It was 4:18 am and the studio at the office had taken on the dazed stillness of people concentrating on concentrating. Warren G’s Regulator played in the background and provided an oddly comforting soundtrack at a time of night when sanity had started to wane. Everybody was tired. The once dirty jokes had now become merely a little dusty, and as the only woman in an all male studio, I have to admit I was quite relieved. I craved a salted caramel hot chocolate, but settled for sun salutations in advance of sunrise, in the hope that they would wedge out the knifelike pain that had deposited itself below my shoulder blades.
In the middle of a downward dog, I was struck with a thought that seemed rather profound given the pre-dawn hour of 4:23 am. Those pithy quotes attributed to world leaders that we see pasted against a ubiquitous sunrise probably came from some poor writer simply trying to wring out a living. Indeed at that moment in time, somewhere in the world there were other over caffeinated writers hunched over computers, grunting away, engaged in the labour of birthing a piece of writing that they would have to hand over to someone else to take out into the world. Just like me. With Obama’s upcoming visit to Kenya, my every moment had been hijacked to produce the Choose Kenya campaign which would be running in the lead up to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit being hosted in Nairobi.
And with this realisation, the ghosts of ghost writers past came swooping into the room, wailing litanies of unfinished novels, poetry collections, short story anthologies, musicals and scripts that they had laid to rest in the graveyard of abandoned dreams. I could see the skeletons of these pieces of writing rolling around restlessly, clattering and moaning at being trapped in their coffins. The ghosts spurred me on. I was not writing to sell decoders or fertilisers. This was an opportunity for me to write copy that I believed in. Something that people may really connect to, identify with, see themselves in. Something too that would be pasted on photoshopped sunrises to be shared endlessly in annoying whatsapp groups or recited at the beginning of high school debating club speeches. Maybe even literature….ok, too far.
And so I wrote my little pulsing exhausted heart out. Even though I would be pouring my heart into words that I knew would be poured out of the mouth of an administration that I have my issues with, I remembered that Kenya is more than the government, more than politicians, more than beautiful landscapes. It is us. And so I wrote it for us. With the memory of growing up in the 90s and running into shops to escape the tear gas, I wrote it to acknowledge how far we have come. And with the recent memory of school children being tear gassed still fresh in my mind, I wrote it to remind us of the stakes and how easy it is to slip back. When I was done, through the deceptive filter of sleep deprivation, I stepped back and surveyed what I had written. I was pleased. It was honest. It was drenched in soul. It was true to who we are and sincere in intention.
And so I went to bed and dreamed that Obama and I shared pizza on the eve of the Summit.
The next day I faced the dreaded Creative Director. The piece needed severe editing if it was going to fit into the time allocated for the ad. With my fluorescent magenta pen I got to work. With every snip, I felt the nuance of the piece withering up and the soul getting sucked out of it. With very word I mutilated and every line I decapitated, my heart bled in fluorescent magenta stains all over the paper. By the time I had finished, the page looked like a crime scene. My beautiful heartfelt script had been crudely chopped up and my multi-layered narrative had been forced into the very single story that I had been resisting.
You see that piece was disproportionately important to me. But, despite it being flawed, I was proud that it evoked a sense of pride of who we are as Kenyans, which is something we tend to only feel in times of celebration or devastation. One of my favourite things about Kenyans is our perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo. The politics. The traffic. The corruption. The education system. The health sector. There is always a keen sense that things are not good enough, that we have to do better, can be better. And yet against the backdrop of what it feels like to be Kenyan over the last several years, and the exhaustion of helplessness that you feel at the perpetual mess surrounding us, the truth is that we have come far. And we continue to stride. It is important to me that we acknowledge that. Not to the world. But to ourselves. Sometimes it seems we are trapped in the same single narrative about ourselves, that we push back against with the world. Ironically, we aren’t very good at seeing our own nuances.
So yes. The Kenya we have is very far away from the Kenya we want. And there are wonderful things about us. And there are not so wonderful things about us. And this can all exist at the same time. And acknowledging one doesn’t vanish the existence of the other. I think perhaps we need to live more in the land of ‘ands’ and less in the land of ‘buts.’ And if you want to see the piece I am talking about writing, it is here.
So Obama came. And he left. And my muse ran away with him. As you may have noticed, I haven’t written for the blog in months. The thing with the advertising industry is that it demands everything from you. The industry is wrapped up in a glossy veneer of glamour and urgency that is designed to trick you into feeling like what you do really matters. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t really. But like many creatives, I need to believe my work matters for me to be able to give it my all. And I need to give my all to my work to feel like what I do really matters. So this self-perpetuating cycle can leave you with very little for yourself at the end of the day. And four months later you are sitting in Lamu in a state of sheer panic that maybe you can’t ever do non-advertising writing again.
I keep reminding myself of a lesson that I learned before but clearly have not been paying attention to. It is important to give your heart to the work that you do, but remember to keep the juiciest parts for yourself, and most of all be careful not to forget it behind when you leave work.
I have sent myself on a forced five day leave to Lamu to write. Perhaps the taarab music, fragrant frangipanis, fresh fresh and the echoing of the adhan will lure my muse back. If not, I shall write without her anyway.