Meru, Kenya – OILING THE WHEELS OF COMMERCE IN THE 19TH CENTURY
The American explorer William Chanler set up base in the Nyambene Range in 1893. He found a thriving local economy that attracted traders from across the region; a unique feature of this market was the use of the narcotic reddish-green twigs of a tree (Catha edulis), known as miraa locally, to seal deals and cement relationships among traders in a convivial atmosphere. He commented on their mildly pleasant effect. For visitors who came from as far as the hinterland of Lake Turkana, the botanical stimulant was a rare treat reinforcing ties of fictive kinship connecting their diverse communities.
Miraa, known as khat throughout the Middle East, has been intrinsic to the region’s prosperity ever since. It should be contributing to Kenya’s prosperity as well. The fact that it is not mirrors larger problems of colonially induced confusion and the failure to recognise Africa’s adaptive cultural economies. Like coffee and tea, Kenyan miraa should have been another lucrative generator of post-Independence agricultural capital.
The same origin story is invoked to explain the discovery of miraa and coffee in Ethiopia and Yemen. Concerned over the occasional disappearance of his goats, a herder follows their tracks to a forested glade. He finds them contentedly munching on wiry shrubs. So he tries chewing the twigs (or berries) himself, and finds he is refreshed and energised. You hear the same story in Meru, although the plant’s domestication and the area’s sophisticated ethno-pharmacological tradition is clearly a legacy of interaction with ancient hunter-gatherer clans.
The transition of Catha edulis and Caffea arabica from cultural consumables to market commodities has followed parallel but contrasting trajectories. Both commodities’ migration out of their traditional milieu initially generated religious opposition and political condemnation
The transition of Catha edulis and Caffea arabica from cultural consumables to market commodities has followed parallel but contrasting trajectories — although the 48 hour half-life of the former restricted its circulation until the era of modern transport. Both commodities’ migration out of their traditional milieu initially generated religious opposition and political condemnation. Coffee was banned in 16th century Mecca and subsequently labelled ‘the drink of the devil’ by Europeans.
THE PENNY UNIVERSITIES OF EAST AFRICA
The beverage surmounted these barriers and by the middle decades of the 1700s, coffee houses around Europe and the Middle East were providing an alternative to the recreational role of alcohol. Coffee houses became focal points for sober discussions of economics, politics, religion, and the issues of the day. The sobriquet ‘Penny Universities’ recognised coffee’s contribution to the European Enlightenment.
Today, Catha edulis facilitates the exchange of information in the same way, but the ‘Tree of Paradise’ rarely receives acknowledgement outside academic circles for promoting integration and mediating social change. Rather, it is routinely demonised and banned where regulation and social controls would work better.
In Yemen and across the Horn of Africa, users praise its medicinal qualities. The plant’s two active alkaloids, cathine and cathinone, are organic versions of ingredients used in many over-the-counter cold and flu medicines. Such attributes are obviously not the primary drivers of its consumption. Miraa is stronger than coffee, and considerably so in the case of certain varieties. Its highly variable stimulatory effects are one of the more complicated differences between drinking the bean and eating trees.
There is no fixed standard for khat, miraa, chat and other local varieties of the plant. Rather, the variegated morphology of Catha edulis makes it a one-species exemplar of diverse bio-morphology. Wildlings growing in full canopy forests can reach seventy feet, but the diverse domesticated kinds of chat found in Ethiopian markets can appear as different as the celery, broccoli, and basil sold in your neighbourhood supermarket.
Quality is a function of a number of factors such as differences among sub-varieties, altitude and climate, and place of cultivation. The plant usually appears as a wiry but leafy shrub whose branches are harvested several times a year. At maturity Meru miraa resembles the old olive trees of the Middle East, and age is a primary determinant of quality.
THE MOST SOPHISTICATED EXAMPLE OF AFRICAN PERMACULTURE
The mbaine miraa from the older trees was formerly reserved for ceremonial occasions, marriage negotiations, and featured in the deliberations of njuri elders. Adult men were only allowed to join these sittings and chew after fathering their first child.
Meru’s miraa agriculture presents the continent’s most sophisticated example of African permaculture. In contrast to Ethiopia and Yemen, where it is usually mono-cropped, Meru miraa is cultivated within a sophisticated agroforestry system. The typical miraa farm features a multi-storey ensemble of indigenous species providing food, forage, human and animal medicines, and other household use products. Where its lifespan does not exceed 50 years elsewhere, a Meru miraa farm is a multigenerational enterprise that only reaches adulthood after half a century.
The ‘Tree of Paradise’ rarely receives acknowledgement outside academic circles for promoting integration and mediating social change. Rather, it is routinely demonised
These agro-jungles include trees that conserve soil moisture and fix nitrogen, while the miraa trees are manicured and shaped as they grow to maximise exposure to sunlight and to minimise the space they occupy. It is an extremely efficient system in agro-ecological and economic terms: Meru trees continue to produce even during extended droughts.
While people obviously chew miraa for the buzz, consumers across the region value the milder and less edgy varieties both for their more subtle but superior high and minimal side effects. Formal analysis has yet to quantify variations in the physiological state induced by chewing the diverse spectrum of local varieties, but they are significant and market prices usually provide the best indicator of consumer preferences.
Multiple variables influence potency; quality and strength are not the same thing in this instance. In general, Catha edulis grown at lower altitudes and in drier settings is stronger, longer lasting, and less expensive. Kenya’s mbaine miraa can now sell for over Ksh5,000 ngs for a bundle where young mithairo miraa from the same locale may fetch one-tenth the price.
Veteran chewers are the most reliable source of information on the stimulant’s ridiculously diverse variations and comparative psycho-physiological effects. But localised environmental factors can make evaluation a tricky business. I once found miraa growing on the grassy knolls high up in the Chyulu Hills that looked like a spikey version of crab grass. Ingesting several of the short red-green stalks cost me a night’s sleep.
When it comes to the idiosyncratic characteristics of this Afro-Arab commodity, indigenous knowledge is paramount. Yet such arcane insights, including the oft-noted quality of suspending differences of race, religion and identity in gatherings where it is chewed, has been of little consequence outside the cultural universe of Catha edulis.
Historical and anthropological studies illuminate the role social commodities like coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and other non-food consumables play in the process of socioeconomic transition. Miraa is clearly following a pathway similar to coffee’s spread in Europe, but remains controversial due to a combination of spurious criticism and biased science, including clinical findings isolated from the social and long-term context of khat consumption.
For decades, most of the commentaries proffered by European explorers like Richard Burton and other early Western observers deemed the act of chewing and its unique social dynamics as a curious if innocuous practice. Systemic biases, some of which can be traced to its historical association with Muslims, often punctuate contemporary critiques of Catha edulis. Regardless, the contested merits of chewing and khat commerce were a non-issue for governments until recently.
A MARKET COMMODITY IN ITS OWN RIGHT
The miraa trade was originally a by-product, and not the centrepiece, of this cultural-agricultural complex. Miraa was shifting from a facilitator of regional trade to a market commodity in its own right by the onset of colonialism. Modern commercialization took off during the late 1950s, after the Mau-Mau curfew was lifted.
In Kenya, the 48-hour economic half-life of Meru’s miraa limited colonial era circulation to Nairobi and Mombasa. Nyambene traders migrated to urban centres across the country after Independence, drawing in a new generation of aficionados from non-chewing communities. Kenya’s Anglophile Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, lobbied for its ban.
