My Man In Somalia

In the beginning, I felt invincible. I was part of a duo in our neighbourhood, that the boys at the estate called the ‘untouchables’. They could look but they could not touch. We were army wives, married to soldiers and the kind of men you did not want to cross.

Now, not so much.

I have been counting down days, since the start of the year. My man Bwasa, a KDF sergeant is going to soon be back from Somalia. He said, this would be the mother of all Valentines, when he walked me down the aisle. I had anticipated this day for years but we were unable to settle on a date because Bwasa’s combat mission dates were unpredictable.

Of Rugby, Life And Love

In November 2015, I was invited to give a talk to a corporate staff audience. A new head had been appointed and he was keen on inspiring his vision on teamwork. I racked my brain for an appropriate talk subject and settled on rugby. The one game that taught me trust, commitment and shared vision, the essential ingredients of team work. Many people went to university for different reasons. Mine was unequivocally to play rugby. I wanted to play for University of Nairobi’s Mean Machine for it was a team that had left such a great impression on my mind. A university side that punched above its weight division and had produced some of Kenya’s greatest sevens players.

The year that I joined Machine, we lost virtually the entire team who had moved on after their final year. We were fresh faced rookies, full of enthusiasm but seriously untested. Our first big game was a true test of character. We went to play club side Nondies and got hammered 70 nil. A most humiliating experience. Girlfriends have left campus boys for less.

1 Rugby Tournament, 6 Beers and a Pastor named Johnny

Safari sevens

Wanjiru Waithaka is a Kenyan author whose debut novel The Unbroken Spirit, won the third prize in the adult fiction category of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2007; the most prestigious literary award in the country.  The novel was published in 2005 by the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) and attracted rave reviews from the critics. She shares a short story about sport, betrayal and acceptance.

I received an unexpected call from an ex who I hadn’t seen in years the other day.

Leo* was the quintessential bad boy. Over six foot tall, ebony skin, perfect white teeth, chiselled jaw line and a physique sculpted from years of playing rugby that made women swoon. A busted knee took him out of the game but he still looked good. Years before the bald head look became trendy, Leo wore it with panache. He was also cocky as hell.

When we spoke recently, he sounded a lot more mature. Getting kids will do that to you. The cockiness was still there though. I found it endearing while we dated. Now it sounded contrived and mildly irritating. Clearly I too have matured and what I find attractive in a guy is very different from 18 years ago.

Leo and I started dating when I was almost two years into my first job. He was a gentleman – opening car doors for me, pulling out chairs for me in restaurants, pouring my drink, lending me his coat when it got cold. All the little things that make a girl feel special. Other aspects of the relationship were not so savoury but I ignored the red flags which should have warned me that he was trouble. Like always calling me when he was broke meaning I ended up paying for our dates. Attending my first rugby tournament, Safari Sevens, in 1997 finally opened my eyes to reality.

Of Jonah Lomu and Forgotten Heroes

Jonah Lomu RIP

I woke up on a Wednesday morning to the news of Jonah Lomu’s passing. It was a brief WhatsApp message, “Your rugby hero Lomu has died”. I immediately trooped on to social media to pay my tribute. It was a trip down memory lane for those who remembered the 90s when Lomu first burst into the scene in superior form. He became an instant sports celebrity. His size, might and exploit on the field was stuff of legend. In university, we would comb the town looking for bars with TV screens that were subscribed to DSTV SuperSport. We would do anything to catch a rugby game including showing up at a guys’ house at 5am to catch the game because of time zone difference. Sometimes we could not afford more than beer, hardly enough to get you even tipsy but the chance of catching a live game was all the comfort we required. The team that did it for us was the All Blacks and the man who everyone wanted to see and to be was Jonah Lomu. The friendly giant from New Zealand, a beast on the pitch, devastating in attack and solid in defense. Even those of us who played in the pack, traditional slower roles on the pitch wanted to run ball like Lomu.

There is something about your first sports heroes. That personal performance on the playing field that turns the casual fan into a fanatic. In basketball there was Michael Jordan of Chicago Bulls. Ronaldinho, the Brazilian footballer. Michael Schummacher in Formula 1 racing. Serena Williams in women’s tennis. Sachin Tendulkar the legendary Indian cricketer. Mike Tyson in pro boxing and Paul Tergat in cross country. They were irreplaceable and unforgettable. Players who come through once in a long cycle to turn a sport on its head and achieve the impossible. One can only feel privileged to have watched them in their prime. Lomu was cut from the same cloth. He was probably the only rugby player who was recognised globally by non-rugby sport fans.

Sports is a great ambassador for any country. New Zealand, a country of 4 million people has produced a constant mill of star performers perhaps only in manner that Kenya produces star athletes. Ask me anything about New Zealand and all I have are the legendary exploits of the All Blacks. I cannot name the NZ prime minister or any other detail about country other than the aspiration to watch a Live All Black home game one day, when prosperity shines.

