the pandemic, in the glorious smokeless period between October 2019 and April 2020, I walked everywhere, which kept the waistline as trim as I could. Now, I’m bursting out of all my suits and that is a worrying trend – men’s suits don’t come cheap!

All in all, though, I’m happier than I was when I started this journey. I’m healthier. I’m more productive. I’m more mentally settled. I miss parts of my old life and every now and then I wish that I could recover them. But if the price is to puff and drink my way into an emphysema-cirrhosis-induced health crisis, I choose to forego them.

The gods are a funny lot. I gave up a small, and extremely enjoyable part of my day-to-day, and they took away a very large part of me, but they repaid me with so much more. I don’t know what the future holds but I hope that when the universe reveals it to me, not only will I be ready, but when I seize it, I’ll seize it with gusto.

One of my friends is struggling with smokeless and another is struggling with the Devil’s Water and I’m not sure what to tell them so that they can keep to the path to better days. I don’t have the skills to guide them. I offer them this, instead: for the moment, substitute Satan’s Stick and the Devil’s water with something else, whether it be work, the gym, culinary lessons from YouTube chefs, anything. Try and train your mind and your fingers and your day to do something other than that. And just maybe, with a little bit of faith, a lot of luck, and a fierce determination, you’ll celebrate a year of smokeless sobriety.

Tomorrow will be better

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My friend is in pain, a pain that cuts deep. All I can do is pray that she finds solace and comfort. All I have done is to offer a hand because I cannot soothe the hurt, salve the wound, comfort the heart. It doesn’t matter how many other face tragic circumstance, my friend is in pain. That is what matters now, today. It is all that matters. So I pray. And I hope. And I trust. Tomorrow will be better than yesterday. It has to be.

One day the clouds will part, the sun will shine again, and her heart will be filled with the bittersweet memories that lighten the heart in the midst of absence. Tomorrow, surely Father Lord, will be better than yesterday.

Smokeless, a reckoning

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I had my first cigarette when I was fifteen. Sweet Menthol. That first puff damn near gave me a coronary for all the coughing and heart palpitations that it brought on. But I was determined to rebel, come hell, high water or a trip to the A&E at Machakos General Hospital. By the end of that year, I was an old hand. I knew which duka kept the freshest pack of SMs. I knew just how to nyonga one so that it didn’t stink up my school shirt. In the words of our terrifying deputy principal, the karateka Mutengea, I knew how to “smoke underwater” in order to avoid detection. For more than twenty years I did not go a full day without at least one cigarette. Until, that is, thirty-seven days ago, the last day I put one to my lips, lit up, sank back in the sofa in satisfaction and puffed away like Thomas the Tank Engine.

As you can tell from my nostalgic photo up there, I went through packs like a chimney; I almost always had a pack on hand as one was running out of sticks. SMs morphed into Sportsman, to Dunhill Red (International Blend), to Wills Navy Cut, to Gold Flake, to Dunhill Red (BAT flavour) and finally settling on my beloved Embassy Light with the distinct blue-and-white livery. In over two decades of indulging, I knew my smokes – especially which ones to light up when I inevitably suffered a bout of man-flu. Against all evidence and advice, I was not going to stop. Until I did.

I can’t explain why  stopped. I just did. I am self-aware enough to think the it may have had something to do with the personal crisis I was going through, but I am not sure. Now that the crisis has been resolved, now that I know where things stand, there should be no reason to take smokeless-ness to extreme ends, right? I had quit smoking twice previously, and both times I un-quit within a month. The difference then and now is that I never though of it as quitting; I was simply taking a hiatus and when circumstances once again permitted, I’d light one up in celebration.

It’s been thirty-seven days since the last puff (fuelled by a massive gin-and-juice). When I look at those thirty-seven days, what I find notable is how I have held myself to account. I document every aspect of this smoke-free journey. Especially the doubts about my resolve, I write it all down and examine it so that I can do this smokeless thing better. My lungs are clearing up slowly, but twenty-something odd years of damage and injury will take a minute to mitigate. My skin feels amazing (yes, ladies, even men think of their skin every now and then). My lips are no longer black like the black cotton soil from back home. I’m sleeping better and as a result I’m more energetic, I’m thinking more clearly, and I no longer have the urge to take my frustrations out on the whole world (and my frustrations are legion).

I have sympathy, great sympathy, for those who have struggled to quit. Nicotine is a legal drug that is so addictive that it will drive you mad if you miss your daily shot. I should know. Even when my dukawallah hiked the price (temporarily) to 350 bob a pack, nilinunua pakiti kila siku kifua mbele bila haya! I can only pray that you find the strength to step away, to find that thing that will keep you away from it. I am in a better place today, partly because I am no longer dumping I don’t know how many chemicals into my alveoli. By the grace of God, the love of my family, the support of my friends, and the best wishes of strangers on social media, perhaps the next twenty odd years will be the best ones of my life.

