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Rebels Without A Pause

Meet some members of the drinking club with a running problem

I first heard about the hash about four years ago from one mouthy character in a pub, and assumed that it was his own invention. He portrayed the group as a pack of seemingly demented men and women who regularly jog through the neighbourhoods of Nairobi. About a year ago I learned that the hash was for real, and it wasn’t long before I got very interested in what was once described as the fastest-growing ‘club’ of the 1980s.

Hash? Be it food, plant, or game, hash is a curious term, many-fold in usage, deep in double-entendre. And fun as hell, say converts of the ‘sport’ of hashing. Broadly viewed, hash suggests disorder, mediocrity, tough times. As in a hash house eatery, the British parallel to the bar and grill of America: quick, cheap, basic, dirty. Or in a meal of hash: a chopped meat and potatoes mix that is not particularly palatable to the eye, yet adequate grub when there are hungry mouths to feed and money is tight.

Beyond food, though, hash has a decadent side. Although this is a story about a sub-culture of running and in no way implies or endorses drug use, you have to be pretty naïve not to have heard about the hallucinogenic effects of smoking or eating hashish or ‘hash’, a potent form of marijuana.

“The rules are: There are no rules,” any hasher will proclaim.

A hash run is a drug-free exhibition of the above values. Ordinarily, we of normal running give little heed to this odd mishmash of cross country and drinking… until those who hash leave their habitat and are sighted at a conventional running event, donning singlets of peculiar inscription:

‘Hash House Harriers’ below the image of a runner beer mug in hand. Which leaves us to wonder: Who are these people? And how does basic food, cheap booze, naughty songs, disorder, and running all blend (or hash) together?

The Nairobi Hash Harriers are an interesting lot. During my interaction with them I learned a bit about just laying back and having a ball the hash way. While a hash is fundamentally a non-competitive cross country run, it is better to try to conceptualise it as a combination hunt without animals, an orienteering meet without compasses, conducted in the atmosphere of a fraternity party. The cross country terrain of a hash may just as likely include city streets, malls, and railroad tracks as it does parks, forests, and streams. During one hash run through part of Karura forest, the beautiful scenery made me appreciate Professor Wangari Maathai’s point. A hash has no watches, measured length nor winners… but rewards aplenty.

Hashing is both a ritual and an anarchy. “The rules are: There are no rules,” any hasher will proclaim. The only rules apply to post-hash drinking practices. Hashes are traditionally concluded with a ceremony featuring group beer toasts known as ‘down-downs’ during which the head official of the hash, known as the grand master/mistress, is responsible for finding reasons – the more ridiculous, the better – to call for a down-down. Reasons might be to celebrate a runner’s ‘virgin’ (first) hash, anniversary hash, or ‘naming’ hash. The Nairobi grandmaster goes by the name ‘Da voice’ and he picked on me on one occasion for standing around without a beer in my hand. (All hashers are known by off-colour nicknames derived from a personality trait, physical feature, or hashing behaviour.)

“They call me Gadget,” says Raju Singh Bharaj, “because I’m the one who is stuck with the responsibility of blowing the bugle very time the trail is sighted.” If the mug leaves a drinker’s lips during a down-down, alas! It is turned upside-down over the offender’s head. (Increased awareness of alcohol abuse has generally moderated après-hash beer consumption). Hashes permit non-drinkers to quaff soda or water during a down-down, and I was told, but not entirely convinced, that some hashes are conducted without alcohol; but believe me, it is extremely difficult to remain sober in a party where everybody is drinking.

“I started hashing somewhere in the late seventies. I have to look up my old T-shirts to be sure,”

Today hashing is a global, if little known, pursuit. Twelve hundred clubs (all known as Hash House Harriers or HHH) are listed in the paperback Harrier International World Hash Handbook, the ‘bible’ of the sport in the absence of anything more divine. Going to Ho Chi Minh City? You’ll find all the information you need on its hash scene. How about Antarctica? They have it, too – with a warning: “Be sure to call ahead for weather conditions.”