The mbaine miraa from the older trees was formerly reserved for ceremonial occasions, marriage negotiations, and featured in the deliberations of njuri elders. Adult men were only allowed to join these sittings and chew after fathering their first child
Around the same time, Saudi Arabia hosted an international conference on Catha edulis. Results of the papers presented were published in 1967 as a bulky compendium. The Kingdom subsequently criminalised the consumption and import of khat. Decades later, an Ethiopian participant in the Saudi conference told me the Saudi’s anti-khat agenda was clear from the onset, and that the Western scientists present were happy to play along.
Back in Kenya, a Meru delegation visited president Jomo Kenyatta to argue the case against prohibition. Mzee raised a bouquet of 200-year old mbaine to signal his recognition of miraa’s cultural legitimacy and economic role in the rural economy.
Since that moment, socioeconomic controversies and calls for legal control at home and elsewhere have mattered little to the Nyambene Meru, who remain comfortable living in their bucolic wooden cottages surrounded by miraa trees, some of which predate the Industrial Revolution. When queried on the possibility of legal impediments disrupting the ever-accelerating flight of their economic flagship, the standard response was ‘miraa haipingiki’ — miraa is unstoppable.
For years, there was little evidence contradicting the haipingiki thesis. After all, in the end, prohibition usually fails and the twigs wrapped in the leathery green leaves of the false banana (Ensete ventrilosum) had been conquering new markets for the past half-century.
Everything became more complicated after miraa became mixed up with the multinational Somali population. Somalia’s infamous president Siad Barre banned imports in 1982, then allowed the surreptitious smuggling of miraa to reward loyal clan militias. Their opponents chased him out of Mogadishu 10 years later. The civil war erupting after his 1993 exit ignited an exodus of Somalis into neighbouring Kenya and beyond — with major ramifications for Meru’s miraa.
Thousands of refugees transiting through Nairobi or settled in the world’s largest refugee camp in Garissa came into contact with miraa for the first time. ‘It helps us process the upheavals overtaking our lives,’ one told me; I heard similar sentiments from aid workers coping with the chaos in Mogadishu.
The backstories were ignored by tabloid journalists more interested in branding khat as a drug of war. The US secretary of state for Africa chipped in by referring to combatants as ‘khat-crazed Rambos getting pumped up for evening raids.’
Agents supplying antagonistic Somali warlords, however, coexisted peacefully in Maua. Displaced Somalis flocked to Maua looking for work, some of them sleeping under trees at the edge of town. Before long, more organised entrepreneurs replaced the clan buyers and agents, their fleets of immaculate Land Cruisers speeding out of their loading bays every evening en route to destinations across the stateless region.
THE REAL ACTION FOLLOWS THE SOMALI DIASPORA
The real action followed the Somali diaspora. Refugee Somalis pioneered lucrative new export destinations in London and Holland that served as depots for other northern markets. The high prices the lower-grade export miraa fetched abroad turned some of the new khat merchants into overnight millionaires. It also created new frictions. Two boycott in Meru designed to deprive the Somalis of direct access to miraa in 1996 and 1999 underscored the souring relations between producers and exporters.
The second action coincided with the death of a popular Meru political activist, Nkuraru wa Ntai, who collapsed while dining with Somali friends in London. Kenyans claimed he was poisoned. His brother dismissed the conspiracy theory, informing the large crowd gathered at the funeral that his Somali associates were ordering miraa from Nkararu to help him pay for his higher degree studies.
THE SOMALIS RETURN, BUT LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN
The rumours persisted. Some Meru politicians from outside the miraa zone exploited the confusion by inciting youths who set up roadblocks and stoned miraa vehicles. An angry mob converged on Maua as the Somali community left for Isiolo in two large convoys. The local Meru business community, who for the most part appreciated the Somalis’ cosmopolitan presence, saw the politicians as opportunists manipulating the issues in order to take over the London trade.
Their gambit collapsed and the Somalis returned, but these events marked a new phase in the commercialisation process.
Several decades of commercialisation had spawned an efficient economic monoculture that was also eroding the smallholder agroforestry permaculture. Their ability to efficiently manoeuvre among the maze of spindly miraa branches made adolescents the harvesters of choice, while the high wages earned discouraged educational progress beyond basic written and numerical literacy. The economically abusive practice of renting miraa farms from cash-hungry farmers increased. Decreasing on-farm self-sufficiency and easy income combined with demographic increase to create a developmental cul-de-sac.
Formal analysis has yet to quantify variations in the physiological state induced by chewing the diverse spectrum of local varieties, but they are significant and market prices usually provide the best indicator of consumer preferences
The new markets had only partially alleviated the problem by the time the rising foreign-exchange returns from miraa began to garner belated recognition of its benefits for Kenya’s national economy.
A 2011 survey reported that miraa exports, growing at a rate of 9.7 per cent annually for several years, were now generating Ksh.16.5 billion ($231.7 million) annually — and represented 54 per cent of the fresh produce Kenya exported to other African countries. Earnings from the 12 tonnes exported to London and Amsterdam no doubt exceeded the value of the 20 tonnes of miraa exported to Somalia every week. Kenya is still the primary market and some 40 tonnes are consumed at home.
NUMBERS ABATE THE NOISE
It is not exactly surprising that the noise associated with miraa abated in the presence of such numbers. But the miraa export industry was facing formidable new challenges in the form of Wahhabi Muslim reformers and other Islamist opposition.
Miraa powers open discussion and information sharing. Users in Kenya often comment on the propensity of miraa gatherings to vaporise differences of race, class, and ethnicity among the participants. Researchers in Yemen and Ethiopia note the same, corroborating its role as social glue mediating social and class divisions. This makes it anathema to many Islamists.
In the UK, the government launched an enquiry supported by independent research. In 2009, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that most arguments against the substance were overstated; criminalisation would create more problems than it would solve.
Although Al Shabaab attempted to suppress miraa and chat consumption in areas under their control, they later quietly relaxed this stance in favour of taxation.
But the issue resurfaced and the UK banned Catha edulis in 2014, ostensibly because the government did not want London to become the transit point for smuggling khat to neighbouring countries where it is banned.
In both instances, the Kenya government did next to nothing to intervene on behalf of producers’ interest. No Kenyan organisation attempted to counter the arguments behind the ban, although the largest miraa producer association (Nyamita) eventually produced a quaintly worded although ineffective statement in defence of the commodity.
In Meru’s traditional miraa producing areas, informants estimate miraa now employs seven out of 10 people. The UK ban has flattened the economy in adjacent areas linked to the European markets. ‘In this area, ten out of ten people earn their living from miraa,’ one prominent trader from the area opined, ‘and under prevailing market conditions it is only a question of time until our people become poorer than they ever were in the past.’
In April 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the creation of a Ksh1 billion fund to assist farmers affected by the UK ban. The news came out of the blue, and the locals were suspicious, especially after an official statement referred to ‘amendments to the Crops Act giving the national government authority to establish mechanisms for promotion, production, distribution and marketing of miraa as a cash crop.’
Kenya’s smallholder producers have for decades struggled to assert greater control over cash crops like coffee and tea only to become dependent on buyer-driven commodity chains controlled by large international retailers. The more autonomous Nyambene Meru, in contrast, after years of longing for official acknowledgement of their indigenous cash crop, now face an economic double-whammy in the guise of new taxes and potentially negative forms of government intervention.
WAS BILLION SHILLING COMMISSION A POLITICAL SLUSH FUND?
The qualifications of the members appointed to the commission exacerbated these suspicions, and the preliminary findings of their work confirmed the flawed assumptions operating underneath the surface. These findings, surfacing in the press recently, reveal a basic ignorance of the dynamics of the miraa agronomy and agroforestry — especially the recommendation to provide miraa farmers with fertiliser.
