When I needed to breathe, the world paused

I write this a relieved man. Relieved because my anxiety has abated just enough for me to have time and mental presence to write this story. As I type each letter, I keep scanning the recesses of my mind and body to be aware of any spikes in my heart rate, or my gut wrenching to echo a bowel movement, or for my fight or flight responses to kick in. There are nuances to mental illness that are unique to each and every individual and at this very moment, I’m acutely aware of mine. After a week of planning and wanting to write but lacking sufficient calm within myself to do so, I have found my moment. A moment which until recently seemed almost impossible to achieve. So much, so that for the better part of two years I have been rendered, in various capacities, incapacitated. ‘Healing is not linear,’ runs a quote from a meme across my mind. I chuckle to myself and I say, ‘No it is not.’

This is not a story extoling the virtues of battling mental illness or romanticizing my struggles. Neither is it an attempt to get into the manifestations of the illness and what effect it has had on my life. I will hold on to that story for either my children or a paying customer. This particular story is about a person by the name Daniel.

Who is Daniel you ask? Well, Daniel is a person who has had a huge impact on my life. My earliest memory of Daniel was in Class 1(1st Grade). The year was 2002. I was in class ‘1 South’, if I remember correctly. Teacher Pamela’s class. We referred to each member of staff by their job. She taught us Kiswahili. I know this because I remember her favorite line was, ‘Unawashwa na viroboto? Nenda uketi’. I remember that at that age we didn’t have desks. We had long white tables and sat next to each other on both sides. The tables were actually short- but picture the mind of a toddler for perspective. In order to appreciate what impact Daniel had on me, he is the only one I remember from that class. For the life of me, I try and can’t picture anyone else. He was the smartest guy in class. Always competing for number one. As if that wasn’t enough, he was the fastest guy in our year. That meant a lot for boys, being the fastest. It was a big talking point. No break time is complete if you didn’t race. That’s like an old boy not announcing that he is from Alliance High school. Or a Kenyan lawyer not saying, ‘The law is very clear’.

But I digress. I myself was a fast kid but Daniel was really fast. At some point, he and I sat side by side. I really looked up to him. I really wanted to be everything he was. He had a good handwriting. That was such a big issue in our school and mine was pathetic to be honest. Was? My handwriting at this moment is irrelevant. The teachers genuinely liked him. They gave him responsibility. He was made prefect. He was always cheerful. Daniel was never afraid. The confidence he exuded at such an early age was such a drawing quality. I was always afraid of being reprimanded or expressing myself; afear that stemmed from home. He was never selective or selfish, beyond what toddlers do from time to time. It wouldn’t be long till he smiled. I wasn’t jealous of him. I admired him. I wanted him to be my friend. He made my class 1 year and Teacher Pamela all the more bearable.

We later on went to 2 South. My position in school had really improved by then. I was now consistently a top 5 contender and would be  till the very end of my primary school years. The spike had to do with Daniel on a small part. I knew it even as a child. My need to compete with and at the same time be his friend made me better. The memories of my childhood come sweeping back and I realise that I still have similarities to me at class 2. In many ways I am the same person, only at this point I know better.

In Class 2 we had desks. I remember more people now. My most pertinent memory in class was when we were having an English lesson. Our class teacher, Teacher Grace, called on pupils by order of their positions. Daniel started first, followed by Victoria, then Vivian, then me. I had the toughest question of them all judging from the questions given. The questions were on short forms. Daniel completed his question quickly and with assuredness. He was never corky or boastful. He was just pleasant and confident with what he knew. I on the other hand was nervous. I didn’t want to be on the wrong. It would mean the ridicule of the teacher and the opinions of my fellow pupils. Now, one might say that this nervousness is still there among pupils today but for me, at that moment, it was a big thing. So much so that I remember it till today. My question was to shorten the words ‘I have’. I walked up to the blackboard. My hands used to sweat a lot, particularly when I was nervous. The type of sweat that would moisten the paper on my book and blot my writing, coupled with my bad handwriting, you can imagine that languages then were not my favourite subject. I picked up the piece of chalk and began to curve out an answer on the blackboard. I chalked down my answer but just as I was finishing I heard some of my disgruntled classmates saying, ‘Noooooo’. I looked at the teacher, who gave back to me a disapproving look. Before I could be corrected, I corrected myself. I frantically erased my answer and wrote down the correct answer, I’ve. I looked back her way and she was content but her expression was not encouraging either. Relieved, I went back to sit. I felt good. But my falter earlier had made me feel that I wasn’t good enough compared to Daniel. Still I wasn’t jealous of him. I just wanted to be better and he had the attributes I liked.

