The word NO is made up of just two letters. It is so simple to spell yet so difficult to say. We are often unable to say NO without feeling a sense of guilt or because of the fear of disappointing those around us. This often leads to us sacrificing our will and freedom of choice in order to make other people happy. We often find ourselves saying yes in fear of what is on the other side of a simple NO.

Growing up in the dusty streets of Snake Park in Soweto, I was exposed to many behaviours that appeared normal to a little boy who knew nothing outside of a small township. From the toxic behaviour that made women seen as nothing more than things to be used for sexual pleasure, to the binge drinking in street bashes where one had to carry a weapon just in case a fight started, this life was all me and my friends had ever known.

Every young person belonged to one group or another and peer pressure was the order of the day. We all operated on group mentality and the idea of having an opinion outside the group seemed like a farfetched idea. The saying, “if everyone is thinking the same thing, someone is not thinking” proved to be true. Everybody was doing what everybody was doing and what everybody before them had done. Abstaining from sex or not consuming alcohol would make one stick out like a sore thumb in a community where sex and alcohol provided a sense of pride for almost every young person living there.

The few that had the courage to choose a different path where called names and made fun of as if people needed permission to choose how to live their lives. Indeed we frowned upon what we were supposed to admire and emulate. Or perhaps we just hated in others what we ourselves did not have the courage to do. The need to fit in was robbing us of the need to learn to stand for our beliefs even if it meant standing alone. Our longing for acceptance made it impossible for us to accept ourselves. Our admiration of our close friends made us close our minds to a different perspective. We just could not say NO to those we knew.

One morning I woke up with a terrible hangover after a night of drinking and started questioning whether the night before was worth it. I realised that I had no reason for consuming alcohol other than the fact that my friends were also doing it. This made me question all the other things that I had being doing all because they were a norm in the society I was living in. I then realised that even when I was allowing my surroundings to choose the type of life I was leading, I was still choosing. This made me realise that the same way I had chosen this life, I had the power to make a different choice.

Realising my power of choice, I could say NO to asking out the girl who was passing down the street just to impress my friends and seem cool. I could say NO to drinking alcohol as it did not serve any real purpose in my life. I could say NO to going out to a party at night when it meant that I was putting my life in danger. I could say NO to conforming to the expectations that others had projected on my life without feeling guilty. I could say NO because I owed it to myself to make my own choices. I could say NO.