Clubs in 130 countries are registered, with HHH most prevalent in outposts of the former British Empire. The United States is home to about 200 HHH, second only to Australia.

Hashers view themselves as ‘drinking clubs with a running problem’. Their motto: “If you have half a mind, that’s all it takes.” Nairobi Hashers hold weekly or fortnightly runs that may draw from 50 to 160 participants, more when the location is easily accessible and the weather conducive.

In fact, I got to learn from Jagi ‘Toppix’ Gakunju that there are two alternative hashes co-ordinated by the same committee because of the large number of participants. All runs are held on Monday, what a way to start the week!

Hashers love facts; “Most heart attacks happen before 9am on Monday mornings. We are the only people who take Monday in style,” says ‘Toppix’. In rotating years, Interhash gatherings of 500 or more runners are held all over the world. This year’s interhash meet will be held in Zimbabwe. Kenya hosted an Inter-Africa hash in Machakos about two years ago.

The Nairobi HHH is unique in many ways, says Bill Kirk, a veteran hasher of over 600 runs. “I started hashing somewhere in the late seventies. I have to look up my old T-shirts to be sure,” he says. “Hashing then was more a ‘mzungu’ thing, mostly expatriates. Not many Africans had cars then and it was difficult for them to get to the hashing locations.

That’s changed, as I witnessed. Bill, who has run hashes in different parts of the world, says the Nairobi HHH is dominated by locals unlike in other parts of the world. Also unlike other hashes, the Nairobi HHH holds weekend hashes. “These are very popular and are held in out-of-town locations like Ngong forest, Mt Kenya; we even had a run in Rusinga Island which was memorable,” says Bill.

“If you take things too seriously, you won’t make it as a hasher.”

Make no mistake. Hashing is a different running experience. It boasts a culture and lexicon of its own, with the emphasis on fun. The running, while quite arduous (hashes may last as long as an hour and a half; your superfit correspondent almost collapsed), is viewed as little more than an excuse to work up a strong après-hash thirst. You do not have to run the entire distance and there is always a short run for the slower (read lazier) hashers who run down slopes and walk up hills. Accordingly, serious runners are sometimes disappointed.

Indeed, hashing may be viewed as the alter-ego to serious running. Whereas most competitors in road races are keenly concerned with getting accurate splits, running a course that is measured to the exact advertised distance, and receiving their money’s worth in T-shirt and goodies, the hasher just wants to let loose and have fun – and do a bit of running along the way. “It’s fun and dirty and there’s no ego involved,” observes Sue ‘Glug Glug’ Norris who comes all the way from Thika to join the fun. “You dress in the worst stuff you have because you never know what you’ll be going through. It is the ultimate escape.”

For every runner who finds hashing to be non-parallel among recreational outlets, another finds it pointless or stupid. “If you take things too seriously,” advises Glug Glug, “you won’t make it as a hasher.”

To understand the nitty-gritty of hashing, say the sport’s converts, you have to do it. In lieu of the real thing, a run-through of some basic ‘hashology’ should help you decide if you want to hash or pass. One hasher who wouldn’t give me her nickname (so we will just call her ‘Pretty Face’) admitted that she joined the hash for social contacts. “Now I’m hooked, and it is the only way I can exercise.”

More than rules, tradition regulates (sort of) the parameters of a hash. A hash begins when two or three runners (hares) set out in advance of the other runners (hounds) and blaze a trail by marking white dots of flour or chalk (hashmarks) on the ground or on trees. Most courses are three to six miles; exact distances are irrelevant.

Sounds simple enough – cross country running in the spirit of orienteering – but things get muddled before long. Every so often the hounds encounter a circled X, a circled dot, four dots in a square, or some other special mark on the trail; this is known as a checkmark and denotes a change in trail direction. From here it is up to the fast hounds (a.k.a. front-running bastards or FRBs) to go off in search of the new trail. Any hare worth a mug of beer, though, will effectively thwart the pursuit by inducing the hounds into following promising, albeit bogus, trails from each checkmark. The more confusion among the hounds, the more successful the hares have been.

