Sharon Tanui was once descended upon by a handsome man in a matatu. He sat next to her from Westlands to town, and as soon as the rusty doors creaked shut, he turned to her with a smile. She remembers how bold he was. How good he smelled. How confident he was. She also remembers how uncomfortable the whole ordeal was for her.
"I'm single," she says. "I'm not exactly searching, but technically, I'm single. I should have been open to the approach. I have heard my friends joke about meeting guys in that way. But it felt invasive. Like I was just minding my business, listening to my music, then there's this guy making passes at me."
She deflected his efforts but grudgingly yielded her Instagram account. It was there that he eventually got her to agree to a date."Neither of us wanted to do a boring coffee date. We agreed that the best way to cut through the initial awkwardness was to go out for a drink."
It was a good decision. The alcohol bridged a gap that would normally have taken weeks to deal with. The conversation was freer and more open. By the end of the night, Sharon had warmed up to him enough that she did not object when he suggested a second date.
Her encounter is one many people are familiar with, as is his. Women no longer find the public approach charming, for one, and their counterparts are increasingly loath to try it. The only settings where it seems to work are those in which 'liquid courage' is involved.
Indeed, alcohol now plays a huge role in social settings. Meeting for drinks is more than social currency, it is the base for most interactions, no matter the scale or purpose. Clinking glasses to finalise business deals, sharing a bottle of wine on a first date, getting together with a group of friends for a booze-augmented game night... even in instances when liquor is not on the agenda, it shows up as AOB.
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Yet, the heaviest lifting it does seems to be for romantic purposes."I wouldn't even try doing it sober," says Justus Ngugi*, a bachelor in Nairobi. "It's different when you go out and you meet women at like a club. I'm a different person when I've had a few. I can have conversations more confidently with a stranger in that setting than I would if I was sober."Ngugi admits to the dependence:"It works for me because I don't have to overthink things. I can just be in the moment, have fun, and then everyone goes their separate ways after. Especially for one-night stands, when you're not trying to create anything deeper."
Death of genuine chemistry
In a digital world, it seems easier to meet people, but harder to form genuine connections.Kendi Ashitiva, a psychologist, believes a change in the way we interact is inevitable."Everything has changed," she says. "We do not live purely in a social world, we also live in a highly technological world, a highly digital space. Meetings are being facilitated, sometimes even conducted in a digital space.
There is nothing wrong with meeting people digitally, just as there is nothing wrong with meeting people when you're out in the world. It's the age we live in, so anyone who does not plug in will be left out. "
But this does not translate to an ease of connection. If the number of young people depending on liquor to grease the wheels is any indicator, genuine connection is harder than ever."We are struggling to form meaningful connections. We all have traumas we carried on from birth, and we never healed from the things that hurt us. We are looking for relationships where we feel accepted, where we can be vulnerable and loved."
According to Beverly Nicole Adhiambo, a sociologist, the continuing association of drugs with coolness has robbed it of its fear factor."Socialising over drinks has become an accepted trend. Drinks provide a relaxed environment, which is ideal for young people. The practice has increased social interactions, but it has also increased dependency. People have made it a requirement.
"We have glorified it to the point it seems normal. Young people talk about it casually; consider the conversation around liquor which is labelled a 'panty remover'."The biggest effect is that it takes away the possibility of genuine connection."If you can only talk to me when you've had a drink, then who are you as a person? Are you able to talk on your own? It might give you courage in the moment, but it is not genuine. You're under the influence."
A big part of its appeal is also the safety net it provides: "Some people use it as a get-out-of-jail card; if things don't go your way, you can blame it on the alcohol."But that fear factor is important. Beverly sees it as essential to individual growth."It is healthy to have the fear of rejection," she says. "It is important to live life without a safety net, to go beyond areas you feel are safe. You have to take the chance. The fear of rejection grows you as a person."
The evolution of the social scene means there are now more places where people can meet and interact. Beverly advises keeping an open mind:"It doesn't matter where you meet your partner. It's silly to follow the old 'wisdom' that you cannot meet a good partner in a bar.""Look at who they are. Can you live with them? Do you have a connection? Can you build something with them? Don't focus on where you met them. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether you met on Tinder or an entertainment joint."
And for those using substances to heal or help navigate broken hearts, Beverly urges against making it a habit."If you're using it to numb pain, you will need to numb that pain again tomorrow. Healing needs you to grow. It requires you to accept your situation and heal over time. You cannot take the shortcut by using drugs."