Smiling, me

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The year that Germany demolished the Brazil defence at the World Cup finals, I was invited to a seminar held at the Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club. It was during one of the chillier months of the year and so I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I retired for the night, that they had not just turned down my bed, but they had lit the fire in the fireplace and for good measure shoved a hot water bottle in beneath the bedcovers. Upto that moment I hadn’t truly experienced any form of luxury and though I have had the good fortune to experience it thereafter, that experience has stayed with me – not so much because of the scale of the luxury but for how I couldn’t adjust to it, no matter how much pretending I did about being at home in that world.

It has always been so. I’m a child of the ‘eighties, when chai-na-mkate at 4:00 pm ceased being commonplace; when three-newspaper households became tutanunua Sunday Nation na Sunday Standard pekee; when a house with three growing boys found a way to feed them malenge, makwasi, ngwacii and nduma as a way to avoid being eaten into bankruptcy by ones sons. Luxuries were few and far between; more likely to be had when someone landed a hard-to-come-by research grant with a stipend. Suffice to say, we internalised the “akiba haiozi” mindset at a very young age and came to associate luxury living as wastefully profligate. So what should have been legitimate dreams turned into outlandish fantasies – because deep down we understood that dreams can many times come true but fantasies, outlandish or not, rarely did. For those three days in Nanyuki, the luxuries, to me, were a fantasy I wasn’t supposed to live, then or in the future.

My dream house is modest by all standards. It has always been. No bigger (or better) than the one I called home. That, at least, is what I had persuaded myself all these years. I now know better. Aspiring to a fantasy life isn’t necessarily bad. It is the whole reason for imagining joy and happiness. So my dream house has become this fantasy that I have no doubt will be realised, in one form or another. It will be this grand thing, with a rose garden, curving balustrades and ornate balconies, high-ceilinged chandeliers and a massive island in the kitchen. Marble-infused bathrooms – with the master bath having a “his and hers” sink are obvious, aren’t they? Walk-in closets and secret doors, just because. It is a fantasy, I know. Probably unachievable. But, so what?! Life – my life – was meant to be enjoyed. So I shall fantasise – and do everything in my power to live my fantasy because the fantasy makes me smile and gives me an ambition to pursue. I like smiling me.

The sun will shine again

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I never thought that this day would come and yet here we are. I believed against the available evidence, and yet here we are. I thought that we would find a way through, and yet here we are. So now that I am here, I must confront that which will surely bring despair with it. I must face it full face. As it stares back, as it weaves the tendrils of pain through the sinews of my being, I must trust that I am going to get through to the other side. I am here. We are here. We will get through. And the sun will shine again.

The good, the bad, the unexpected

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The freedom of the open road is tempting. Setting off on your metal steed, a bit of fold in your pocket, the horizon in the distance, the wind in your back, your cares left behind. That kind of freedom is rare and requires the kind of foresight and resource-mobilisation that few of us struggle to marshal. Most of us live a predictable life with bits in-between that liven things up – random exotic holidays; unexpected pub-crawls; impromptu road trips to ‘Vasha or Nax Vegas for a rugby meet; mid-week date nights in fancy hotel restaurants. We pay our dues of life in the hope that the pay-off will be richly rewarding. Paying our dues is boring and mundane, most of the time. But every now and then, when we focus just a little, we do things that when we look back we can’t believe, “WTAF! Did I really do that?!” It’s been that kind of month. I don’t know what my birthday month has in store for me, but I know that I am looking forward to all of it: the good, the bad and the unexpected.

Giving

It’s not what you give, it’s the way you give it. – Bruce Lee

There are many lessons to be learned over a lifetime of learning, the hardest being how to love and be loved. We all aspire to give and to give with generosity, but we founder in so many different ways, and the excuses define the limits of our giving, of our love, in how we give and how we love. The effect, more often than not, is the fear of the unknown that comes without knowing exactly what the one you are loving is feeling. And as our fear grows, unchecked and boundless, so does our love and our giving diminish, into a tiny apricot cherry, rough-hewn, jagged and terrible. The pain that comes with the smallness of our love becomes the defining feature of our life, spreading its tentacles like an anemone, poisoning everything it touches.

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But when we live up to our aspirations, when we love and give generously, without a thought as to repayment, with our whole heart, we are liberated from fear. We walk tall. We spread joy. We become joy. It starts small – it always starts small. But like the mustard seed, you will move the mountains of doubt and fear. When we give as we aspire to give, nothing can stop us. Anyway, it has been a month of listening to the universe. What a month it has been.