Old Age is Coming, Soon Enough

At the end of an impromptu upcountry visit, I was quite reluctant to get back to the mental drudgery of medical school. The serene countryside ambiance was naturally invigorating and enlivening, a stark contrast to city life. I had neither heard the disturbing, piercing cry of a woman who had lost her loved one nor encountered any tinge of hospital funk for the past approximately forty six hours. Two days! That was quite something.

So here I was again on a vehicle heading back to the city. I was waiting for other passengers to board so we could get moving. My mind drifted off to some obscure thoughts. The amount of mental clutter running to and fro in my cranium is sometimes enough to trigger an absence seizure. Anyway, my thought train ground to a startling halt when a boarding passenger heaved themselves on the seat right next to mine pushing me right up against the window.

I was forced to turn to get a glimpse of this person who lacked the decency to stick to the code of personal space. My stare landed on the plethoric face of a young, short and plump woman. She was panting a little. I guess the effort spent to defy gravity for a good thirty centimeters as she was hauling her body into the vehicle had left her lungs bereft of air. As I was settling from the sudden discomfort, she flung a flabby arm in my direction beckoning me to open the window a bit more. I did it reluctantly, after which she beckoned a hawker and asked for two cold Fanta Orange sodas. She then stuck her hand in a fittingly fat purse and after rummaging for several seconds, she dug out some archaic note to pay the peddler. With the drinks clamped under her arm, she proceeded to uncork one bottle, swung her head back and generously bathed her buccal cavity and throat with this cold, orange, fizzing, calorie rich liquid. I watched in bewilderment as the events unfolded almost hitting her with the cliche ‘food is not your friend!’ but I knew one better.

She was a young woman, the type that are laden with volatile emotion. Such comments no matter how sincere or true have the propensity to culminate in word battles, physical exchanges, gore or even burials in unmarked graves. You may call me timid all you want to. In my defence, I chose to stand for my pacifist beliefs. World peace shalt not be compromised by things as meagre as medical students telling fierce looking obese damsels to watch what they eat. I sat tight, plugged in my earphones and got my thought train chugging away once again. It was going to be a long two hour travel to Nairobi.

Back at home three weeks later, I am now trying to enjoy my holiday and feeling happy that my junior medic years are officially over. I suddenly realize something: this is my third last holiday at home as a dependent. I have mixed emotions about it. Before I even get my mind to think it through, I am jolted back to reality. My mum has just sat next to me letting out the ‘grunt’. You know, that noise old people make when they sit down? I call it the indicative ‘noise of senescence’.

Again it hits me. My mum has indeed aged. I joke to her about it. She laughs and blushes then resolves to renew her gym membership. Her face is not wrinkled, just treaded with womanly and motherly experience. Expounding that is beyond me. A lot has changed about her. She neither even shouts as loud nor as long as she could do when my brother and I were younger. That is when we would know that we were in real trouble. The days when mothers would yell at you to go to your room, not so that you can have some time to introspect about your latest breach of the family protocol, but to have limited space to manoeuvre during the inevitable whooping.

Isn't it interesting how certain ages, men and women look pretty much the same?
Isn’t it interesting how certain ages, men and women look pretty much the same?

My father walks in at that convenient moment. His physique too has borne the brunt of time. His stifled limp, a consequence of osteoarthritis of the hip. It pains him sometimes. His demeanor, however, is that of a young man. He too sits down with the ‘grunt’ and proceeds to sip his tea slowly. He takes the remote control and flips channels hoping to catch the news. He then relaxes on his seat and strikes me with some intriguing parlance, the kind that is intellectually erotic. Politics of the day, sports, relationships, philosophy, random people on the streets: topic after topic, we wear down the clock as conversation is intermittently punctuated with humor. My dad never holds  his laugh. He takes it from deep within his diaphragmatic recesses laughing heartily like a wild lad. His somewhat large belly trembles in unison to his guffaws. I often find myself in a dilemma on whether to laugh at his jokes or to  laugh at him. It is always a good evening when he is around.

