As she walked in, the hair on her skin stood still, alert from the new environment. The cold filter gave the room an extraterrestrial feel. The vast machine stood with intimidating power at the centre of the room. She felt smaller than she already was and in that light pastel green gown, she could easily get swept away by a loud breathe. The unfamiliar scent of a strong disinfectant irritated her nose triggering a slight sneeze. Finally, she got to the machine, and with the help of a wooden step stool, she sat at the centre of the tray. The attendant carefully positioned her on the plate-like surface, trying to align her for the perfect shot. “Now this will take a little while dear but don’t move. Mom and I are right outside. Don’t be scared” She was too shocked to be scared, all this was so foreign. The attendant helped her with some headphones and carefully pushed the tray towards the machine. She was about to have her first MRI ever, a test that would change her life forever.
This description happens to be one of the clearest memories I have of my teenage years. I spent the earlier parts of 2010 juggling a transition to high school and navigating multiple doctors appointments to identify and understand a scoliosis diagnosis. Despite being a life-changing moment, this phase of my life was wrapped neatly into a bouquet of “everything is fine.” Ten years, fifty-two screws and two titanium rods later , I realise life moved too fast that I didn’t get to synthesise my reality as it unfolded.
In retrospect, the panic that I had initially felt was utterly justified. Maybe if I had gone into ‘code black’ the trajectory of my life would have been different. However, in that case, I would probably still be that shy, naive and scared thirteen-year-old. A clueless girl who had no idea she was a warrior in hibernation. The scoliosis diagnosis was the trigger that woke me up. Over the years, I have been very cautious so as not to let this medical condition define me. This fear is motivated by the fact that through out my first year of diagnosis half of the people I knew reinforced the idea that ‘nobody cares that you have this thing’ while the rest of people around me didn’t even believe I had a real medical condition “You know you teenagers like to look for things that make them feel special” said one of my school nurses. While these comments played a huge role in breaking me down I almost empathise with them. I had a medical condition that even doctors in my country (Kenya) didn’t fully understand by 2010. People have a tendency to either fear or dismiss the unknown and while my instincts drove me to fear the world around me coped with the new information through dismissal.
I now realise that my story is heavily influenced by the fact that I have scoliosis. My diagnosis came in at a time when most people my age were trying to understand who they were and their place in this world. Unfortunately, I felt like a specific identity was dropped on me as well as a death sentence. I didn’t want to learn about myself as it felt like a futile cause. All I wanted was a life without pain a life where I was understood and once I realised that was not in my cards, I simply yearned for an end.
While trying to navigate high school with a medical condition that no one seemed to understand or care about, I experienced the cruelty of public Kenyan high schools — the type of conditions that confidently place women as the guardians of patriarchy. It was in one of the most prestigious high schools in Kenya that I had my first lesson of what being a marginalised person felt like- Misunderstood, unseen, under-valued, and undignified. It was also during this crucial years that I truly understood the power that women have in the accelerating or stagnating gender equality.
I remember my first suspension vividly. It was the most dramatic moment of my life up until then. I had found myself in the principal’s office because I was not standing during the singing of hymn -because my back was in complete agony. One of the teacher’s on duty asked me to stand and two days after the incident I found myself in the principal’s office on a cold Monday morning. My second ‘crime’ was unearthed through the thick-framed glasses of the deputy principal- I had an ‘illegal’ haircut. In my defence, my hair was facing extreme damage from being chemically straightened because I wasn’t allowed to keep my kinky ‘untidy’ Afro. Nonetheless, while kneeling on glossy, freshly polished, wooden tiles the principal looked down at me from her desk and spent a good five minutes explaining to me how ugly and foolish ‘girl’s like me’ were. She placed keen emphasis on the fact that I had no future to look forward to based my foolishness and unattractive demeanour. Being bullied by women who were older than my own mother was not something I expected. I was raised to respect my elders and people in authority. Therefore, I timidly kept my mouth shut as parts of me believed that what they said was true. Their proclamations that I was not worthy of anything good. The feeling that I deserved all the pain that I had felt in my life. Just when I thought I had been relieved of the torment the walk of shame was introduced.
Picture this, an extremely timid thirteen year old publicly shamed before a crowd of over one thousand people. It was the less fictitious version of Cercei’s walk of shame (Game of Thrones reference). Class by class, I went by introducing myself while under the supervision of the two senior teachers tormenting commentary. Somewhere between the fear, looks of pity from my school mates, and physical abuse from two top-ranking teachers, a spark lit within me. A quick montage of my life played out in my mind showing me all the times when I bore the consequences for decisions and realities that were not in my power. Being a girl, going through puberty, developing scoliosis and my damaged hair… I also saw how powerless I had been, how helpless the people who were to protect me were. Right then, I understood with extreme clarity that something was wrong, and unfortunately, it was up to me to fix my situation.
The moments after that led to my first suspension and the rise of my ‘rebellion’ as I refused to live within the confines of status quo and stereotypes. I was lucky enough to change schools after my spinal fusion surgery in 2013, this was after seven suspensions all which were the result of a teenage girl going through layers of issues without a support system. I had developed a tough exterior which protected the fragile girl that was struggling to float.
Quite frankly, 2010 to February 2013 are a blur of pain, confusion, and anger. At the same time, they also represent the foundation of who I am today. These years are the source of my passion for education and gender equality advocacy. I found purpose in working towards giving young people an education that empowers them holistically. I found motivation in creating a world where no child ever goes through the damaging environment I found myself in and to empower my peers to do better than what we received.
Does scoliosis define me?
No, but it was the first domino to drop. The domino that triggered events that have led me to this place- where I am today. A young woman who is reliable, bold, and fierce in the pursuit of her dreams. A person who believes in treating everyone with dignity because humanity is our biggest asset.
High school was an interesting time. Share with me some of your high school moments that made you feel like the system is broken
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