Non Fiction

Michelle Chepchumba: When Your Life Means Nothing

Image: Cdd20 from Pixabay (modified)

It is past midnight. Maybe 1:00 am, maybe 2:00. I cannot sleep. I close my eyes and hear that my breathing is too heavy, noisy. My body is tight, tense, like a clenched fist. Ironic because I am not strong. I cannot fight. And it feels like I have been crying non-stop for three days straight. Outside my window, dogs bark. They do this every night when the world has hushed, and decent and indecent people are inside, dreading the morning. I have never known whether they bark at or with one another. I assume they are chattering happily, but are they? Dogs are supposed to be friendly, just like men are supposed to be kind. But perhaps they are calling each other names, because they are no better than us.

I want to sleep, but even now as my eyes droop and my hand hesitates, I know that the minute I turn off the lights again and my head is on my pillow, every part of me will brace itself for an attack that never arrives and the nothing of the night will somehow become too noisy to let my dreams take shape.

*

Fear. Fear everywhere. The fist in my stomach. The hot flashes that leave me winded, gasping for breath even though I’ve done nothing but sit still. The need to move, the urgency that strikes like lightning and leaves just as quickly. Move, now, any part of your body, because if you don’t, you will never be able to move again, and you will be stuck here, forever, captive to the churning in your innards, a slave to something you cannot see. It is fear. All of it fear.

*

I took a leadership programme at church the year after I left high school and came Out Here. Out Here was exciting, full of possibilities, so much ‘real’ learning to do. The pastor asked us whether humans are inherently good or inherently bad. I thought about all the restored-faith-in-humanity posts I had seen on Facebook. All the good people I knew. The fact that everybody has a story that made them what they are. The TED talk that told me that there is a fine line between good and evil.

I thought the pastor was wrong when he said that humans are inherently bad. I thought it meant something that everyone has the capacity for good.

I was wrong.

*

I suspect depression. I suspect anxiety. I suspect, though I am ashamed of it, PTSD. Ashamed because I am at home with the idea of depression in my system. I am at home with the idea of anxiety in my system. That’s all they say about us, isn’t it? We’re a bunch of softies, unfit to survive a world that kills and eats its own. The possibility of these first two has been there my whole life – a diagnosis would not be news. But suspecting PTSD feels like fraud. A bit of a stretch. Like disrespect for all those who have seen actual tragedy, experienced real loss…those with valid trauma. I work in mental health – I should know better. I don’t.

*

Whenever I have a few moments inside my head, I see his face. A faceless face – no details. I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up. Yet his face is there, defiling my thoughts whenever the world goes quiet and I allow myself to think.

My sin was to leave the office early. My sin was to walk home in the 11:00 am daylight. My sin was to think it was okay for me to walk alone on a road that didn’t see much traffic. My sin was to be a woman. I should have known better; this world was not designed for the likes of me.

I see them too late. A group of about fifty. Young men dressed casually, marching to town, led by the right to protest a government that kills them and then spits on their corpses. I see them too late, and by the time I do, I have already become their new destination. All I can think about when they are a few metres away from me, on the opposite side of the road, is that Facebook post I saw about how many precautions girls take every day to avoid being raped; and how it is becoming increasingly clear that I, on this day, may not have taken enough.

My whole existence is an attempt to avoid getting raped, and yet here I am, face to face with my worst nightmare, shrinking myself because that voice in your head tells you that making yourself as small as possible is your only shot at salvation. Don’t provoke the beast. I pretend that I am unfazed, that I am not fighting the urge to run for my life, that terror is not a chain tightening around my neck. My step quickens just a bit. Maybe they will catcall but do no more. Maybe they are too focused on #NoReformsNoElections to pay attention to an inconsequential girl just trying to get home on a warm Friday morning. Maybe. Maybe.

It is not enough to hope.

