What do I tell a group of teenage boys who, given a choice, would never have come to listen to me?
I found myself in this trap when a friend asked me to speak to a group of teenage boys many of whom he felt were headed in the wrong direction or had some severe developmental issues.
Initially I wanted to decline but upon further consideration, I decided to take up the challenge.
These brats stared at me as though I was from Mars.
“Good morning,” I said, and of the 25 young men, hardly five responded.
“My name is Bitange Ndemo and I was requested by John, whom I’m sure you know, to come and speak to you about my experience as a teenager,” I started.
“To be honest with you, to be a teenager is the most difficult life experience anyone will ever have. As a teenager, I did not have anyone to help me cope with the pressure I faced. My father had died when I was barely seven years old. One night, when I was around15 years old, I had this powerful dream that disturbed not just my sleep but also my life. It came to me like a bomb. Poom! Scuttling my following-morning chores into washing all my bedsheets and some of my clothing. I could not explain the experience but it was something like confused joy, relief and frustration at the same time.”
NEED TO BE LOVED
I could see I was starting to get their attention. I continued.
“What followed was the need to be loved by girls. We did not have mobile phones then, so expressing our feelings to girls was a bit of a challenge. But if you are a boy, you are biologically programmed to express yourself to the girls despite the challenges. In most cases we could not even talk to them so we resorted to silly antics to get the attention of our target.”
“I remember once I had to join the Christian Union with the hope that I will get attention from some beautiful girl I liked. I sang my heart out but she did not even notice and if she did, she never showed it. This disturbed me greatly, so much that I started censoring myself. I could ask myself many questions. Am I so ugly that I cannot attract the attention of this girl?”
Now I really had their rapt attention.
“To my consternation, my classmate, who had not shown any overt interest in my target of many months, won her heart and they began corresponding. I was completely dejected but decided that I would tough it out. I learnt that I should have expressed my interest instead of silly antics in the place of worship.”
“I was later to have a similar encounter, yet again in church. This time I wanted to employ a multipronged strategy. My plan A was to buy a can of Brut (the only cologne I knew at the time) and spray the entire can into my body and clothing. In Church, I ensured that I sat next to her. Luckily, she didn’t run away. But neither did she look at me nor comment on my cologne. My Plan B was to confront her with some proposal. As fate would have it, I could not have a chance to present my feelings. Once more I was heartbroken and felt hopeless but I decided to tough it out. Again.”
The point is that the teenage years are an extremely trying period. Every one more year of teenagehood brings more intensity in the desire to be loved but it wanes as you get into the 20s. What most young people don’t know is that this will pass and there will be someone to love for each one of you. Nature always makes sure of that. Unfortunately, many young people are failing to understand that the future is replete with many more beauties than they have ever seen before. Someone even wrote a book titled The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born.
This desire to be loved turns out to be a temporal trance but no one ever gets to tell you that it will come to pass.
Today, I read with dismay about many young people who are taking their lives because of mundane things like being ignored. There is nothing wrong in your admiring a beautiful young woman.
You must, however, remember that there is a difference between love and infatuation. Love develops and takes time. It is something you grow into as you discover the inner attributes of other human beings.
One thing teenagers must understand is the fact that a teenage frustration with love is a global phenomenon. I recall that when I was a student in the US, I received a random call from some lady. She wanted a friend and over several months she could call and talk to me. One day she asked me if I could take her to a movie. Those were the days when you could still take a risk with strangers. I accepted and agreed to meet at a mall near her neighbourhood. When I got there, I discovered that she was a 16-year-old high school girl.
Immediately after she confirmed her age, I told her that she needed two more years for any form of relationship. She couldn’t understand why and began to sob. I explained to her that the law did not allow it. I told her that I could still be her friend and that I could continue talking to her on the phone until she became an adult. She cried even more. I was in utter shock but maintained my position. Months later, her parents called me to thank me for being a good mentor to their daughter.
Many years of being rejected taught me everything about resilience and I was prepared to fight myself out of incidents that can very easily put you in trouble. Many foreign students in the US rot in jail after being lured into sex with minors. US law has no provision for a minor to consent to any form of sex yet the teens are aggressively looking for adventure. You must always weigh the consequences of your actions.
“I cannot finish my speech without relating emotional frustration to a more serious state of mind that psychologists refer to as displaced aggression. Whilst some of you end up hurting yourself or your loved ones, others take the frustration to watching pornography online or gaming. Such online practices are now major causes of mental diseases. In January this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared gaming behaviour (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) a mental disease. WHO, in its draft 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), for the first time included "gaming disorder" on its list of mental health conditions.”
RISING SUICIDE RATE
This perhaps explains why mental disease has pushed Kenya’s suicide rate to a 10-year high. The paper noted that in mental health, men are more exposed than women and that in the 15–29 age group, suicide is the second leading cause of death.
“You must be tough in order to make it in life. Love and addiction to online gaming or watching porn are destroying the lives of many young people globally. My advice to you is that love yourself more.”
“Some of the online games like Free-to-Play (FTP) are designed to eventually get you addicted through micro-transactions that initially seem harmless. The trouble is that it progresses you into gambling as in Loot Boxes and Treasure Chests, where you will have no choice but get addicted. Some of the games train you to be psychopaths that the end game will be either you commit murder or you destroy yourself. The people doing this are not good at all. Some could be criminals benefiting from micro-transactions that young people steal from parents without ever being discovered.”
“In conclusion, I want to leave you with a quote from a Somali poet, Warsan Shire, ‘Loving you was like going to war; I never came back the same.’ ”
“When you get home today, please stand in front of the mirror and tell the person in the mirror: ‘I love you but loving you isn’t easy.’ You may have wounds as in the aftermath of war. Your emotions may never be the same but you will live to tell your story like I have done today.”
As I concluded my speech, these young men started behaving differently. The resistance that I encountered initially had largely dissipated. The teenagers were thinking. And that was what I had aimed to achieve.
“I will take any questions now. Yes. You in a blue sweater,” I called out.
“Is it alright to get a friend from Facebook?” he posed.
It was a tough question requiring a delicate but candid answer. “In my view, there are too many risks from online dating,” I said. “There are many risks. It is possible you can befriend an 80-year-old woman or some demented man behaving like a woman. It is better to be rejected in the real world than to be accepted online. There is fun in being rejected since you get to learn and perfect yourself.”
The group opened up after realising I had not swallowed the first questioner. There followed a barrage of questions.
I was supposed to be out of the venue in one hour, but three hours later I was engaged in intense discussions on the subjects of love, sex and suicide.
Perhaps it is time we introduce sex education in schools. These young people know more than you can ever imagine.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito