The words destiny and fate are often spoken in the same breath to mean the same thing… inevitable events predestined by uncontrollable forces. But regardless of how we use these words, ultimately, its our choice on the action we take … to ride the waves and let fate guide us or to grab an axe and curve our own destiny.
There is a soccer team in Kenya called Gor Mahia F.C. Its one of the most popular soccer teams in the country, formally established in 1968 with some of its original leaders being politicians like the late Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga. When Gor Mahia team has a game, the whole Nairobi City goes on a code red alert: folks stay close to their cell phones and constantly update each other on game progress. “What’s the score? Are they trailing?” they ask.
If Gor Mahia is trailing then the markets and stores close down, cars and public transport reroute, birds change their migration pattern and chickens return home early. The city comes to a stand still and dark clouds cover the skies.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves here. Lets start from the very beginning.
My friend and I arrived at the Jomokenyatta Airport at 10am on a Wednesday morning, from our soccer try-outs in Germany. We were 18years old and although two of the best soccer players in Kenya, we had not made the cut and the German team had send us back home with the best wishes on our future endeavors. But one thing was evident as we walked through the terminal: our quest had made us famous.
Traditional women danced and welcomed us home. Newspaper reporters bombarded us with questions and we were whisked from one TV station to another, doing interviews and telling the young boys to never give up on their dreams.
“So Mr. Karanja, what’s the next step for you?” a journalist asked.
I pondered the question with uncertainty. “We get back on the field and do what we do best: work hard and improve on our game.”
My friend Oluoch interjected. “We will just go back to our clubs and pray that more professional opportunities come our way in future.”
I looked at Oluoch and nodded in agreement. He was my best friend and together we played for the Kenya Commercial Bank Soccer Club, a team that had just been recently promoted to the Premier League. We were a team composed of young talent and even though very few folks knew about us, we were surprisingly good. The bank had promised us jobs and we had vowed to stick it out until we got hired. This would guarantee us a future in our lives after soccer.
“So you are facing Gor Mahia this weekend, am sure your club is happy to have you boys back,” the reporter continued.
Since we weren’t a popular team, people never showed up for our games but when we played against Gor Mahia, the City Stadium was always packed to capacity. The Gor Mahia fans called us the little midgets, for no matter how badly we got whooped, we never stopped running. Tuvichana pwana… young lads, they called us.
Finally at 2pm in the afternoon and tired of the paparazzi sniffing around us, I said goodbye to my friend Oluoch and headed home to my parents’ house.
I lived in Kibera, five kilometers from Nairobi City. Our home was the largest slum in Nairobi and the second largest in Africa: a cluster of shanties lacking access to basic necessities including water and electricity. Hygiene was horrible and diseases like cholera were rampage. My life outside soccer was a reminder that fame and wealth don’t always go together.
Our shanty was made of mud, wood, paper and corrugated roofing: a two bed roomed home with my parents occupying one room, my brother, sister and I taking the other. The houses were huddled so close together such that it was hard to walk in between.
Oluoch on the other hand lived in Pioneer Estate in a gated community. His father owned a car and a motorcycle and he had never been on a bus his whole life. I envied his life and wished that I had been born into such privilege. My friends and teammates didn’t know where I lived and I had gone an extra mile to deceive them by boarding the wrong buses on my way home. I was ashamed that I lived in the slums.
Post Colonialism had led to urbanization and folks had fled their villages in search of jobs and opportunities in the city. Some folks in Nairobi lived like Kings while others scraped for a living. I held a strong belief in my heart that the real Africa was the one that lies beyond the skyscrapers and tar roads: where the elephants trumpeted at night and the whooshing sound of the river serenaded the land.
Every home has its story, and this was mine.
I walked through the pathway cutting between people’s homes and they yelled out frantic greetings. They asked me if I had brought them anything from Germany and when I said no, they lost interest in me and shifted their focus to other matters. The market in Kibera was alive in the afternoon and women sold their wares on the railroad and fled when a train approached, only to return a few minutes later. In the distance, stray dogs feasted through piles of stinking trash.
My family was happy to see me yet disappointed that Oluoch and I hadn’t signed a big contract in Germany.
Saturday came and our team, KCB faced a big huddle against Gor Mahia. We went to lunch as a team at the Bama Market at 11am although the game was at 4. We ate ugali, an African cake made of wheat flour, with fried beef, and engaged in nervous conversation. We were scared of facing Gor Mahia and it showed in our eyes. Most of us were 18 years old and we had grown up watching the Gor Mahia players on TV, and idolizing them.
