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Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby

15 min read. Even with the apparent success of the Kenya rugby team, the politics of the Kenya Rugby Union seem over and over again to be an impediment to the flourishing of the sport.

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Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby
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On March 12th 2018, Kenya, coached by Innocent Simiyu, trailed USA, led by former Kenya 7s coach, Mike Friday, by 12-19 with 1:46 left in the semi-finals of the Vancouver leg of the HSBC Sevens Circuit. The winner of this match would meet Fiji in the final of the Vancouver Sevens.

Two converted tries by American speedster Perry Baker had given the US a 14-0 lead that was halved by Nelson Oyoo, whose dancing feet hoodwinked the American big man Danny Barrett for five points in the centre. Oyoo went over again, one and a half minutes after the half-time hooter, shrugging off the attention of American speedster 2.0 Carlin Isles and taking advantage of a wonderful interception by Kenyan superstar Collins “Collo” Injera deep in the Kenyan half, to bring the Kenyans within two points of the Americans.

The Americans regained the lead at the start of the second half after Isles, arguably the fastest man in sevens rugby, had put on the afterburners, to score a try. Straight from the restart, Kenya won the ball and moved it swiftly to Andrew Amonde, on as a substitute, who tucked it under his right arm and pumped forward. From the resultant ruck, the ball moved to Jeffrey Oluoch, for a nifty switch that opened space for Collins Injera. Collo blasted through the American defense, and appeared destined for the try zone, only for Perry Baker, to catch up with him. Nevertheless, just as Baker sealed his tackle, Collo had the presence of mind to offload the ball to Willy Ambaka and Ambaka, with his 98th try on the circuit, dove in for a try. Sammy Oliech proceeded to convert to even the scores to 19 all.

One would assume that this is the story of how Kenya 7s found success in Vancouver, and catapulted itself into being a sevens powerhouse. It is not. Instead, it is the story of how the management of Kenya Rugby Union, sabotaged Kenya Sevens or as coach Simiyu phrased it, “They are the same people. They never change. Year in, year out.”

With 24 seconds on the clock, Oliech takes the kick off. The Americans win the restart, and pass the ball, looking for an opening in the Kenyan defense as the hooter buzzes. Danny Barrett, holding the ball, attempts to run through Oyoo, but the Kenyan brings him down. The Americans ruck. The ball pops out to Perry Baker, moves down the line to Martin Losefu and then Bevon Williams who runs into a solid tackle from the Kenyan captain Oscar Ouma. The Americans ruck. The Kenyans who had established a reputation as the best team in the breakdown on the circuit win the ruck as Collins Injera steals the ball. Losefu brings him down as he off-loads to Eden Agero who, in the face of the heavy American charge, pops it to Ouma. It is thirty-five seconds after the hooter and Ouma, holding the ball under his right arm, barrels towards the try-zone to seal the game at 24-19 securing a place for Kenya in the final of the 2018 Vancouver Sevens.

One would assume that this is the story of how Kenya 7s found success in Vancouver, and catapulted itself into being a sevens powerhouse. It is not. Instead, it is the story of how the management of Kenya Rugby Union, sabotaged Kenya Sevens or as coach Simiyu phrased it, “They are the same people. They never change. Year in, year out.”

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Kenya became a core member of the IRB Sevens circuit in 2004. Unlike the national football, cricket and athletics bodies, Kenya Rugby Football Union (nowadays known as Kenya Rugby Union) did not receive support from the International Rugby Board, impeding investment in a countrywide developmental program, and relied on the school network for their players.

In Shujaa’s (The Kenya National Sevens Team) first season as a core member of the circuit, the star player was Oscar Osir who like Edward Rombo before him was a swashbuckling winger with pace to burn. Osir had developed his talent at Nairobi Secondary, and he, together with other players who had developed their talents in the school system such as Benyamin Ayimba at Maseno School, Dennis ‘Ironman’ Mwanja at Musingu High, Ted Omondi at St. Mary’s Yala, among others— led Kenya into their first season as a core team. Shujaa went through a steep learning curve on the international scene.

It was not until Ayimba’s appointment as coach in 2009 that Kenya shed off its tag as the whipping boy of the circuit. In his first season as coach, Kenya reached the semi-finals seven times out of nine and the final once. Collins Injera became the World Series top try scorer while his brother, Humphrey Kayange was nominated as IRB Sevens player of the year in 2009. The Ayimba-led team reached the semi-finals of the Sevens World Cup at the end of the season.

Ayimba’s next two seasons were not as impressive as the first, and neither was his replacement, Mitch Ocholla’s sole season in 2011-2012. Under pressure from the sponsors, Kenya Airways, and the IRB, KRU took their search for the next Shujaa coach abroad. In came English man Mike Friday. Friday was coach for only a season, but what a season it was. The team finished 5th in the standings. Willy Ambaka was voted into the season dream team, and, at the World Cup, at the end of the season, the team replicated its performances from three years earlier, reaching the semi-finals, with only a last-gap tackle by Englishman Dan Norton preventing Ambaka from netting a try that would have kept them in the tournament.

The next season would see the return of Benjamin Ayimba for a second time, a reign which would culminate in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April 2016. However, Ayimba’s glory did not last, as he found himself at loggerheads with the KRU board allegedly over a move to fight for the players’ rights.

However, Friday left the team at the end of the season, in almost the exact way that Simiyu would five years later. He was controversially fired by KRU and promptly reinstated just before the 2013 World Cup in Moscow. After the World Cup, he walked away completely. A new coach, South African Paul Treu, was hired, leading Shujaa in the 2014/15 season, but he would resign abruptly citing interference by some members of the KRU board. It was during Treu’s tenure that KRU reviewed player salaries leading to the senior players including Injera, Oscar Ouma, Dennis Ombachi and Billy Odhiambo, refusing to play for Kenya. Former Kenyan international Felix Ochieng, who was Treu’s assistant, was promoted to head coach for the remainder of 2014/2015 season.

The next season would see the return of Benjamin Ayimba for a second time, a reign which would culminate in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April 2016. However, Ayimba’s glory did not last, as he found himself at loggerheads with the KRU board allegedly over a move to fight for the players’ rights. Ayimba’s appointment was revoked at the end of the season and KRU was back shopping for a new coach, one who they hoped would not get under their skins as Ayimba had.

On October 17th, 2016, Innocent “Namcos” Simiyu was appointed head coach of the national sevens team. His remit was to ensure that Kenya became a serious contender at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Simiyu, a former Kenya 7s and Kenya 15s captain, took to the task with gusto, and he came up with a four-year plan. The first year was supposed to be the foundation year, to focus on the systemic concerns such as issues with player contracts and equipment that had previously affected player performances. In the second year, the team’s performance was projected to rise to the challenge of securing a place in the top six teams alongside a plan to build a Kenya Sevens B-team that would be playing five tournaments per year.

By March 2018, Simiyu’s plan was well and truly on course. The team was performing exceptionally on the circuit, and gaining plaudits for their wonderful displays on the turnover, in which they were by far the best team on the circuit. The improved physicality and tactical awareness of the team was due to the work put in by Simiyu and Geoffrey Kimani, the Strength and Conditioning Coach, combined with sessions with IRB referees that delved into the rule changes in the game. Furthermore, late in March 2018, the B-team, which Simiyu had been advocating for, had won the Victoria Sevens, with Brian Wahinya and Levy Amunga, who had been schoolmates in St. Mary’s, Yala, scoring the tries in the final.

After a stellar performance by Shujaa in the Vancouver leg of the IRB Sevens Circuit, in March 2018, Brand Kenya approached Kenya Rugby Union to appoint the team as brand ambassadors of the country. As part of their deal with the players, Brand Kenya was to pay each of the players a one-time fee of a hundred thousand Kenya shillings, and KRU instructed the players that, rather than having each player deal directly with Brand Kenya, they would take over and make sure the payments reached each individual player. The deal was made public on May 24th, 2018, by Richard Omwela, the Kenya Rugby Union board chairman.

However, by the time the team was playing in the Paris leg of the HSBC Circuit on 9th June, no money had hit the players’ personal accounts. The players, in a desperate attempt to make a point, decided to mask the ‘Make it Kenya’ logo on their national jerseys before their second game against Fiji in Paris. Shujaa beat the sevens heavyweights, winning 22-19, ending the Fijians’ 24-match unbeaten run in the circuit. Despite the win, KRU and Brand Kenya officials were furious, and Omwela promised consequences. Several sources interviewed stated that Brand Kenya had indeed paid out the money to KRU’s accounts before the Paris leg only for the money to be rerouted to take care of some pending overdrafts that KRU had. The board defended its position, stating the delay in the payment to the players had been clearly communicated through the management.

