The men’s changing room at Muthaiga Golf Club smells like an ancient piggy bank made of wood. Because life continues to surprise me, I find myself standing at their urinal, taking a piss. Behind me two caucasian chaps are bantering about someone called Reggie who one of them doesn’t seem to remember. In the next room a balding man with a thick neck is seated on a bench lacing his white golf shoes. An attendant carries dirty laundry out in white bags. His career here must have spanned as long as the age of the woodwork in their lounge. The cast at Muthaiga Golf Club is like the opening theme song of a James Bond movie, it doesn’t surprise you much.
I finish, shake, wash and dry my hands and then head to the bar to wait for my interview with Jay Jay Okocha, who many a young-uns might not know. He was a big-deal Nigerian footballer back in the day when Apache Indian and Shabba Ranks were the musicians to listen to.
You might not know this but the season of golf has just wound down to a heavy downpour of clubs and swings at the Barclays Kenya Open, which you can guess was at Muthaiga Golf Club.
For the longest time golf was a preserve of the truly wealthy; old men in old country clubs, drinking warm Pilsner and reminiscing about the great Student Airlift of the 60s. We – the general populace – didn’t care about clubs and swings. We were busy minding our bizworks; getting children, building careers and having beers from bar counters. We didn’t want to be exposed to this hoopla. But then something tremendous and terrible happened not so long ago; the so called ‘burgeoning middle class’ discovered golf. If you want to completely ruin the DNA of anything, introduce it to Nairobi’s middle-class. Look at what they did to Kileleshwa. It’s a graveyard of affluence.
Many young and bushy tailed, fairly successful corporate hacks have now adopted golf as a poster game of prosperity. They have claimed it. If you don’t have the balls to play now, you are not successful or forward enough. It’s like a golf flu has suddenly infected Nairobi and anyone who is anyone is sneezing. Good thing is that the golf balls are standard otherwise chaps would be competing on who has the biggest golf balls on the course, because the very spirit of the middle-class is embedded on the principle of comparing sizes. You might not have noticed it but the parody of Nairobi is starting to play out through the numerous golf courses in Nairobi that have been invaded by these swingers and mascots of the new-face of golfing. It’s like the armageddon without the grim and the smoke.
I have no problem with golf as a game. I have a problem with the good number of new-age golfers who hold banners over their heads proclaiming to golf so as to get validation. I find golfers theatrical and prosaic, even more so when you hear them say things like, “Biko how come you don’t play golf? You should! It’s great for the mind, it gives you a sense of precision and perspective and it’s a great place to network.”
“Networking” has become the modern day boogeyman that our mothers used to scare us with when we would refuse to finish our food. I know a 21 year old IT genius who quit campus not too long ago to consult. He builds genius apps. He often comes to our office to meet with Fred. He has zero social skills, sleeps for 3 to 4 hours a night, and hardly ever says a word to anyone. That boy will never network, but he will make it in life. I’m willing to put my last coin on that. Dear golfers, stop telling us to take up golf in order to network! Not everyone was cut to play golf. It’s like dancing, some of us have two left feet.
I find golf humourless, right up there on the list with darts and flossing teeth. Unfortunately for me, a great deal of my peers are now golfing or thinking about it because it validates their positions in the food chain of the corporate world. Of course they will deny it but it’s true. It’s a statement to sit on a barstool and say, “Tomorrow is not good for me, I will be teeing off.” Hearing that is like the feeling you get when one scratches glass with a coin. And almost everybody is talking like that now.
Meanwhile the chatter of golf keeps boiling, rising and burying the good intentioned players in this debris of superfluousness.
Barclays Bank told me that J J Okocha was in town to play in the Barclays Kenya Open and that it would be nice to interview him and observe the culture of golf while at it. Now, I’m the unlikeliest person to be in a golf club to write about golf (or golfers) because I’m spectacularly ignorant but also un-curious about the sport. So I come already biased and with some sort of chip on my shoulder. They taught us the sanctity of impartiality in journalism school. Obviously those lecturers had yet to meet golfers because it’s hard to be impartial about golf and golfers.
I was curious though, to trail Okocha and other players and listen to the kind of conversations that golfers have on the green for hours. (That’s another thing why I can’t play golf, I don’t ever want to feel compelled to talk to someone for many hours because we have been “confined” in a ‘space’).
The day was gorgeous. Muthaiga Golf Club is a world class golf course. The green goes on and on and on. The course was full of TV camera crews from various networks; a flash mob of cameramen ran all over taking pictures of Okocha as he walked to where he would tee off. He was dressed all in blue. His beard looked moisturised. He stood at the tee, having slight banter with his opponents. Silence fell once the first guy took his position. He fiddled with his feet, stared at the ball, then stared ahead, then fiddled with his feet, then stared at the ball, then stared ahead. It’s called alignment. I see Jacob Okello on the flanks.
