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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality

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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
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When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).

My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.

Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?

The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.

For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.

This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.

One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.

I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.

This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.

I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.

But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?

This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.

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Norbert Odero is a Kenyan author, writer and scientist based in the USA.

Reflections

Depression Is an Illness of the Soul, and My Faith Failed Me

When we grow up in a religious nation, a huge part of our identity rests on religion/faith/God, whatever you wish to call it. When this is shaken, the centre cannot hold, and we crumble.

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Depression Is an Illness of the Soul, and My Faith Failed Me
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In 2014, a friend confessed that he had been battling depression and had been on anti-depressants for a number of years. This friend is one of the most brilliant minds I have ever met, he seems to have it all together, and is admired by many. This confession took me by surprise because I never could have imagined that someone like him would be struggling with depression. I voiced my doubts to him; I told him he seemed okay, he didn’t look like it, was he sure? My naivety on the subject was clear. But that confession did for me was life changing, and took me on my own journey to face my own demons.

What I knew about depression was that people who suffered from it were sad all the time. That’s it. However, since that conversation, my understanding has changed dramatically, especially suicidal depression. Looking back at my life in the months prior to that conversation, and as I read and educated myself on mental health, I concluded that if there is a spectrum on depression, then I am somewhere on it – despite my quick reassurances to my friend that day. I have days when I am overwhelmed with life, I question my existence and can’t find a good enough reason for it. It leaves me with a profound emptiness, which I do not know what to do with but sit with it, cover myself with and stew in it.

They say depression is a mental illness, but I think it is more than that. It is an illness of the soul. The soul as defined by Wikipedia is the “incorporeal essence of a living being. It is the mental ability of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc.” ‘Incorporeal’ means without a physical body, presence or form. Therefore, it makes sense to me that it is a sort of malfunction of the soul.

I have heard numerous psychologists rightfully say that some symptoms of depression include not enjoying the activities one used to, social isolation, and difficulty getting out of bed. On that last point, it is not the usual oh-my-god-its-Monday-I-can’t-get-up, rather it is that you literally and inexplicably cannot get out of bed. The thing about sleep in this case, like many of life’s vices including alcohol and drugs, is that for a moment you forget everything and do not exist. Getting out of bed means facing yourself in this mess, and it is too much.

On some days, the mess falls to the background, and there you are – smiling, getting work done, having a social life, being productive. However, the mess still clings to you, it never leaves, hence the yo-yo effect of: today I’m fine, next week I’m back in the thick of it. Sometimes this cycle is weeks or months long. And no, talking to someone does not seem to help. You don’t even want to talk to anyone, even a good friend. I lost a great friendship during one of these periods because I couldn’t bring myself to pick up phone calls as I felt I couldn’t do it.

As a nation that is religious, or spiritual if you will, depression can be closely linked with God. Let me explain. Like most Kenyans, I have grown up going to church. I grew up Catholic and even served at the altar. Every Sunday, my mother would wake us up, scolding us when we were not moving fast enough to make it for the 9am service. The struggle to get up and get ready to go to church, with all the rushing and scolding, always felt like a punishment.

If you are Catholic, then you know how ceremonial the mass is. Because everything is structured so tightly and unfolds in the same way every time, after attending for years you can be present in the body but be totally checked out mentally during mass. So because I knew the flow, I had gotten used to zoning out after the second reading when it was time for the priest to deliver the sermon. Around me were people dozing off, so I thought zoning out was better than blatantly sleeping in church. Besides, what if my mom’s friends from Jumuia saw me and told her?!

In any case, we sang, “Jesus Loves Me” long before we could comprehend what that love looks like. We were taught to pray and love God more as an obligation than because we meant it. We were taught to profess our love to God – more than actually understand it. Why should we love Him? Because he made us, His son died on the cross for our sins, because we hope to go to Heaven when life on earth ends. Doesn’t the Bible teach us to instruct our children in the way of the Lord and they will never depart from it? So, we grew up believing all of this before we had time to question any of it. We are told that as children of God, we are special and are here for a purpose.