Incensed, Simiyu got embroiled in this saga, and earned the sack as a result, with his assistant, William Webster, mandated to guide the team through the World Cup, six weeks away in San Francisco, USA. Simiyu says that he had been in a meeting with the rest of the coaching staff when he received word of a disciplinary meeting constituted against the players. Simiyu went to the disciplinary meeting, requested to be heard and was told to wait outside. He obliged. According to Citizen TV, Simiyu had stormed a tribunal hearing between Brand Kenya and the Kenya Sevens team, to plead the player’s case following the fiasco in Paris. While Simiyu denies storming the meeting, he does not deny his anger at the injustice of the situation. “We were six weeks to the World Cup, and KRU initiated a disciplinary process on the players without notifying me…I felt that, as head of the program, I had to be involved because I knew the issues.”

Just like Ayimba before him, Simiyu’s tiff with the board was due to his insistence on fighting for the players.“It was more of a kangaroo court,” he says, “because the people who started the problem were the ones disciplining the players, and this did not make sense. Because the issues with regards to Brand Kenya started at the office of the CEO and the DOR (Director of Rugby), and they were solely responsible for what happened, but they are the same ones who are now disciplining the players. It was more of a cover-up so that they can sell a story to the public.”

The sacking of Simiyu, and the subsequent refusal by KRU to renew his contract, is an indicator of a dangerous pattern that has emerged in Kenya Sevens in the last few years. While some would claim that it was an individual disagreement between KRU and Simiyu, it is telling that senior players such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi, and Willy Ambaka and virtually all the players who were contracted by KRU to play for Shujaa last season have refused to play Sevens rugby this season.

Kenyans on social media reacted in anger at the move to fire Simiyu. The players, too, reacted, as they swore not to play in the World Cup as long as Simiyu was not the coach. Rashid Echesa, the former Cabinet Secretary for Sports, intervened, and, after a meeting with the KRU board led by Vice-Chairman, Thomas Opiyo, Simiyu was restored to his post. However, by the time he was reinstated, it was too late for the team. Shujaa had lost four weeks of active preparation time, and it cost them in San Francisco. After two consecutive semi-final appearances at the Sevens world cup, Shujaa failed to qualify for the quarters of the 2018 World Cup, losing their last group stage match 31-26 to Scotland, after having squandered a 28-5 lead. This was to be Simiyu’s last assignment as Kenya Sevens head coach. Despite leading the team to a record points tally of 104 points in the Circuit, KRU decided not to renew his contract, choosing instead to advertise the position. The four-year plan had now been abandoned.

The sacking of Simiyu, and the subsequent refusal by KRU to renew his contract, is an indicator of a dangerous pattern that has emerged in Kenya Sevens in the last few years. While some would claim that it was an individual disagreement between KRU and Simiyu, it is telling that senior players such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi, and Willy Ambaka and virtually all the players who were contracted by KRU to play for Shujaa last season have refused to play Sevens rugby this season. That Geoffrey Kimani also turned down the contract he was offered by KRU and instead took up an appointment as Uganda’s Strength and Conditioning coach points to deeper-lying issues within KRU.

According to Simiyu, the problems in Kenyan rugby are obvious, and one does not need a rocket science degree to point them out. First, he feels that there is a lack of proper governance within Kenyan rugby. The leadership is irrational, has issues with their integrity, and the people at the top have bought their way into the leadership of the game. Furthermore, Simiyu argues that several of the clubs are briefcase clubs (either owned by a company, or run by a few individuals, and, sometimes, just one individual), and the people use their clubs to advance their personal ambitions. “It will be more about sharing resources. That’s what happened with Kenya Sevens. They used the national team as a kitty to share, to secure votes, so that they can get elected.”

This is what had happened in 2014, when the KRU Chairman, Mwangi Muthee, together with KRU directors Godwin Kiruga and Maurice Masiga, quit in a huff (Peninah Wahome, the KRU Director of Development, would soon follow). In his resignation letter, Muthee talked about “serious questions raised by sponsors about some board members’ involvement in issues of conflict of interests in the supplying of kit to the KRU and the fraternity, questionable procurement of airline tickets worth tens of millions of shillings outside established KRU channels, questionable hotel accommodation contracts, and many other inflated bills and cases of unbecoming language to downright insulting language directed at senior management of some of our sponsors.” Muthee’s piledriver hit hard, and the national government promised to clear “the rugby mess.”

Simiyu feels that some of the people on KRU the board, are out to deliberately sabotage Kenya Sevens. “We had put up a plan how we approach the game, even in terms of pre-season, conditioning aspect, health aspect, the management and administration…by the time we were going to the World Cup, all those things were being removed. By the time our contracts were ending, it was not clear whether there would be a pre-season. There was no point basically to apply.”

