To Have and To Hold

An intimate look into young male-friendships.

By Kevin Shachile

Months after I invested in the business that would later become Oulaj, I made nearly a hundred thousand Kenya Shillings in loss. I lost the initial capital and I walked into debt.  I was twenty two years old and that is all I had on me. I sold the young venture at a value that I never get the strength to mention, withdrew myself from business and retreated into silence. The first night when I made the realization of this phase of my life, I came undone. Everything about being hurt and confused were so normal for me, but what remained strange was the loneliness that this tragedy came with hurt me most.

Here is the question.

“Do you feel confident as a man in your support system that it can support and hold you up in the face of depression or any other life-changing situation?”

This is a question I encountered recently and had to share with fifty other young male adults. The response supported my observation regarding loneliness in the moment of distress. I will tell you more about my experience again.

As an innocent village boy, the first real heartbreak got me in campus. The details of the circumstances that left me homeless in a span of hours fill me with horror to this day. You might think being left broken, on the ground and homeless in a town far from home would be the worst day of my life, it was not. The day I lost my business takes the win. The difference between these situations is simply about company. When I lost my business, I was alone, but my first real encounter with distress was in campus, I had friends who cushioned me well that my shock and grief seemed useless for the situation. It didn’t make sense for me to cry or do anything while I silently sat in the warmth of my friends’ embrace. I was helped, comforted and supported to rebuild my life back into order.

The night the books revealed of my business loses, I was out of campus, distant away from my campus friends and amidst people who really didn’t understand the situation I was in. I was asked if I was sick and when I said I wasn’t, the concern died there. I had to relate, comfort, support and bring myself into order. The strength I had in the days that followed did not adequately address the demand for the courage I needed to show up every time I had to.

I will tell this; masculinity comes with limitations regarding vulnerability. To come into company of people who share the same level of vulnerability with you is rare if at all possible. Results from the survey I did regarding young male friendships indicated that out of 50 responses I got, 45 of them expressed dissatisfaction in their friendship in the moments of dire need.

A recent graduate around 24 years old noted that he has friends he goes out with to have fun but he has never seen them come to him or any of the other boys in moments that didn’t include having fun. He shared about the incident when one of them had a surgery and instead of visiting the friend in hospital, they preferred to go out to drink in his honor. At the end of their drinking adventures, they raised some money that they kept and committed to use to buy the friend some alcohol upon his recovery.

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A support system is regarded the safest space one should have when it comes to matters that an individual requires support on but feels limited to reach for in public. I think so myself. I, however, have come to learn that support systems are differently defined by every individual who is in search or already in one.

My high school classmate, a 26-year-old, noted that he feels his circle is empty every time he is in need. He, however. noted that he has people he knows are his friends. Close friends for that matter. His clarity on how much he feels these friends fail him comes from his knowledge in the boundaries he has set between him and the friends. He acknowledges being a bad communicator. He likes everything personal remaining within him, prefers to cry alone and feels it is unnecessary for his friends to visit his place if there is really nothing important, they are coming to do there. Consoling, supporting and keeping him company isn’t something important for his friends to do, he says, but insists he doesn’t feel he is adequately supported. He describes his circle of friends and close family as a ‘broken system’.

On the matter of trust, why would I tell my friends I am depressed when I can afford a therapy session? A 30-year-old gentleman asks. His concern is grounded in the longevity of friendships. What happens with my personal confessions at the end of a friendship? He asks again. To risk being uncomfortably gossiped or his struggles exposed is something he doesn’t wish to do. He believes specialists are well educated and have vowed to uphold the ethics of practice. He better cry in a psychologist’s room and pay than cry twice over the same issue (first at the time of occurrence and later at the time of betrayal by friends.)

Unconventionality grounded in discomfort. Matters of sexuality in this age are matters of the heart especially in African setup. I am not only implying to sexual orientation but everything that concern the health, use and relations of the genitals. The sex subject is silent within most African settings. Parents are embarrassed of teaching their kids about it, most teachers are afraid of handling it openly and young males are shy to find light regarding it.  Homophobia is a silent threat in a circle that doesn’t discuss sexual matters. Sexual assault cases in which a young male is the victim get joked upon and sexual health has been made evil. A young university fresh man shared during my survey that he suffered a sexually transmitted infection on his own because he couldn’t stand being shamed and laughed at by peers and family alike. Safe sexual practices known to him have been vilified in some way. “Every guy right now celebrates the victory of having raw sex but doesn’t tell how far the rawness has to go. It is even hard to know whether it is true or they are just lying but then as a young person I got tempted into getting that experience as well.” He shares. “To go back to my friends and tell them it backfired will be a declaration of immaturity. Something I don’t want to portray.” He adds.