It reached a point when I could no longer carry on with all of this simply out of obligation. In 2015, I started questioning this whole notion of a God-given purpose after going through a year of overwhelming hopelessness. I wanted to know for myself who God was, if He exists, if he loved me, what He wants from me and so on. I was really going out of my mind at this point because I was having an identity crisis. Relying on the idea of God loving me because the Bible says so wasn’t enough. I needed to know for myself, and I didn’t. The reason this is important is because when we grow up in a religious nation, a huge part of our identity rests on religion/faith/God, whatever you wish to call it. When this is shaken, the centre cannot hold, and we crumble.

I didn’t know just how huge a part of my identity God was until I was shaken and felt I had lost myself. The death in my life came from a loss of faith. It was time to get out of the childish way of obligatory faith, and really believe as a choice. But the truth is, I couldn’t find my footing. Feeling worthless, I began seeking out answers to my existence. I’m sure to those around me, I looked fine and had accomplished a lot, but inside I was stuck. My whole life felt like a lie the moment I wondered what my purpose in life was. Answers on the mystery of God, on how we should not question His ways were no longer good enough. It is like when someone dies, and people quickly say that His will is being done. Such answers didn’t cut it for me any more. I wondered, was I an agnostic, a nihilist? Are all depression sufferers just pessimists? It was the beginning of an identity breakdown that has brought me to my knees and left me there. I don’t know who I am, and the personality and character attributes ascribed to me by others feel foreign.

What I know is that on some days, it is like I am trapped in limbo, neither alive nor dead. I wonder why I am wrapped in this mess, never moving forward or backwards. It is like you are sitting on the edge of a cliff and you can’t jump off nor retreat to safety. This is what depression looks like to and for me. The anti-depressants you might be prescribed ensure you keep retreating to safety while suicidal ideation ensures you take that leap.

When I think about people I know or I know about who have died by suicide, including Millie Kithinji, Stephen Mumbo, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Avicii, several students in Kenyan universities… I am certain of one thing. Prior to their deaths, they were on this cliff, like so many of us are. Questioning their existence, even those who seemed to have it all – money, fame, love, power. Even with all this, they must have asked: who am I? They must have felt guilty and ashamed at the same time.

I know it sounds selfish especially to those of us struggling financially. You wonder, this person “had it all” and still ended their life. And so, people call them sinners and criminals for ending their lives, and we reach for the refrain we have always been told since childhood – that life is precious and a gift from God, even when we don’t feel it and when our cruel society shows us our lives don’t matter, especially if you are not rich and not politically connected.

Take Millie Kithinji, who died by suicide this March. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision for her – for a long time, since around 2017, she had been begging God for strength and grace to carry on through the trials she was facing, going by her Facebook posts. She was unemployed with a young daughter, the father of her child had abandoned her, and she was struggling to make ends meet.

The spiral was slow but steady. We don’t know what else was shaking her identity, to the point where she wondered what she was doing alive instead of dead. Who knows how many times she came close to ending her life, but perhaps the thought of her daughter kept her going, until this last time. Ultimately, ending the pain took the upper hand to holding on for the sake of love.

Another recent case was Stephen Mumbo, who was a star employee at audit firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). He was intelligent, a family man and a committed employee, he was put together and had everything going for him. The death of his mother shook him, and perhaps other things we don’t know. Piecing his last moments alive reveals a trail of work-related stress and a man who was broken long before he fell to his death.

Those like Millie and Stephen were on the cliff, hurting, feeling the burden of their mess and how all the love from their families did not count in that moment before they jumped off the cliff. “They will be better off without me,” they must have thought.

When you are on the cliff, you sit there until jumping is the only viable option to end the pain. It is the only option because you have retreated to safety many times (perhaps from friends who checked up on you, or the thought of loved ones) yet here you are back at the cliff, and the pain is too much. Yes, suicide is a choice. It is the only choice in that moment, and if you have ever come close to jumping, then you understand. Granted, I still don’t have answers, I can only describe what my depression looks like in hopes that someone out there might see themselves through this. You don’t have to know my name, gender, age, or educational status to resonate with me. Because the truth is that a lot of things will bring you and your mess to the edge of the cliff. Mine is my identity crisis. What you can bear might be too much for another person. What has brought me here is a mess perhaps easily cleaned up by somebody else. What will bring you here is a mess that I could easily discard. What is your mess? Are you sitting on the edge of the cliff too?