I now fathom how the youth of the physique lasts only for a while.  For different reasons and at different rates, we all age gradually. How well that happens, depends on our genes and our bodies. Both my grandfathers lived to a century plus. I am not sure how much longevity or immortal blood runs in my veins. I do, however, believe in the need for us to take care of ourselves. I admit that I probably should have found a way to talk to our ‘passenger-friend’ about her weight ‘problem’. Maybe some carefully delivered counsel on obesity predisposing to a poor quality of life, restrictive respiratory diseases and heart attacks at a young age would have worked. I wouldn’t know.

I also think that young people should not despise their friends who don’t drink as much, party as hard, and who adhere to some structured diet. There sure is a chance that, at some point in life, we could all get hit by the proverbial ‘bus’ or be a casualty statistic to some unforeseen cataclysmic event. But if such morbid things don’t come to pass, some of us may end up taking our grand children for walks in the park while the rest are restricted to their wheel chairs, passing urine via a catheter, wearing an uncomfortable adult diaper, inhaling from an oxygen mask and frequently cursing the grim reaper’s poor swing of his scythe. It’s rather obvious who falls in which category. After all, you don’t really only live once now do you?

 

A Tale of the Guy who feigned Malady

Like any blogger gone M.I.A, I should probably start this post by explaining my long hiatus to my imaginary audience and fans perhaps, if there are any. The frailty with which the latter statement strokes my ego tickles me I tell you. So I will just hit you with the usual ‘I am a medical student’ crass, ergo my absence is self explanatory. Bottom line, I’ve really missed posting here. Its been a while.

I have never had a brain scan done on me, but I have a feeling it would closely resemble something like this…

But here I go again…

There was this day last week, my two nerdy colleagues and I were just from sitting for the mother of all exams. The end of years for the first year of clerkship are surely no mean feat. The hardest part of junior clerkship is perhaps when you have to convince your seniors that you are of at least average reasoning even when sometimes they leave you wondering whether you have the intelligence quotient of an enema bag.

Summarily, I had walked into that exam room with caffeine in my veins and I walked out with diffuse axonal injury. That’s medic-lore for something more severe than a concussion. I actually had to grope out of the examination room. To our utter dismay the university transport available at the time wasn’t enough to ferry all students back to our campus which was half way across the city.

We decided to sketch our way to the bus station and use public means instead.

The scorching tropical sun, noise and choking fumes from the traffic did not make our early afternoon any easier. Couple that with cranky, overly sleepy minds and the colossal duress of examinations resting squarely on our aching backs and we were one glum trio. Somehow, we managed to hop into one of the commuter trains from whence the drama started…

As we waited for a few other passengers to board, some young man got into the bus. Well, there wasn’t much pomp about him until seconds after his uneventful entrance when some chesty, cut-throatish voices rent the front of the bus. Barely craning my neck, I noticed the same guy holding some banners and writhing his frame in the strangest of manner. It was a complicated blend of a drunkard’s gait, a seizure, and worm-like movements. His face was overtly bathed in big beads of sweat, his facial muscles contorted into a worrisome grimace: the portrait of a man who may have been experiencing his worst episode of constipation yet.

At this juncture, thanks to medical school, all my weariness slipped away fast as curiosity immediately sank in its place.

This fellow was passing the miniature banners around begging for money. When he got to the back of the bus where we were seated I tried to study him closely; his demeanor and behavior to figure out exactly what was wrong with him. His fliers didn’t help much either. All they had was a request for financial assistance so he may get medical help and what was supposed to create contrast and earn sympathy: a picture of a younger version of him in elementary school perhaps. Frankly, the only change this guy seemed to have gone through other than his very weird aura was physiological aging. I dug into my exhausted mind to get a fitting diagnosis but it clearly didn’t want any digging into.