Not only does this run counter to the organic synergies of miraa permaculture, fertiliser applied to miraa trees actually makes the twigs unpalatable and impossible to consume. Placing more trash receptacles in places where the heavy leaf-clad twigs are sold was the most practical recommendation on offer. Miraa growers, who saw the billion shilling commission as a political slush fund from the onset, are demanding that the full proceedings of the commission be made public.
The focus of the Nyambene agricultural system began to shift after the value of miraa passed the value of food crops during the early 1970s. Discouraging monocultural cultivation and promoting the traditional biodiversity-based production model would be a positive intervention from both an agronomic and household economy point of view.
This is not the first time a Kenyan government commission has raised more questions than answers. It is hardly surprising that Coastals are demanding similar support for the problems behind the precipitous decline of coconut production, while climate-stressed pastoralists are asking similar questions about the state’s lack of investment in lasting solutions for the aperiodic but predictable droughts ravaging their animals and settlements.
The civil war erupting after Siad Barre’s 1993 exit ignited an exodus of Somalis into neighbouring Kenya and beyond — with major ramifications for Meru’s miraa
That some farmers formerly selling to the European export market report they are now making better profits by selling to regional markets reminds us that the regional market has always been the driver of miraa commoditisation. At the same time, the case for educating the larger public about the unique qualities of the Tree of Paradise is long overdue.
A proper long-term strategy would address Western prejudices, refute the findings of bad science, document its history as a legitimate African social institution that forges ties among communities, highlight the ecologically sustainable practices of Nyambene miraa cultivators, and share the cross-generational knowledge informing proper consumption, including the cultural controls limiting its abuse.
EDUCATION IS THE KEY TO A RATIONAL POLICY
The Somali are both the most successful pioneers of new miraa markets and the primary source of opposition to its consumption. An educational initiative as discussed above — including support for investigating the role of Catha edulis as an antidote to religious radicalisation – would help rehabilitate the prejudicial portrayal of the commodity supporting its ban.
This will take time. Policies regulating the sale to minors at home and the type of miraa sold abroad represent a more useful approach to reverse the problem than the current state-based methods to rescue the situation.
The arguments featuring here are not intended to minimise the problems that come with the spread of Catha edulis consumption. But sorting out the issues of a socially interactive botanical stimulant is a more feasible proposition than parallel efforts to combat the considerably more serious problems of drugs and criminality plaguing the region, like the heroin scourge and criminal networks associated with it recently reported in these pages.
Finding the Zone: Billy Kahora Takes Charge
11 min read. Billy Kahora is a writer of the impact of an age in Kenyan history. In his writings, you piece together the etymology and see that at soul, the stories begin in the first decade of Kenya’s independence.
There is a driven, will-to poignance in the posturing of the friends Chiri and Juli, which captures a trenchant motif threading the writing of Kenyan writer, Billy Kahora, as seen in the recently released The Cape Cod Bicycle War, bringing works published over 15 years in one book.
A bathetic self-dramatisation whose more pathetic disposition conceals a desperate desire for a steadfast life, Chiri and Juli are that seeming paradox of African middle – why the self-inflicted misery when you really have everything?
The motif is immediate, and everlasting, and defines Chiri and Juli as it does the other characters created by Billy Kahora, who was a longtime editor of the literary collective, Kwani?. Take the statement by Juli:
“Even in Bibilia, Old Testament, wheat was God’s crop”.
Is the seeming grandness of this statement egged on by the place he says it in, the expansive, majestic landscapes of the Great Rift Valley, just gone past a laga where they had a glancing, violent run-in with a young, uncircumcised Maasai herdsboy? The Rift Valley can seem, and has been said to be, where God lives. Except Chiri (Eddie Muchiri Kambo) and Juli (Julius Rotiken Sayianka) are impressively, but irredeemably, given over to the profane. Their invocation of the Almighty must not be seen as anything other than a manner of speaking.
So is it money, the knowledge that this crop of heaven, and the Narok variety no less, when well-tended, can give two harvests in a year? If so, why would they go on a drinking binge which may well scuttle the entire enterprise? Not by any stretch of terminology are these characters saints. But they are not sinners either, at least, not for heavily indictable sins.
Even if all of the above were true, we the readers aren’t going to judge these characters that extremely. It is that kind of life then, pushing things too far because the worst isn’t going to come for them, after all, and even if it did, mummy and all the network of class and tribe will catch them when they fall. It is the summation of upper middle class cloud cuckoo land.
Chiri and Juli are after all, full of life, which in the long history of literature (and literature’s affinity for zestful sinners is well-established) is the closest you can come to saintliness. We follow in either direction (saintliness and devilry) only so far as metaphor allows. It is imperative we take it as given: A crop of the gods it is, two young men going out to sow it and this means we must start off by thinking their’s an ecumenical quest. And if there is a pile of dosh at the end of this, then is it any the less an evangelical affair to grow rich?
These questions and the twists therein serve a higher purpose; they may not make Juli and Chiri better humans, but they make them thoroughly enjoyable literary characters. Literature, with its sometimes contrary-wise moral alignment to everyday life, ought to come with the caveat to not try this at home.
Which is a tortuous way of saying that we have in our hands here, a book at the heart of which is satire. It is there in the life of Jemimah Kariuki; cynicism – satire’s evil twin – at full stretch is what holds together the life of Kandle Kabogo Karoki (arguably one of the more impressive literary creatures to come out of Kenya) in the story about Nairobi as the fallen city, Zoning; in the life of Khalid Ibrahim Hussein, in The Unconverted, an examination of religion and ethnicity, it darkens considerably; in the life of Alan Muigai, strutter extraordinaire in Shiko, the cynicism masticates, getting too edgy. And in the coming of age, campus fiction story, Motherless, it is the cynicism of others that presses into and threatens to scupper the life of Maish Boi.
Is this thread, the satire and the baked-in cynicism running through this compendium, what is possible in the public and private life of Kenya as Billy Kahora sees it? His writing, as we have seen it in Kwani? and in other places – and the stories here have also variously come from other publications – has surveyed these psychological realms. In his writing, things press at people. From youth, they are forced to navigate a world extensively sullied by bad faith and bad form; growing up, they are acquiring various degrees of deformity. At the fullness of life, there they are, bonkers already, or going bonkers, ex-ministers, retired professors. Their children are running away from the family name (‘Maish Boi’ is actually Joseph Mungai, son of disgraced ex-Moi minister), drinking themselves to bits, talking politics “through jiggling chins and stomachs,” the old men “with heaving man tits from goat meat and forty years of independence”.
Even for an uncompromising vision of a country, this is bare-knuckled stuff. What else, this vision has seemed to say, can emerge of such a history but lives lived in cynical disregard for decorum?
If there was decorum, no one here seems to know what it was. So keen are they on the business of taking and avoiding being taken advantage of, that you give up hoping for some good in anyone and marvel at the nerve of it.
The etymology of such a world view, when you have mined the writing of Billy Kahora, is that a shit-storm of some magnitude happened at some point just as the characters were being born. Hence, this supposed turbulence, which cleared the land of whatever moral rectitude had been standing, and which broke the embankments of propriety that had kept the life above board, happened to their fathers’ generation. It is in Billy Kahora’s writing, inherited infraction.
Whether or not this mining unearths an accurate account, the conclusion is not news to the characters that his work. To varying degrees, they are people who have already accepted that the best you can expect from the world is a messed up life that at least should not leave you too finished to not like your favourite whisky.
With the exception of a Maimouna Munyakei (who is not fictional and an aberration in this collection), Fr. Kamau and Komora Kijana Wito, Billy Kahora’s characters are hustlers because they must avoid being hustled. In literary terms, this would be something like incurable realism.