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, or if you want to know more, reach out to Befrienders Kenya on +254 722 178 177, or the Meshack Samson Foundation, at +254 715 713 212. You can also find these organisations on Facebook.

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Reflections

Land, Dance and Finding a Way Through This Painful Life Together

Trusting one’s body, and one’s experience of the world is not celebrated or even tolerated in the formal education forced on Africa through missionary and colonial education. School and religion alienated me and us from ourselves, and from the Earth.

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Land, Dance and Finding a Way Through This Painful Life Together
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For British colonisers, the lands that now form Kenya were a space that needed to be traversed on the way to the ‘Pearl of Africa’, Uganda.

The Pearl of Africa was a place where kingdoms, a form of governance recognisable to colonisers from a kingdom country, existed. It was the place where the long-sought source of the Nile was found, and with it the assurance of outwitting challengers to the control of Sudan and Egypt. In Uganda, on top of the cotton varieties they found, the British saw potential for commercial cotton production. A place rolling with greenery, lots of rain, lakes and rivers, teeming with flora and fauna. Winston Churchill visiting in 1807 recommended that Britain should “concentrate on Uganda” whose people, climate, scenery and vegetation were “different to anything else in Africa”, and his statement reaffirmed the title of Pearl that had been given to Uganda earlier by other colonial scouts, Speke and Stanley.

However, to get to the Pearl there was the problem of a strip of coastal lands controlled by the Sultan of Zanzibar (and having had numerous other controllers in centuries prior), and the vast lands and peoples in between the coast and the prized kingdoms. No such fancy names as Pearl were reserved for what was to become Kenya and Kenyans. We were in the way. When the Uganda Railway (note the name), proved expensive, the lands and people that now form Kenya were dispossessed of their inherent value and of themselves, made objects, and turned to profit-making to enable this venture.

This was unseeing violence. Disembedding violence. Dispossessing violence. Appropriative violence. Thingifying violence. It must do something to you to know that you are only a throughway to a thing, body or place more desired. Your value only tied to enabling arrival elsewhere.

The first violence remade land into an inert source of potential capital to be realised through exploitation by a colonial State, and now by a post-independent and still colonial State. Life was rethought dead, chopped up and offered at a cheap price to profit settlers, who were producing value, to enable the journey to the Pearl. It was violence peoples’ bodies, being-ways, knowledge-ways, economies, cultures, and psychologies, on their embodied and unembodied earth relations, and on the interrelationships amongst them.

The dispossession and appropriation that birthed the Kenyan State in the late 1800s, did not end with flag independence in 1963, but was reinforced, frozen, made ‘State-ic’.

Peter Ekeh helps me understand how. In a theory of two publics which I think of as the two Africas, the psychological disruption of Africans who participated in the colonial system caused an unsettlement. To regain equilibrium, these unsettled Africans attempted settlement by being better at being the coloniser than the colonisers were. They regained a kind of psychological balance by being better at performing violence than those who first performed violence on our spirits, human, Earth and ancestral.

This goes on even today. Newspaper headlines regularly detail the numerous ways in which lands and bodies turned into things are appropriated and made disposable for the benefit of the few in State. It happens so frequently and so efficiently that we are numb, frozen, as we watch and hear play-by-play accounts of who can violate us more, like commentary in a football match.

***

Slowing down enough to feel the pain

Violence hurts. Violence injures. One common response to violence is to brace oneself and keep moving. After all no use in crying over spilt milk, right? And there is so much more that needs doing, who has the time to feel? Not feeling is a powerful protection against potential future vulnerability and violence, and there are times we need this survival. But this does not, cannot, go on forever.