Anyway after failing to get any help, the young man shuffled back to the passenger exit. Then something even more strange happened. He just totally snapped out of it. He straightened up and slapped the door vehemently asking the driver to slow down so he could alight. And all about him were clearly amazed and very perturbed by his act. Who really does that?

What do you even make of such a man?

I’ll tell you this. Other than the fact that his performance could earn him a place in a good drama school and probably be a sturdy foundation to a stellar acting career, I will choose to overlook the fact that his moral compass blatantly points to the true South. My diagnosis for such a man is nothing more than severe mental myopia.

Healthy and seemingly talented, he yet chooses to live in the paucity of fleecing plenty of hardworking others off their change. Maybe I am missing something. But for the larger part, I think it shows what happens when we refuse to recognize the profoundness of our natural abilities and hence fail to exploit them in vigor, beneficence and sincere gratitude.

As such this should not merely pass as an experience, but be ingrained as the important lesson that it is. Pulling weird acts in buses makes other people really uncomfortable. It doesn’t pay that well either. Okay, here is the real lesson- If there are better things you can do with your life, never settle for less.

When Dad goes all ‘Emo’ on Son

It was a particularly lazy Sunday afternoon; the sky was bare of clouds and was hence dominated by the seething sun whose commanding presence replaced the cool Nairobi air with uncomfortable heat. These are afternoons best spent indoors and to that effect, I was at my place, hanging out with my close friends doing the usual ‘guy-stuff’. For a preamble, ‘guy stuff’ here encompasses a sporting event be it a real or virtual version of it, couple of beers and small talk mostly about money, sports, politics, the occasional philosophy and outstanding women.

That said, we were blistering away our fingers trying to outdo each other at FIFA 12. You know men and their competitive nature- no one is ever willing to back down and bear the ‘looser’ tag. Indeed, the spurring was intense and fun all until one of the guys received a text I would consider bizarre from his father when things took an unexpected turn. Let me break it down: ‘guy is waiting to play against the winner- his phone vibrates: 1 New Message- he reads the text and bursts out laughing, gamers continue as guy is lost in hysterical guffaws amidst which guy blurts out, “Hey, my dad just told me ‘I love you’,”… silence… even the game is paused!’ We all stared at him in humorous, utter disbelief. After a few of what were mostly satirical exchanges over the same, the moment melted away and the afternoon continued as if nothing important had happened. On later recap however and from my perspective; it was yet another sign of the ever evolving concept of African fatherhood: and perhaps fatherhood in general.

Once upon a time…

Half a century ago and beyond, being an African male was quite a different concept from current trend. A boy born in the jungle had to face many challenges including succumbing to birth related fatalities. Following this was a nurturing stage by his parents mostly the mother and his peers. This preceded teenage whose most defining moment was isolation in the wilderness, engagement in arduous and dangerous conquests and lessons on manhood by respected elders- a stage whose pinnacle was an early morning public, ceremonial amputation of the prepuce in the name of initiation.

Henceforth, the former boy was regarded a man and delegated with the hefty responsibilities of protecting the village and helping to provide. He was once again isolated in his own hut like a Thingira or a Manyatta before he could break away, marry several wives and start his own family. As such, the ideal African man was carved by society into a strong figure, a pillar of testosterone commanding an authoritative aura and a remarkable insensitivity to emotion. Now let us look at his modern descendant.

Born in a closely knit nuclear family sometimes raised by a single mother or female guardian, he is favorably nurtured by the warmth that relationships create. His exposure to the western way of life via mass media starts at an early age as he watches sit-coms, an overwhelming amount of soaps, the five shilling DJ movies and what not. Formal education also plays a role in his life since in its pursuit; he often mingles with the opposite sex, an exposure to more ‘estrogen’ leaving him with a first-hand experience of the ‘softer’ side. When the time comes for him to face the harsh realities of life, he is infrequently left to figure it all out on his own.  Rather, he is weaned into it by relatives and friends, supportive mentors and institutions, an avalanche of relevant technologies and other available ‘self help’ material.

