A Sentimental (Mis)education

by Barbara Wanjala
14 February 2021

In certain quarters of one of our country’s bastions of academic excellence which shall go unnamed, a wave of feverish excitement characterised the days leading up to Valentine’s Day. Thanks to the covert but steady traffic in romance novels at said all-girls’ boarding school, I spent quite a significant amount acquiring an education on matters of the heart. A hopeless romantic, I secretly dreamed of love, the earth-shaking, soul-stirring kind that I read about. The only question was how and when it would materialise.


Each girl belonged to a dormitory, also known as a house. Each house had a brother house in the boys’ school across the valley. Each house on both sides had a committee which was responsible for various wholesome joint activities aimed at moulding well-rounded individuals capable of engaging with members of the opposite sex in a decorous manner. When Valentine’s Day was imminent, the house committees arranged for students from both sides, girls and boys, to select code names. After that, the corresponding house committees would exchange the pseudonyms. The house members would then choose whom to write a letter to. On the day of love, if one was lucky, one would receive a letter from a secret valentine across the valley. 


This was not a frivolous matter. I harboured great illusions: perhaps these seemingly innocuous exchanges would herald the beginning of a lifelong romance. I was inept at dealing with the opposite sex face-to-face. I was shy and self-conscious in person. On paper though, I was clever and funny, coy and flirtatious. I remember writing my earnest missives in painstaking cursive on perfumed stationery, a skill that I honed to perfection over the years. Unfortunately, I would receive only abysmal penmanship and plagiarised poetry in return. I remember looking on with wistful envy as some lucky girls oohed and aahed over meticulous calligraphy in black ink on thick ivory-coloured envelopes, what we considered the epitome of refinement. The gasps of delight would be followed by a careful opening of the envelope after which the letter would be unfolded and read, then reread, then reread. It was rumoured that the gods would on occasion engineer a fortuitous match, the result of which was a torrid trail of profuse correspondence back and forth across the valley.


Love can enmesh you in its magic, but what exactly is it? The Romans and Greeks symbolised love as Eros or Cupid, a cherub with closed eyes who throws fire darts that ignite in the hearts of lovers, like a candle in dry grass. From a neurological perspective however, love is the emotion evoked in the brain when dopamine and serotonin—signalling chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters—act on the limbic system. If you think of love as cognition, then neurochemical interactions produce an offshoot physically manifested as affable and desirous emotions towards a person or a thing. Therefore love is a function of brain chemistry.


As I grew older, I came to question the purpose of Valentine’s Day, as well as the rampant consumerism that accompanies it. After all, if you love someone, you should demonstrate your love for them every single day. You should not wait for a special day on the calendar on which to execute a grand gesture. I would also encounter the feminist maxim, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ which made me wonder whether it was necessary to hinge my existence to a male of the species in order to be fulfilled. The human pair bond exists to further the species, and reproduction had never been high on my bucket list, my instinct to search for the best partner to mate and create offspring with being non-existent. So much for romantic love being the sentimental evolution of the mating instinct.


However, what I would come to learn, after encountering the vagaries of love, was that I had to fall in love with myself first before I could invite love into my life. It was not enough to simply find Mr Right, sink my claws into him and hold on for dear life. I had to fall in love with myself first. That was the most vital lesson of all, one that should be the foundation of any sentimental education. And so I started working towards my ideal self. I started reciting affirmations of self-love to my reflection in the mirror with great conviction. (“I am radiance, I am power, I am beauty, I am strength, I am grace, I am love, I am light.”)  I realised that love was not about being perfect or finding a perfect someone to be with because perfection did not exist. That said, love can propel us towards self-improvement; it can be a catalyst for personal growth. 


Love is an altruism that transcends the ego. The ego pushes us to seek our interest above all, but love can lead the heart to govern the brain. Indeed, one who has felt romantic love, one who feels in love, feels in their chest a burning flame, a fire that bends one’s will for the other. Whatever symbiotic relationship we may have with the other, there will necessarily be sacrifices to be made. Choosing to make these sacrifices means going beyond our ego. When you love someone, their well-being becomes part of the meaning of your life. You are able to make sacrifices for this person and their happiness nourishes yours. This altruism is triggered by an affinity, a harmony between souls. The recognition of love is the beginning of the journey, not its end. 


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