My Christian family wrecked my self-worth, but my found family is helping me heal

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My life after graduating with a degree in 2022 was disappointing. I couldn’t land a job or internship in Nairobi, Kenya where I studied. So I moved back in with my father who at the time rented an apartment in Mombasa — 300 miles southeast of Nairobi — with the goal of moving out once I got a job.

Months of submitting applications turned into two years. The desire to leave intensified as inflation skyrocketed the cost of living. My father’s abusive rants were a stark reminder that I was a failure. Late at night in my bedroom, I would cry myself to sleep, only to wake up and repeat the cycle. But how did I let things get this bad?

Well, folks and gentle-thems, it starts with a sermon: You see, I grew up in a Catholic household. I learned pretty early on that mentions of abuse, mental health, and queerness were taboo — best-case scenario: ostracism; worst-case scenario: jail time and conversion therapy.

Instead, I played the role of the ‘good’ Christian girl: no talking back or mentioning personal matters during events. Focus on school, practicing submission to authority figures and childrearing. When Sunday rolled around, slip into an itchy church dress and listen to sermons. Sit back and listen to a pastor remind congregants (read women/queer people) to forgive and forget. And to queer folks, sleeping with the same sex was not only an abomination but a sin as well.

Damaris Parsitau, a Religion and Gender Studies lecturer, put it best when he said churches, like African societies, are male-led institutions. Women’s issues go unaddressed or dismissed as demonic forces. Safe to say, by the time I was a teenager, I realized my home was neither a safe space for queer exploration nor a place to talk about childhood abuse and neglect. In hindsight, I don’t think my parents could navigate trauma.

In the back of my class notebooks, I would find comfort in doodling girls and writing about falling in love. I was afraid to date anyone of any sexual orientation or gender. I feared the repercussions if my family ever caught wind. 

Ironic, that my conservative Christian university became a haven for my burgeoning queer identity.

It wasn’t long before my older brother returned to my life. We have a six-year age gap between us. The assumption was having an older sibling as a mentor was essential.

He positioned himself as my knight in shining armor and claimed to have my interests at heart. I asked my brother for advice when overwhelmed. His responses ranged from patronizing remarks to vicious mockery disguised as ‘reality checks’. He ended these conversations by reminding me how I was nothing without him. A few days later, he demanded between KSH 1000-8000 ($7 – $65) for takeout, alcohol, or transport money. Even then, I was happy to send him what I had as long as he praised me.

Even with my shattered self-worth, I wanted to find a group of friends to call my own.

How my found family helped save my sense of self

My friends remind me of a quote from the 2002 Disney film Lilo and Stitch: “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little and broken but still good.” 

As a closeted pansexual freshman, I prioritized maintaining a good grade point average. By sophomore year, I began losing hope in finding friends and hated studying for a Bachelor of Education in English and Literature. Therefore, I changed my major to a Bachelor of Arts in English which allowed me to spend more time with my queer classmates. For the first time, my sexual identity was not a source of shame. When I entered my third year, I felt began to experiment with my personal style and attend queer events. I could have fun without my family finding out because organizers prioritized privacy and safety.

Cosmic forces worked overtime when I met Eve on campus through a shared friend named Grace. Since we both write, Eve and I bonded over the art of storytelling. To my surprise, I learned she’s friends with Keith, a gender non-conforming person of many talents who I met through a lesbian classmate.

Off-campus dormitories were one of the best places for impromptu dinner parties. Keith and I bonded over our love of cute animals and lawless cooking. We often exchanged anime jokes deep into the night.

I once got a set of moon cakes while visiting Nairobi and invited my friends for a hangout session so I could give them one. When we met, we caught up on our lives. When I moved back to the coast, Keith invited me to join a group chat they created with a mutual friend called Claudia.

The private group chat became one of the best resources for me to learn about queer BDSM and identity. As a closeted pansexual, my comprehension of queerness remained influenced by American sitcoms.

When I moved back in with my father, the group chat became a safe space to vent after a rough argument with my father. Concerned for my well-being, Eve loaned me $190 to move out of my father’s house. An acquaintance residing in Kilifi helped me find a studio apartment. I paid rent and used the balance to buy a mattress and a cooking device.

While my friends and I all live in different parts of East Africa and Kenya, we still have a lively group chat. I had not predicted the group chat would give me the courage to seek out and build a better life. It tickles me that the lonely girl not only found a place she belongs but also the resources to heal from trauma.

Sally Garama is a nonbinary children’s short story author and memoir writer based in Kilifi, Kenya. Currently working on their first fantasy horror novel called Curse of Zimu. You can find her on Instagram @shounen_junkie

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