Last weekend. The Lewa Marathon, location? Somewhere in the belly of Isiolo. I travelled down in a vanful of Safaricom customer service executives. Yes, I believe that’s how one of them introduced themselves; an executive. Oh buddy! If I’m not mistaken the last time I checked an executive was someone who has an administrative or managerial authority in an organization. These folks pick calls. And they do a bad job at it. I mean, how come my calls to customer care never go through? I posed this to the lady who gallantly introduced herself an executive. Well, they are “overloaded”, came the executive answer. So there, next time you call customer care and you don’t get through, don’t get mad because they are overloaded. Take that to the bank.
Anyway, Lewa is almost like Rhino Charge, only in Rhino Charge there are more women in short skirts and hot pants and hanging tits. All drunk or getting there rapidly. Whilst in Rhino Charge folk walk around brandishing bottles of booze in their hands, at Lewa Marathon guys walk around with bottles of water. Also in Rhino Charge people talk in slurry speech because they have been drinking since they left Nairobi. But the one feature in both is the white faces. A sea of them. You know, it would be misleading to call them white people because they were actually red, at least their faces were. Thanks to the sun.
My crib was actually a tent. I shared it with some photographer called Alex. Now, Alex is born again, which simply means he is a nice guy. Nice in the sense that he wasn’t going to drag some drunken woman back to our tent and disturb my sleep. Nice in the sense that he wasn’t going to get pissed at the bar and then proceed to retch all over our tent in the middle of the night. By the way, I’m not going anywhere particular with this story, so please don’t wait for the tipping point, it won’t come.
There is no luxury in the wild. You have a small bed, a thin mattress and a pillow so hard you can use it as a chopping board for onions and garlic. You are also provided with a blanket and a pair of sheets. All clean. The tents are clustered together like an army camp that means if you are really bored, idle or nosy you can hear a conversation in the next tent, like the one I couldn’t help overhearing between some guy and a chick.
Guy: Are you running tomorrow?
Chick: Yes, you?
(I suppose at this point they are both avoiding eye contact because the tents are small and they don’t have hanging paintings)
Guy: Soo, uhm, did you know that a chicken can’t swallow while upside down?
Guy: I bet you also didn’t know that a goldfish has a memory span of about 3seconds
Chick: (Chuckling,) No, I didn’t know that. Where do you learn these things from?
Guy: (With pride) Google!
There is a slight squeaking of a bed, and I bet it’s him shifting his position for more comfort so that he can come up with more mind blowing facts.
Guy: Do you know what a group of owls is called?
Guy: A parliament.
He laughs hard. The chick doesn’t laugh. I stifle a giggle (come on, that’s funny!)
A long pause ensues, so long that I start getting worried that perhaps the chick passed out from boredom or the embarrassment of constantly losing this Q&A.
Guy: Here is another one: A snail’s reproductive organs are on its head.
Chick: Look, I have to go now.
I want to laugh at this point, this guy actually managed to lure this poor chick to his tent, and his idea of turning her on is to talk about Goldfish, owls, snails and google?! Smooth!
Guy: No, please stay for a while longer.
Chick: No, I really have to go and kill myself. (That’s what I wanted t hear, but what she actually said she had to go and unpack.)
Oh you have blown it sonny boy, I thought to myself. The chick left, and he insisted in walking her to her tent. What a gentleman.
There must have been hundreds and hundreds of tents in that boma. Then there was a common area with buffet tables where guys had meals. Then there was a bar. At the registration tent you were given a band depending on which boma you were going to live in. There were three bomas; one for the true executives from cooperates and sponsors, then the boma for the VIPs then lastly the boma with most participants and media. All had different bands limiting your entrance to only your boma, that ensured that you didn’t wander into some boma and into a respectable CEO stepping out of his tent in his tacky boxers. So they slapped yellow bands on us. Think the animal farm.
The nights are unearthly cold. A wicked wind neighs outside your tent, and finally when it sips in it curdles your blood and calcifies your bones. The sheets get abnormally cold. The pillow, er, chopping block, become a block of ice. Your ass freezes in a way you can’t imagine. The only way to beat this cold is by sleeping after a tot of some whisky, or whatever tipple does it for you.
The last night, the officials mounted a gigantic screen in the boma because Ghana was to play America which essentially means Africa was playing America. A huge bon fire was lit in the middle of this field and the British army from Nanyuki pitched up a bar. Beer was going for Ksh 100. Some showy cat in a VX Land Cruiser opened all his car doors and cranked some “Bend over” from his stereo. It was going to be a long night, or should I say, the night was going to be a bender.
