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Lessons From Mama Stay Long After You Grow Up: A Reflective Birthday Essay by Stephen Kimani

A young Stephen Kimani (provided)

Hey, Kim.

How are you holding up?

So far so good. I feel I am where I should be.

That is great. Mind sharing how you got there?

Sure. As long as you want to listen. This is it. My journey.


It’s been a 24-year journey of becoming. I wouldn’t say my journey is unique, but definitely, it has had its fair share of rough and tumble. I remember this time when I was nine years old. My parents were not so well off at the time, so buying a brand new uniform at the start of the year was a tall order. Even so, my mum being the proactive problem-solver she is had already borrowed uniform from a neighbour who had cleared his class eight the previous year.

On opening day, I didn’t wear the full set that was borrowed, I just used the sweater. Needless to say, the sweater was seriously oversized. It was as if it had worn me instead of the other way round. But, before leaving home, my super mom had psyched me up and I was confident rocking my ‘never seen before’ sweater; at least on my body.

Upon getting to school, my fellow students didn’t share my enthusiasm. That was to my dismay, accompanied by shame and iterating disappointment. I was a laughing stock. I was mocked and made fun of. In fact, this would go on because even way later in class five they made fun of another sweater my mum bought for me from mtumba (second hand) and some cheater-print boots.

At the time I think I had developed the mental fortitude to buffer myself from their ridicule. Amazingly, at this time I even joined them in mocking my outfit. I call it beating them at their game. They come at you hoping to scold and drag you down, but you disarm them by laughing at yourself and making a light moment of it. It didn’t affect me as much.

Later in high school, I was given an unkind nickname by a friend, Moses. He called me ‘kibaboonist’ because I am dark. The cruel moniker comes from the word baboon. I didn’t fight it. Neither did I protest, I just went with it. Not because I was afraid of standing for myself, no. Somehow I knew it didn’t mean anything. It didn’t change who I was. It never changed my value. So for me, ‘kibaboonist’ was just another name. Another tag. It was not me.

However, at the early age of 9 when the whole school mocked me over my borrowed sweater which I fancied, I hadn’t built walls to ricochet their mean words. For a whole week, I would refuse to wear the oversized sweater in the morning, but my mum would not let me walk in the cold just because other people held opinions about my sweater. After push and shove for a week, the following Monday she gave me a pep talk in the morning. Think of a locker room psych up. She told me, “When a person mocks you, says something about your sweater, look them in the eye and ask them, pilipili usioila yakuashiani“. In other words, the chilli you do not consume will not burn you. This became my power statement.

That day I dished out pilipili usioila like Oprah gifts her fans. Everyone got one. Something interesting then happened. Whenever I served a hater one of those pilipilis, they backed down. Before the week was over, no one talked about my sweater, at least not to my face. I learnt to stand for myself and to speak up. I learnt to defend. But the most important lesson I picked through the whole ordeal was: what you wear, what you look like, however other people perceive you…these things do not define you. I am more than my skin tone. I am more than how I dress. I am more than what you think I am. I am more than what you see.

Later in the year, another classmate started bullying me for no reason or for reasons only known to him. He would beat me up every day after school and run away, and I would go home crying. My mum comforted me. Her comfort-giving soon wore out and we got to a time she took me back to our locker room and pepped me again.

“Kim, I cannot go with you to school to defend you every time someone picks on you, you have to learn to stand up for yourself. Tomorrow, if he kicks you, don’t run. Kick back.”

I did exactly as mum advised the next day. I never knew I had that much fight in me. On that day, I put a halt to my bully.


Such an interesting story, Kim. Why that story, though?

As I turn a year older, Whoa, I cast my mind back to all the events that led up to this point in time and made me the person I am today.

Thinking back to all the things I have been through, this story is just a scratch on the surface. At the end of the day, I am the only one who has got me. I have departed from mum’s lessons at various other times in my life, looking for fame, celebrity status, acceptance, and wanting to be the coolest person in the room. But as the good book says, “raise your child in the right way and they shall never depart”, I have circled and I’m back.

I am at a place where I am not chasing but being in the present while becoming the Kim that I want in the future. I am at a place where I am standing up for myself every day through what I do. A place where external ridicule and mockery just bounce off me. I am at a place where the people around me rejuvenate me and when my energy goes down, I have the Grace to pick me up. I am where I should be, becoming what I should become.

You will also love: Reflections on my 25th Year of Life

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