At 2pm, and at the request of our coach, a witchdoctor, an old man from the village arrived and gave each of us an egg. This was supposed to counter the opponents’ witchcraft powers and we were supposed to hold onto the egg until right before the game. We were too young to believe in witchcraft but we did it anyway to calm our screaming nerves.
At 3.30 pm we walked into a full City Stadium to cheers and jeers from more than 30,000 fans. You know that you are in trouble when you are playing against a team that has its own anthem and Gor Mahia did. The vuvuzuelas sang and the drums vibrated in the air. I felt like I was walking into my own execution… so many people yelling out threats… saying that they were going to visit our homes at night. We knew that a storm was coming… felt it.
We jogged around the field warming up, and stopped suddenly when we heard a scream. It was our goalkeeper. We ran to his aid and our faces turned ashy at the sight of a dozen chicken legs hanging on the goal post. This was pure witchcraft and we had expected it but hadn’t anticipated its nerve rattling effect. We held on tightly to our eggs… too tight.
“Over there!” someone yelled and we turned in horror and watched as a rooster ran across the field pausing occasionally to crow. This was not a good sign.
“I broke my egg!” a player cried and we all fell deathly silent. Things were not looking up for us.
I looked up into the bleachers and saw the bank managers… I mean, the real ones: the general managers and bosses who called shots country wide on banking affairs. It was the only game they attended in a year and I thought about the promise they had made me four months ago to give me a paper-pushing job. Money was tight at home and I needed the job like yesterday.
Money. There was one advantage we had over Gor Mahia, and that was money. We played soccer for a bank, and the bank secretly used its resources to do the only thing that would give us a chance at winning the game. They hired the services of a referee who couldn’t be bought and who wasn’t afraid of witchcraft. We hired a white man to officiate the game and needless to say, the fans were livid. An angry uproar from the Gor Mahia fans shook the stadium when they saw the white referee ride into the stadium on a motorcycle. They laughed nervously and told him that he wouldn’t leave the stadium alive. The war was about to begin.
I looked at my friend Olouch and we nodded knowingly at each other, trying to draw strength. We had botched our tryouts in Germany: we were not going to fail again. The game started with a bang.
Our secret weapon. He was a tiny striker, five two tall, name unkown. We had recruited him from High school and his two legs put together equaled the thigh size of one the opponents. Gor Mahia players were over confident and that was their mistake. Right before half time, our tiny striker zigzagged between the huge Gor Mahia defenders and scored. You could here a pin drop in the stadium… confusion, shock.
In those few seconds, I could clearly picture the markets and stores closing down as the news of the game spread like wild fire. There was still hope though, if only Gor Mahia could equalize. The second half came and the Gor Mahia fans sang to encourage their team. The opponents raided us mercilessly and each raid brought them a little bit closer to our goal… hope… false hope. We had studied them since childhood. They had two strikers: one, a bull of a boy who kicked the ball forward and ran around defenders. We were young and faster, and he fizzled out like a candle in the wind. The other striker liked to attack the left flank of the field. He would run fast, pretend like he was crossing the ball, fake and zigzag around a defender. Our defender took the ball from him as soon as he faked the first time.
We defended our lead with crisp precision and the agility of youth, and the fans didn’t like what they were seeing. They became very agitated when they realized that they were about to loose.
Ten minutes before the game was over. Something told me to look up and when I did, I saw a dark cloud heading towards me. At first I didn’t understand, but at a second glance I realized that it was a shower of stones. They were coming from the left side of the field and dropping around us like hailstorms.
“Run!” someone yelled.
We turned and headed for the main gate entrance but no sooner had we taken a few steps than the gate flew open and riot police with German Shepherd dogs flanked the field, guns pointed at ready. And then all hell broke loose as the report of gunfire resonated through the air.
“Down! Everybody on the ground!” Our coach yelled and we ran back on the grass and flattened ourselves down. The wind was however blowing in all directions and clouds of tear gas drifted into the field above us. The stuff burned our eyes and we cried. I looked around for my friend Oluoch and found him. “You okay?” I shouted. He nodded and stared at me with red eyes.
