My Body Betrays Me, Again 


My Body Betrays Me, Again 

The Quiet in my head finds a way to jump out and grow bigger. The market pulsates with the familiar hum of hustle but the quiet augments itself, a behemoth on a mission. This short man with eyes begging for a pillow looks at me from head to toe and something about his body tightens, like a fist clenching, struggling for control. 

Shati ni 1000

I don’t have 1000. I’d told him 

How much do you have? He’d asked 

100. I’d told him. 

What do you think this is? A question streaming out thick as lava. Like he wanted to set me ablaze with the stress in the syllables. 

And why are you acting like a girl? Are you a gay? 

My friend tells me that we should go. Her body is a temple of apprehension. She begins to walk. I follow her with a feigned calm gait in my step. The man turns his head to me as I walk. 

Even the way you are walking, He starts and then shouts, Ambieni huyo shoga aende akatombwe! 

I have forgotten what intolerance sounds like, how intimately it rings in my ear. Living in Nairobi, I have learned that if I run my hands through the city’s fiber, little pockets of safety eventually emerge. Temporary moments when I cling to these spaces to keep my sanity in check, to keep even the slightest whiff of prejudice at bay. 

In High School, my body quickly grasped the motions of growing small: when to keep quiet, when to give an opinion and how to give it, when to self-invisibilize. The friendships I’d forged with schoolmates was one of mutual accord. We were fine if my wrist didn’t limp too many times, if I taught my hips to bend this way and not that way so that my walk was not a strut, if I embraced the blanket of men’s sweat-stink in the classroom after PE lessons as this-is-how-it-goes instead of feeling an incessant urge to spray it all away, if I didn’t read too many goddamn romance novels.

The first time, however, when it was no longer just my “effeminacy” that was the object of intermittent contempt, when hushed tones debating Is-He-Isn’t-He became apparent (an inevitability?) as eyes jabbed me with You-Are-Less-Than, my body missed the beat. 

I longed to see what they saw that first time. Something had to have changed in me. Or around me. Was it the way I looked? Was a hair out of place? Had I not tucked in my school shirt properly? Had one of the buttons come undone? I said Hi to everyone and all I got was a sweep of backs, eyes rolling and grunts and scoffs interchangeably. Surely, I must have said/done something to offend someone that an entire student body was pushing me to the side. How does one adapt to a form of solitude that is not self-imposed, when you don’t even know what it looked like when it first approached you? 

I walked into class after lunch time and met my desk overturned. The edges of my exercise books were wet and I found a note amongst them: 


Not everyone was at liberty to discuss sexuality. That was a privilege that came with great exceptions. My High school was mixed. Secret relationships between boys and girls had found ways to blossom despite the gravity with which teachers went on and on against clandestine trysts in school, the pedestrian You-Need-To-Focus-On-Your-Studies rhetoric a constant unmoving cloud. 


It was written in red ink. Stark. A warning. Harsh, deep voice-like things chanting, Change yourself or we will change you. Something about my body, at that moment, felt foreign. The unpreparedness of the possibility of harm. I sat down and picked up a book to read. I would try to escape the realness of the real world. Maybe this body still had the will to gawk and wonder at the infinite prospects that fiction had to extend. 


Bedtime. Lights out. A cubicle could fit two bunk beds housing four students. I slept on the lower bunk. The adjoining cubicle’s window was an inlet for bursts of fluorescent light emanating from the bulb right outside the dormitory. Two people moved in tandem with the light-darkness. Each one on either side of the entry to my cubicle. I could make out who the two people were. My body, apologetic for its mishap earlier in the day, hardened. I knew what was coming the way a sick person who has had their fair share of fighting can feel their frail body gradually giving out. 

A kick to my stomach. A punch to my head as I covered my face with my hands. They dragged my body to the floor and continued to kick and kick and kick. It was like they were purging a demon out of me, one who needed extra gusts of fervor to expel because this was a different kind of demon. An unacceptable demon. Some demons make people steal, kill, destroy but this one was a harbinger for something not quite right. All the while, I made no sound. 


I can feel the eyes of sellers and buyers alike as they watch me, looking for the “something not quite right”. 

I was not afraid of him, the vendor with the languid eyes. Alone, he did not pose any threat. But words were ammunition, twisted and turned in certain ways, they were powerful enough to burrow into the earth and upend an entire market into unthinkable havoc. I think of how Akwaeke Emezi’s, The Death of Vivek Oji echoes to this regard: 

Some people can’t see softness without hurting it. 

or when Vivek wonders : If nobody sees you, are you still there? 

Like the voice of former president Uhuru Kenyatta reverberating as he tells journalist Christiane Amanpour in a 2018 CNN interview of the rights of Queer individuals: 

….this is not a subject that they are willing to engage in at this time and moment. In years to come, possibly long after I’m president, who knows? Maybe our society will have reached the stage where those are issues that people are willing to freely and openly discuss… 

A by-the way. A we-will-talk-about-that-later. Forgotten documents on a table that will be brushed aside or stuffed into a brimming-to-the-top drawer. 

If nobody sees you, are you still there? 

I stop and catch my breath at an opening in between two stalls leading into a pavement of stunted construction. At the moment, I had not realized that in the melee of buyers and sellers milling around the vibandas trying to get better bargains, the pooling of recollections at the bottom of my deepening heart, I had sprinted, scared of imaginary hands trying to grab me from behind. A lost soul looking for a way to be found. My friend looks at me and asks me: 

Do you want to go home? 

I nod. 

We board a matatu headed back to Mtwapa, nothing to show for our early morning thrifting errand. My friend and I are seated at the back of the matatu, which sways left right, left right. I am in the middle seat. My friend looks outside the window watching one man take in the infernal heat as he pulls a mkokoteni abound with watermelons and pineapples. To my right, a young man whose eyes traverse my body. I can feel the scrutiny as it ravages my skin, violating me in ways which the intensity of the sweltering sun has not been able to. 


My phone rings and I struggle to retrieve it from my pocket. It is Mum calling. And with her call comes the Quiet once more, taking up space, hushing the radio regurgitating Tanzanian Bongo mixtapes and the voice of the conductor jumping from one passenger to the next asking for his due. I pick up. 


Sasa! Mko poa! 


Where are you now? Nasikia tu kelele 

Tuko kwa matatu headed back to Mtwapa 

Anyway, please remember that on Sunday you need to be in church. You have so much to do. Yes. 

Safe trip back. God bless you. 

Thanks to Mum, I always remembered that God was hanging over my head. I had to act right. I had to move in ways which made Him happy. Yet here I was, a willing participant in an ethnography of unwanteds. Loving in a different way than was accepted, desiring things that my body was not supposed to hunger for. The same body which at turns, watches me as I stand waiting to cross the road and leaves me as I contemplate a step in the face of an oncoming vehicle. 


As the matatu stops for one passenger to alight at City Mall in Nyali, I contemplate the mask which fell off at the market. The one which exposed me to the vendor with the languid eyes. 

When I get home, I have to carve another one out of the memory of the scars from when my body betrays me. This new mask has to be well-behaved and latch tightly onto my skin, be in harmony with my body so that the DANGER AHEAD does not catch me with my guard down. This new mask needs to make it easy for me to blend in with the crowd, so that no one has to look for the “something not quite right”. This new mask cannot fall in front of Mum. She has to continue living in the beautiful illusion that she has been in about her son, whom she knows will get married to a good woman one day, give her grandchildren and if God keeps her, even great-grandchildren.


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