I whispered at a caddie standing next to me, “What happens when someone misses the ball, are we allowed to laugh?” He said, “It’s rare.” I said, “But what if it happens? What if someone is so bad they miss the ball?” Another caddie turned and stared at me to shut up.
Then he finally hit the ball. It sailed beautifully out and was swallowed by the sky. I leaned in towards the caddie and whispered, “What do you call that water area?”
“Why is it called that, is it hazardous?”
Before he can answer, Okocha takes his position. TV guys jostle and ready themselves for the money shot. He bends, aligns himself and practices his swing. He swings his club and hits the ball with a dull thud then looks warily towards where his opponent’s ball had gone, only for someone to tell him that his ball had not actually gone that way, but about 200 meters to his right. If it had gone any further it would have gone back to Muranga Road. I’m not a golfer but I knew that shot was a dud and I thought it was funny as hell, but since nobody laughed I stared at Okocha with a straight face.
“That’s wasn’t a good shot, was it?” I ask the same caddie.
“Well, no.” He mumbles sadly because everybody wants J J Okocha to be good at golf, but it’s obvious that he isn’t. Okocha is like a goldfish we are all trying to teach how to knit a sweater.
Thankfully when Okocha was told where his ball went he found it funny because he laughed and made fun of himself, and the crowd near him loosened up and chuckled. (Another reason why I can’t play golf: If my opponent took a weak shot like Okocha did, I’d laugh so loudly and say, “Woii. It’s going to be a looong afternoon, folks!)
We follow his ball where it had landed not more than 200m away. He tries again, laughing with his caddie as he aligns himself again. The first swing manages to remove a mound of grass with soil. He laughs. I tell the caddie, “There should be a penalty for vandalism.” He laughs and looks at me closely and asks, “Are you a journalist?” I say pompously, “No, I’m a writer.”
“Who do you write for?” He’s suspicious now. Like I’m lying to him. I could easily have said I’m an investment banker. I mean, I had the shoes for it.
“Newspapers, magazines…” I say. Some respect starts crawling back into his eyes.
Okocha hits the ball a good one and it arcs beautifully towards Thika. There is a collective sigh of relief. I’m not sorry to say this, but J J Okocha is actually terrible at golf. He agreed with me.
Earlier when I had interviewed him I asked him why golf? He said, “I don’t know man, I’m not good at it, I’m nervous.” I asked him, “Why do it then?” and he said, “Because I’m very competitive.” I thought he was being modest and self deprecating when he said he sucked at it. Turns out he was serious.
We walk down to the second hole as I eavesdrop on their conversations with the other golfer which isn’t anything more than polite banter. (And yet another reason I can’t play golf; you walk a lot while talking, both of which bore me fast.) At the second hole, they sit under a thicket and wait for another group to tee off. There, some CEO chap who looks exactly like my dad way before his wife died, asks him for a selfie and Okocha says jokingly, “Sure, but don’t tell them I’m a golfer. I’m better at taking selfies than playing golf.” I found that witty and self deprecating. I stopped feeling sorry for him at that point.
I walked over to the caddie and asked, “Do CEOs ever disagree on the course and grab each other by their collars, have you witnessed something like that?”
“I have witnessed disagreements, yes.”
“Were they people we know?”
“Give me names.”
He laughs. “No.”
“I promise I won’t mention your name.”
“I haven’t told you my name.”
“Exactly, and please don’t.”
He refuses to tell me but he tells me that when you disagree you are given a one or two stroke penalty. I didn’t press further because it had too many strokes.
“Is one allowed to smoke on the course?”
“Golf is about self respect.” He says simply like I’m supposed to fish my answer from that. I take it you can’t because it would be like smoking in the gym. Okocha is now chaffing with the guy who looks like my father under the thicket. They laugh. Cameramen aim their lenses at him.
“Who tips best, local Kenyans or white people?” I ask.
“Our people don’t tip…”
“What about white people who are our people?”
“Some do, some don’t.”
“Who is the most famous person you have seen here playing golf?”
“Dangote.” he says it with a nonchalance that takes me aback.
“The Dangote or some Nigerian who said he’s Dangote?”
“Did you google his picture to confirm?”
“I know what he looks like.”
“How was he in person?”
“The nicest, kindest and most down to earth person you will meet. You couldn’t even tell he’s a billionaire.”
“What’s the most generous tip you are received here?”
He looks reluctant. “ 100 dollars.” He says.
One of the players stands up and goes to the tee, silence engulfs us again.
“Do rich people tip well, are they generous?” I whisper in his ear.
“No. That’s a big no.” he say emphatically.
