Please read this disclaimer before reading this story.
DISCLAIMER: In this series, we will be covering stories on Toxic and abusive relationships. This may be a triggering topic for some. This particular story contains descriptions of physical and emotional abuse. Kindly remember to be mindful of your mental well-being and that of others as you read and share this story.
I was not brought up in Nairobi. I moved here to start my college education. I lived with an aunt in Nairobi who mistreated me so much that I needed to move out and go somewhere else to finish college. My parents couldn’t afford to pay my fees.
The first boyfriend I got was basically the one I moved in with. That’s how I ended up staying with Honey. When the relationship first started, I was looking for a safe place to go. It’s not something I did because I was happy about it. I don’t remember feeling any happiness while I was there. I was looking for a safe space, but he didn’t provide it.
In the first four years, I felt safe. I was not as stressed as I was in my aunt’s house. I was going to college and working part-time between my classes. I’d work at lunch hour, between noon and 2 pm, and then again in the evenings between 5 pm and 7 pm to make ends meet. At the end of the day, I’d go back home to Honey’s.
We got married when I was 19, and he was about 23. Things changed when we started getting babies, and our family started growing. I think he got stressed out or he got overwhelmed because we were both so young. On my part, I was overwhelmed in every way possible. I was so many things at once: I was young, working, a student, and a mother. A few years down the line, maybe 5 or 6 years later, I feel like Honey wanted his youth back, so he just changed.
In the first few years, we were both young and finishing our studies and starting our family, so I didn’t realise as much what my husband was doing to me. The thing he did best was alienate me from others. Honey stopped me from having any social circle – I couldn’t go to women’s chamas, visit anybody, or even have visitors over. He didn’t like any of that. It used to upset him.
In the first few years, because I was juggling my studies, work, and raising my kids, I didn’t notice. Later on, when I was done with school and had settled down a bit, I only had to deal with working and taking care of the kids; that’s when I noticed. I had more time on my hands and realised that Honey had totally alienated me. I couldn’t even travel to visit my parents without upsetting him, so I never did.
As Honey was isolating me, he maintained his social circle as a student, and as he started working, his social circle grew. He could go out with his friends, and he used to bring them home. It’s just me who never had that.
I was never myself with Honey. I couldn’t dress however I wanted because he didn’t like anything I put on. He’d tell me, “You’re dressing like that so you attract other men. Change it. Remove that dress.” He didn’t like it when I put on trousers. He also had opinions about how I could make my hair.
In my generation, and even up till now, society is very unforgiving to a woman that chooses to leave a marriage. To date, I’m still blamed for leaving Honey from both sides of the family. Your partner’s family blames you for ‘breaking up the house’. On your side of the family, you became a shame. Even the few friends I had, once they realised I was no longer married, didn’t want me to visit. They’d think I was a bad influence. Some of my relatives whose daughters were in university in Nairobi and needed a place to stay wouldn’t let them stay at my home. They’d say, “Don’t go to Auntie’s place. She’s not married. She’s a bad example.”
Even now, there is no explanation for why my husband did what he did to me. I would come in from work five minutes late because of traffic, and he’d just sit there calmly, and as I was taking off my shoes, totally out of the blue, he would throw me across the room. He’d beat me till I was unconscious, and I’d wake up in hospital.
If he came to my workplace and found me talking to a male colleague, he would beat me at work. I left so many jobs because of being beaten up at work. If anybody in the office tried to help me, they would get beat up too. Or he’d come to town and see where I’m getting a matatu from and beat me up because he’d claim I was standing too near a guy.
One time we were at his workplace, his male colleagues stopped to say hi to him. Questions like, “Habari ya watoto? Habari ya nyumbani?” (How are the children? How are things at home?). It was a very casual conversation. But when we got home, he beat me to a pulp because he said I smiled at one of his colleagues whose name I don’t even remember.
There was a day he made me sit down, and he took a surgeon’s scalpel and told me very calmly, “Oh, you know what? Today I will slice your face open until they can’t stitch it.”
That day, he didn’t need to beat me. I just passed out. He was seated in front of me with a scalpel held to my face, right next to my eye. Passing out from fear is what saved me on that day.
The physical abuse went on for ten years. My children started telling me, “Mummy, you just go. If daddy doesn’t like you, just go.”