We raised our heads to the sound of pounding boots and saw the dogs and policemen chasing after people, clubbing some, arresting others. Men and women vaulted over barricade gates like the Olympics. Our soccer uniforms kept us safe and other than being scared out of our minds, nobody touched us. And then the wind of change began to blow … the unbelievable sight of police dogs retreating with tails between their legs. Teargas canisters were caught midair and doused in buckets of water: the battle hardened fans fired back with rocks and stones that somehow appeared mysteriously. A group of policemen scooped the confused white referee… or red referee from the field and threw him and his motorcycle into an armored truck. But when the vehicle tried to leave the stadium, a hailstorm of stones brought it back inside squealing tires. The fans wanted the white man dead: his crime? A good question. The riots raged outside unabated. Nobody including the cops was getting out. We were trapped!
“I’m so tired of this life,” my friend Oluoch said, referring to the absurdity of the moment. I sensed it in his voice too. It was the same thing every year for Gor Mahia fans, just different folks in the hospital… the players were innocent. It was why we had gone for tryouts in Germany, to look for better opportunities and a better life. I was tired too for a different reason. I was tired of living in the slums.
“What should we do?” I asked between coughs.
Oluoch was quiet for a long time. “Lets go to America,” he finally said and I looked up in surprise. The thought of America had never crossed my mind.
“Really? How?” I asked.
He explained. “Lets apply to a hundred soccer colleges. I’m sure one of them will take us.”
After hours of being trapped inside the stadium, the idea of an American dream sounded really great and did wonders to my imagination. I was all for it. At 8pm at night, we finally crept out of the stadium under a heavy police escort.
That night, I dreamt about the cruise ships in Miami: the casinos in Las Vegas and the glamorous skyscrapers of New York City. I dreamt about the lions no more.
The following day, Oluoch and I filled up a dozen application forms to American colleges. We attached our newspaper cuttings, transcripts and soccer certificates to strengthen our case and increase our chances of acceptance.
Two days later, I was summoned to the Kencom building, 8th floor by one of the General Managers who had attended our last match. Kencom building was the headquarters for the Kenya Commercial Banks in the whole country. I couldn’t believe it because not many folks including employees ever saw the 8th Floor. This floor was so privileged such that they even had their own elevator. Were they going to offer me a job? I wondered.
Black leather reflected in my eyes as I walked into the office: a portrait of the president hanged on the wall... the smell of power … a bird’s eye view of the beautiful Nairobi City.
“Nice game the other day Karanja,” the GM complimented, big belly protruded from the black suit… a boring tie. He was in his early fifties, a former Gor Mahia fan. I was curious as to why I had been called. I shifted my weight nervously from foot to foot.
“You know,” he continued. “A big fish is very noticeable in a small pond. But a big fish in a lake is just another fish,” the GM said as he looked into my eyes to make sure that I caught his drift. I did. I shook his hand and thanked him for his time. People were talking… said that I wanted to quit the team. The truth was a moving target; the GM’s words gave me pause.
The year was 1998 and it was at this period, August 3rd that the Banks decided to go on the worst strike of the century to oppose the move by the government of President Daniel Arap Moi to impose a new tax on staff loans. 63 banks and other financial institutions closed down, 1200 employees in total. And while the Union negotiated with the government, the ATM’s ran out of money and folks couldn’t afford food and medication. The people and the government pleaded with the banks but the union was adamant that its requests be met. I knew then more than ever that my chances of getting a job at the bank were dimmed. I tried to call the soccer manager, but he was on strike too.
Two weeks later, our replies came back from America and we decided to open the letters together. We met at a cheap restaurant in River Road Nairobi and ordered chips and a coke for each: we couldn’t afford a sausage or anything else on the menu. Money was tight and I still hadn’t heard anything from the bank job.
“Together?” I asked and Oluoch nodded. We ripped the letters with excitement and our faces fell with disappointment as we read each page. It was one rejection after another until finally Oluoch screamed with delight. He had been accepted by one of the colleges in Alabama. He jumped up, downright giddy but then sobered when he saw the chagrin expression on my face: no college had accepted me.
“You have to keep applying Karanja,” Oluoch encouraged but my morale was too low.
“Congratulations,” I told him. “At least one of us gets to go.”
“I want us to go together!” Oluoch said with sympathy as he looked into my eyes. I knew that he was trying to make me feel better so I reached across the table and patted his clenched fist lightly. “Go,” I said. “Go to America and represent us. Go and show them that Africa does exist and that, we may not have a lot of things, but we are strong in human warmth and soccer talent. Learn everything you can about the system and one day maybe you can pass it on to the younger generation. You will be a lion in America!” I meant every word of it too.