In the fifteen years he has been published short story writer, the code has been there, holding on steadily: accept that yours is a corrupt nation, that promises will be broken; they will come to take from you; your best friends, including your own family, will take from you. Fathers can’t be relied on, they are impotent. If your mother is a strong woman, you are lucky. Only mothers can really love you, although even they have a habit of turning up drowned and bloated down river.
Billy Kahora brings technical nous and organisation to his prose. That, in alliance with his grasp of the ins and outs of a certain Kenya, which I will dare call middle-Kenya, is what works for his writing. Combined with the writing chops, the knowledge of the language by which the sense of contemporary Kenya is passed along, the Kiswahili predilection for wisdom peppering his writing, there arises a vital sense of groundedness. There is the vocabulary of the drinkscape (booze flows through the writing in quantity enough his prose could be designated a distillery). There is the near-casual psychological violence committed on almost every page. It is a tough place, Nairobi. There is the practiced awareness of how far to push things, and none excels at this more than Kandle Karoki in Zoning, who has become a master at working a few weeks in a year and not getting sacked for it.
Billy Kahora brings technical nous and organisation to his prose. That, in alliance with his grasp of the ins and outs of a certain Kenya, which I will dare call middle-Kenya, is what works for his writing.
Billy Kahora’s technical approach to writing works at several levels. His stories show consistency in this regard. First, he posits a big picture, like a painter priming a canvas to decide whether to work from light to darkness, or darkness to light, before making tentative, thematic daubs. He starts to work at sketching out the elements that will later receive fuller treatment.
Take The Red Door, the story where Chiri and Juli appear (shortlisted for and published in the 2013 Caine Prize collection). It is a complex story told as character study. But it is also plot-heavy, bucolically-trained to the cultural nuances outside of Nairobi. It gets its Sheng working. It is the story of inter-ethnic, Kenyan settlement, in the crowded, fought-over Rift Valley. There Is the sheer magnitude of detail, like a Richard Onyango painting, an ambitious piece of work.
So how to hold it all together? One way, effectively, is symbolism. Wheat and a combine harvester get collared as the effective glue. We clue in on this early on. At some point, it reads less like a short story than long-prose with the late-stage introduction of Eastleigh and a wily Somali trader-kind, and a peerless satirical treatment of money-worship.
The Mirrors in Treadmill Love, a subtly heartbreaking story, introduce spine to the story as narrative aid and mental unguent to Kung’u who needs soft, mental cushioning. Buruburu, aka the country, got to him, in that Francis Imbuga obiter dictum, “when the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to call the man mad”.
In We are Here Because We are Here, the war between the Indian Ocean and the Tsana River, by which the Indian ocean tsunami threatens to wash away African hinterland, only for the Tsana (Tana) river to push back, this application of symbol as plot device is transparently on show, at the expense of the consummate complexity that drives other stories. But as a symbol, the struggle between the ocean and the river is tantalising. Are we talking here about African history, of the colonialising, mercantile, force, the trade winds blow onto its coast, and the seemingly weak, yet resilient force with which the continent has always pushed back?
The bicycles in the title story are the more overt symbols offering us a ride through the story.
And the lived-in knowledge of middle-Kenya? This is the fraught element in Billy Kahora’s writing. Given the depth of ethnic feeling in Kenya, a Kenyan writer can never escape the charge of ethnicity. The divide et impera mechanism built into the nation’s DNA to make British exploitation of the country more effective might never go away. The country in Billy Kahora’s writing is only Kenyan by extension. He could more accurately be described as chronicler of middle class Kikuyu life. On the one hand, a writer needs to at least be grounded in a particular cultural context if only for locus. But on the other hand, it is also perilous to assume there exist elemental differences between “tribes”. The challenge of writing, is to find out how there not, rather than looking for how, there are differences. We therefore squirm through the presentation of otherness in We are Here Because we Are Here and in Commission. Really? You cannot help but ask. Is there such a thing as difference, and should we assume others speaking in childish voices because they are from another ethnic background, and hence less “normal” “us”? If I were the editor, I would have left out the two stories for further development. And more than that, I can see how this fact might make some uncomfortable accountability on the part of Mr. Kahora as a Kenyan writer.
But where it is concentrated, in middle class Kikuyu life, Billy Kahora is in his true element. The prose where he is not looking for the others’ voice goes with few glitches. Perhaps the most ambitious story Billy Kahora has thus far written is The Gorilla’s Apprentice. There is something of The Tin Drum about The Gorilla’s Apprentice. A heartbreaking rendering of dystopia, without the sentimentality that often mars such attempts, it may well be one of the most effective stories written of the post election violence of 2001/08. The narrative, prima facie, is of a dying gorilla, and of a boy’s (Jimmy) desire to speak to him, which brings him close to the darkly mysterious Professor Charles Semambo. But we become aware that the shouts, fires and smoke through which the story strives to move forward, but which our narrator does not pull to the foreground, is of the most serious Kenyan crisis since the Mau Mau uprising. Like with Gunther Grass’ book, the innocence and curiosity masks unhinging darkness, amplifying it.
There is the author’s cold distance from his subjects. Bright-eyed hopes are best taken with caution. In the tight universe of his writing, there exists a place, not quite a sin bin, not really a hell, in which characters with too much hope in life are sent to fester in. Kandle Karoki has found that place, the Zone. He got over it. Now he prowls through Nairobi like he owns the place. In literature, there are characters you will be eternally grateful meeting. Think May Kasahara in Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Count Kaburagi in Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colours. Anti-heroes brighten up literature. Kandle aspires to that status. He leads a fallen life. He is not trying to get up. Why should he when fallen looks so good on him? He wears this status with such suave, commanding steadiness you must do a second take to be reassured the author is not pulling our legs and this is an actual, handsome devil. Literature can never have enough of handsome devils. Kandle lied to his manager at the bank. He has not shown up for work in forever. He took out a loan to service his time in the Zone. They know he has lied. He knows they know. They have cornered him. But Kandle was born a human corner. He knows his Nairobi too well to believe that anyone can be upright.
Billy Kahora is a writer of the impact of an age in Kenyan history. In his writings, you piece together the etymology and see that at soul, the stories begin in the first decade of Kenya’s independence. This is when the underlying psycho-social background of the characters and their stories stir. There was a promise made, however implicitly, that independence would bring a better world. Young men and women – the fathers and mothers of the characters Billy Kahora writes about – threw their lot at this promise; the awakening moment of black self-determination, the scholarship to Makerere, the elevation to a British university, that degree, that coveted job back home and then, the beginning of mortgages and property. The beginning, also, of a very rapid unraveling. It is against this national-domestic backdrop that our characters are born.
He could more accurately be described as chronicler of middle class Kikuyu life. On the one hand, a writer needs to at least be grounded in a particular cultural context if only for locus. But on the other hand, it is also perilous to assume there exist elemental differences between “tribes”.
Billy Kahora condenses this history into the founding of an estate. Buruburu as synecdoche set to represent the country, as the Promised Land in which mortgages and social security would flow like milk and honey. (In a way you feel, that if that is what they thought independence amounted to, then they really deserved the whacking after all. But that is another matter). Buruburu, ground zero for the characters created by Billy Kahora. The lives in these stories start in the sprawling Nairobi estate sold, post-independence, as a glorious opening to the good life. Buruburu more than fell. It decayed, translating, once putrefaction was underway, into the ashen dystopia it become, a refuse heap for ill-conceived dreams.
The independence generation that bought into the promise of Buruburu quickly reached the conclusion that with Moi in power, the best option was to send their children away. The well-off send their progeny to British and American universities. The non-winners – but by no means poor Kenyan families – send theirs to South Africa, to Rhodes, to Cape Town. It is where we start to meet them in Billy Kahora’s writing.