In my psychology study and practice I have come to learn that trauma which doesn’t get processed gets stuck and continues to replay until we acknowledge it and move it through our bodies and psyches. Slowing down enough to feel and witness the pain of the historic and present day violences on our spirits is far from indulgence. Rather it is what enables me, and us, to be resilient and to retain my humanity, pushing back against the actions and forces that would have me be an object with no inherent value. Here is an example:

It is August 2018. I am at a protest and memorial for the 34 humans slain during the Marikana Strike in 2012. This protest is happening outside the South African High Commission in London. Speeches are made, we sing and hold signs. A tall thin man, briefcase in hand, walks past us briskly. After he goes some distance, he turns and shouts, “You already got your independence, fuck off!” I laughed at his receding back.

What I didn’t say was “ouch.” Later that evening I am in a group workshop on racism and colonialism. We are doing some role play, and one man is taking the role of a coloniser. He says this, acknowledging a truth he didn’t even realise, “We took what we wanted, and we left what we didn’t want.”

A dam breaks and I weep. Slowed down, I can breathe my pain – the same one I couldn’t when the brisk walker shouted. In that moment I have the space to create a relationship to my own hurt and pain at the violence we and I have been through and continue to go through. Through the tears a song comes – the same one I had led at the protest: Senzeni na. What have we done? A comrade sings with me.

Even while it is not always easy or comfortable, I have learnt that I need to go through my pain to pick up my power, lest I harden, and also become a perpetrator of appropriative violence, seeking to outdo the one who was first violent towards me.

Seeing with new eyes

When a people are mired in the unseeing dynamics of dispossessing violence, we begin to believe that there is nothing to see in ourselves, our places, our histories after all. So I have to remind myself of all that was unseen, in order to reclaim our value.

British colonisers unsaw us and all who we are. I mean us in the full sense of community: human spirits, embodied and unembodied earth spirits (plants, animals, ancestors, and more). They unsaw the remarkable irrigation systems of the Cheranganis, the wonder of setting life to the rhythm of bee migrations, the beauty of decentralised cohesiveness in various governance systems, the science of making rains, the studied play of producing life from an equally dancing set of ecologies as pastoralists do, the connective rituals with which we ensured cycles of life, incorporating the past, present and future, and so much more.

It doesn’t help that for the majority, our upbringing doesn’t tell us of these lives and lifeways either. I recall my high school geography class for instance, which focused on how we can do more unseeing in the style of those that first unsaw us. “Tropical indigenous forests are uneconomical because they grow in mixed stand [i.e. haphazardly, going by that worldview]. Planted coniferous forest is more efficient as it enables mechanised harvest.” This is true, if your goal is to take without reciprocity. And there is no need for reciprocity where the other is a thing without value. The goal of the coloniser was to take, and to enable arrival and capture of the Pearl without putting back.

I set different goals – reciprocity, rebuilding and reconnecting relationships.

We are not the dregs of humanity. We are not what is not wanted. I am not what is not wanted. I see my self, our selves. I want to always sink deep into the knowledge that I have value. We have value.

Re-membering land as living entity

Trusting one’s body, and one’s experience of the world is not celebrated or even tolerated in the formal education forced on Africa through missionary and colonial education. School and religion alienated me and us from ourselves, and from the Earth. I, and we, learnt to trust only in our teachers and in the state-approved textbooks for knowledge.

In trying to reconnect broken relationships I am constantly re-evaluating my relationship with land and with those with whom I share this Earth – plants, animals, soil, etc. I recollect and learn new practices that reaffirm the intrinsic value and self-possession of embodied and unembodied entities that collectively share the Earth.

I do this by talking to plants and trees, approaching them as the living selves they are, and listening to what they say. Thanking my food for making its way to me. Sitting in silence by water and acknowledging how often we treat water badly. Lying on the Earth and taking the time to really feel how the Earth holds me from my heels to the back of my head, inch by inch.

Appropriative violence empties all of spirithood or personhood, making all living things parts of a machine, a means to an end. Acknowledging that I am held and nurtured by the Earth puts a pause on that lie, and helps me to be present to what kind of interaction I want to have with all my Earth relations. This replenishes my stores of care and value that I then come to the rest of life with.

