Have you ever found yourself at a road junction, sitting in traffic that isn’t moving, and there is a car on your left that wants to come onto the road and you have an opportunity to let them in because it’s not like you are in a mighty hurry? It’s not like you are rushing to KNH to donate a kidney to a child having his last gasp. You are not in a hurry. You are just going to the office to reply to another dull email that you won’t even dare use a smiley in. Another lackluster email that ends with ‘Kind Regards’.
Yet you refuse to let the car to your left join your lane. You inch forward and block them, then the traffic refuses to move. So you sit there, in your car – which, by the way, doesn’t have tint – stewing in your selfishness and you can feel them stare at you. Of course you refuse to turn and look at your nemesis – obstinately, you stare ahead. But the same way serial killers always go back to the scene of their crime in Crime and Investigation, you soon succumb to your ill manners and turn to look at your handiwork.
The motorist turns out to be this ageing woman in thick spectacles driving some sad, old Datsun. I mean, who even drives a Datsun anymore? Datsuns are like the polio of cars. Yet you blocked her. Maybe she works at a mission in Kijabe running an orphanage and she came to the city to beg for funds to build a new kitchen. Funds she didn’t even get. So on top of not getting funds she doesn’t get to join the road because you with your perm hair refused to allow a poor old woman with no kitchen to join a road.
This is not even how you were raised by your mother. You were raised to do better, to say please and thank you, to clear the table after meals and to stand up and let older people sit in matatus. Today you failed your mother and you failed the children of Kijabe. It’s a sad day.
Has that ever happened to you, though? When you do something you absolutely didn’t have to do?
Now that is the exact feeling I got on Saturday, 8kms into the Ndakaini Marathon. I thought to myself; I didn’t have to sign up for the 21kms marathon. I could easily have signed up for the 10kms like most people who go down with their selfie sticks, but my ambition got the better of me and now I was there on this wretched hill, feeling like my hips were about to separate from my body in protest. I felt like those people, normal people, who go to driving school and opt for a category C drivers’ licence to be able to drive lorries and things yet they know they will never have to drive a tractor in their lives.
You probably know this: Ndakaini Half-Marathon is bruising and vindictive. It’s meant to break your soul (and your lower back). It’s the marathon you do before you do the Stanchart marathon. If you are going to be bruised and battered, it is always better to do so in a group. So I went down with a bunch of chaps; Joy – 10kms, Wendy – 21kms, Flora -10kms, Paul – 21kms, (Thanks for lunch in your EABL tent, boss) and Paul’s brother (he got lost, Paul, did you guys find him?).
Right from the start line Paul took off and we never saw him. Paul runs like a ‘racist’. So I found myself with Wendy throughout the run. Wendy is a 6’0’’ former basketball player who played at club level. Seasoned runner too. Fit, yes, but you couldn’t tell from how she breathes while running. She’s one of those people who breathe loudly while running. Like really loudly. This guttural wounded sound that comes from her appendix. I thought she would die. You can’t even think when you run next to her.
The saving grace with Ndakaini Marathon is that it’s makes up for its brutality by being scenically astonishing. It’s green rolling hills constantly rising into the sky and then plunging down into the valleys. It’s the heady smell of freshness in the air. The high, reaching, anorexic eucalyptus trees. The sound of banana leaves flapping in the breeze like elephant ears. It’s the bluest of sky and the clearest of stream water gurgling at the bottom of the hill. It’s the quaint, smoking, stone chimneys in humble homesteads. It’s the colours. My goodness, the green colours of Ndakaini come alive. I think all the shades of green you can ever imagine can be found in Ndakaini. Greens that make you green with envy. It’s the green that remind you of your biology lesson. You remember chlorophyll.
Kikuyu-land is so picturesque it almost shows the unfair hand of God.
“My shags is so ugly compared to this,” Wendy said as we trotted down a weathered road. She’s from a small place called Nyakach in Nyanza. You might not know it: population 375 (24 who are in Nairobi, 5 in Boston) consists of mainly stones. It’s claim to fame? Omieri, the famous python?