Many hours before the game kicked off, throngs of people sat around the bon fire, drinking and shooting the breeze or just horsing about. A full moon crawled up the sky, lighting the field and offering us sufficient light to see the horror in the faces of the Americans as the Ghanaians frog matched them to the airport. It was a beautiful night to watch a slaying, and by Jove what a slaying it was! Sore from the marathon men and women put away alcohol as they stared into the raging fire. Some women, already drunk, slumped on men who now looked like wolves as the flames danced in their eyes.
As usual in such milieu you will always find that conspicuous oddball; the guy with the loud mouth. The wag. The guy who just won’t sit his ass down. The oddball came in form of this Meru guy wearing an overall. He had a cane in one hand and a beer in the other and he prowled the inner circle of this bonfire giving free starter course on the Meru language. The show man. Was he hilarious? Oh yes, he certainly was, he was hysterical! Was he making a fool of himself? Well, if he was nobody cared he was the source of a good laugh. Was he going to have a bad hangover the next day? Like hell he was!
It starts as joke. Some guy- obviously wasted- dares this guy to jump over the flame. He ignores him and continues with his Meru stand-up comedy. Soon someone bellows and calls him a coward for not jumping over the flame. Now thatcatches his attention and he takes a swig at his beer and says he ain’t a coward. Before long, there are jeers all around that he is a coward. A cowardly Meru guy, someone yells, and I start thinking that this is starting to look like post election skirmish only people are getting wasted not flaunting machetes in your face demanding to see if you are circumcised. At this point the whole crowd is chanting, “Ruka! Ruka! Ruka!” and then shortly after, “Haki yetu! Haki yetu! Haki yetu!” (Ok, they didn’t chant haki yetu, that was me muttering under my breath.)
Now you see where this narrative is headed right? You have a man – a funny Meru man – who has been waxing before a crowd and drawing laughs but one who now faces a dilemma. Man or mouse. He is faced with being a coward or leaping over a raging fire, something that can easily disfigure him. Kill him even. You could almost see the battle going on inside him, it’s almost like he was saying to himself, “Why the hell couldn’t I just sit my ass down like everybody else?”
But a man is a man. Men don’t walk away, not when their egos are on the line. He would rather fall in a fire and burn than be thought of as a coward because the only thing worse than a forward is a Meru coward who is funny. So he slips out of his overalls and hands his beer to someone. There are whistles all over. Guys start clapping and cheering. A bigger crowd gathers around this spectacle. “Ruka! Ruka! Ruka!”
He paces before this fiery fire, sizing it up, looking around at the baying crowd that now resembles the frenzied Roman crowds in the old empire. Think the movie Gladiator.
The only reason he was jumping was not because he was brave. The only reason he was jumping was not because he didn’t have anything to live for. He was in his late thirties; he looked like he had a decent enough job, maybe even a kid, or a dog, or a parrot. He seemed like the kind of guy who had friends even though most them were cheering him on…I didn’t say good friends. He had an excellent sense of humor, so that means he probably had some woman who thought he was Rock (Chris?). But there he was, about to leap, and you know why he was leaping? Because women were watching. If that crowd only consisted of men, he would have shown everyone the finger and continued preaching in Meru and drinking his beer. But women fuel vanity. Women make men do dumb things, like leap over almost two meters of hungry licking flames. He didn’t want to look bad.
“Ruka! Ruka! Ruka!”
He takes a few steps back. His face is sweaty, perhaps from the heat of the flames, or maybe from the tension. He stares intently into the flame. I stare at his shoes; sneakers. Should he fall into the fire he will have a hot plastic ball around his feet, I think that will be funny. The evil crowd now chants relentlessly, “Ruka! Ruka! Ruka!”. I instantly know he is going to jump when I look at his face, he seemed like a man who has crossed some line, a man who has been pushed across the line and to get back his dignity he knows has to jump. He is doing something stupid, he is aware, but it’s necessary. He isa man after all. The men chant harder because his success will redeem our own insecurities of manhood. At that point he is our savior, ready to baptize us in the eyes of the fairer sex. And so he has to jump, if not for him but for every man around the fire.
Ruka! Ruka! Ruka!
The moment finally comes and when it does, the chants grow louder. When it comes, the women gasp, horrified that what started as a game is turning into something real and perilous. He moves further back to gain momentum, all these while his eyes remain firmly fixed on the fire. Poor guy, I think to myself.
Then it happens.
He starts running, and it’s a very short distant because he does three quick steps, and then he springs off the ground carried away by the chants and loud cheers. He flies over the long tongues of flames which try to grab him, and I hear some woman shriek as he come down his foot lands on a cylindrical log which sort of rolls away an inch.
He falls into the raging flame.