Ayimba is equally blunt in his assessment of KRU. In his view, “they know where they want us to be, they don’t have a plan, neither to do they support anybody who’s got a radical idea…Right now we just have people who are happy to be in office and to be called KRU directors, as opposed to people who want to make a difference.”

On January 16th, 2019, the Kenya 7s team to the Hamilton and Sydney legs of the 2018-2019 HSBC World Sevens Series did not include any of the players who had represented Kenya at the 7s World Cup six months earlier. The players who had travelled to the World Cup had been expected to form the core of the 2018-2019 team which would challenge for Top Four status, in line with the four-year plan that had been agreed with Innocent Simiyu when he was appointed Head Coach of Kenya Sevens in 2016. That none of the senior players was named in the team for these two legs, and that the team accumulated a grand total of four points from these two legs is a sign of how quickly things have unraveled for Kenya Sevens and at the Kenya Rugby Union. This unraveling is part of an existing pattern, rather than a new event.

The Jacob Ojee-captained side was led by Paul Murunga Amunavi, the immediate former Homeboyz RFC coach, who had been appointed Simiyu’s successor. Murunga was appointed coach on the back of Homeboyz’ dominant performance in the local sevens circuit, having won four of the six tournaments, and finished second and third in the other two. In an interview with the Daily Nation, Murunga claimed that the aim was “to a build a strong side next season that will reach the medal bracket at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and go on to win the World Cup in 2021.” Speaking separately, Thomas Odundo, the Director of Rugby at KRU, offers thoughts which do not tally with Murunga’s assessment. He says, “I can’t say I can tell you what will be there in two years’ time. For instance, one, we don’t know how the World Series is going to end, I don’t know. It might go either way, we might fail to remain in the World Series”.

On February 2nd, 2019, ten months after the win over the USA in Vancouver, the Kenyans faced the Americans again. The Kenyans had faced USA after Vancouver, drawing 19-19 in the London leg of the circuit. Just over half a year later, the team is no longer the same. Gone are Willy Ambaka, Collins Injera and Nelson Oyoo, the try-getters in the last two USA-Kenya matchups. Gone too are Oscar Ouma, who was in the dream team last season, Sammy Oliech, Andrew Amonde, Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo, Dan Sikuta. Agero, Ayodi, the captain, Jeffrey Oluoch and Brian Tanga. In short, the team that was supposed to compete for the gold in Tokyo in 2020. In their place, instead, are a bunch of players who are, while talented, simply not ready to be playing at the top level. They are, in the words of Odundo, “players who had never played at that level. They were seeing people they see only on TV.” This new team was pummeled by the US, going down 41-0. What this means is that while the US and Kenya were at the same level last season, this season USA is top of the standings, while Kenya is firmly in the relegation battle.

According to the Kenya Rugby Union, lack of money is to blame for most of the challenges facing Kenya 7s, and Kenyan rugby in general. Odundo says, “We had to revise our terms of engagement, based on whatever money was available to us. The Sevens team doesn’t have a sponsor at the moment, so we don’t really have the funds to support the pay they were being given when Sportspesa was there.” On January 1st, 2018, a government tax of 35% took effect. The next day, Ronald Karauri, the Sportpesa CEO, announced the government tax meant that the betting firm could no longer continue supporting sports, and so it was cancelling all its sponsorship arrangements with Kenyan sports teams.

KRU was one of these, and it lost its main financial partner. Four months later, when Sportspesa renewed its sponsorship deals with Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, and FKF, KRU was left out in the cold. Despite this, Odundo points out, “For all of last year, KRU met all its obligations to the players, despite having no sponsors. But this year we simply had to review that.” Furthermore, all their attempts to get new sponsors have been moot. “It is ongoing, we are always having conversations with sponsors, but we haven’t had any positive response.” But, in the meantime, “…plans change…we’ve got to adjust. There’s always adjustments going on.”

While money is definitely an issue, focusing solely on it absolves KRU of all responsibility for the failures with Kenya Sevens. Critics have argued that it is KRU’s job to get money for the team, and their inability to do so is an indictment of their failure as a body. A general rule with sevens rugby, and with other sports, is that sponsors are attracted to a team that is performing well. Reflecting on this, Ayimba asks, “So, if you get rid of the people who are performing well, what is the end game?” In addition, KRU is heavily in-debt, with indications of debts of up to 100 million.