While the challenges facing the modern African man aren’t any easier from those of his predecessor, they are distinctively different. The circumstances surrounding him have created a different man: strong in some aspects but yielding to emotion. One who, perhaps, can balance showing love and care with being stern and aggressive about what he wants. In essence, this new breed is the type that can suppress the squirm bubbling within and text their twenty something year old son to proclaim their fatherly love for them and, like in this case, leaving the latter in gags.

Evidently, the Curriculum Vitae of the African father has indeed been updated. The African Man is now in a phase of transition. In addition to protection and provision, he has resigned from his enigmatic ‘macho’ pedestal to the more ‘family-friendly’ position of loving, caring and inspiring his woman and their progeny. Some have fondly termed this process ‘Obamanization’ after the incumbent POTUS whose public display of a pro family man and ideal father figure remains unparalleled.

As for my good friend, he did what most of us guys would have done had we been in his seemingly ‘awkward’ shoes. In response, he coolly asked for an increase in his weekly cash allowance.

 

The Student versus The Exam: That epic Face-off

In all honesty, I am not a great fan of education. Having spent more than eighty percent of my life so far in school with nothing tangible to show for it explains why. Worse still is the fact that examinations are the main modality used to assess whether learning has transpired or not. While this is not a bad idea, I think it is quite unfortunate that they test for memory and rarely ever check for thinking or understanding. That said, it should follow that I am not a great fan of exams either. The truth is, I am… not, but whatever happens during examinations sure does give me the kicks. It all rolls down to this.

The preparation phase:

Most students prefer to wait till the very last minute when they can jam everything into their short term memory. The books that had been dumped on the shelves and covered with mounds of web and dust are re-opened at last. It is no surprise that so many of us get colds during this time. Social life also changes drastically. The usual gossip and bumming cliques stop and discussion groups become vogue. There are hardly any warm exchanges. You regard those around you either as ‘wasters’ or potential sources of much needed help.

Once in the exam room, it is all panic galore. One may have a blank mind, that weird song that just won’t stop playing in their head or, if they are lucky, a mind that is processing all the data that they are about to regurgitate. After all, it is almost always a Garbage In Garbage Out affair. I normally have a weird song playing in my head. Sometimes I try to go on a music dry spell prior to discourage this from happening but, seemingly, my mind knows better. Anyway once the exam papers are dished out: it is time for the next phase.

The question number one phase:

Whoever has sat an exam can bear witness- the first question is usualy almost seemingly impossible to handle. I am yet to find an explanation for this, but for now I will postulate several working theories. The first one is the ‘examiner is showing off’ theory. I suppose examiners have a wry sense of humor. Perhaps they derive satisfaction from seeing that ‘golden’ expression that those being examined bear when they first flip their papers. That should explain my ‘Up yours!’ mentality after answering this elusive question. The second one is the ‘mental block’ theory. Having being panic stricken for all your adrenal gland’s worth of adrenaline, even the simplest of tasks  will seemingly appear insurmountable. Apparently, you end up cock-blocking yourself. Go google that. The last theory is the ‘question one is just a hard nut to crack’ theory. I believe it speaks for itself.

The self realization phase:

After tackling or skipping several questions a third-way or so into the exam, one slowly starts to appreciate and accept their current predicament. It sinks in that there is no turning back. That is when you commit yourself to regurgitating expected answers on the answer sheet, rarely pausing to think about what you are writing. GIGO is at work here. Some in this phase, prefer to sit and reason out with the examiner. Unfortunately, grammar does not always suffice for a meaningful negotiation for marks. That is why I wish that phrases like ‘You see…’, ‘What I’m trying to say is…’ or ‘Check this out…’ could be used in formal writing because they can make any gibberish sound convincing. From here onwards, things should roll smoothly unless one finds themselves in this next phase.