I see him break away from the crowd and walk towards my side of the road. I see his red t-shirt and his complexion like mine. I see him passing on my left, on the narrow path, and feel his hand grabbing mine. I am screaming. The only words: Ah-ah, please. Ah-ah, please. Wachana na mimi. Please. Leave me alone. Please. Begging, begging, begging.

I see the rest of the crowd surging towards me. Men. Faceless men. Shouting, shouting, grabbing, touching. For a moment, I think how cliché it is that this is happening right next to a ditch: even the details of the nightmare are right. That’s the thing about being turned into a statistic – little variation in detail. GIRL ASSAULTED AND LEFT FOR DEAD BY GROUP OF RIOTERS; INVESTIGATIONS ARE UNDERWAY. I would have nothing left, and they would walk away, singing praises for their leader, alleged champion of democracy, lives unchanged.

I hear my screams. Ah-ah, please. Ah-ah, please. Over and over. Like a scratched CD. Over and over again. Forever.

*

Now I am heaving, just as I was then. Unsure whether there are any tears in my eyes, just as I was then, that day, in the car, after the Uber driver whom my mother says was sent by God to save me had driven right into the mob and caused the men to disperse, and given me a ride home, the sound of his radio drowned out by my sobs. Now the thoughts are jumbled up. Now is mixed with then. I cannot tell what day it is. It is all the same. One long day in the same moment when my life meant nothing.

I am safe, presumably. In my bed. There are no men here, exerting themselves on me. But I close my eyes and all I see is his face, his red t-shirt, and all I hear is the sound of my screams. The tears come slowly.

*

It is hard, almost impossible, to reject peace in favour of violence, even when liberation may arrive, at last, in the wake of that violence. A man said on television the other day that revolutions are made from blood, and though we are supposed to be willing to lay it all on the line for the Better that we deserve, it is hard to accept that blood to be yours. It is hard to believe in the cause when its champions are the same people who will wring the life out of you with a smile, feeling nothing, caring nothing.

So, the middle class are the problem, choosing convenience over revolution. We’ve seen the stories. We’ve seen the dead. We’ve seen the rage that history awakens. But is it so bad to choose yourself, to be a coward, to run, to hide, to lock yourself away, because you’d rather be a sheep for a hundred days than a lion for one?

I have friends who understand courage. Friends who do not fear death. I have friends who would have disappeared under mysterious circumstances had we been alive when Moi reigned supreme because they would not have shut up. Friends who are ready to give up everything in the name of change, progress, revolution. But I also have friends who cannot answer when the question comes: Are you willing to die for this country?

The man in the TED talk was right: nobody is too good to be bad. All of us, under the right circumstances, turn, too easily, into the vilest versions of ourselves – the psychology of evil. Those men, they could be the best men their families know. They could be hard workers just looking out for a better day. They could be men of faith. They could be the most cheerful givers and the most honest neighbours and the most loyal friends. But I don’t care. I don’t care. For them or for their cause. I am one of the sheep who just want all this to be over.

I want to be brave, but all I can think about are the phone calls my parents would have received, letting them know that their daughter was found lying in a ditch, another statistic.

*

My eyes slowly shut and open, and my hands pause over my keyboard too frequently. Yet, I cannot sleep. Not willingly. It is 3:00 am. The dogs are quiet, and the darkness outside is thick. Morning will come and I will regret it: not being able to sleep, not being able to forget, not being able to be brave. But I will fill the day with things and things until the night is in my chest once again and the fist in my stomach takes my breath away.

————-

Image: Cdd20 from Pixabay (modified)

About the author

Michelle Chepchumba

Michelle Chepchumba is a Kenyan writer and editor. She is the author of Notes Under the Door and Other Stories and co-author of When a Stranger Called and Other Stories. Her work has appeared in Afritondo, AFREADA, and Hadithi. She writes a weekly newsletter called The Mini-Scroll (www.thescroll.co.ke/) about unrushed creative living. Her Twitter handle is @chepchumba_m.

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