When my children were younger, I tried not to let my relationship with Honey get in the way of their relationship with him. Every time he wanted to spend time with them, he was free to. Not that he did that many times; Honey was not a very responsible parent either. It was easy for him to let them spend more time with me and only pretended to bond with them when he wanted to. If there was an event in their shagz(rural home), let’s say any of Honey’s relatives died, I’d make sure the kids were taken there for the funeral, or would take them there myself.
Once they grew up, I realized they were really bitter about what their father did. The last two of our kids especially don’t want to relate to him at all. I don’t try to force them to.
Honey went on to remarry and has young kids right now. He’s retired, so he’s struggling quite a bit. Sometimes he’ll ask our children for something as they’re now older and working. Maybe he’ll ask for financial support, and they always ask, “What right does he have to ask?” They don’t help him because they feel he hasn’t earned it. So it’s not from me, but whatever he did has impacted his relationship with our children.
The thing about Honey was that all the things he did to me were done while he was stone-cold sober. He never used to drink. So you can’t say it was the drink or substance abuse. I realized it wasn’t something I was doing that upset him; that was just who he was as a person, and there was nothing I could do to make it stop. He wasn’t going to change.
When I came to this realization, I woke up one morning and went to my parents’ place. I explained to them all that had been happening. I remember telling them, “I will die. He will kill me. He won’t stop until I’m not there for him to beat.” That’s how I left Honey.
Knowing all this is important because sometimes we condemn women or partners who left for not having tried harder. Society always blames the partner that leaves.
Now that I’m older and wiser, a healthy relationship is one where one partner should not expect their own internal happiness to be brought by the other partner. You need to be emotionally stable yourself first. You need to be able to stand by yourself and be happy in yourself. Don’t expect the other partner to make you happy. We often put the burden of being happy on someone who is incapable of making us happy because they’re also struggling internally. It’s too much to expect another human being to take up your emotional burden and make you happy when they themselves are struggling with their own burden. So until we learn that each of us needs to be happy before we can be happy together, there will always be problems in relationships.
Once you see that one person in a relationship wants to be too controlling or completely assimilating their partner so that their partner basically ceases to exist as an entity and can only be identified as being with this person, that’s not a healthy relationship. A tree known as the strangler fig provides an excellent analogy to explain what this feels like.
A strangler fig never grows on its own part of the soil, no matter how much space there is. It always grows where another tree grows. The trunk of the strangler fig then completely envelopes the host tree and eventually even replaces the old tree’s roots in the soil. If you pass by that place in a few years, you’ll never see the old tree. You’ll only see this strangler fig that has completely strangled the original tree and taken its place in that spot. This is how it feels when one partner is overbearing, over controlling and does not allow the other person to have their own personality or life.
It’s a very unhealthy aspect of a relationship. It creates resentment, instability, acrimony, and violence. This will always end up in violence from either party. The controlling party could resort to physical or verbal violence to completely subdue their partner. Or the subdued partner could finally fight back, leading to a flare-up in violence.
I think because I stayed in my relationship with Honey for so long, I can tell when a couple has something going on – whether they tell me or not. Just by being with those two people for like 30 minutes, I can tell what’s happening if there’s something happening. I have tried to talk to people I feel comfortable talking to, and what I say to them is that it will not get better.
Staying in a bad relationship for longer does not make it get better if your partner is not willing to acknowledge what they are doing or change. The relationship will never get better; in fact, it will only get worse. So leave your options open: do you want to continue being in it like that? If you have fought, talked, and pleaded and your partner is not changing, they will not change. Someone will only change once they accept that they are doing something wrong and need to change. You can’t change a grown-up person.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the luxury to try to get into another relationship after my split from Honey. I was a struggling single mother with several kids by the time I was leaving. I am still struggling because motherhood is a lifetime thing. You don’t stop being a parent. It is not like a dress you will take off and say, “I don’t like this dress anymore, so I won’t put it on.” It is a lifetime thing unless you completely abandon those kids and run away and leave them. Sometimes I was tempted to do so. But once you choose to be in it, you’re in it for a lifetime. So because of the number of kids I have, I never found the time to be in another relationship until they were all grown up.
Right now, I have very few friends. I can count my friends on one hand. Because of what happened to me, I’m very careful with who I am friends with. I am very attuned to people, and I can tell who is fake, who’s real, who is putting up a front, and who’s worth investing in being emotionally friends with. My social circle is not wide, but the friendships I do have are deep.