Years went by in primary school. My memories get better as each year passes by. Daniel went to a different class for two years. We were scouts and we met in after school activities. In sports day, he was in Blue house and I in Red house. Suffice to say that Blue house was the cooler of the two and they were winners. We reconnected in Class 5. It was 5 West. Teacher Munyagia was our class teacher. This time around, I was always in the top 3 in class. Daniel however seemed not so sharp any more. I was now faster than him too. We instantly reconnected as friends. He sat just in front of me and the stories and fun times were there between us. As if his talents couldn’t increase any further, Daniel began to draw. And man could he draw. He was an artist. Goodness. It is ridiculous to think that the quality of his work then would rival the works of artists at this moment. Don’t believe me? Daniel, through his Mother, was able to have a small part in the Daily Nation kids section for his cartoons on certain days. The series was called, ‘The Adventures of Pin Pop’. The demands of the section would interfere with his school work, plus it would seem that giving a child a section all on his own was not something the Nation was willing to sustain despite their interest in developing kids’ talents. He had to pull out. You could tell that he was disheartened because of it. I on the other hand could barely draw a stick figure. I asked Daniel how he used to draw ‘Pin Pop’ to make him look so good. He taught me how to do his face. To this day, I draw the face just as Daniel taught me all those many years ago. Daniel. What a guy.

Till then, I had never made an attempt to discover more of Daniel’s life. Till then I just knew where he lived and that bit about his mom. He lived far from where I lived. We were together more often than not during school and had known each other for years. I had never asked myself questions about him like, how did he view me? I know that the competition side was always with me and I had to be the one to agitate it. He was always a good sport. Did he look up to me? Did he know the impact he had had on my life? More importantly, what made him how he was? My first attempt to find out was incidental. I asked him, ‘How are you so good at drawing?’ I had to know. Then he answered, ‘My older brother taught me’. So that was it. Having older siblings. That’s the key. At that moment, I remember wishing for the very first time in my life that I had an elder sibling. Someone who could guide and teach me things. At the very least, someone who I could view and learn from even if it was at a distance. I got to know more about him by pure coincidence. At one point in time, there was an event that was happening in the weekend at someone’s house far from where we lived. My Mother was invited and she took me there. It was a celebration. There was food and a lot of people. Then something happened. As guests were interacting I had the opportunity to walk out of the house and look around the environment. Wouldn’t you know it; this was Daniel’s estate. How did I know? I saw Daniel playing with his friends. Has there been a more elated boy? I doubt it. I quickly ran to my Mother and asked for permission to play. My Mother, never one to let her children wonder around at home let alone in a new environment, agreed. I believe it was peer pressure from other adults around that did it. Double joy.

For the first time I saw Daniel in an environment that wasn’t school related. He had so many friends. It was excitement and elation. The fast paced games, the laughs, and the good nature of every one of his friends. Goodness me was it always like this for him? If so, then I wasn’t jealous, more like sad that I couldn’t have this by myself and more importantly, with him. I got to see his elder brother and sister. They didn’t strike me with any drawing qualities. If you asked me, I wouldn’t have known that they were siblings just by looking at them. Maybe the hair of the brother. They were much older than us. So that was his brother? Okay. I asked him to show me his exact house. He showed it to me. It had a black gate. He told me that his Mother was home. So his Mother still allowed him to play on his own till this late? Maajabu. That afternoon and evening proved to be one of the best moments of my childhood life as I got to play with my friend, Daniel. It was the first place that I ever got to play the game, ‘Stick of Death’.

As the years went by, Daniel’s spark, to me, wore off more. Why? Possibly to do with growing up, for me and for him. It may also have had to do with us developing characteristics that were no longer so in tune with each other. For me, personally I decided to align myself and be closer friends with people who had the same interests and values as we grew up. At times, Daniel would do things that others would consider outright childish, more than normal for children of course. He was still a bright boy. He was still responsible and was relied upon to be the school bell ringer for years. But still, that spark. Given that we went to separate classes for another two years, we lost touch. Could it be that things at home were not well at the time? Could it be that he simply lost the drive to be better? If so, why? Could it be that he was crying out for attention? At this point I am forced realize two things; that Daniel was still human and that a lot of these things depend upon how I look at him and how I interpreted our interactions with each other and others.

What I am sure of on a question of character is that he was a good person. Honest. Reliable. He gained other close friends along the line and he still had that effect he had on me in a different way. He had developed the persona of the class clown in some way. All in all, to this day, his friends from then still describe him in superlatives. His underlying character was still there even though it was not as bright as before to me. I got to know more about him when we went to boarding school. About his parents. About the conditions at home albeit in a limited way. He was human. As we finished our primary school education, with each individual pressures and growing, we grew a part more and more. I have never seen him again till this day. It would seem that no one else has as well.

