In November 2021, I met a childhood friend. I used to call him 'Man Man'. We had grown up together in the Ends. Our homes in the village are a stone's throw away (well, if you have eaten well enough). We were so close that we could finish each other's sentences.
We went to the same primary schools and grew up together, through the pre-pubescent years, the raging hormone era of adolescence, and as we became young adults, learning how to use, but mostly abusing, drugs. I was there when that girl broke his heart, leaving me to pick up the pieces of his broken masculinity. He was there for me when I had a terrible bout of acne and looked like a hardened, handsome gangster, with a face that could have been chiselled by a sculptor who was quickly falling out of love with the idea of beauty.
Three days ago, Man Man sent me a congratulatory card I had written to him in 2008 (2008!). In it, I had waxed lyrical (you know me) and told him to "go into that exam room and prove to everyone why you are supposed to be called 'Mheshimiwa'". Then I signed off with "Your loving Luhya". I know, I know. Ever the Loverboy.
Our friendship was closer than the bond between Roysambu babes and shisha. But like the government and its citizens, we fell out. We drifted. We became... what is that song? Someone I used to know. Occasionally I find myself wistful, mourning a friendship that didn't die, just went into hibernation. Grey ticked, not blue ticked. Men know this; making new friends turns out to be quite a maze. Do I have to explain to this new guy why we call each other umbwa! as a term of endearment? Or why we end every phone call with a threat? Or, this is the big one, why we would rather get a new wife than a new barber?
Friendship is tonic for the soul.
Have you ever been at a point where you have outgrown your friends, or worse, they have outgrown you? When my friend made it to law school (I always wanted to be a wakili) and later passed the bar to become an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, instead of thinking that I now had friends in high places, I could feel that green-eyed monster holding hands with my ego. I was jealous of him. I wanted what he had. I was bitter at his success and my tongue dripped with seething resentment. My eyes were bleeding from attempted murder. Jealousy? Envy? Yes, but make it a cocktail and garnish it with resentment. Envy is like the skin you're in burning, and the salve is someone else's skin.
And let me confess that I would have traded my young adult brain, which I rarely used, to see him fail. Which wouldn't be hard. We live in a constant stream of information. Social media, word of mouth, WhatsApp statuses. It's much harder to unsubscribe from someone's life updates. "Did you hear Jonte got a baby with the Mheshimiwa's daughter?" reads the Facebook post. "Pinchez got married"—and you weren't invited. Or you were, but you don't live at an address where someone can drop off an invitation. "And yes, Kevo is now the regional head of that betting company." Kevo, yule mmoja? yes. The one with the forehead? Yes, that Kevo Kichwa is now the boss. Friends from college liked it (traitors!!!), along with 200 others. Hurts like a kung fu kick to the chest.
We used to obsess about celebrities, and then we started obsessing about each other. Perhaps this is just the natural, if absurd, arc of my generation's entire adult life. With a thumb scroll, I see the bended knees of friends-turned-acquaintances popping the question to nice-looking women. One swipe and I am hit on the face with a farewell party: mtoto wa nani has just secured a scholarship to Australia. Wait, nani is still alive? The vertical cascade of photos assaults my eyes, but I keep following, a passive but not unwilling audience. This is how I know that Man Man's girlfriend dumped him (I don't know why I know this). I don't know if you know this either, but I wrote it with a touch of schadenfreude. I even smiled. He struggles with love, I struggle with its abundance. Again, Loverboy.
Sadly, the joy is short-lived. I fear I have turned my friendships into competitions. Keeping up with the Kevos as they hopefully kept up with the Pinchezs. While this is an interesting question, I always wonder why I engage in such soul-killing, emasculating comparisons. Comparison is a loser, even if in my book the comparison is in my favour. And it is not so much that I want them to be worse than me, but that I do not want them to be better than me. It reminds me of the old Russian fable about a farmer without a cow who lived next door to a farmer with a cow. He fumed about the unfairness of it, but no matter what he did he couldn't muster the resources to get a cow of his own. So he prayed about it, and God offered him a wish. Did he want a cow of his own? "No," he said, "I want you to kill my neighbour’s cow!"
This manhood thing, you soon learn, is steeped in self-reflection. It’s not what others are doing, it’s how you respond. And my own feelings of inadequacy were only compounded by Man Man’s accomplishments. Navel-gazing, pro-max version. Me, me generation. Even the Kardashians would sit and applaud.
Friendships, or relationships really tend to outgrow the pot you first plant it in. Eventually, you come to a fork in the road. You have to replant it. And at some point, you’ll need to repot, and maybe one of you won’t have the energy. That’s when it’s time to pull the plug.
Man Man is still okay. Still practising law. Occasionally meeting each other in the ghost town of WhatsApp viewed statuses. We may have fallen out but he will always be my brother. And when people sing his praises, or he wins a court case, or another girl dumps him, I can’t help but smile and think: “Good for him.”