You see a man, maybe a lawyer, sharp like a brand new razor and feisty like Bongo, the honey badger. He cuts his hair in those classy barbershops, which have got women hyperventilating every time their husbands go for a shave. But they are so good with the razor, he emerges from under their hot towels and silky hands looking like Michelangelo himself sculpted him.
He’s eloquent, shoots straight, and his life is straight like type 2A hair. He has already removed all the kinks from his life. He’s the kind of guy you’d think has no cares in the world. Even such a man, with his Armani suits, struggles with the imposter syndrome.
There are days when he sits, and he’s freaking out that he’ll be unearthed. That the wind will blow away the stardust from his face, and the perfect camouflage will come off, and you’ll discover that all those things he said he was were just hot air.
He sweats a bucket before he does that presentation. Every slide edges him closer to the person he has convinced himself he really is, the person he doesn’t show the world. He lives terrified of the day people will call out his fakeness and expose him for the fraud he feels he is inside. He often seeks people’s approval to valorize him, and he dies a thousand deaths before he shows himself to the world.
He’s not alone – there are not enough chairs on the table for the accomplished people who feel like imposters. That man is many of us.
And she too was that man.
She knew she was smart, but she felt like what our primary school teacher called the ‘leader of fools.’ We believed them because that’s what children do when they are consistently put down by the same people who are supposed to lift them.
You’ll be surprised (or you won’t) by how much children are shaped by the adults in their lives. Do you have any idea how gigantic you look to a child? Imagine your 6 Feet frame against their one-foot frame. They believe you because, well, who wouldn’t believe a person whose head is in the skies?
Her parents were fighting most of the time, not physical brawls but silent, cold, guerrilla wars that were often spilling over to the kids. They didn’t know it, but he didn’t give their mother a coin for household things. This was okay because she was making some money on the side selling timber before felling trees was criminal, but it was also not okay because a man is supposed to leave some money for household things. It may not mean much; it just shows that he cares about what his children are eating.
Her mom had made a friend with a new teacher in the village. One day, as they sat on wooden stools with muddy legs outside the timber yard, taking tea in china cups with flowers that look like a Chinese kindergarten child painted them in a hurry, her dad passes by. He says hi, exchanges a few words with her mom, and off he goes.
Her friend says, “I didn’t know baba Michael lives here.
Her mom has a son, and his name is not Michael. It turns out that mama Michael is another woman in the next village, who’s also convinced that baba Michael has only one family.
She finishes primary school and does well enough to join a provincial school.
Her high school life is okay. She’s a good girl, even becomes the typing room prefect. The typing room prefect is like an appendix. The prefect body could have done without it.
She’s not a star student either. She sails through high school in autopilot, neither excelling nor failing. She’s told she’s a ‘university material’ but really? She has doubt the size of Kilimanjaro right at the back of her head.
She has a boyfriend from the neighbouring school like all the other girls—nothing serious; just perfumed letters on flowered foolscaps and secret smooches behind the school bus during outings.
KCSE comes, and she scores a B-. So much for university material, the only material she can be now is maybe Kenya Poly. She doesn’t tell anyone, but she has been secretly nursing an idea to be a lawyer. But she feels like that’s a career for other people. How can she, whose father wasn’t even too keen on being her father dare dream of becoming anything, leave alone something as prestigious as a Lawyer?
Her dad pushes for her to go to Uganda to do her A-levels. Her mom thinks he has enough money to take her for a parallel programme, so she’s pushing for that. She’s like a toy that children are fighting for, each holding one arm and pulling. The idea of studying ‘abroad’ is too sweet to her teenage mind. She sides with Daddie dearest. She’s just 16; she was the youngest in her class. Even before she turns 17, she goes to Uganda to do her A-levels.
Uganda loves her, and she loves it back. They break for the December holiday, and she meets up with the high school boyfriend. Teenage hormones are bubbling like the Lake Bogoria geysers before global warming happened.
She gets pregnant. Her life seems to follow a predicted pattern – daddy issues, failure in school, teenage pregnancy, and failed life. She delivers a beautiful baby boy. At 17, when some girls still can’t wash a teacup properly, and others are still flat-chested, she’s breastfeeding.
The baby was born in August. In January, her mother says, “No last born of mine is going to be a school dropout.” So she bundles her into an Uganda-bound bus and sends her back to school. She cries all the way to Uganda and every night after.
She bores into books with the gusto of the hungry caterpillar, making them fodder for this worm to turn into a butterfly.
She studies as if her life depends on it and graduates top of her class. It’s still surreal; she can’t believe it. But there’s this nagging feeling at the back of her mind that she’s still probably the number one of fools. After all, maybe Ugandans aren’t as smart as Kenyans, and that’s why she topped. It must be something in the Kirinyaga water she has been taking, not her genius mind.