Building collective power

What does one do when they are stuck? Move. The violence that continues to (re)play out today in ever tenacious forms is a collective violence. As I seek ways to name what happened/happens, and to see, feel and move through it, there is work that must be collectively done to repair the harms inflicted on us. Movement and movements do that for me.

Moving my body and doing so with others through dance is a form of collective healing to unstick the stuck places in order to be well, and to be well with others. Dancing with presence has become a practice to shift and move things that I cannot do only with words.

I also work to build movements that can acknowledge and heal this collective violence so that we can start again from a different place. I combine working for justice with healing in my movement building, and understanding healing to also be justice work. I think this is necessary if we are to avoid the race to outdo each other in who is better at performing appropriative violence. It is a way of rewriting our origin story to begin elsewhere. An elsewhere that acknowledges our value – all of us, human, Earth and ancestral spirits.

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Reflections

An ADHD Diagnosis: ‘My Nights Were Characterized by Racing Ideas, and Days Filled with Failed Projects’

My mind had failed me so many times I could no longer trust the ideas it put forth, no matter how brilliant or mundane they were. The tipping point came after a violent altercation with my cousin, which landed her in hospital and me in the refurbished blue container recounting my life story, and eventually, finding a turning point.

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An ADHD Diagnosis: ‘My Nights Were Characterized by Racing Ideas, and Days Filled with Failed Projects’
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The diagnosis came about seven months ago. I was sitting in the counselling room of the hospital, a refurbished 40-ft shipping container painted light blue. I remember being annoyed by the breaks in the painting caused by the vertical ridges on the walls, and sucked on piece after piece of hard candy to calm down.

After a series of routine questions to get my history, an analysis by the psychiatrist, and several written tests, the verdict was delivered to me. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At first I was skeptical about the diagnosis. It was a strange case of déjà vu, one on which I’d sat in the same position across a psychiatrist two years ago and was given a host of diagnoses: I was told I had major depressive disorder, then affective disorder and then bipolar 1 disorder.

So I prodded the doctor, testing to find out if my symptoms covered a wide scope of diseases, or comorbidities, as the medical fraternity called them. To put my heart at ease, he showed me a TED Talk of a lady talking about her struggle with the condition, and the end of the video, I broke down and cried.

I’ll call the beginning of my visible symptoms as the crash. I’d excelled academically in primary and high school. I was a relentless high achiever, adapting the routine of school life which accommodated my bursts of energy and productivity. I graduated from high school with a good grade and joined university. But campus life came with the absence of a strict routine, and the unravelling at the seams of the thread of my life began.

I dropped out of my course after one semester and was kicked out of the halls of residence after failing to pay accommodation fees, due to procrastination. I resorted to clever methods to hide the absences in school from my parents. To cope, I drank and smoked a lot of weed. My nights were characterized by racing ideas, and days filled with failed projects because I couldn’t map them out; the brainstorm process ended up being crowded by other ideas and my mind couldn’t shut down. Then came the shame and low self-esteem. My mind had failed me so many times I could no longer trust the ideas it put forth, no matter how brilliant or mundane they were.

The first psychiatrist I visited was a referral from a general doctor. I’d arrived at the triage suicidal, struggling to breathe, and paranoid that I was being followed and watched. He prescribed some sleeping pills and handed me a sealed envelope addressed to a private psychiatrist clinic at the Doctor’s Plaza at Nairobi Hospital.

I didn’t feel bipolar – I was told bipolar disorder entailed massive mood swings, and this didn’t quite apply to me – but I accepted the diagnosis as it gave me a semblance of peace. At least I had a reason for my behaviour.

For two years, it cost nearly Ksh800 a day to pay for consultation and medication. Physically, the drugs left me feeling comatose on most days, and demoralised because I was still messy and erratic, but with a Ksh288,000 annual price tag to keep me stable. I sunk further into depression, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.

At the peak of my treatment, I was on a cocktail of seven different pills in the class of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medication. They gave me sleep jerks at night and vivid nightmares — eventually, I developed a dependency on the lulling effects of the anti-anxiety pills to help me sleep. The tipping point came after a violent altercation with my cousin, which landed her in hospital and me in the refurbished blue container recounting my life story, and eventually, finding a turning point.

