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.