I was having a conversation with a friend a few days ago when the issue of image came up, though in this case, the term keeping up appearances would best describe her story.
A couple of years ago, before she joined the organisation she works for, she worked for a well-known publishing company.
Hers was a high profile role – she was in fact the face of the company, so as you can imagine, she got to attend numerous official functions, which would, from time to time, be covered in the media. Hers was therefore a familiar face.
A few weeks into her new job, the managing director then, a woman, walked into her office and took a seat. The conversation started pleasantly enough, with her asking how she was settling in and whether there was any assistance she needed to execute her role more effectively. And then the discussion took a bizarre turn.
“So, what car do you drive?” her elegantly-dressed boss asked.
“Er, a Vitz…” this friend answered, puzzled, wondering why her boss would want to know what kind of car she drove, or what means she used to get to work for that matter.
“You know, when it comes to this job, image matters most. We’re selling our clients a particular lifestyle, so it is important for us to live this lifestyle too…you will have to upgrade your car to something more appropriate…” she said.
My friend was so taken aback, she hardly knew what to say. But her employer was not done yet.
“Where you shop also matters. How you dress too and how you apply your make-up as well…And where you eat.”
She could only nod in agreement as her boss continued to spell the dos and don’ts of her new job, all the while wondering what she had gotten herself into. She went on to work there for four years, and by the time she left, she says that she was so “brainwashed”, she could no longer recognise who she was any more.
From a happy-go-lucky young woman who would have jumped at an invitation to have nyama choma at a kibanda somewhere, she had taken to eating in the latest posh upmarket restaurants that she could barely afford. She also could no longer enjoy her normal beer brand, instead, she only drank expensive wine and whiskies.
And no, she could no longer hop into a matatu when the month was at that bad corner, and when she had to take her car to the garage, she took a taxi to work or to wherever else she had to go.
Then, Nakumatt was where the rich shopped. It was also where this friend started to shop, having been discouraged from buying her groceries from the local supermarket.
She tells me that by the time she left that company, she was so stressed thanks to all the pressure that came with fronting a certain image, she was on the verge of becoming an alcoholic. Her new lifestyle, which she visibly struggled to support, had weighed her down so much, emotionally and financially, she had resorted to drinking alcohol daily to cope.
It is about eight years now since she left that job, but it is only recently that she managed to bring herself to step into a Tuskys Supermarket, which her boss and former colleagues considered down-market. It is also recently that she started taking a matatu whenever she needs to without fearing that someone will recognise her and wonder why someone of her “calibre” would use public transport.
Her experience, though more extreme than most, did not really surprise me because many of us have been there and done that, and have a story to tell.
A sad story of allowing ourselves to be individuals we are not due to peer pressure and worrying about what “people” will say when they see us sifting through second-hand clothes and shoes on a side street, having a meal at a roadside kiosk or boarding a matatu.
We also worry about what “people” will say when they find out where we live, where our children go to school, where we go on holiday, or even the car we drive. Or the fact that we don’t own a car.
My question is, why have sleepless nights wondering what these faceless “people” think about you? They don’t pay your rent or your children’s school fees, pay your matatu fare or pay for your clothes and food.
This year, I think the one resolution all of us should make is to stop living in a certain way and doing certain things just to live up to a certain image that we feel is acceptable to others. Life will be so much easier, and cheaper, this way.
Here’s to being true to ourselves!
[email protected]; Twitter: @cnjerius. The writer is the editor, MyNetwork, in the Daily Nation