It is late in the afternoon, about 4pm. My aunt and her husband are entertaining guests at the sitting room. I am seated on a sofa at the far end of the sitting room, reading a book. My three cousins are seated on the dining table, watching The God’s Must be Crazy. The spacious room we are all in has two parts. There is the part where the sofas are, which acts as the living room. This is where you get first from the main door. Then there is the part with the dining table, which is adjacent to the kitchen. The TV is just next to the living room, in a huge wooden chest that also carries all the utensils of the house.
The guests are not like guests, guests. They are regular friends of my aunt and uncle. See, there are guests who are real guests. The type who would cause my mum back at home to send me to the kiosk to buy bread and blue-band kadogo. Bread is a luxury. We only eat bread either when a visitor comes with it as a present (well-mannered Africans do not visit other people empty handed) or when I am sent to buy bread for visitors and a part of it remains. Same case to blue band. I mean, why buy bread for ourselves with all the arrow roots and sweet potatoes in my grandma’s farm? Jam is a word that exists somewhere in my tattered dictionary. Or does it? I will confirm later. Peanut butter is non-existent in our vocabulary. At least until much later when another of my aunts visits from Nairobi.
Anyway, my aunt walks to the kitchen and comes back with two avocados in a platter. She has washed them and has a knife which she uses to meticulously slice both of them into several pieces. Let’s start by saying that I do not understand this whole thing. Because back at home we do not wash avocados. What for? It is not like I will be eating the peels. Then she invites me to the feast.
“Mwenda (that’s my now dormant middle name) enda uoshe mkono uchukue piece,” she says.
I also don’t get that part. I mean, I am not going to handle the fleshy part of the fruit with my hands, so why do I need to wash them? But I need a piece, so I walk towards the kitchen to wash my hands. As I approach the dining table, my uncle speaks up.
“Mwenda hakulangi avocado,” he says jokingly.
Immediately I hear that I sit on one of the dining chairs and pretend to be watching the TV with my cousins.
“Haiya haukulangi?” my aunt asks.
“Lakini si ulikuwa umeenda kuosha mkono?”
I look down. Soon, they continue with their conversation. And I don’t get the avocado. By the way I am eight years old.
Fast forward 12 years later. I am now grown up and a first year member of regional fellowship at the University. We are based at Lower Kabete Campus because Parklands does not have enough hostels to host all of us. So we spend the night at Lower Kabete and take the school bus to Parklands every morning for classes. The result is that part of our social activities take place in lower Kabete. At one meeting we are planning for a retreat.
“Si tuifanye hii Sato?” Simeon, the most vocal member of the group suggests. I don’t want that to happen, because on that day there is another event at Parklands which I want to attend.
“Hii Sato kuna event ingine Parkie so sidhani ni siku poa,” I object.
But the mob rallies and approve Saturday. I make a mental note to skip this one and go to the Parklands one because I think it will be more fun. So I zone out for the rest of the meeting. Until I hear my name mentioned.
“Ati?” I ask, having not heard what they said about me.
“Utamoblise first years wakuje mapema Sato ndo tufike hiyo place on time,” the Chairman, a third year student says.
“Lakini sitakuwa, naenda Parklands,” I say.
“Edu hauwezi kosa. Hii retreat itakuwa poa sana. We fanya hivi, utaorganise first years wa-come,” he says with finality.
End of discussion. I want to protest but I do not want a confrontation with the senior. So I keep quiet. But as I go to my room, I am angry. How can they force me to do something I do not want to do? I am almost at a point of tears because of anger. Flashes of electricity are jumping from my stomach to my chest. I tell myself over and over again to skip the event and go to Parklands. But I know I won’t. Because I lack the spine.
Fast forward six years later. I am approached by a friend to take a leadership role in some initiative he has come up with. He insists that he knows that I am the one person who can do it. I am flattered, but I know I cannot do it. My plate is full. As a matter of fact, I have been thinking of slowing down. I have actually just shed some responsibilities to create time for myself. I know I am a high energy person, but I also know there is such a thing as burn out. So I cannot take any more responsibilities. I feel my life is balanced at the optimum.
My friend is sure he can persuade me to change my mind, especially because he is older than me. So he employs all the skills available to him. But I am not moved. I put my foot down and decline. He is disappointed, but I figure he is an adult and can handle it. There is no point of pleasing him at my expense.
See, I have come a full cycle. I have learnt that there is a difference between being nice and being a wimp. I now speak up and say exactly what it is that I want. I am not afraid of declining to do things just because I think someone will be disappointed. What I am saying is that many times we bear resentment just because we are unable to hold our ground. We do not want to advance our agenda in meetings because we are afraid that people will think of us as self-centered. We do not want to tell off people because we want to be seen as nice.
Now, I believe in sacrifice. I will go out of my way to help someone who needs my help. I will also get out of my comfort zone to do that which needs to be done. And there are many times I find myself doing things I don’t like because they need to be done. That should not be confused with allowing people to take advantage of us. Because the truth is, unless we teach ourselves to speak up and put our foot down, we will always get the short end of the stick. As long as it is done respectfully and politely, I see no problem with advancing one’s agenda. And yes, there is a difference between being nice and being a weak-willed.