What she said: The more I pretend to be happy, the more I hope it will work

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Navigating a woman’s life in today’s world is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, you will be amazed at how similar all of our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women from around the world will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics here. That’s what she said about Zikoko.

Today’s #ZikokoWhatSheSaid topic is Laura, a 23-year-old Kenyan woman. She talks about moving to a new town at 16, her difficult relationship with her sister, respecting her more after their mother’s death, battling depression, and finally accepting that grief is an endless cycle.

What was it like growing up in Kenya?

I lived in a town called Kisumu and it was very communal. People were so close that neighbors were having dinner at each other’s. I liked it. When I was 16, we moved to Nairobi, and it was a huge culture shock.

In Nairobi, people are much more individualistic. Everyone minds their own business, and I found that strange at the time. In Kisumu, everyone knew each other. The downside was that the aunts reported me to my mother or my sisters whenever I did something wrong. Still, it felt more like home.

LOL. The reporting part has Nigerian aunts written all over it.

LOL. Kenyan aunts are winning the war there.

But if you loved Kisumu so much, why did you leave?

I lost my mother. I was 16 and there was no one to take care of me while my siblings were at school or at work. I ended up in Nairobi with my older sister. She worked as a banker, so I moved into her one-bedroom apartment with my immediate older sister. Without our mother, it was a different experience living together.

I’m really sorry for your mother. Tell me about your experience with your sisters?

Thank you. In the first few months, we were battling our heads a lot. Imagine three people living with three sisters in one room. I remember one night my sister’s boyfriend came over. The house was already tight enough as it was, so I had to sleep on the floor. I was frustrated and didn’t know when I shouted, “I wish my mom was here. I would not sleep here.

Everyone mourned in their own way. I would say that the defeat brought us closer. When we were younger, the disagreements were much worse. We never agreed. They felt that my mother was overdoing it and spoiling me. So we never got along, never. I grew up knowing my sisters hated me. And it was mutual.

Oh wow.

Yeah. Normal sister stuff. I thought they could have been more supportive, especially my older sister. But moving in with her made me respect her more. She was 25 and suddenly responsible for two people. His financial support of us improved our relationship. We talked more.

Without my mother, I began to see some of the toxic traits that my sisters reported as children. Like how I changed primary schools five times for no good reason. Once I moved away because I thought the school had cooler kids than me. Or the expensive toys and clothes Mom bought me. I’d spoil or misplace them in a week or two, but she would definitely replace everything. They never understood why she let me do everything.

do you have

Kind of. My mother was also the last child. She always said she saw herself in me. Although I never met my father, he was also the last born. I imagine it was two equally troublesome people who came together to get me. So consider me the problem child. It was me who changed schools, bought toys or argued with other children in my neighborhood.

We were very close, but she wasn’t always home. She would either be in the office or traveling for work. I still tell my sisters that I have more memories of our mother’s older sister. She was so constant in my life that people at school thought she was my mother.

So you were closer to your aunt?

I felt like she understood me. Maybe that was how she made sure my siblings didn’t get a chance to beat me up when my mom was away. She was the aunt everyone in the family was afraid of. But for some reason we connected.

When my mother died, people at school assumed it was my aunt who had died. That’s how close we were.

How did your mother’s absence make you feel?

Ignored. Especially now that I think about it as an adult. I didn’t need the toys she bought as much as I needed her. I saw other children with their fathers and mothers picking them up from school. I wanted that too. But I didn’t blame him. When she was there, we bonded. My resentment was towards the way she died and how early it happened.

In 2013, she was demoted and fell very ill. We went from never seeing her catch a cold to being suddenly in and out of the hospital for the next two years. She improved in 2015 and started a new job. But in October, she started getting sick again and that was it.

Do you know exactly what went wrong?

We never had a precise diagnosis. I still don’t think his death had anything to do with an illness. Sometimes we would go to the hospital and the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. I would say she was depressed and it manifested in some kind of physical pain. After the demotion, she never returned to that rank and stopped making so much money. Things got worse once she started getting sick.

For me, this job was a distraction from losing a husband at 34 and raising three kids on my own. So when my mom lost him, all that sadness came back until she finally gave up the fight. I’ve never said that out loud before.