(Note: So there is a “no” and then there is a “big no.” A “no” can and may be converted to a “yes” under the right stimuli. It’s like a larva that might grow into a butterfly. On the other hand, a “big no” is like a cow, it will never be an elephant, or a boat).
The gentleman tees off. Okocha walks to the edge of the tee area, smiling like a man who has little to nothing to lose; he already stole hearts for 18 years playing pro-football, a round of golf can’t ruin that.
The caddie turns to me and says, “I’ve been looking for someone to do a documentary on caddies, and it’s a good thing I met you.”
“Nice to meet you too.” I say, like a real documentary maker.
“Listen, you can be with an important person here, a governor, a CS, or a CEO and you can walk with him for over 4-hours because that’s what it takes to do an 18-hole. You tell these guys your problems and they listen and act like they care and like they can help, but they give you empty promises and never pick your calls after that.”
“Politicians are like that, though,” I say, siding with politicians and bureaucrats, “It’s not like we know them in any way, no? At least they are consistent in their deception. Not many people are consistent.”
“Yeah. I want you to write that we are learned people but we are doing this because there are no jobs. We have university graduates here, this is not the colonial times when caddies were picked from the villages because they had broad shoulders to carry heavy bags. I have a diploma, I’m only here because there is nothing else to do and I have done it for years now and I like it because it feeds me. But we need to be treated better, I mean we risk being hit by a ball…”
“Oh yeah, I wanted to ask you about that, how painful is that ball, by the way?”
“Have you ever seen anyone hit by it?”
“Oh yeah, many times, there was this guy…”
“Did he die?”
“Well, no. But he had a bad…”
I switched off.
Okocha takes his position. I’m not even going to look. It’s like when you look at a child who has fallen down and they see you looking at them and they start crying. If you don’t look, they won’t cry. If you hear your child fall off a table don’t look at them because it will only worsen the fall. (Parenting 101.)
“We need to be treated better,” the caddie presses on. “Imagine carrying this golf bag for all those hours, you are carrying snacks for the player and some of them drink their water and eat their snacks and they never offer you anything to eat or drink.”
“You are invisible to them.”
“How heavy is this golf bag?”
“It’s like 6kgs but with water and snacks and mandazis it’s 7kgs…”
“Kwani how heavy are those mandazis?”
“I would like you to tell golfers to be kind to us, we are also human beings.” He says.
I see a cameraman kneeling lowly, with his ass facing the sky, taking a shot of Okocha. There are these millennial girls from the Squad Digital agency, three bright young girls with bob-cut hairstyles and flat colourful shoes, who are tapping furiously on their smartphones, emitting relentless and enthused bursts of 140 characters for the Twitter world to digest. Reporting live from Muthaiga Golf Club.
Okocha swings, hits, and the ball sails. It’s a good shot but I can’t see the ball. The caddie says it’s gone over the water hazard and to the other side.
“How can you see the ball when it leaves the club?” I ask. “I never see it!”
“You always have to keep your eye on the ball, not the golfer,” he tells me.
We walk again. My shoes are killing me. I walk next to this Grayling PR lady called Kui Githinji who is very pregnant, the shadow created by her massive stomach follows us like a lost dog.
“How many months are we now?” I ask.
“About eight months?”
“Oh the home-stretch,” I say. “Has it been a good pregnancy?” (Talking about pregnancy is better than watching Okocha play golf).
“Yeah, she says, “I read your story about how pregnant women take advantage of their pregnancy, it was so funny.”
I suspect that when people meet me they always feel obliged to lie to me that my articles are funny. Lucky for me, it’s a lie I don’t mind at all.
“I think I’m not taking advantage of my pregnancy,” she tells me. “I should find reason to go to a bank and jump the queue. Do you have any upcoming banking chores?”
“Thanks but I don’t queue, I’m on Prestige Banking.” I say and nudged her playfully on the shoulder. She laughs and says, “Ooookay, then.”
“C-section ama natural?”
“I hope it’s natural.”
“Yeah, natural is always better.” I say like I have pushed out three kids from my body. “All this walking is great for you. it will make your experience better when that time comes.”
We are trailing Okocha and team, we pass a bridge. Her phone vibrates and she whispers on the phone for long. When she hangs up she says with mock exasperation, “My mom can talk on phone for ages! She’s asking if I have eaten.”
“Just be grateful your mom can be on your phone for long. One day she won’t.” I say ominously.
I’m always telling that to unappreciative people who complain about their mothers. Love and appreciate your mothers now because a motherless world is like drinking from a cup without a handle.
I ask someone which hole we are in and they say 3, 16 to go. I get bored and turn back to the clubhouse to have a juice.
PS: Okocha if you are ever going to read this; you were a real sport to interview and it was my pleasure. Thanks.