I’ve never been handcuffed. Not by the police and not by a lover. Or a police lover, for that matter. It takes great domination to convince someone to have them cuffed to a bed when they are in their most vulnerable state; bearded, drunk and naked. Because then you are saying, it doesn’t matter how pressed you are, I will release you when I want to. This is also the only situation one can use the word “behest.” I have never been to jail for breaking or entering. Or kidnapping. Or stood before a judge for making an illegal U-turn and telling the traffic cop, “Can I see your force number?” But I have been to a police cell to take someone Fanta.
I have never been to a rally. Or carried placards over my head as an aggravated statement of my social or even political consciousness. I have never had to read the newspapers write “…the crowd engaged police in running battles” and thought excitedly, “Hey, I was there. I was part of those running battles.” I have never been thrown in the back of a police van together with other degenerates who rubbed the law in the wrong place. I have never had to wear a tee-shirt with a robust message I strongly believe in. But like most of us, I have at some point or the other, had to remove a shirt off someone, a shirt with a message we might have believed in, like “Dirt is Good.”
I’ve never been to a place with a large mass of people who are strongly galvanized in their assembly. A place charged with reason and conviction, that breathes loudly with its own righteousness. I have never been to those places where everybody wants their voice to be heard above the rest, but also to add to the rest. A groundswell. A raging beauty of love, of purpose. That’s maybe because I have not been angry enough, impassioned enough or brave enough.
Well, until last Saturday.
I’m seated in a bar – as one should on a Saturday- and two gentlemen of the Luo persuasion are having a conversation. I know these two gentlemen, one is called Hezy, who happens to be my cousin and the other is called Japs, who happens to be my friend. They are talking about a derby. I’m half listening of course, and wondering that perhaps these two gentlemen have gotten into horse breeding or polo. It turns out that this derby is actually a match. A football match. Yeah, why call it a football match like the rest of the peasant populace, if you can just call it a derby? You know, tie it nicely in a bow. Derby has a ring to it. Some place where people wear red shorts and white shoes and smoke cigars. A derby.
Ben tells me, “You should come for the derby tomorrow.”
I say, “What’s happening?”
“There is a cookout, what do you think? We are playing AFC.”
Hezy cuts in, “No, we are going to train AFC how to play.”
That sounds as exciting to me as eating an ageing boiled octopus. I don’t care about football. It’s never moved my needle. The flu of hullabaloo has never caught me. Also, the very idea of going to a stadium doesn’t inspire me. The first and last time I went to a stadium, any stadium, was to watch another Gor – AFC match at Nyayo Stadium in 2002 on the persuasion of my close friend, Sande, now resting with angels. It was disastrous. During the match, someone had stood up and shouted at the referee, “Ongeee bwana!” This is normally not a good sign. Under any circumstances. If you ever hear that, find the fast exit because soon after, there was complete and utter bedlam and stones rained on the pitch which spilled outside into running battles on the highway. Someone died that day.
So, no. Not my cuppa. Thanks.
Hezy told me that at some point in life, one has to be intensely passionate about something. I said I’m passionate about writing. He said no, something that isn’t work. I said writing isn’t work. He said no, something else. I said I’m now passionate about grass; the Maadi river grass. He said no, you need a cause. A movement. Something close to your heritage. A contribution to something that will outlast us when this bar we sit in is flattened by time, something you can pass over to your daughters and sons that isn’t a blood group. You have to be counted, he said, as a man, as a Kenyan and as a Luo. You have to add your voice to the voice of your people. You either do politics or you do Gor Mahia. And you can’t sit on the fence. This is no time to sit on the fence, he said. This is a time to believe. “Belonging!” He roared. He’s a tall big guy with thick biceps. And he was indoctrinating me, him a Gor supporter since God was a boy.
“Besides,” he added, “Agire is coming.” Agire is our cousin who works and lives in Nakuru. We call him Ndugu because he calls everybody Ndugu. Quite the character. His love for football is on the obsession side of it, sometimes veering off into pseudo-hooliganism depending on who you ask. His loyalty to Gor is on the paranormal. A dyed-in-the-wool supporter, he travels everywhere the team plays. Everywhere. He develops a fever when they lose. At the pearly gates, when he’s stopped and asked by the angel how he filled his time on earth he will probably say, “I supported God’s team.” He just doesn’t see God supporting Sofapaka because it sounds like a brand of matchstick. Even to me, a highly unsophisticated and greatly underdeveloped football fan.
I told Hezy, “I don’t think Agire can come. He’s still recovering.” He was involved in a hit and run three weeks ago. A motorist hit him while out jogging, broke his front teeth and shook his jaw.
“He’s coming,” Hezy said with conviction because no broken teeth can keep away a Gor fan. “We will get tickets for you.”
“How much are they?”