Hounds sniffing out a lead shout ‘checking’ when they are inspecting but have not verified a trail’s legitimacy. ‘Checking’ differs from yelling ‘looking’, which means the hounds are lost and searching for the trail. Finally, when the hounds verify a new trail direction, they call out ‘on-on’, and the run proceeds. False trails may dead-end some distance from the checkmark or loop back to the checkmark. Three dots denote a dead-end. When FRBs follow a wrong trail, they must run backwards to return to the checkmark.

“A lot of us suffer from psychiatric disorders; mania, schizophrenia… my kind of crowd,”

As a virgin hasher, I was overwhelmed by the rich lore and tradition of hashing, and I had to continuously remind myself that three dots across the trail means the trail you have been following is false. The real trail picks up somewhere else, which allows the slower hounds to catch up, thus keeping everybody reasonably close throughout the hash and the run non-competitive.

You can’t win in the hash, as I painfully learned. Some of the slower runners that I had left panting in my wake reappeared 30 minutes later ahead of me, simply because the long run loops around to join the short run at one point in the trail. Slower hounds approaching the pack of lead dogs may call out “are-you?” (on the trail), at which the FRBs give an appropriate response: ‘checking’, ‘looking’, or ‘on-on’. If this built-in system of checks and balances sounds orderly, it is not. “Almost anything can – and usually does – go wrong,” notes ‘Captain Nemo’.

None of this is taken seriously. Hounds often carry whistles or horns and herald an ‘on-on’ with two short blasts. ‘Gadget’ makes an awful lot of noise with that bugle. Shrewd FRBs may also cut the course if they think they’ve figured out the true direction of the hash. If wrong, however, these short-cutting bastards (SCBs) face intense haranguing and a certain down-down at the conclusion of the run.

Down-downs are typically held in a club, a park, or in a bar in the mould of a hash house. The extent of après-hash drinking and carrying on varies with the hash; expect to hear plenty of innuendo. “Outlandish things are said,” says Creamed Rice. “But if you know the person, you know they’re joking.” In the tacky tradition of the hash house, only the cheapest drink and food is served. And nobody calls anybody by their real name.

Crude and rude as hashing can get, hares and hounds usually propagate from the white-collar core of Kenya’s recreational runners. Indeed, likely to be found in this running club are normally upright, well-educated runners who hash with all their heart, soul, and party-animal lust. Yet hashing isn’t all B-type free spirits, according to John ‘The Missionary’ Edwards. “We have a real mix, all types of personalities”.

“Teachers, lawyers, doctors some quiet, serious types you wouldn’t think would hash,” he says. Maybe they come for the shock value – dirty jokes, drinking songs, and political incorrectness are the post-hash staples. Or maybe they’re under the stranglehold of the rat-race that spells Nairobi and need the hash to step out of character and decompress. “A lot of us suffer from psychiatric disorders; mania, schizophrenia… my kind of crowd,” says one shirt-less bearded man whose name I didn’t get.

Hashing appeals to people who don’t want to deal with rules or authority,” notes Aggrey ‘Eletrocuted’ Chabeda, a soft-spoken engineer who spends Mondays on the hash. “It’s a stress reliever,” adds Alfred ‘Fire’ Alemo, who plays and coaches squash besides hashing.

But to scrutinise any aspect of hashing goes against the spirit of the hash. As ‘Pretty Face’ puts it, “We use a hash as a big excuse to socialise.” Nothing, as most hashers will readily agree, tastes better than a cold beer after a hot hash. The sweetest thing about the hash is that class, professionalism and inhibitions are left behind.

Hashes are an opportunity to laugh at society’s stuck up tendencies – and at yourself. To echo the sentiments of one ageing hasher who begged not to be named (he has a corporate image to uphold), “Hashing is like playing in the woods and being a kid again – and I’m a kid at heart.”

#ThrowBackThursdays This article was originally published in June 1999 for the Saturday magazine and enabled by the founding editor, Mundia Muchiri. I haven’t run a hash since.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

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