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Spread your mind

A poem by Onyango Otieno, Kenya in honour of #WorldMentalHealthDay

 As a little boy mama would say 
Child, spread your bed every morning you get up
I was cheeky and rebellious
Said boys are rough and I needed to be
 Mama would say, no tea if you haven’t made your bed 
Cold shower when you get from school
No peanut butter, you’ll eat dry bread
Said I can do without them all except I fear cold water
So mama, see, I’m spreading my bed
When I was 16 life became a little unbearable 
And I didn’t like mama
Her voice was always high and
She beat me up for burning my first chapati
I was suicidal and lonely, with no one to talk to
My sister, Jael, died at 5 months
And brother too young to understand depression
 But what happened to mama? 
Why was she always shouting?
I ran from home searching for peace of mind
But never stopped thinking of mama
In the streets these women hustled with their bodies
On those cold June nights
While taking care of me
 When I was found, mama asked, 
“Son, do you hate me?”
I saw her in all the kind women who kept me warm out there,
It was difficult to say a word
What I didn’t know was she could barely put herself together
Having to endure humiliation from daddy’s nasty beatings and abuses
The last thing she wanted to hear was that her son
Her eldest son
The boy who first made it after a miscarriage and two dead children
Hated her
The years to come were filled with daddy’s,
“Boy, I regret marrying your mother” and “has she ever paid your school fees?”
Children get depressed when there’s violence at home
Home, home
Home should be the first temple, the first heaven
The first trust and the first church
But nothing like that happens when home is a war zone
At 28 I got depressed again 
This time the wave came with seven other demons,
I wanted to kill myself
My peers were dying sudden deaths, had rent to pay
And jobless
Mama held on I tell people she’s a god, for I can’t understand
How she keeps re-inventing herself
Where does she go when she can’t take it anymore?
I fear asking her these questions
She said, “do you remember what I taught you when you were a little boy?” 
I asked, “what, mama? You’ve taught me a lot of things.
Is it to tie my shoe laces?
I’m still slow but I do it right.”
“No, son, to make your bed.” 
“Yes, mama. I hated it but I’m good these days.”
“That’s what keeps me going, son.
When you spread your bed, you spread your mind
You take your time to fold the sheets on one end
And set the pillows on the other, you organize your mind
You open the curtains to welcome the new day, You lighten your mind
You don’t know what the day will bring 
But whatever happens
If you manage to return at night;
Heartbroken, tired, broke, lonely, forgotten,
The site of a clean bed reminds you
There’s still a lot of good that can come out of you
It is not over yet
When you spread your bed, you spread your mind, son.”

I was never the same from that day

About the author

Onyango Otieno

Onyango Otieno is a mental health advocate from Kenya. He runs a 200 member mental health support group that uses storytelling to tackle mental health stigma. His advocacy spans from from social media, traditional media activations to poetry. He aspires to see an Africa that is open to mental health conversations, eradicating the stigma, shame, and reproach currently associated with mental illness. And to work with stakeholders of diverse fields campaigning for better access to mental health facilities and treatment, public awareness and social justice.

Onyango is our second guest in the Voice Disruptors Series, an occasional series to provide a platform for guests with a strong message -at time controversial but always thought-provoking.

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