She’s supposed to choose what degree she wants to do. She remembers her dream of being a lawyer. It feels unachievable, but what harm does trying to do? She’s supposed to choose three courses; she fills all the blanks with one choice – Law. If she doesn’t get it, she’s toasted. She goes home, ready to be a mom and forget big ambitions.
But Makerere disagrees with the primary school teacher’s report. They accept her to study law! It’s like a dream, a good dream she’s hoping to wake up from. But she doesn’t wake up; she goes to Makerere and saturates her brain with Contracts, Torts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, and everything in between. It’s crazy difficult, she so afraid that she’ll drop out in first year. She doesn’t.
While she’s in Makerere, her father gets a job in Rwanda. The distance between him and her mother is now the Great Rift Valley; they are barely talking. She keeps talking to him because; he’s her dad, after all. She still can’t believe she aced this Law thing. Okay, she graduated with second lower honours but, she graduated; that’s what matters. She’s going to be a lawyer.
She goes through Kenya School of Law, waking up day after doubting day and acing her classes. She feels like she’s walking on the moon; there’s no gravity; like this is somebody else’s life. She still feels like the number one of fools, and she can’t believe how far she has come while fooling everyone that she’s smart enough to be a lawyer.
On the graduation day, her dad shows up from Rwanda like a guest; he drinks her beer and eats her food and leaves her with a bill bigger than she had budgeted for.
She gets a job in a law firm and starts working. She doesn’t believe one second that she can do this. But her boss seems to see through the doubt that has calcified in her brain. He reassures her day after day that she got this. She’s waiting for the shoe to drop when everyone calls her out on her fraud. That day doesn’t come. She’s surprisingly good at her job. Every day she goes home and heaves a sigh of relief that she has fooled everyone one more time.
She begins to think that maybe she is smart.
Her dad comes to Nairobi to visit. As is the norm, they never know when he’s in town, he shows up. Things between dad and mom are so bad now that they are not talking. He never goes home. When he visits, he takes her for coffee and tells her casually over a cup of steaming java coffee, with the backdrop of matatus and people’ shuffling feet,
“I have another family in Rwanda. I even have a daughter. I’d like her to meet you.”
She becomes a statue.
Before she can swallow the samosa bite she has taken, he adds.
“Could you tell your mother for me ..?”
She swallows the samosa and tells him that his Rwanda family can go hang themselves on Kagame’s neck. That day, their relationship cracks so bad, she doesn’t think it’ll ever be repaired. She goes back to work and throws herself at it, trying to learn all she can because this weird thought that she’s way out of her league and depth won’t leave her. She feels like a broken cup, put together by tape, pretending to be the best tea mug there ever was.
She works at her law firm for a couple of years and soon gets ants in her law pants. Everything she learned in Makerere and KSL has been spent. She needs a recharge and a better purpose. She’s beginning to feel like she’s not cut out for the courtroom. She’s seeking something more.
She starts looking for scholarships, and because she knows she can’t afford it, she’s looking for one that will give her full funding. She sees one, and it’s just perfect for her. So she studies for it, reads everything there is to read about it. She reads so wide and deep that she’d bleed scholarship information if she cut her finger while cutting a cucumber.
Two weeks to the deadline, she applies. She takes the papers to her boss to sign, and he looks at her like she has the red clowns’ nose. “Do you know what this is you have applied for?”
She has no clue; it’s just a suitable scholarship that has everything she needed. She ignores him and applies. The worst that can happen is that she’ll be rejected, and she’ll be accepted again next year, no biggie.
When she applies, she’s added to a WhatsApp group of all the people waiting for confirmation. That’s when it hits her what exactly she applied for: It’s the Chevening Scholarship! It’s the most prestigious scholarship in the history of prestigious scholarships.
The imposter syndrome goes on overdrive. She’s now 110% convinced that she’s not going to get it. People have been getting coached to attend the interviews when all she did was take videos with her husband and analyse them. (Yes, she got married, but not to the high school sweetheart 😉 )
The email confirming whether or not she got it arrives. She only reads the first three words, “We are delighted …” For a minute, she imagines, “Maybe they needed a charity case and that’s why they accepted me.”
She’s a Chevening Scholar! A freaking Chevening Scholar! She’s in the same league as Amina Mohammed and Alex Chamwada. She’s not a leader of fools. She’s the real deal. She’s got it.
Sometimes, she forgets she has a father. But the ember of confidence she has been fruitlessly fanning all thirty years of her life shows a glow she hasn’t felt before. Not even daddy issues could put this little fire off.
And for the first time, the imposter syndrome lifts off her shoulders. Maybe she is smart. Perhaps she is as good as people see.
And she is.