A 27-year-old gentleman confesses of his sexual confusion and shares of his experiences as a curious young adult. “To be young, curious and queer must be the worst thing one can be in this town.” He states. “There are so many down-low predators that will take advantage of your state and do you bad. I have been drugged and slept with, I have been beaten by strangers I met on a dating app. I have been robbed and literary made to beg for my life at some point. That is just so much for me to sit with on my own but then what will I tell my family or friends about those experiences. I can’t lie about any of them being open minded enough to listen and help without judging. I battle those demons on my own and it hurts to do so without people around me pretending to care and call themselves friends.” He narrates.

I have written and talked about my sexual abuse experience before. In the days that followed the occurrence of my being abused, I never got any person or platform to share and seek help. I gave a brief interview about it years later and the very same evening, someone close to me texted to ask me to ‘man-up’.  Away from my experience, is the difficult thought regarding the determination of who should be blamed for the brokenness of these support systems and the question on whether young males know what support systems are and how they should look like.

I asked some of those I had physical conversations with regarding the process they use in determining those to consider friends. The common response was “those I can have fun with.” From the onset of these relationships, people make unions limited to having fun together. Only one boy responded with “I look for someone who is willing to share my life with while seeking to make friendship with anyone.”  For him, he doesn’t want someone coming with limitations of what they will do together in the friendship, he just wants someone who will be open and present as much as possible.

At the time of concluding my survey and questions, I wondered about expectations and limitations of male friendships. I asked majority of my peers why they would be in need of a support system in the moments of distress when they aren’t open enough to make friendships customized towards offering that. To expect intimacy from a friendship established on rigidity of traditionally defined masculinity seemed to me as a futile venture. A young male who says two males hugging or spending time together just the two of them seemed so queer for him, expressed how absent it felt to have his friend with him when he lost his mother even though the friend was right there. He confesses that experience to be a wakeup call for him regarding his openness to expressions of platonic love and care. He said “My grief was too much at that moment and I needed to be held in support. Like I had no strength in me to stand on my own. I looked at my friend standing there, I saw in his eyes he really cared and I appreciated that he had taken time from work and travelled to be here for me. But it didn’t feel to me he had done enough. I now know what I wanted from him that day. An action that would make me feel home, warm and assured. That I know wouldn’t be him just being present or him giving me money. I knew I wanted to hugged and my hand held in the moment I was down. I have hence learned to embrace that with an open mind.”

Does it make one a lesser man to have a friend or a group of friends as a support system that is adequately configured to support one’s vulnerability? That is not a question I will answer for you. I will however offer you my greatest lessons from the findings of this brief survey; I have realized that even the toughest of men who don’t want to share their vulnerability with friends do suffer the agony of lacking a good support system. Young men are hurting more in silence and solitude than they do in company of peers who share in the issues they are suffering from. Finally, I have observed friendships that support people being open and vulnerable with each other, tend to last longer than those founded on the aspectsof fun and other elements grounded on rigidity. My lesson has, therefore, been on embracing the one true essence of any close friendship, to have and hold each other in support through life.

Kevin Shachile

Kelvin Shachile is a writer and curator. He co-authored Hell in the Backyard and other stories (Queenex Publishers, 2019). His writing has appeared in; The Armageddon and Other Stories anthology, A Country of Broken Boys anthology and The Best New African Poets 2018 anthology. Shachile has been featured and published by some of Africa’s finest literary platforms including Agbowo’, Writers Space Africa, Kalahari Review, Akewi’ and elsewhere. Long listed for African Writers Awards and Shortlisted for the Wakini Kuria Prize in 2019. He has worked for Lolwe and briefly for Agbowo’. He is well known for his pamphlet the Game of Writing published and distributed by African Writers Development Trust in 2019, which was reviewed as ‘a bible for new African writers.’ He currently serves on the editorial board of Fiery Scribe Review.

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