The psycho-stimulants prescribed by the doctor were a relief. I could finally consistently complete my tasks and rein in errant thoughts, but the new ADHD diagnosis was exhausting. I imagined having to explain myself again to my friends about my condition over and over like I’d done for the past two years, and I was hardly prepared for the emotional or mental labour.

ADHD is a condition of limited self-regulation rather than a deficit of attention. A person with ADHD is able to concentrate for long periods of time in a state known as hyperfocus, that is when they are interested. ADHD exists on a spectrum and some people have it worse than others. We all have moments of ‘zoning out’ and procrastination, but for the ADHD individual, their symptoms fall on the extreme end of the scale and can be crippling.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a range of functions in the human body including emotional regulation, and motivation to guide your brain to accomplish specific tasks in order to get the desired reward. To use an analogy a psychologist gave – our brains are engines. Different parts initiate and receive tasks, others execute them and help manage one’s routine. Dopamine is the fuel between these areas, but ADHD brains have a deficit of dopamine. The result is that coordination is missing.

ADHD is a highly comorbid condition, meaning it exists with other mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. The emotional dysregulation and hyperfocus often leads to misdiagnosis as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder or other affective disorders – like it happened in my case.

The DSM V – a diagnostic criteria by the American Psychiatric Association used to identify mental illnesses, leaves out a key factor of ADHD diagnosis – emotional dysregulation – from its list of symptoms, further increasing the likelihood of misdiagnosis.

While ADHD in children is extensively studied and treated, very little academic literature covers adult ADHD, and in particular ADHD in women, which is complicated by changing estrogen levels that affect the availability of dopamine in the brain at different points in the menstrual cycle. The link between estrogen and ADHD means that at different times of the month, the symptoms get worse and might require a recalibration of medication and more money to cover the cost of drugs.

By the time an adult is given an ADHD diagnosis, their lives are littered with failure because of trying to conform in a neurotypical world, with shame, guilt, broken relationships, and a calcified negative view of themselves as lazy, inconsistent, rude, violent, stupid…the list goes on and on.

As I discovered, conventional therapy is often expensive and limited to brief sessions with the psychiatrist and counselor once a month. Adults with ADHD need extensive help, an almost round the clock treatment in the form of non-judgemental accountability partners to help them form a routine, map out their life and follow through on decisions. In the case of an adult diagnosis, and given the individual demands of everyone else’s lives, such accommodations seem like ridiculous requests and one continues to live with their dysphoria.

ADHD and its treatment is very misunderstood. There are stereotypes such as “We are all a little ADD”, and there’s scepticism over whether or not it’s a real illness. Misleading media coverage about the alleged performance-enhancing abilities of the drugs used in treatment also hinder objective discourse about the reality of living with ADHD. The victims are the adults who continue to suffer, very often without knowing what their condition really is, at the workplace, in school or in their homes.

My life hasn’t completely changed, but it’s a lot better than it was. I have interacted with other adults who also live with ADHD and formed a small support group of sorts. I got back on track with my studies and graduated. Living with ADHD forced me to be extremely honest with myself about what I can and cannot do, who I can be and who I am not. There can be no illusions about my strengths, weaknesses and ability to commit to tasks, in order to avoid that vicious cycle of depression and anxiety.

As for the medication, it is not a panacea. I needed to be honest with myself about this too. It was easy to use the drugs as a crutch and avoid putting in place mechanisms to regulate my behaviour – and then blame mishaps on ‘being off the meds’.

What do I look forward to? More research. Particularly on ADHD and women and how environmental factors, socialisation and biology exaggerates or diminishes how the symptoms manifest. I keep a journal and note down observations on days where something strikes me as odd, and use that to inform my treatment. It’s the beginning of my own personal research, and I hope it can help someone else someday.

To conclude, ADHD is neither a gift nor a disability. We can have no illusions about that. It can make you prone to certain harmful behaviours and may give you some advantages over neurotypical brains, but the labels of gift or disability may prevent us from being objective about its management. But with a little more knowledge, and a lot more empathy, we can create a society where lives are not littered with failures that could have been avoided.

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