The Provocative Phase:

This is when everything goes haywire. Its duration is directly proportional to (among other minor factors) your psychological state and who you are sitting next to in the examination room, in that particular order. If you woke up with an empire state of mind, had your facts right and your mojo tagging close by, you are unlikely to experience this. However when self doubt kicks in, things start going south. The latter can be exacerbated when one sits next to a panicky lot, fellows who ask for extra sheets of paper or people who just won’t help a brother in need. This phase, if anything, may provoke you to walk out of the exam room either hands up in protest or just plain upbeat.

Summarily, examinations just reemphasize how education is a relentless uphill task. If it were up to me, tests should also be based on creativity and not just protocol and memory. While those gifted with memory will keep scaling the heights of education, it is my belief that creative minds continue to inherit the world. In the end: examinations group people into- those who deserve to pass; those who will pass by any means; and the lot who will always awe the examiner with just how much ‘crass’ a (normal) human mind can generate in [insert hypothetical exam duration here]. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a paper to go study for.

Hail unto the Man who dug his own Grave

 

The previous weekend from this one is nostalgic. It was one of the few moments when I am free from the pandemonium that is medical school, hence at home and relaxing. I particularly enjoyed being with the ‘guys’ relaxing. By the guys here I am referring to my younger brother and my dad- and yes, an introvert plus medical school equals to a not so glossy social life. Lest I digress further, that is the topic of another discussion. Anyhow, we were doing what guys do when they hang out- eating galore, watching sports and, later, news.

Unfortunately, very few Kenyan programs are mentally stimulating. The news is top of the list. In fact, most stories are usually stale which begs the question of why media houses even bother to call them ‘news’. The majority of the content is either banal or, stories of how the country is being ripped off by its ‘leaders’ and how some political big wig is trying to gain voter leverage over another by talking balderdash. Sadly, many a Kenyan offers a ready audience to such. Our political scene is ideally a soap opera which is run by severely myopic directors and an unappealing, obnoxious and, at the most, retarded cast. I will waste no more time on the same. What caught my attention on this particular day however was one Stanley Muriuki Njuki. This here is my perspective of his story.

According to the Gikuyu customs and traditions, Muriuki is a name given to a son who was born after the death of a close relative. It is symbolic of a second chance at life, a reincarnation- a rebirth. Now, Stanley Muriuki is an old but extraordinary Kenyan who hails from Nyeri in the central part of Kenya. The report spoke of him as a retired teacher who is now into small scale farming. He spoke in polished English, a rare feat from a man born, raised and settled in the village. Unlike his seemingly mediocre neighbors, he also came out as more liberal and open minded. This, and his long teaching practice, had fondly earned him the handle ‘Lawyer’. It is perhaps his open mindedness that led him to commit an act regarded as heinous and taboo by African standards. He dug his own grave- literally.

This, he did about thirty years ago. Why? He did not want to leave insurmountable funeral costs to his children once the inevitable had happened. That is pretty reasonable, but still, not an adequate explanation for why a man would proceed to do what is blatantly contraindicated by the larger African society. He added however, that he wanted to be buried like a hero just like the pharaohs of Egypt and their ethereal tombs that were fashioned as pyramids. That is what Muriuki had in mind. As expected though, many around him did not fancy the idea.

His beloved wife for instance would have none of it. While she later came to terms with his actions, she did not want him to prepare a similar grave for her. In Muriuki’s words, “She preferred to die and be buried like ordinary people.” For him however, he wanted to live extraordinarily. For him, his joy is in waking up and seeing his cold concrete grave lying patiently in wait for his remains. He gets his kicks by dutifully tending to his final resting place every morning. Unlike those bewildered around him, he is different.

This old man made my weekend. In my opinion, he was a man who had come to terms with his own mortality. This uniquely profound (yet rare) realization is what makes his days full- it makes his life complete. Old as he was, his heart was young, his soul seemed eager. In a desolate peasant surrounding, he oozed with life, vibrant happiness and an almost tangible sense of inner joy. Indeed, he reaffirmed this by his last sentiments, “I am Lawyer Muriuki.” Then he added, “And I am rich.”

I concur, don’t you?