I loved him…I loved him. I just wish we had more time together.

Thanks for opening up to me. How did you experience the loss?

I had my sisters. Until I went to college in 2017, everything seemed fine. At school, the goal was to drown out all the emotions related to the death of my mother.

I made two new friends and focused on spending time with them. We would go on little dates to souls (confectionery shops), walk around campus together – I was in the mood. If I wasn’t with them, then I had my boyfriend. I did everything to ignore reality, and spending time with my friends made me feel better. The distraction worked until we had a class on the five stages of grief. That was the downside of studying psychology. Sometimes it made me feel understood. Other times it forced me to face things I didn’t want.

Why did you choose to study psychology then?

My mother was a psychologist and always wanted one of us to take over. I started out wanting something more creative, like journalism, but when I took psychology classes before college, I fell in love with it. I didn’t think I would be the sister to follow in our mother’s footsteps, but here I am. I’ve always enjoyed understanding people’s thought processes, especially how they affect women.

As a child, I wondered why I was stuck in the kitchen during the holiday season when the men were mingling outside. I guess it made me curious about human behaviors that introduced certain beliefs. And psychology gave me knowledge on that.

Becoming a feminist didn’t really start until I joined Twitter in 2019. When I was in high school, I saw Kenyan women like Sheaffer Okore on TV talking about our rights, but Twitter gave me so much more access to African women. I started following Nigerian women like Uloma. I loved seeing them speak with passion about what they wanted out of life. In my mind, they were like big sisters.

To like! Did the bereavement course help you?

Yes, it made me more aware. For the most part, I was in denial. Then the phase of anger and depression hit during the lockdown. Being home for so long gave me too much time to think about my mother. Suddenly, I wasn’t even talking to my friends anymore.

I was listening to emo music and I was angry that she left me. But angrier with God that she died in the first place. My sisters were worried. When I bothered to talk to them, I talked about wanting to die young. In fact, I hoped so.

Laura…

I’m well. It’s scary to admit. I don’t know how it happened, but my mom talked about how my dad was depressed before he died and then she finally got depressed with all the responsibility she had of caring for three girls without him. During confinement, I agreed to end the same way. I didn’t want my sisters to continue worrying. So I put on a forehead. But the longer I pretended to be happy, the more I hoped that I would actually be happy.

Did it work?

There were times when I felt really good. Like waiting for my sister to come home from work because I knew she would bring the essentials. This year is the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death. And it’s been two years since the lockdown. Sometimes I think about her, and other times I come back to those feelings of confinement.

I think the good part is getting older and somehow accepting that I can’t keep blaming my mom for the death. She was unhappy. I sometimes saw my older sister struggling with money for us, so I sympathize with the reality of my mother. My life has also given me some perspective on how difficult life can be. I’m done with college now and finding a job has been difficult. I can’t imagine having to take care of another human being. Yet grief never really ends – it’s an endless cycle. I’m too scared to even think about having kids of my own.

Why?

I think I’m going to end up drinking depression. I don’t want them to go through the same grief. At this point, the only thing keeping me going are my sisters. They do everything to make sure I’m fine.

I would also like to have sisters.

LOL. Sis, I’m fighting one of them now. So love is high and low. My sisters and the times I spend with friends and at parties remind me that sometimes life can be beautiful. At this time, a great struggle has been with my faith. I am convinced that God does not exist. I grew up in a devoted Catholic family that prayed all the time. So why couldn’t he save my mother?

The first time I prayed in a long time was November 2021. And it was because of a pregnancy scare that turned out to be nothing. Maybe it was some sort of answered prayer, but I’m not convinced. Other than that random moment, our relationship is non-existent. I don’t think I can forgive him for taking my mother. At least not now.

And Kisumu? Do you miss it?

Kisumu is a bittersweet memory. It reminds me that my mother is really not with me anymore. But somehow it reminds me that she’s still with me. I still go back with my sisters to see my aunt. Kisumu will always be at home.

Right now I just want to find a job and earn enough money to take care of myself. I want to take the burden off my sister so she can enjoy her life too.

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