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Because I always feel like running! Stories of how East Africa conquered the world of athletics reign at the Macondo Literary Festival

Abebe Bikila wins marathon
By Anne Eboso

During the recently concluded World Athletics Championships in Doha, Kenya finished second with a total of 11 medals. And now, the world is abuzz with news of the greatest marathoner ever Eliud Kipchoge, who will be attempting a historic target of running a marathon in 1 hour and 59 minutes: INEOS 1:59 Challenge. Ever wondered when Kenya started ruling the tracks and road, that it has now become a culture?

Storyteller Ogutu Muraya during the Macondo Festival at Kenya Cultural Centre, Nairobi.

This will be the first marathon I will watch through historical lenses thanks to Ogutu Muraya’s ‘Because I feel like running’ show which premiered at the inaugural Macondo Literary Festival in Nairobi 27 – 29 September 2019. The literary festival at the Kenya Cultural Centre brought together, for the very first time on the continent, writers from the Portuguese and English speaking Africa, for conversations, debates and readings on African histories featured in their fictional and non-fictional works. The festival artists shared one thing in common: their literary works leaned on historical experiences of their countries and to a larger extent, Africa. And Ogutu’s work was no different. He is a multi-talented writer, theatre-maker and storyteller. He is extensively published and his performances have been featured in several theatres and international festivals around the world. Most of his stories are inspired by true events driven by the past and living memories about cultural, social and political events in the country and the region.

Ogutu recently returned home to stay. He was studying for his Masters in Arts at the prestigious DAS Theatre, Amsterdam University of Arts, and Macondo Literary Festival provided the perfect backdrop for Because I always feel like running storytelling performance as the homecoming treat.

The first African to win an Olympic gold medal – Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila wins marathon barefoot
Photo courtesy

The performance wove through historical, documentary and personal narratives in a study of endurance running.

Because I feel like running was a one man show. Ogutu wove through significant incidences in the athletics history of Sub Saharan Africa focusing on three athletes: Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania. He told the stories so beautifully I felt I was part of the audience of the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics – the period within which these stories fall. Prior to watching this show, there were some names that I had never heard about. Not in any history class.

Apparently, the emergence of East Africa’s athletic prowess in middle and long-distance categories coincided with the independence period. The late 50s and early 60s saw many African countries attain self-rule and with it came the politics of identity and nationalism. The success of athletes became tied to the process of nation building and creation of new identities in a postcolonial context. It was an opportunity to reclaim the lost dignity stripped off by colonization.

Ogutu fused popular cheering slogans like “Steam panda, steam steam panda panda and Tension shuka, tension tension shuka shuka,” to involve his audience in the story. Then he spotlit Abebe Bikila, an unknown Ethiopian athlete who ran barefoot to shatter the previous record as he became the first Sub Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal, a feat achieved at 1960 Rome Olympics. His only pair of running shoes was worn out. The replacement he got was too tight and gave him blisters. He threw them away and decided to run how he had trained – barefoot.  And won!

This significant win marked the genesis of Sub Saharan Africa dominance in long distance races. He went on to defend his title at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – but this time with shoes – becoming the first athlete in history to win two consecutive marathons. Abebe was going for the third Olympics medal but was unfortunately involved in a road accident that left him paralyzed, leading to his death 41 years.

The legend of Kipchoge Keino

Legend of Kip Keino
Photo Courtesy

The legendary Kipchoge Keino was at the 1964 Olympics but his flame was yet to light. He finished 5th in the 5,000m and missed qualification for final of 1,500m.   

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Keino suffered severe abdominal pains caused by a gall bladder infection. His doctors warned him against participating in the races because any strain to his body would cause great harm and could even lead to death. He ignored the warnings.  The pains intensified during the 10,000m race. With just two laps to go, he collapsed on the tracks and was later disqualified for getting off track despite finishing the race. Naftali Temu won this particular race becoming Kenya’s first ever Olympic gold medalist.  Four days later, Kip Keino was at it again in 5000m race. He marginally won a silver medal at the line.

On the day of his final race, the 1,500m race, Kip Keino overslept. Yes, he ran late for the Olympics. He boarded a bus but later alighted because of traffic jam and ran the remaining two miles to the Olympics stadium. He went on to win the 1,500m race with a historic margin of 20m, beating race favourite, American Jim Ryun – a three-time gold medalist for the same race. Kip Keino became the greatest middle and long distance runner of his time.

The little known story of John Stephen Akhwari

Stephen Akhwari
Photo Courtesy

Ogutu’s final story was about little known marathoner John Stephen Akhwari who represented Tanzania at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. At one point during the 42km race, he cramped due to the high Mexican altitude that he wasn’t accustomed to. As if that was not enough, he collided with another runner and fell, badly wounding his knee and dislocating a joint. He also smashed his shoulder on the pavement. After seeing his injuries, most observers assumed that he would pull out of the race. He didn’t.

He received medication which required heavy bandaging, and returned to the race. His pace was much slower as he limped for much of the remaining distance. But he did not give up. Some athletes started dropping out of the race, he wasn’t one of them. Despite being repeatedly urged to quit the race, his resolve to finish it was intact.

Finally, Ogutu took the audience through the heart wrenching moment when Akhwari after pushing his body to the farthest limits of human endurance, crossed the finish line; the sun was already setting down and just a handful of people were cheering him on (thousands had already left the stadium). He finished the race more than an hour after the Ethiopian gold medalist crossed the finishing line.

When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.” Akhwari would later recover from his injuries and continue running long distance races. He was a good runner, but his courage, perseverance and dedication in the face of adversity in the 1968 Olympics was what history will remember him. He is an inspiration to the human race on the boundaries of human possibilities.

A tale of perseverance and conquest

Ruth Chepngetich DOHA MARATHON
Ruth Chepng’etich wins the Doha 2019 World Athletics Championship women’s marathon.

In between the stories, Ogutu captured stories of runners he’s been trailing during their training in Ngong Hills and the difficult conditions that some of them live in. As they effect their training regimen religiously, they are optimistic that one day, any of them will rise above and conquer the world. Become a force to reckon with in athletics even as they deal with poverty, doping challenges and fake agents. Without a doubt, the performance was brilliantly executed by one of Kenya’s best storytellers.

Tales that allow us to reminisce as we cheer Eliud Kipchoge INEOS 1:59 Challenge, him running in Vienna in his Nike shoes, while I try not to unsee a 36-year-old Abebe Bikila running barefoot in the streets of Rome. Never forgetting how Kipchoge Keino defied all illness during the 1968 Olympics to prove that ‘no human is limited‘. And the zeal with which John Stephen Akhwari ran the 1968 marathon reminding us that the most important goal in a marathon is not to win but to finish the race.

Anne Eboso is the Founder of Rusinga Cultural Festival. Rusinga Festival 2019 happens December 19 – 20 on Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

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