“We will just get the usual VIP tickets,” Japs chipped in.
Hezy turned to him and said, “But you realize VIP for Luos are just regular tickets, Japs?”
Ho-ho-ho. The table rocked with laughter.
The next day we met Agire at Kenya Cinema. His teeth looked fine to me. The last time I stood outside Kenya Cinema was in 2000 when I was waiting for a siren called Mwende. She never showed up. She didn’t have a landline and back in the day if someone gave you a fake date and they didn’t have a landline they’d simply disappear from the face of the earth. As we stood outside there I wondered how freaky it would be if I suddenly saw Mwende passing and said, “My God, Mwende! It’s taken you 20 years but you are here, that’s all that matters now.”
I noticed that these boys were all wearing very trendy colourful shorts, like they were attending a high tea. But then again, I had to keep reminding myself that this was not just a football match. This was a derby. Agire had a number 14 Gor jersey written “Jo’madongo” at the back to mean, “Grown ups.” The writings behind those jerseys is in itself a subculture and copy writing at its very best. I asked him what his meant and he said simply that the number 14 is a gong to Thierry Henry, his all time Arsenal striker. And Jo’madongo means that only grown ups sit in committees. He didn’t expound what committee he sits on. I felt like it was not in my place to ask because, as it were, I was already way over my head.
Outside Kenya Cinema was a small white van, which acted as a ticketing office. A small crowd of boisterous supporters milled around it. Matatus full of supporters zoomed by along Moi Avenue, men hanging from doorways, music blasting, vuvuzelas choking. Outside the cinema men danced to music from double-parked vehicles, engines idling, all facing Kasarani, the battle field. The greens and the blues chided each other playfully, none taking it to heart because after all, they are in-laws and the relationship of in-laws is founded on mutual respect. And tea.
The guys were hungry so we went upstairs to this spoon where we sat at the balcony and ordered Aliya which is what the late singer Aaaliyah was named after. (These things are on the internet, you can Google if you want). Aliya is dried and smoked meat with thick tar-like sauce and ugali. This is food for the derby. After lunch, Japs eased the car onto Moi Avenue, rolled his car window down as we neared the lights and Hezy, seated shotgun lowered his head to look out of Jap’s and together they looked out and Japs said, “Good, Tom Mboya has already flagged us.” I saw what they were looking at; a Gor Mahia flag flattered from the outstretched hand of the statue of Tom Mboya. Men danced all around it. It felt like a sacrifice was about to happen.
The newspaper that day had described the match as “explosive.” To mean bombs and dynamites. Sports writers coloured their pieces with lively imagery. Of big cats mauling Gor. Of claws. And teeth. I didn’t even know what the fuss was all about because Gor had yet to lose to AFC since 2016 according to those newspaper articles. I don’t know squat about football but precedence seemed to be against AFC. But then again this is football where men make their own destiny and so undeterred, AFC were thumping their chests, their confidence boosted by having won seven of their last nine matches and now facing their Achilles heel.
Just near Kasarani we ran into madness, chaps off matatus in various forms of delirium directing traffic, some shirtless, opening way for their buses ferrying supporters, men in motorbikes carrying two or three people waving shirts and flags, blowing on vuvuzelas, some running between cars, chanting what sounded like a war cry. This didn’t seem like football. Or a derby. This seemed like a religion. A cult. Something you are born into and you get socialized in it and you grow up knowing that you are not anything before Gor. And you can’t be anything after it. It brought out the rich and poor and it completely broke down everything else that defined them. At this point they were not fathers or brothers or professionals, they were not citizens, or Catholic or Protestants or Legio Maria, they didn’t have debts or gout or a sick patient in hospitals or a child with special needs or a mother who had arthritis. Now they were simply football lovers.
And I didn’t have to understand it because I could feel this centrifugal force all around me. I felt it when we walked into the stadium onto the terraces at exactly 2:58 pm, two minutes before kick off time, this roaring energy pushing you back, a wall of screaming and chanting and ululation that came from the stadium. It’s an indescribable energy. We sat above terrace 13, below us was bedlam. The support squad sat there beating drums and dancing, men in masks, men carrying rubber snakes and green plastic guns and green berets, faces strained in screams, veins on necks popping and they would go at it during the whole game. Pure brouhaha.
At 3:03 pm, the team sauntered into the pitch to such rousing fracas. They walked side by side, foes next to friends, brothers from other mothers forever pitched against history, fighting a duel that not even their grandchildren will solve. I was seated so far out I couldn’t see their features. But these boys, Hezy, Japs, Agire, could tell these players by their shadows. They knew their strengths and weaknesses. They knew who was good with his left foot and who was weak with penalties. They knew who scored when and how. They were self-made tacticians. The best footballers don’t kick a ball; they are seated on the terrace.