As to why there are mostly no fathers in his work, or if present, then barely alive, the grasping Professor Mundia in Motherless, a story set in the university town of the Eastern Cape, Grahamstown South Africa, offers some explanation: “Because of what Moi did to the country,” he says. “Moi destroyed the possibilities that were open to my generation”. But was it that straightforward? Or was the idea of independence grossly oversimplified? Did they expect that the exploitative structures of colonialism would painless stretch into independence? There were other players beside Moi, for it takes many hands to ruin a nation. He may be a victim of a regime, but Professor Mundia is not altogether a pleasant figure. As a professor, he wields his office with unbecoming power, a corruptor of young souls.
While the trajectory of Billy Kahora’s writing is a forensic aperçu into middle Kenya, it is also a continuation of a long-running African narrative, the encounter with empire, coming back to the continent uneasy, dislocated, falling to corruption. As with the 1960s generation of literary characters, here, return is the moment of disillusionment. As well-told in the story Shiko, and glancingly in The Red Door, the second generation knows they are going to have to learn to game the system in order to survive. Those who fail at it envy those that succeed at it. A trusting man is a dead man walking. World Pawa presents the fallen life as a semi-comical, tragic entreaty, in Zoning as macabre vitality.
The Cape Cod Bicycle War is published by Huza Press
Politics of Art: The Contradictions of Nigeria’s KABAFEST
10 min read. Critics of the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival-KABAFEST- claim that it is a public relations gimmick for a controversial State Governor but as Isaac Otidi Amuke argues collaborations between politicians and artists raises various counter-arguments.
It has been said that writers, artists and their ilk are prone to profiling themselves as a special breed of humans, towering above the rest of society, intellectually and ideologically – more informed, just, worldly, egalitarian. Yet the likely reality is that writers and artists, just like any other grouping, are a mixture of people with different persuasions, religious or political. For the simple reason that they do not originate from a default place of collective belief set or a common political project, and even if they did, there are no guarantees that dissenters won’t arise from within their midst.
This age-old debate, of writers and artists collectively espousing palpable conscientiousness – presumably unlike a good chunk of people in society – and pledging unwavering loyalty to a shared set of beliefs and sense of solidarity, was recently reignited in Nigerian Twitter-sphere following the latest edition of the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST). The shindig organised by Lola Shoneyin was described as ‘‘the first and only literary fête of this magnitude in Northern Nigeria.’’ The festival was supposed to represent an ethical betrayal, according to critics, since its organisers were going against something, maybe many things, that writers, artists and cultural workers aren’t supposed to go against. What that thing or those things are has become a matter of conjecture, as contestation persists.
Shoneyin and those who attended the KABAFEST, were castigated for the alleged sins of commission and omission. The sin of commission was that Shoneyin and company have warmed up to the powers that be in Nigeria, exemplified by her closeness to Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, the controversial former federal government minister and current governor of Kaduna State, whose state sponsors KABAFEST. On the founding of KABAFEST, critics opined that it was a public relations gimmick by the Governor to sanitise his misadventures and the literary community had fallen into this trap. The sin of omission was that the high profile festival organizer and her prominent guests from across Africa were silent about increasing repression in Nigeria, manifest in the arbitrary arrest, detention, and in extreme cases kidnapping and disappearing of government critics.
To some, confronting KABAFEST seemed unwarranted. To others, it was completely justified.
Over the years, Shoneyin has distinguished herself as a cultural worker of note, going by the runaway success of her 2013 founded Ake Arts and Book Festival, an important gathering in the African literary calendar at a time when there aren’t as many organizing platforms. Beside the two festivals, Shoneyin, best known for her novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, runs Ouida Books, the Lagos based publishing house, home to some of Nigeria’s better known novelists and poets. Ouida similarly plays host to literary events, a welcome development in a continent where the Goethe Institute and Alliance Francaise have become the default sanctuaries for writers and artists due to a lack of local investment in physical cultural spaces.
Yet despite all these feats, murmurs and not-so-subtle tweets from her critics (or what some would call haters) continue questioning Shoneyin’s proximity to power, raising the question…Can an artist or an arts manager hobnob with politicians with complicated histories and reputations? Can they use such socio-political connections to build partnerships for the benefit of the arts without coming out blemished? Or put another way, can an artist ‘‘sellout’’ for the sake of securing the bag for their industry, or is this an ethical no-no? In a purely capitalistic end-justifies-the-means sense, do the benefits accrued from KABAFEST outweigh any moral concessions made in the process of making the festival possible?
Over the years, Shoneyin has distinguished herself as a cultural worker of note, going by the runaway success of her 2013 founded Ake Arts and Book Festival, an important gathering in the African literary calendar at a time when there aren’t as many organizing platforms.
KABAFEST provokes these reactions since Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai and his wife, the writer and architect HadizaIsma El-Rufai – who coincidentally is published at Ouida books – are seen not only as de facto festival patrons courtesy of the state sponsorship but as Shoneyin’s conspirators who participate in the program of events. One could argue that even if there was nothing unbecoming in Shoneyin as an artist accepting the governor and his wife’s patronage, could their closeness raise conflict of interest questions? Is it proper for persons with pre-existing friendships to use public resources in support of each other’s initiatives?
Importantly, Shoneyin has never been shy about her association with Governor El-Rufai.
During a January 2018 interview for a project I was working on –in which Shoneyin’s evident milestones with Ake and KABAFEST were of interest – the novelist told me in a very candid interview that the inspiration for KABAFEST came from an incident during an Ake Festival some years back. The story goes that a group of students from Northern Nigeria hitch-hiked to Abeokuta, the former home of Ake Festival, taking train rides and hitching lifts from good Samaritans, and by the time they got to the festival, they looked tired and haggard.
As fate would have it, the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, in attendance at Ake, as a friend of the festival, and on seeing the state of the students from Northern Nigeria – whose return trip the Governor sponsored – challenged Shoneyin to replicate Ake in Kaduna, seeing the extent to which the students had gone just to be part of the festival. Shoneyin took the Governor up on his word, and plans for KABAFEST, with support from the Governor and his state, got underway.
With this background, one can therefore safely argue that KABAFEST was not wholly a Lola Shoneyin project, since the prompt came from Governor El-Rufai. Perhaps, this makes a case for vindication (not that Shoneyin has said she needs any). Shoneyin didn’t approach the Governor with a formed idea seeking sponsorship, but rather the Governor initiated a partnership and asked for Shoneyin’s hand in setting up KABAFEST.
At the same time, one cannot separate KABAFEST from Shoneyin, since without her Ake Festival experience, the Governor may have been inspired to propose a festival in the North. The artistic input and knowledge that Shoneyin brings to the KABAFEST and her success with the Ake festival, goes without saying. Was this therefore a quid pro quo between Shoneyin and the Governor, a case of two people meeting at the right place at the right time? Shoneyin armed with the experience and expertise, the Governor with resources to implement the idea with her consent and support.
The KABAFEST is now in its third year. Before plans for KABAFEST were solidified, the Governor offered to sponsor a group of Kaduna students to subsequent Ake Festivals. This appeared to be a perfect convergence of minds and needs. The Governor found a suitable collaborator in Shoneyin, for the sake of meeting the needs of the eager students and other residents of Kaduna and the outcome was a Public Private Partnership to build and grow cultural infrastructure.
With this background, one can therefore safely argue that KABAFEST was not wholly a Lola Shoneyin project, since the prompt came from Governor El-Rufai.
Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai was nicknamed ‘‘The Destroyer’’ while serving as state minister of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja ( 2003-2007) due to his merciless flattening of properties that didn’t comply with the by-laws. El-Rufai was quoted saying Abuja wasn’t built for the poor. He was perceived as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s blue eyed boy and enforcer, deployed to deal with opponents in the pretext of enforcing laws. Credited with fixing Abuja and lauded for improving education standards in Kaduna State, where he recently enrolled his son into public school in leading by example, El-Rufai has been criticized for making religiously inflammatory statements and for mishandling ethnic and other volatile conflicts in Kaduna. It is the baggage of El-Rufai’s politics that seems to be weighing down the KABAFEST partnership.
The finger-pointing directed at Shoneyin and her associations with power, including at the highest echelons of the Nigerian state, may have some historical context. During the 2015 Nigerian presidential election, pitting incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against the country’s one time military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, Shoneyin took an unprecedented step by writing a provocative piece in the UK’s The Guardian, titled How my father’s jailer can offer Nigeria a fresh start, in support of the then candidate Buhari. It was a bold move, where a writer, poet and artist was willingly sticking their neck out by taking a public stand in a divisive election.
In the piece, Shoneyin recalls a 1984 incident – she calls it possibly her worst year – when her father failed to show up at her school in Edinburgh in the UK. She was only years old and her 15 year old elder brother took her to Heathrow, from where they flew to Lagos, to meet their distraught mother. Buhari had put Shoneyin’s father, a contractor, behind bars, in a supposed anti-corruption purge. In an unexpected turn of events, as Shoneyin was writing to endorse candidate Buhari, her father was part of the local advisory committee within Buhari’s party.
Shoneyin wrote about how she had travelled around Nigeria with Buhari’s campaign team, interviewing people, watching and talking to the man himself, because she really wanted to understand who Buhari was, what he represented, to cure her own misgivings. The verdict? The man was firm, he didn’t own a mansion, and indeed exceeded the ‘anything but Jonathan’ resolve. It was a risky political gamble, but if anyone needed to understand Shoneyin’s grit, then there is the answer. Here is someone unafraid, someone who will cast her lot fearlessly.
Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai was nicknamed ‘‘The Destroyer’’ while serving as state minister of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja ( 2003-2007) due to his merciless flattening of properties that didn’t comply with the by-laws.
However, much as it took courage to do whatever she did, some would argue that Buhari was already a front runner, and that Shoneyin was simply aligning herself with the winning team, such that Buhari and his people – the El-Rufais of this world – wouldn’t forget they owed her for her support once they assumed power. One may ask, is Shoneyin a patriotic Nigerian looking out for her country and the arts, or is she a smooth operator who has mastered how to work the system for her own benefit and for the benefit of the causes she is invested in?
As Buhari’s human rights record falters, and as his governance continuously comes under heavy criticism, Shoneyin and others who placed their bets on the man could be perceived as partly owning the Buhari problem, for publicly campaigning for the retired General. Buhari’s recent excesses include the arrests of perceived trouble makers such as Omoyele Sowore, founder of the Sahara Reporters news agency, who ran against President Buhari during the 2018 general election. Sowore was arrested by Nigeria’s Department of Security Services (DSS) in August 2019, accused of treason for his Revolution Now protest movement. Then there are those like Abubakar Idris, popularly known as Dadiyata, a Governor El-Rufai critic, who was kidnapped from his home in Kaduna, and whose whereabouts remain unknown.
It is therefore a combination of these things – the support for Buhari, the collaboration with El-Rufai – that has made Shoneyin a target, as some form of representative for those in the arts in Nigeria who seem to cozy up to the state, yet as things fall apart, they remain busy with their projects, some in collaboration with politicians, while those many would consider their default comrades in the arts – the Sowores of this world – languish in detention.Critics have therefore concluded that Shoneyin and her lot aren’t part of the broader civic project which is expected of someone of her literary stature, of speaking truth to power. The charge is that even when the said government officials show up for events like KABAFEST, no hard questions are necessarily asked of them regarding issues such as the ongoing clampdowns.
In Kenya, the writer and essayist Binyavanga Wainaina was frowned upon especially within the Kenyan intelligentsia for openly endorsing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 election, at a time when crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague were hanging over Kenyatta’s head. In Zimbabwe, the lawyer and novelist Petina Gappah has come under fire for working as Trade and Investment advisor to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who some posit is an extension of Robert Mugabe’s misdeeds. Gappah has since vacated her position to focus on her new book, cheekily announcing that she would share her book tour dates so that those angry at her for advising Mnangagwa can show up and picket.
The choices and actions of Shoneyin, Binyavanga and Gappah, as a random sample, certainly have consequences. First because the trio are citizens operating in highly polarized political environments, but mainly out of the fact that as writers with high visibility, choosing a political side means throwing considerable weight of seeming legitimacy behind it, even if imaginary. Therefore those in the literary space who don’t agree with the politics of whoever a Shoneyin, a Binyavanga or a Gappah publicly support or work for may see their actions as acts of betrayal of some unwritten artistic covenant, a collective agreement which is now being interrogated.
During the 2015 Nigerian presidential election, Shoneyin took an unprecedented step by writing a provocative piece in the UK’s The Guardian, titled How my father’s jailer can offer Nigeria a fresh start, in support of Buhari.
The recurring question has been, is there an ideological collective to which writers and artists belong to, other than the fact that they are engaged in the same practice, or trade. Can one choose to be who they want to be, including by purposely becoming ‘‘sellouts’’, while still belonging to the supposed collective? And if the collective is real – that we belong together – then what is the shared project and its philosophy?
The older generation of post-independence African writers preached the gospel of taking the side of the oppressed. But is that the prerogative of African writers? Can a writer choose to take the side of the oppressor and still have a place at the table, or can they break away from the collective and choose to pursue their own project, political or not, without being ostracized? Is there a rulebook given to writers when they burst into the scene, such that if in doubt one can revisit the guidelines and reboot, regaining default factory settings?
Of course writers and artists are citizens of countries, and may therefore decide to take a political stand, like Binyavanga and Shoneyin did, or to work for a government, like Gappah did, a liberty one can choose to or choose not to exercise, without consulting or seeking consent from anyone. Those who pick this path of taking public stands or taking up prominent government positions are or should at least beware of attendant consequences – the backlash from those in opposing camps or those in opposition of whatever articulated arguments – such that in the end, one shouldn’t be afraid to challenge either Binyavanga’s or Shoneyin’s standpoints, just as writers shouldn’t be afraid of taking a stand. This is the practice in everyday political engagement, where people articulate their views, and those views attract reactions. Writers and artists are no exception to this rule.
There will similarly be those who will argue that politics is too heavy for them – coming from a place of elevation and privilege, because ordinarily politics in all its manifestations affects life and forces us to engage with it – and will therefore do their art for art’s sake project. It won’t mean that they will be lesser writers or artists, but it will be a mistake for the ideologues to imagine that such individuals are part of some collective project, because what selling out means to one may not be the same thing to the other. This could be the divide between Shoneyin and those who support her, and the critics who believe KABAFEST is a flagrant betrayal of something eternally sacred within the Nigerian literary and artistic community.
Then there are those like Abubakar Idris, popularly known as Dadiyata, a Governor El-Rufai critic, who was kidnapped from his home in Kaduna, and whose whereabouts remain unknown.
As debates get messy and muddy, what mustn’t escape everyone is that writers, artists and intellectuals have always been agents of confronting society’s contradictions, including and their own. Shoneyin’s sympathizers have pointed out that majority of those policing the conduct of those living and working in Nigeria are themselves ‘‘sellouts’’, holed up in the West, cushioned by fellowships, well-paying jobs and enjoying the advantage of distance. On the other hand, the anti-Shoneyin brigade has alleged that those defending KABAFEST are doing so for the sake of the hustle, so that they may get invitations to Shoneyin-organized events and the likes. There are no signs of a truce between the two sides.
