The first time I came second in my Primary 4 class, I was terrified. No one had prepared me for what would happen. I had not imagined that I would, one day, pry open my report booklet to behold “2nd” written boldly on the top right corner of the page. I could not hold myself. Teachers gathered, comforted me, said sorry without knowing what exactly they were being sorry for, and even after my class teacher, Aunty Adigom, tried to say nice things that would make a normal child laugh and clean his eyes, I could not stop crying. Father would ask if the person that came first had two heads. He would kill me!
Of course, he didn’t. He actually did not do anything. Maybe I shouldn’t have been as frightened as I was. Maybe I couldn’t help it. But it’s sad remembering this now and wondering how much of my life I have lived looking over my shoulders, wondering what father would do, what people would say, what they would approve, what they would like or dislike about me.
Once, during my university days just a few years ago, I boarded a bus heading home, and when it got to my junction, I could not talk, could not summon the courage to announce that I had reached my destination and had to get down. People would say things about me, I thought. They would look at me and know. They would wonder what kind of person I was, why I was putting on shabby clothes, why I was awkward. I was so bothered about what people would say or think of me that I could not will the words out of my mouth. The bus hurtled on. I sat there moping at the back of the driver’s head. This did not happen once. Not twice. Not thrice.
There’s something about fear that makes it almost impossible for the person who has been possessed by it to realize that it is even a problem. It gets to a point where it becomes enmeshed in your personality, where it becomes your reality.
Recluse. Timid. Coward. What name have we not been called? What stereotype have we not been condemned to?
But no one ever chooses to be afraid or awkward or weird. No one sees courage and chooses fear. It is not a choice that you have the luxury of time to consciously make.
One day, at my aunty’s place, I can’t remember what exactly happened or what I was feeling or thinking about, but I remember my phone falling off my hand and landing on the tiled floor, and I remember her seven-year old son staring at me for what seemed like ages before the word rolled out of his mouth. Clumsy, he said. Why are you clumsy? he asked.
I have been asked questions about myself that even I do not have answers to. Fear, for instance. Why is my first reaction to anything fear and hesitation? Why do I fear loneliness? Why do I dread Mathematics? Why do I fear people, older people especially?
Fear is like cancer. It crawls into your soul and becomes a little too comfortable there, it just refuses to go. The more comfortable it becomes, the more it spreads, and the more it grows. One day, it will gather momentum, reach for your throat; you know what would happen next.
I know how this story started, where it started. I know why. I know why, during my university days, I admired lecturers but never summoned the courage to walk up to them and ask questions or seek clarification. I know why, the very first time I looked at my naked self in the mirror, at twenty-four, I froze, could not keep a steady gaze on my own body. (This wasn’t some other person’s body; it was mine. Yet, I couldn’t look at it without feeling guilty.) I know why, when I am angry sometimes or sad about something, I resort to text messages and emails, I flee from direct confrontations. I know why I could not look father in the eye all those teenage years — and right into my adult life — and tell him the truth about things.
I know why I am the way I am, a slightly damaged man with a life that defies understanding, why the only dreams I remember always have me rolling down a bottomless pit or being chased by masquerades and ghosts. I know why I have this intense fear for sex, why love feels like a sore, why friendship and conversation is now a chore that I have to perform.
And everything hurts, because it’s like knowing what is wrong with you and what medications you need to take and yet not be able to gather enough strength to confront those pills whose shapes you know so well.
Writer: Munachim Amah
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