Sasha Mutai, a former KRU vice-chairman who vied for the chairmanship at the concluded March 20th KRU elections, points out that KRU dug this pit for themselves. The fact that Safari Sevens, which used to be the flagship sporting event in the country, having made losses for five years straight, thus making 2013 the last time the event was profitable. This, coupled with the fact that a KRU director was verbally abusive to Safaricom’s head of marketing, led to the communication behemoth pulling out of sponsoring the tournament, and KRU.

Innocent Simiyu, the most successful coach in the history of Kenya Sevens by virtue of points tally at the end of the season, left his role acrimoniously. So did Ayimba, who guided Kenya to its first ever Cup win in Singapore in 2016 and Mike Friday, who took Kenya to the World Cup semis, and who is currently lighting up the circuit with USA 7s.

Subsequently, corporate Kenya lost its faith with Kenya Rugby Union. Mutai argues that under the tutelage of the Omwela led board, the game has lost credibility completely, and only with a fresh start will the sponsors come back to sponsoring the Sevens team. That the national government, while promising to assist KRU, insisted that it would only do so after the elections, (perhaps waiting to see who will be elected), is a microcosm of the lack of trust that stakeholders in the game have in the KRU board and this includes Corporate Kenya, the players, the coaching staff, fans, both pitch side and online.

Innocent Simiyu, the most successful coach in the history of Kenya Sevens by virtue of points tally at the end of the season, left his role acrimoniously. So did Ayimba, who guided Kenya to its first ever Cup win in Singapore in 2016 and Mike Friday, who took Kenya to the World Cup semis, and who is currently lighting up the circuit with USA 7s. In the first six legs of the new season, Kenya Sevens has not qualified for any of the quarter-finals. There is a feeling in sections of the local rugby circle that current coach Paul Murunga is being set up to fail and that he will be fired and a new coach will be hired by KRU, probably a foreigner.

Simiyu smiles with bitterness at this prospect. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. You don’t need a foreigner to tell you. The challenges are always there. Ayimba said it, he was fired. Friday said it, he was fired. Paul Treu said it, he was fired. I’ve said the same thing, I was fired…It’s the same rat race. So long as they can’t deal with the issues, they attack the people.”

Meanwhile, KRU has shifted its expectations with the realization that this season is bust, with the conditions it has dug Kenya 7s into. While the previous plan was that, Kenya would be fighting to win several legs, this season, Odundo, the Director of Rugby at the KRU is not optimistic “We hope to get to some quarter-finals, and maybe a semi-final, which is achievable.” In addition, Odundo, the man responsible for matters rugby at the Kenya Rugby Union, points out, “I don’t know what failure is. Maybe our expectations of ourselves are too high.”

On 20th March 2019, Oduor Gangla was elected chairman of KRU. Alongside Gangla the former KRU secretary, most of the KRU directors retained their seats. In 2016, when they had been voted into office, Gangla and this crop of directors had declared themselves ‘Team Change’, but now having seen the state of Kenyan rugby during their reign, rugby observers are pessimistic about whether the next three years will be any different from the previous three.

On March 4th 2019, USA won the Las Vegas 7s. With the win, which was coincidentally the fifth consecutive time they were making a main cup final, the team rose to the top of the standings. It is not possible to look at USA’s performances without a tinge of regret, knowing that this was the level which Kenya would very well have been at had Simiyu been allowed to proceed with his plan. While the USA, a team that was at the same level as Kenya less than a year earlier tops the standings with 113 points, Kenya has a measly 18 points, which, while should ostensibly mean that the team is safe from relegation, is a sign of how low, and how fast, the Kenya Rugby Union let the team fall.

On 20th March 2019, Oduor Gangla was elected chairman of KRU. Alongside Gangla the former KRU secretary, most of the KRU directors retained their seats. In 2016, when they had been voted into office, Gangla and this crop of directors had declared themselves ‘Team Change’, but now having seen the state of Kenyan rugby during their reign, rugby observers are pessimistic about whether the next three years will be any different from the previous three.

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Carey Baraka is a becoming writer and philosopher from Kisumu, Kenya.

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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.

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Finding the Zone: Billy Kahora Takes Charge
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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

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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.

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Politics of Art: The Contradictions of Nigeria’s KABAFEST
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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.

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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.

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Eliud Kipchoge: The Making of a World Champion
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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:

“Take it from me today; forget about it, it will never happen. It’s impossible”.

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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