Then something I’ve never experienced before started happening. Something akin to madness, like a sweeping plague of hysteria sweeping through the terraces, getting into the hearts of these men and women, and making some of them stand up and those who didn’t stand up, sit transfixed, as if a current is passing through them. A wild massive roar rose from the stadium and it shook it in its hinges. I could feel the stadium throb under me, like it had become septic with frenzy. The deafening noise rose above us, like an animal trying to find a place it belonged. I looked around, wondering what the hell was going on. Hezy, seated next to me, eyes not moving from a spot in the pitch simply said, “Baba.” And I saw him; Raila. It’s indescribable how wild the stadium became. You could feel it echo in all the smallest bones buried deep in your body, this unbridled, ungovernable, inexplicable adoration. Drums wept louder. Vuvuzelas seemed to finally become the trumpets they have always aspired to be. Men waved. And danced. Raila – escorted in this brouhaha – sauntered into the pitch to meet the team.
“Amazing!” I told Hezzy.
“I know,” he laughed, “It surprises even me each single time and I’ve seen this many times.”
He, the patron of Gor, was in a Stetson hat. I couldn’t see his features from our perch, but you could identify him from his walking style; like a massive lumbering ship swaying through a channel too narrow for its force. Hezzy elbowed me, “Look, he’s going to rub his eyes…anytime now…anytime now…watch….watch…ero!” And Raila rubbed his eye and Hezy laughed loudly, slapped his knee with his big hand and said, “Baba yawa!”
After shook hands with the players, as he headed back to the VVIP dias, he uncrowned his hat and waved it at the AFC side, at the shemejis, and the uproar that met him was enough to power the whole of Bungoma town and leave enough power to charge 312 Infinix mobile phones for a month. Then he – slowing down – turned and waved his hat at the Gor side, holding the hat midair for a moment longer and pandemonium ensued! And I don’t use that word carelessly. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea with his staff. It caused a physical and sustained commotion in the crowd, just that act of him waving his hat at the people. There was a froth of green on the terrace, like the algae-like crowd had reached a boiling point. It was uber showmanship at play. It was power. It was football. It was life.
The referee blew the whistle and the brawl was underway. Feet sought the ball, hearts yearned for greatness, men struggled with hope and stood on their tiptoes to try and grab immortality. Because that’s what football does, it immortalises men. In the medieval times, kings led armies that pilfered the enemy, grabbed their animals and their women and drove spears in the hearts of their men. Then they strode back home in glory, heroes immortalized past boundaries and hills. Today, men who constantly find the back of the net are forever immortalized.
And at some point a helicopter landed and Uhuru appeared to more uproar because now he’s Raila’s BFF and if you are Raila’s BFF you are Gor’s BFF and these people, this congregation of Gor, showers you with the same adulation, they seem to say ‘he who is a friend of our father is our friend.” Football and politics share the same pillow.
Seated two steps before us was a burly man with a wide back. Handcuffs peaked from under his shirt. A plainclothes cop. Behind him, a row of four men, unfazed by the presence of the law, shared a blunt. I asked Hezy if they were not worried and he said nonchalantly, “Why should they be bothered? What has a person who is peacefully taking his medicine done to deserve the harassment of the police?”
I won’t comment about the match because there are more adept men to do that. To comment on a match like this is to know the history of those men and the expectations they had carried with them to the pitch. I didn’t know what was at stake for them as individuals. But even a volleyball lover can see skill and artistry. Some men just stand out as they do their thing. Like the number 11 on the Gor side, a gentleman called Clifton Miheso. There was something that inspired confidence in him. Something very perilous about him. Something dangerous. It’s the reaction of the opponents whenever he possessed the ball. Their actions suddenly became urgent. He turned that ball into a meteor, a weapon, something that could sail off anytime. Something that could pass through walls and souls and time. It was my first time watching these men play but when he got the ball I just blindly trusted him, I just knew he’d do the right thing. If a baby was a football he’s the kind of guy you would ask to hold your baby for a second as you go into the loo. Because you knew he was dependable. The other guy was Boniface Omondi. He could pass through small cracks. He was olive oil. He was smoke in the hands of the opponent. He had great determination and amazing dexterity with his feet. He was a secret missile, unleashed on the enemy. A hit-man. On the AFC side there was a gentleman in jersey 23, Austin Odhiambo, I think. Ten minutes into the game and I could tell he was special – and toxic for our collective blood pressures on the Gor side. He was a virtuoso. He wasn’t just playing football, he was playing music. He composed songs with his feet. His breed of football was jazz, something you consume with a fine drink in hand.
Gor was the better side. Even I could tell. They told the leopard to sit and the leopard sat. And that’s saying a lot because the leopard is not an animal that takes instructions.
At the end of it all, the beauty of it all was that nobody big, tall, bald and black stood up and shouted, “Ongee bwana!”