At the 10kms mark you are in such pain but thankfully all you have to do is to focus on the beauty around you. And there is lots to see. There will be the boda boda guys trumpeting down the path in their bikes written ‘Sisqo’ but playing Ben Githae’s ‘Maya nimo mabataro makwa’. You will hear someone cutting a tree with a chainsaw. There will be a goat bleating. A tractor trumpeting. You will run past a small cluster of kiosks playing ‘Free Up’ by Busy Signal from a busted stereo. On the top of a hill you will find a group of women standing together carrying kiondos, and as you pass by them you will catch a “….mwana…” and you know they are probably saying, “With that forehead, that boy isn’t from here.” You will run past those unimpressive village dogs – mongrels, to be precise – and you will discover that they all look the same; a mongrel in Kitui is the same as a mongrel in Turkana, same as a mongrel in Kutus.
You will pass a drunk man who raises his thumb up in encouragement and says, “Don’t give up!” (he should give up alcohol though) and when you raise your thumb up he flashes you an almost beatific smile that reveals the only three blackish teeth left in his mouth, teeth that probably won’t see Christmas. People cheer you on. A very old cucu at a watering point hands you a sponge soaked in water and says something in Kikuyu as you run past. You say “Dhankyoo mono!” And giggle like a girl.
You will notice that there are a hell of a lot of men wearing hats in Kikuyu-land. Kuyus should tell us what this fascination with hats is. I think they know something we don’t. You would imagine that people with scathing sun would wear more hats than people from fairly even-weathered areas like Ndakaini. But no. Do Kaos wear lots of hats, say, more than Kikuyus?
You will also notice that most kids in Kikuyu-land – even in the impoverished areas – have shoes. If you wander to the bowels of Nyanza you will notice two things; that, one, kids there are barefoot and, two, their clothes are brown or a variation of brown. I mean it could be a green shirt, but it will look greenish brown because brown is the official colour of poverty.
Then you will see children of Ndakaini in sweaters, handwoven sweaters in all the luminous colours. Children in orange, pink, yellow, green, some with matching wool woven head gear. I’m convinced it’s a Kikuyu thing, this sweater maneno. Tamms and Kim have those kikuyu sweaters woven by Cucu. You can live in the city but you won’t escape the Kikuyu sweater. I think Kuyu mothers look at their kids and just want to dress their children in all the warmest clothes they can lay their hands on. I think Kuyu kids are forced to wear those gaudy sweaters for so long that when they grow up they revolt and wear leather jackets. Yeah, mom, how do you like me in leather now?
I have a theory around those sweaters.
I think they arose as a way of spotting your child, like how in planes they have those luminous inflatable jackets that we hope to never have to use. If say your child wandered out of the boma and you looked everywhere and couldn’t find them; you went to kina Nduta’s where he usually went to play and he wasn’t there. Kumbe this child wandered into that labyrinth of a tea plantation. What do you do? You stand on top of the opposite hill and look out into the tea plantation, and since he’s wearing a bright sweater that contrasts with the green tea you will spot him immediately and shout, “Maina reke ngwire ngibucia maitho uguo ngukore mucie kana ngutandike uiguwe wega!” That translates to something loose like, “Maina, if I blink and your ratchet ass is not home, I will beat you like a dog.” Haha. OK not exactly, but you get the point.
Back to the marathon. At some point I get so bushed and my thighs are in flames and I realise that I have become extremely bitter about my 21kms decision but then I passed around a hump and heard a small voice say, “Sasaaaa!” and I turned and there were these two adorable kids seated on a hump. A small boy of 5 with his sister of maybe 4, both wearing those sweaters and hats to match. They sat close to each other, with their legs spread before them, a tableau of sibling love. I raised my hand and waved, and they raised and furiously waved these small hands and smiled excitedly. Beautiful honest smiles, their innocence rising above my pain. Those small beautiful moments made the marathon worthwhile. I marveled at the purity of those kids, untouched by politics. If you told them “That guy who passed is a Luo,” they will just give me a blank look. Like, what is a Luo? And you wish they all grow up and stay like that, with that blank innocent stare. But they won’t, a politician or a parent will whisper in their ears and say, “Chege, always remember that you are different from that guy: he doesn’t cut his foreskin, so you can never marry his sister. Now wear your orange sweater and go play.”
Be warned though; Ndakaini has these hills that are not real. Long steep, windy hills that even a mountain goat would struggle with. You happen upon one of those hills, look up and you want to cry. At one of these hills I finally turned to Wendy and asked her, “Wendy, do you normally breathe this hard during migwatos?” I forgot to mention that Wendy is a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. She’s one of those severe women who I suspect finds a lot of pleasure in intimidating men intellectually. (She has three master’s degrees, one of them in Gender Studies.) Plus she’s a head taller than most men. Two heads when she wears high heels. So she turns and gives me this steady but withering look, hoping perhaps that I will balk and whimper. Unlucky for her, I earn a living asking personal questions, so intimidating looks are dead snakes to me. I never blink. I can hold your stare a whole day if it comes down to it.