In what appeared to be her one and only rebuttal, a response to her critics at the height of the Twitter brawls, Shoneyin posted a black and white photo of herself wearing a KABAFEST T-shirt – making sure the logo was visible – arms crossed, with a half-serious half-playful facial expression, looking like a boss. The brief, unmistakable, this-is-all-I-have-to-say caption read, ‘‘I remain committed to the development, promotion and celebration of literature and arts on the African continent. Next is #AkeFest19! #WeMove!”
Shoneyin seemed to be sticking to her guns, unruffled. Her critics will have to wait a whole year, for the next KABAFEST, for the next round of scuffles to happen all over again, as has become routine. There seems to be neither a mediating force nor looming ceasefire in sight.
Eliud Kipchoge: The Making of a World Champion
10 min read. Some pointed to his turbocharged shoes; others came up with culturally reductive theories about why he ran a marathon distance in under two hours. However, Eliud Kipchoge has shown the world that only discipline and endurance can create champions.
By now you have heard and read acres of text discussing and dissecting Eliud Kipchoge’s epic performance as the first human to run a marathon distance in under 2 hours at the incredible pace of 1:59:40. Much of the analysis from the foreign press comes with the rider: great athlete but it was not a record-eligible marathon.
The purists point fingers at Eliud’s turbocharged shoes (the Nike Vaporfly Next%), the rotating cast of 41 pacers, a powered carb drink dispensed with precision, the pace car with a laser system as an additional wind breaker, the flat course and the emotional spin of a humble hero, tugging hearts in a compelling story of courage. There were undertones of culturally reductive theories that profile elite Kenyan runners as being forged from the desire to distance themselves from their poverty by running great distances to school – the single story of all great Kenyan athletes.
The outsized PR of the INEOS 1:59 was bound to be a niggling point for the detractors. The title sponsor, the petrochemical business empire that is INEOS and its majority shareholder, Jim Radcliffe, are accused by some of moving their headquarters to Switzerland to avoid paying UK taxes. Critics point to INEOS’s chequered environmental track record in Europe and recent fracking controversies as INEOS flexes muscle in the fossil fuel space in the UK.
For us, his country folk, the Kenyans, it was an ecstatic moment. A once in a lifetime spectacle. I spoke to friends and family who had all reserved Saturday morning to watch Eliud Kipchoge race against the clock and his own limits and many compared it to the euphoric moment in November 2008 when Barack Obama beat Republican Senator John McCain to become the first black president-elect of America. Eliud had cemented his iconic status as a Kenyan hero. In the midst of the despondency with the national state of affairs, the record in Vienna provided a fleeting moment of patriotic fervour.
On the chilly evening of 12th October, I made my way to the VIP reception in honour of the greatest marathoner of our age, hosted at the finish line in the historic Prater park, in Vienna. I battled in my head, trying to articulate what I had witnessed that morning. In a different time and age, this event would have been described as miraculous. 8 hours earlier, I had witnessed how the simple act of running could achieve transcendental importance. The Prater Hauptalee, stretching 4.3 kms, thronged by an estimated 120,000 fans in the morning, was now empty. The only indicator of the event were the barricades stretching down the straight road lined by chestnut trees with yellow leaves.
The city of Vienna had a date with destiny that Saturday autumn morning in October. From the Praterstern train station, one walks past the Vienna Athletic Centre, located about 200 metres from the finish line where Eliud made history.
All agreed that Eliud Kipchoge had cemented his iconic status as a Kenyan hero. In the midst of the despondency that had settled among Kenyans, the record in Vienna provided a fleeting moment of patriotic fervour.
Behind those stadium walls, another Kenyan had set the pace for Eliud Kipchoge six years before he was born. In 1978, the incredible Henry Rono smashed the world 10,000m record in Vienna on his way to the unparalleled achievement of 4 world records (10 000m, 5000m, 3000m and the 3000m steeplechase) in a span of 81 days. Henry Rono was paced by a Dutchman, Jos Hermens, the former athlete-turned-sports management don and founder of Global Sports Communication that manages Eliud Kipchoge.
Vienna was also the birthplace of renowned Austrian athletics coach Franz Stampfl, who coached Roger Bannister for the world’s first sub four-minute mile, the man who would inspire Eliud’s sub 2 marathon attempt.
The venue of the VIP after-party comprised a series of enclosed white tents adjacent to the finish line. Suited bouncers manned the entrance and a DJ livened up the evening. The Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, was in attendance and in conversation with politician Njeru Githae, the newly appointed ambassador to Austria. Moments after the morning event, I had spotted the Deputy President with an entourage, perhaps on a solidarity run for Kipchoge, jogging down the road past the Vienna Athletic Centre, prominent in team Kenya colours. The irony of the moment was not lost on #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter).
Henry Rono was paced by a Dutchman, Jos Hermens, the former athlete-turned-sports management don and founder of Global Sports Communication that manages Eliud Kipchoge.
Eliud arrived in his classic understated manner, making his way from the back to the front without a fuss, pumping hands along the way and charging the energy in the gathering to fever pitch. He was indeed the happiest man that day and you could see the joy on his face after those many months of anticipation and meticulous planning. Catching his physio Peter Nduhia on the sidelines, he recapped the tension in the engine room leading up to the main event.
On the afternoon of 11th October, Eliud complained of muscle strain after rising from a sitting position on a slack sofa. Luckily, it proved to be nothing threatening but is frightening to imagine that the entire attempt would have been sabotaged by the cushioning of a couch.
The speeches commenced with a word from the organisers and the CEO of INEOS, Jim Radcliffe, reiterating that a billion people in the world had recognised that something incredible happened in Vienna. Then Eliud took the stage. As he stepped onto the raised platform, the audience burst into a thunderous cheer. He cut a diminutive figure in a fitting black tracksuit. When he started to speak, the audience fell into complete silence, hanging onto his every word. Several phones were in the air recording video.
Eliud graciously dished out his rounds of thanks to everyone involved in the success of the event, with emphasis on the 41 pacemakers, acknowledging the power of collaboration, sharing the moment and settled into his core message:
“I always say no human is limited. I hope the limitations from today will not appear anywhere in this world. I am the first and I trust that in the near future, more athletes will run under two hours.”
Of the many references made of Eliud’s sub 2 marathon history-making feat, from Neil Amstrong’s moon landing in 1969 to Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay’s climbing the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, it is Sir Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile record that Eliud has referenced consistently.
Eliud alluded to the story of the Englishman Roger Bannister who in 1954 ran a mile in under 4 minutes and broke an athletic barrier hyped as an impossible feat by journalists of the day. He mentioned this event when he revealed that experts had stated that the sub 2 hour marathon barrier would be unbreakable until around 2075.
A man’s heroes can offer a window into his own motivations.
Sir Roger Bannister (died March 3, 2018) was the first man to run one mile in under 4 minutes at 3:59:4. Comparatively, the 1 mile to the 26.2 miles ( 42 km) is world’s apart even in the categories of distance running. What is similar between these two men six decades apart is their grit. Bannister, like Eliud, had made an attempt on the record coming close and building the confidence required for a sub record attempt. Both men made the record attempts in what were managed speed trial events with pacesetters. Both men set out to make sporting history, and did.
No pain, no gain
Eliud’s daring and consistency in performance has raised his profile to global iconic status. He has achieved greatness as an exceptional athlete and a gracious individual. His work ethic and discipline is admired by sportswriters. There are YouTube videos analysing his running efficiency and form.
Fellow athletes marvel at his ability to maintain composure under great physical strain. It is that pain management that sets Eliud apart even within the elite ranks.