Kenyan rugby playing style was influenced a great deal by NZ running rugby style. It was the contrast between the set piece styles of traditional Northern hemisphere sides adopted by pioneer local teams like Nondescripts and Harlequins to the inspiration of Southern hemisphere running rugby that would become the signature style of rebel ‘miro’ squads of Mean Machine and Mwamba. Running rugby, makes the sport entertaining. A few days before, Kenya sevens team qualified for the Olympics games in Rio in a manner that was a tribute to our entertaining running style.

Athletics is our answer to New Zealand rugby but ask any Kenyan to name their top 10 Kenyan greats and most will hit a blank after Kipchoge, Tergat and Rudisha. Kemboi might register but only because of his post-race theatrics.

We rarely celebrate our sports heroes. Harambee Stars were treated like trash only recently during the preparation for a vital World Cup qualifying away game in Cape Verde. Subjected to a 16 hour flight ordeal in a Fokker aircraft to Cape Verde, less than 3 hours to recover and no one was surprised when they lost by 2 goals. If football, the country’s biggest sport gets that type of shabby treatment imagine what’s in store for the fringe sports like hockey, basketball, cricket and boxing. Film maker Jackie Lebo, in her awarding winning documentary ‘The Last Fight’ captures the plight of Kenyan boxers returning home as champions to an empty airport and a bus trip back to their houses to reclaim their destitute lives.

Sports heroes are bit like war heroes. They put their lives on line for the love of country to return home to be despised and ignored. They say, “A sports hero dies twice, the first time at retirement”. The Kenyan landscape is littered with broken and forgotten sports stars. The tragic stories of Henry Rono, Wangila Napunyi, Suleiman Bilal, Congestina Achieng, Maurice Odumbe where depression has become the recurring footnote of a great sporting career. What happens to Julius Yego when he stops winning?

Perhaps the take home could be drawn from Jonah Lomu’s own journey who bravely fought a kidney illness that ended his career prematurely, “You have to try and stay up and be happy and positive about it. We have no other choice. Your second choice isn’t really a choice. It’s just you giving up”. Next time you meet a sports hero on the street, take a moment to put their reality into perspective, then take a bow and thank them for their moment of greatness.

Why Do Men Care So Much About Sport?

There used to be one soft drink advert they run on television a while back where one of the lead characters gets so agitated by the results of a soccer game they were watching that he stuck his foot through the telly in disgust. Next we know he is leaving our screens on stretcher, his foot still stuck in the telly, muttering his team’s anthem.

It might be a surprise to you but the average guy isn’t too far removed from the seemingly deranged character in the soft drink advert. How come guys care so much about sport? It is a tough one, because sometimes we behave like we are deranged when our favourite team loses, drinking, moaning and becoming depressed for days. My mother used to tell me I was crazy, but as far as I was concerned, this was normal guy behaviour. I mean I could name my child Rudisha Bolt Pala and be considered only mildly eccentric.

What is about football that brings even the most wayward of husbands home the night Man United is playing the final. Why for example can’t he engage in family responsibilities with the same gusto? There is a complex and before you accuse me of being some tea-loving, arm chair critic please! Do note that I am a sports guy as well. Okay, granted I have not been competitive sports in years but I care as much about sport as the next guy. If I were put in the same room with the man of the century, Nelson Mandela and in the corner was a TV set showing a rugby game between two captivating sides, such as the Boks and the All Blacks, I would be frequently distracted from the world’s favourite grandpa, as I gravitate slowly towards the screen to become more engrossed in the rugby game and miss out on Madiba’s precious nuggets of reality.

Obviously sport connects with something deeply rooted in the male psyche.  The conventional wisdom about sport is that it is valuable beyond the experience itself, that it builds masculine character. The great chunks of their lives that men spend as spectators of sports can be partly explained, of course by intrinsic interest. Professional athletes are often incredibly elegant and even high school sports tournament are filled with high drama and can be a delight to watch. But seriously, game after game, sport after sport, season after season, it can’t be that interesting. The same moves are made, passes thrown and caught, championships won and lost. Visual, aesthetic interest alone is not enough to explain the emotional commitment of male fans.

For guys sport provides a kind off state religion, something they can care about and share it in a way that reaffirms the most basic component of their identity. While growing up, singing the school parade grounds every week stirred nothing within- in the end just another school exercise. But in college on Saturdays out on the rugby grounds, waiting for Mean Machine – the Varsity side to take on the ‘enemy’, it would have seemed to me an emotional thrill forsaken, if we had failed to rise to our feet to celebrate the institution in song by singing along to the club anthem that had given to this disparate collection of men, so grand and beautiful a game.

I guess this aspect of male preoccupation with sport, although pathetic, is more or less benign. The darker side of it though is that because the subtler, personal rewards and pleasures of sports are played down, in fact often destroyed by this approach, the pursuit becomes a never ending one; one’s sense of achievement depends on entirely on winning. Absolute team loyalty, unquestioning obedience to authority, respectful fear and hatred for the opposition, disregard of individual injury and suffering all justified in the name of victory- these are the axioms of the sport system.

So I don’t about the rest of you guys, but I think it is about time, I put some perspective into my life. First thing after the Barclays Premier league season, I am going to start paying more attention to things that should matter to me like my work, friends and above all my family.


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