“Seriously, Biko?” she said eventually, “You want to ask me about my sex life right here, on this hill in Ndakaini?” I said “Yes.” She laughed and lengad that story.
We passed behind a string of classrooms, student chatter spilling out the window. Two girls who were also doing the 21kms whom we had passed down the road zoomed past us, sitting on a motorbike. “Cheaters!” I shouted after them. Wendy laughed. They waved. Outside a boma we were accosted by the sweet smell of burning wood, that lovely smell of shags. Our shags might be different but they all smell the same. Shags in Elteret (Eldoret) smell like shags in Maua. Actually Wendy noted how our lives are so alike, yet, we go out of our way to find such small useless things that differentiate us.
Light in Ndakaini is soft and pale. It streams through long pine-like trees, coming down already filtered and soft like powder. Wonder light. There is a point where you run alongside Ndakaini dam, picturesque and surreal in its beauty, but at this time you are in such anguish and so resentful at the goddamn dam and all the Nairobians who are back at home getting their hair done in salons, or at garages with WiFi or having inane conversations on Whatsapp while you are here killing yourselves conserving the goddamn dam so that the people in Nairobi can continue having water to wash their bloody cars.
As we walked up a steep hill Wendy told me about the insane loneliness of living in Geneva and London, in blistering winter, pursuing another lofty education (she attended London School of Economics) while feeling the stone hard guilt inside her that she “abandoned” her kids back in Nairobi for another academic feather in her hat. She talked about all these decisions that women juggle with, these tough decisions that men will never have to make as fathers pursuing their career dreams. Successful women, I concluded, truly, have to work thrice as hard as men, especially if they are mothers and wives. And Wendy didn’t have to harass me with bullish feminist behavior for me to see her point.
As we started running down the hill, a bunch of small giggly village girls, Tamm’s age, ran alongside us. I stuck my left hand behind and one of them grabbed it and held it and her hands felt peculiarly boyish and cold, like touching the tail of a Snow Leopard, and I had to turn and confirm if she was indeed a girl. We ran like this, holding hands together, her friends giggling, for a few meters before we let go.
The organisers of Ndakaini marathon should have more watering points. We ran into stops that had those blue sponge thingies that had run out of water. Guys, we are trying to save the Aberdares here, and we can’t save it if we die of dehydration. Work with us.
We turned a corner where a hill full of tea rose to our right. I noticed this boy standing on a slight break in the tea plants, on raised ridge. He must have been 10 years old, rocking this tattered old t-shirt and red trousers tucked into his gumboots and hands thrust in his pockets. I was immediately struck by him, standing there against the backdrop of the green of tea. A sexy boy. I told Wendy, “Look at that boy, that’s a fantastic picture!” She stared up at him and noticed what I had noticed immediately. She said, “That boy has style.” He did.
There was something extremely charismatic about that boy. It’s the way he stood with the ease of someone who had found himself. He had an effortless gait about him, like he already knew who he was. And although he had these dirty clothes on, these unremarkable clothes, you failed to notice them because his personality made them irrelevant. “Style isn’t what you wear, it’s how you wear what you wear.” Wendy said. I nodded like a madman.
I saw a lot of things at Ndakaini. I saw goats and postcard scenery and sparkling natural streams with water that you could bottle and sell at a supermarket without adding a thing to it. I saw people with little to no teeth in their mouths and children with great beautiful souls and mothers who looked like they were born to work hard and I saw such splendid beauty at Ndakaini.
But the only thing that stuck in my mind was that self-assured boy in his tattered clothes. How he stood, one leg on that stump, hands in pockets, chin high. You could wear the best clothes to mask the greatest insecurity but people will always see through you. That boy dressed well from the inside first and so it didn’t matter what he wore on the outside.
As we passed him, him with a proud stare, he looked at us pass down the road, his mouth slightly agape, his hair dirty and matted, and I had half a mind to raise my hand and wave at him, but then I didn’t want him to un-pocket his hand to wave back at me because that would have ruined his beautiful profile. That boy was already a man but he didn’t know it yet.
Stanchart Marathon. You are next – 21kms again. Why? You ask. Because running a marathon must be like giving birth, you always forget how painful it was and so you keep going back.
Image Credit: Wikimedia