Endurance is a measure of high pain tolerance and Eliud is known for his ability to rise beyond pain, which is characterised by his signature smile in the heat of battle. Olympian Bernard Lagat, second only to Hicham El Guerrouj as the fastest 1500m runner of all time, looks up to Eliud as an inspiration. Lagat, who is Eliud’s senior, has been a collaborator on the sub 2 challenge, featuring as a pacesetter during the Breaking 2 Nike attempt in Monza, Italy. He featured twice as a pacemaker during the 1:59 challenge, and he put it plainly:
“It doesn’t matter who you are, at some point you will feel the pain.”
Peter Nduhiu, Eliud’s physio for 16 years, continues to marvel at Eliud’s ability to block pain and suspend it until the end of business. To endure the pain, one returns to the core tenet of Eliud’s training regime:
“With perfect preparation you can handle any pressure.”
After 10 marathons under 2:05 and a world record set in Berlin, Eliud had already traveled beyond previously set limits. It has been a long career of over 15 years of steady progress towards this mark.
For those who know Eliud, the record was never in doubt. His teammates, men such as Geoffrey Kamworor, the half marathon world record holder and Olympian Augustine Choge debated whether he would run a high or low 1: 59.
Eliud’s notoriety is single-minded focus and unwavering commitment to his goals. Alex Korio, one of the many pacesetters during the challenge, admired Eliud’s ability to be absolutely free of distraction. In Eliud’s own words,
“ Don’t make excuses. When you decide to do something, do it. Self-discipline is a lifestyle. Only the disciplined ones are free in life”.
He is a sought-after sports celebrity known for his motivational speeches and clear insights where he discusses running as a metaphor for principled living and a matter that involves not just one’s legs but also the state of one’s heart and mind.
James Baldwin, sharing advice on writing that applies equally across life noted:
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”
The way of the elite athlete is one of dedication and commitment to a monastic routine. This is now the common feature of the Kenyan athletes’ creed. It is the philosophy of the training camp: hard work, good form and teamwork.
Eliud has been a good ambassador for the marathon and a timely hero in a country where people also smile through their pains. He has the charisma and likeability of Liverpool football manager Jurgen Klopp, a man who is hard to hate.
Eliud’s notoriety is single-minded focus and unwavering commitment to his goals. He is a sought-after sports celebrity known for his measured speech and clear insights where he discusses running as a metaphor for principled living.
1: 59 becomes a symbolic number in the ranks of Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile and as a source of inspiration. True to that spirit, a day after Eliud’s achievement on the 13th of October, Kenyan athletes swept the Chicago marathon in both male and female categories. Lawrence Cherono broke away from a three-way battle to sprint to victory in the final mile and Brigid Kosgei smashed Paula Radcliffe 16-year-old marathon record. It is worth noting that Eliud’s first World Marathon Major was in Chicago in 2014.
A nation of champions
Eliud Kipchoge stands on the shoulders of his predecessors and he has taken the sport to unprecedented heights as the Tiger Woods of the marathon. However, his story is the culmination of three decades of marathon progression in Kenya. If Eliud has traveled far, it is because he built on the successes and failures of those who came before him.
Today, Kenya’s marathon talent runs so deep that the only athletes who make it to national prominence are world record holders and Olympic gold medalists. Every weekend somewhere in the world, there is Kenyan winning a marathon. Vincent Kipchumba, who won the Vienna marathon in April (2019) and the Amsterdam marathon a week after Eliud’s challenge would only be recognised by seasoned sports journalists. Indeed, before his world record feat in 2018, Eliud’s face was not even instantly recognisable in Eldoret, the hometown of the champions.
An excerpt from In Running with Kenyans by Adharanand Finn, tells the story of the phenomenal emergence of Kenyan running talent in the marathon.
“In 1975, no Kenyan had run a marathon time below 2hrs 20 minutes, compared to a time accomplished by 23 British runners and 34 US athletes. By 2005, only 12 Britons and 34 US runners had done a sub 2: 20 compared to 490 Kenyans.”
It is also easy to forget that Kenya only started to appear as a contender in the marathon as recently as 1987. The Japan-based Douglas Wakiihuri brought in the first gold medal at the world championships in Rome in 1987 and the Olympic silver in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. He was also the first Kenyan to win the London marathon in 1989.
The Olympic gold eluded Kenyans for another two decades. Many came close. Erick Wanaina with the bronze in 1996 in Atlanta followed by another bronze by Joyce Chepchumba in Sydney 2000.
In 2003, the year that Eliud’s career started to show promise with a gold in the World Championships in 5000m in Paris, another phenomenal Kenyan athlete, Paul Tergat, who switched from a successful career on track to marathon greatness, broke the world record in Berlin.
Paul Tergat was the first Kenyan to hold a marathon world record and the first man to run a sub 2:05 time. Tergat in my books was the greatest distance runner of his generation and he carried himself with a level of grace and humility that is epitomized in Eliud’s celebrity today. The following year, the sensational Catherine Ndereba brought home the first female silver in Athens 2004. Eliud Kipchoge won a bronze in 5000m final in those games.
In 2008, Japan-based Samuel Wanjiru, following in Wakiihuri’s footsteps became Kenya’s first Olympic gold medalist in the marathon in Beijing and set an Olympic record. The phenomenal Samuel Wanjiru went on to win the London marathon in 2009 and the Chicago marathon in 2010, two years before Eliud switched to road racing.
Tergat who was the original king of the roads believed that even the greatest runners in the marathon had their limits. When Wilson Kipsang lowered the mark in 2013 to 2:03:23, Tergat, watching victory in Berlin, had stated that he did not envision a sub 2: 03 marathon in his lifetime:
A year later, in 2014, Dennis Kimetto, took it under 2 hours 3 minutes, and Eliud Kipchoge lowered it further to its current mark at 2:01:39 in 2018. If the history of Kenyan performance in the marathon teaches us anything, it is that limits are to be challenged.
A good career is marked by one’s ability to meet challenges against the odds and rise beyond the established limits of the chosen discipline. However, even moments of greatness in life are fleeting. Like the rise and fall of legendary Henry Rono, ultimately an athlete’s career is a short episode in the span of a lifetime. There a dozen or so athletes who have run a sub 2.05, but only two have run a sub 2.02. One is Eliud Kipchoge and the other is his greatest rival Kenenisa Bekele who missed the world record by two seconds ( 2:01:41) in Berlin this year.
The phenomenal Samuel Wanjiru was Kenya’s first Olympic gold medalist in the marathon. He won the London marathon in 2009 and Chicago in 2010, two years before Eliud switched to road racing.
Eliud still has it in his tank to lower the world record in a World Major given his INEOS 1:59 confidence boost and to wrap up his incredible career run with a second Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2020.
His brand of humility amidst all the hype around his accomplishments has endeared him to the growing hordes of fans globally. (There were 11 billion impressions on Twitter during the 1:59 challenge.)
Humility is a core part of the Eliud Kipchoge brand and something his coach of 18 years, Patrick Sang, consistently echoes as a foundational principle behind his success.
“Life is not about stardom,” says Sang. He reassures that Eliud is not just a great athlete, he is also a great human being, inspiring in all aspects of his life outside his profession. Sang admits that in the last three years, he has moved from being Eliud’s role model and teacher, to now what he feels is the humble position as his student.
I prod him for the significance of the moment, and after a short pause in reflection, he wraps it down to a one-liner, “We implemented the belief”, leaving me ruminating on how far one can broaden their horizons with mental fortitude. Beyond the inspiration of Eliud’s transformational message #nohumanislimited lies the subtext of excellence which is not just belief but also execution.
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