It is at this point, dear reader, that I turn towards introspection. From my perspective, the coronavirus pandemic has in its own way been a blessing in disguise. It has allowed us a timely opportunity to assess things as they are. It has shed light on our values, our perceptions and where we stand as a community, as a people. The pressures of the ongoing world, with the demand for productivity, growth and being perceived as a person of value on the basis of achievements, qualifications and wealth weigh heavy on a majority of people. This is especially so for a young person. We often find ourselves thrust in an already pre-established world with our roles and responsibilities thrust upon us and seemingly we have no choice but to conform or rise above. Our worth as individuals is often judged by how well we are able to navigate the world; natural and man-made. By man-made I refer to issues to do with the economy, politics, the society and all the intricacies that they entail. Often we are left little room for self-discovery and growth as it suits us. We find ourselves playing catch up. If one has the opportunity to discover themselves and grow in avenues that are not in line with the expectations established by the man-made world, ranging from sexual orientation, to race, gender and even down to the details of talents such as swimming, music, and sports among others, we find ourselves in a battle to be ourselves. That being yourself as you are is a problem. It is even worse for those who take these man-made expectations to heart on a conscious and in a subconscious level. I will focus on the former as it speaks more to the story. I am sure by now you were asking, what does all of this have to with Daniel? Well then, I will keep you waiting no longer.

The story of Daniel, or rather the story of how I viewed Daniel has a lot to do with me. The expectations of the man-made world that I took to heart on a conscious level affected me from very early on and have continued to do so till today. How they came about is the object of further inquiry but I would like to think that it started from indoctrination as a child and later on developed into something that I accepted as is on the basis of how I perceived and interacted with the man-made world. However, Daniel, as the breath of fresh air he was, was able to do something to me then that I am now able to appreciate at this moment.

You see, Daniel’s influence did not make me work harder or obsess about beating him. I didn’t read obsessively and spend my days thinking of how I would be better. In fact, it was the complete opposite. If you were to ask my mother, I used to fail to do my homework severally and we always found each other at loggerheads. My attention was more on reading books (that didn’t involve school), watching TV, going out to play and living my days. For people raised in a traditional Kikuyu household, my parents found this almost sacrilegious. The subsequent fear of ridicule and beating that often found its way to me led me to hold these expectations in very high regard. But this also served to limit me. I found myself often so concerned with doing what was expected and fearing to fail that it limited how I viewed and interacted with the world as a child.

Daniel however, was the opposite of how I was. He had the freedom to be himself. To express himself and rather than focus on fear he focused on himself, his ability and doing what he could. It is important to note that this was all intuitive for him which is what made it all the more endearing. He made me stop worrying in a way and focus on what was at hand. To get out of my head in a way and just do things. To be present and see things for how they were. More importantly, to enjoy being whom you are. Our competition was enjoying racing for the sake of it, not just to say that, ‘Nimekushinda’. To me at this moment, it had a lot to do with being present. To being attentive and not letting fears, worries and even excitement control you in that moment. He made it easier for me to relax and be my version of a child. I found myself enjoying school because there was only so much control teachers had over us. This presence of mind served me well as I grew older and allowed me to perform effortlessly. Of course, when I got to good positions, I found myself having habits of letting work pile upand not putting more effort to reach to the top and remain there consistently. I had then a phobia of being too serious. Maybe because the fears of the expectations of the man-made world still weighed heavy and rather than put immense effort, I was comfortable with just being.

I am now reminded of the importance of letting things be and being in the moment at this time. I would argue that, at the beginning of the pandemic, more than ever, I needed time to breath, relax and be with myself. This is because I felt as though I was not meeting my expectations. Even more fearful than that was that, at this age, I feel as though I lack the skillset to navigate the man-made world at a time when I am expected to start being on my own and function at the highest level. I felt as though I needed time to recuperate and put things into perspective. To breathe. Lo and behold, the universe listened and slowed things down to a halt. It paused. Not only that, the challenges I have faced even during this period of the pandemic have seemingly operated in the confine of timelessness. Yes, timelessness. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding myself not knowing what the date is during this period. The man-made world has grinded to a halt and with it has come the serenity to look deep within myself and remember Daniel: who he was and the effect he had on me; to allow me to balance the expectations that I realise I hold for myself and the virtue of being present and mindful; not to be lazy and passive, but to allow myself to distinguish when and how I should act consciously and purposefully and yet keep things in perspective;- to smell the roses;- and to not be consumed by the man-made world but rather experience it and put it into perspective. The supposed big picture, that life was meant to be lived. That your value, contrary to what many of us perceive, is not determined by your qualifications, achievements and wealth. That you are a human being and you are fine where you are. That this too shall pass. That your life shall pass. What matters is not just what we do with it, it is that we are present for it.

David Theuri,

Strathmore Law School