My mother lost her job as a bank manager and started selling fish by the roadside. The roadside where her friends drove past on their way home from work. Where my friends passed on their way home from school. Most of her customers were believers at the Church where my father was an elder. There is an image that has stayed with me throughout the years. In it, she is sitting in her kibanda surrounded by customers who are dying laughing. She fit right in. Of all the memories she left me with, this is the one that casts the biggest shadow. I am now a man grown and nearly a year out of a stable job. I have achieved things that would no doubt make her proud, but I have never felt more distant from her than I do now. If I am her son then it doesn’t show, because she would be so much better at this than I am.
The first person who ever believed I was a writer was my boss. He made sacrifices for me that only a father should make. His business partner taught me more about myself than life ever could. He was the big brother I had at a time when the world was very unkind to me. They both met me when I was still a teenager, and for the next ten years they would bring the man out of me. I had no business making it this far, I only had them. So the day they sat me down to tell me that they could no longer afford to pay me, was the day I felt truly lost. They were losing a son and a brother, and I was losing my identity. I can’t think of a single period during my twenties where they weren’t a driving force behind my accomplishments. It hurt more because I could not direct my anger towards them, not after everything they had given me.
That day, I went back home to the apartment that my wife had so gallantly fought to move us into. Even after only 3 months, it had become more than home to us. This was the first place we were able to really be alone in. We had lived together for 4 years in my father’s house. He died a happy man because for the last four years of his life, my wife was one of the pillars he leaned on while he fought to survive a stroke that chained him to his bed. We couldn’t afford to move out back then, so when my father passed away this apartment was one way I could thank her for staying by our side. For the first time in our relationship I was able to put her first. Now here I was, delivering the news that would almost certainly mean we would lose this place that she so dearly loved.
Job loss can do that. It’s a cloud and everything under it is grey. If you let it, it can cripple your perspective on even the things that are going well. When the cloud is hanging over you, you forget how green the grass you’re standing on is. Nothing shines under a cloud. It didn’t matter that we had prepared for this. It didn’t matter that we had worked really hard to save. To live within our means. It didn’t even matter that we had embraced minimalism. The day I lost my job felt like the death of everything we thought we believed in. Nothing shakes your core like doing everything right and still losing. So how did we end up believing that losing a job meant everything was lost? It’s the cloud.
The cloud follows you everywhere. It’s there when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do for a living. It’s there when you have to cut down your monthly budget by half. It’s there when your mother-in-law won’t take financial assistance from you because she believes you need it more. It’s there when you have to cancel standing orders. It’s there when the place you used to call home feels like a ticking time bomb; a day will come when you’ll have to give it up. It’s being repeatedly rejected by jobs you thought were beneath you. You know something else about the cloud? Nothing grows without sunlight. The cloud followed me long enough to realise that I had stopped being productive. I had stopped creating. Time spent thinking about what you don’t have is time not spent on inventing new ways to grow what you still have. It wasn’t my fault that I lost my job, it was my fault that I lost myself. That I believed they were the same thing. The cloud wasn’t following me, I was carrying it. It was time I put it down. I started by counting the things I had.
I had a wife who carried a lion’s heart in her chest. She protected me from my ego. The only things that she allowed to be beneath us were the things that had no value.
I had yoga. The cloud lives inside the head, yoga is the wind that blows it away breath by breath. Breathe, never forget to breathe.
I had writing. She was now a long lost love but every word was a step closer to myself. Writing is a release, you can’t hold on to a cloud when you are juggling words.
I had time. Time is a creator’s greatest gift. The stories I created were no longer in my head, they were the ones I put on paper.
I had help. Friends who recommended me for temporary jobs and colleagues who never forgot the impact I had on them. They taught me that I achieved nothing on my own.
I had you. Who connected with everything I wrote and never allowed me to stop. You, who inspired me to start a blog and share my experiences with more people.
When I counted what I had, I was able to separate my job from my identity. This was important because once you know who you are, rejection stops feeling like your fault. Potential employers don’t reject me because of who I am, they reject me because of what they are looking for. It’s more to do with them than it is about me. You don’t need to be resilient to handle rejection, you only need to be able to separate facts from the stories you create in your head. If you make rejection about you, then you can never love yourself. When you don’t love yourself, it shows in every aspect of your life. It shows when you apply for jobs you know will never make you happy. It shows when you are defensive during job interviews. It shows when you lie on your CV. If I can’t love myself then I am asking too much of the people who need to love me enough to pay me.
This is a journey though. I would be lying if I suggested that it is a straight path. No matter how grateful I am or how much I love myself, the fact remains that nothing is guaranteed. I would be lying if I told you that there aren’t days when I am suffocated by the constant fear that my savings will run out. If I counted the number of people I can actually borrow money from, I would need much less fingers than one hand can carry. Sometimes I picture my face on a flyer with an M-PESA number for fundraising my medical bills. Anxiety is not something you defeat, it’s something you learn to live with. You can worry all you want but it will always be the same as doing nothing. It is an inaction based problem with an action based solution. The answer to anxiety is proactivity. An obsession with action puts you in the driver’s seat. Hope isn’t something that falls on your lap, it’s something you create with your actions.
Action is applying for the next job even after yet another ‘no’. It is learning a new skill even when you don’t know when you’ll need it. It is volunteering your knowledge even when it doesn’t pay. It is designing the structure of your life even without the routine of a job. If there is so much as a puncher’s chance, then they will have to drag you out of the ring. The fight ends when you say it ends. It is completely up to the choices you make. I choose to try again. To reach for the sun despite the clouds. Your best shot will not come from outside, it will come only from within.
When I was sixteen my mother and I broke into a song and dance while the late Otieno Kajwang’ belted out his most iconic anthem, ‘Bado Mapambano.’ It was the picture of a perfect mother-son moment until I suddenly burst into tears…
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I sobbed for a long minute before replying “I don’t know mum, for some reason I just imagined a life without you, without this. Without us being able to ever have fun like this again…”
She lifted my chin and said “I’m not going anywhere. Do you understand me? I will always be with you. Always!”
She died a few months after that.
Now I know what she meant, because it is when I am closest to giving up that I hear her sweet voice again. It is echoing in the back of my mind to the tune of ‘Bado Mapambano’ because no son of hers is allowed to give up on a fight.
She never left, and I never stopped being her son.
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