We parted ways and my journey home was a perplexed one. What was the way forward? I wondered. My family was poor and the Banks were still on strike. I couldn’t go to America, I couldn’t get a job and the little money I made from playing soccer was only sufficient for the basic needs in life: food, shelter and clothing.
The smell of fried fish and garbage waste hit my nose as I walked through Kibera slums. Old women sat on stones by the roads selling chicken legs and wings, homemade soap and roasted peanuts. I noticed that the door to my home was ajar as I got close and realized that something was amiss. I pushed it open with suspicion only to find four men sitting with my mum, crowding the tiny room.
“Come in son,” my mum said. “These men are from Gor Mahia Soccer Club and they are here to talk to you.” I instantly knew what they wanted. Their hands rattled pleasantly as we shook hands. They had been trying to recruit me for a long time: said that I would be the first Kikuyu tribesman to play for a Luo soccer team. I greeted them respectively and listened to them. I was honored by their offer.
They were all in their mid forties: a hint of gray in their hair. Said that even though my name was from a Kikuyu tribe, my blood was Luo. They made me smile and my mood soared. After being rejected by American colleges, it felt great to be needed.
“How much?” I asked them, frantic with indecision.
“200,000 Kshs (2,500 dollars) for a one year contract.”
I did the math in my head. Soccer is how I eat! A teammate had said one day and we had laughed.
Eat… Definition… To survive, to live.
200,000 kshs was the kind of money that would get my family out of the slums and into a descent middle class neighborhood. It had been my dream for a long time. I turned to look at my mum but she seemed to have chosen that same moment to rearrange the cups on the shelf. She didn’t want to influence my decision.
“Thank you so much for taking the trouble to come here,” I told the men. “Playing for Gor Mahia has been a dream for me since I was a child. But am afraid I will decline. The bank has offered me a clerical job and I think I will wait.”
The men were disappointed by my obstinate refusal to take the deal. They had all been to the game and had seen me play in the defense. I had really frustrated their strikers. I promised them that I would keep my options open and they left.
On August 7, 1998, an earthquake shook my bed and some of the houses in Kibera collapsed. A few minutes later we realized that it wasn’t an earthquake, but a bomb blast at the American Embassy in Nairobi. One word cut across my mind. Oluoch! He was supposed to go to the embassy for an interview today! I turned the black and white TV on and was horrified by the images. And then the real story unfolded.
Two suicide trucks laden with explosives parked outside the American embassies in Dares Salam and Nairobi had been almost simultaneously detonated Killing 85 people in Dar es Salam and 127 in Nairobi, over 4000 wounded. Osama Bin Laden was officially introduced into the world.
A man, a driver named Azzam drove a Mitsubishi Canter quickly towards the Nairobi Embassy, fired upon a local security guard, threw a stun grenade at the embassy guards and ran away, and that’s when the real explosion had happened. The explosion damaged the embassy building and flattened the neighboring Ufundi Building where most victims were killed, mainly students and staff of a secretarial college. The heat from the blast was channeled between the buildings towards Haile Selassie Avenue where a parked commuter bus was burned. Windows were shattered in a radius of nearly one kilometer. A large number of eye injuries occurred because people in buildings nearby who had heard the first explosion of the hand grenade and the shooting went to their office windows to have a look when the main blast occurred and shattered the windows.
I tried to call Oluoch’s cell phone but nobody answered. I was horrified that something had happened to him. Eight hours later, I took a bus to the Kenyatta hospital where a list of admitted patients was hanged on the door. I shoved past the crowds and scrolled the list up and down a thousand times… until I finally saw my friend’s name in the middle. I ran all the way to the third floor, the smell of antiseptic in my nose, the wails of the people in my ears. The banks were still on strike and folks didn’t have enough money for treatment.
I found Oluoch lying on a cot on the floor as all the beds were taken. His face was a bloody mess and a big bandage closed one of his eyes. He tried to smile when he saw me but a sharp pain cut across his face and he winced.
“Its okay Oluoch,” I told him. “You don’t have to talk. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I will take care of you my brother.” He couldn’t speak. The bomb must have exploded while he was waiting in line for his visa appointment. The doctor told me that his right leg and hand were broken and it was going to be more than a year of healing and rehabilitation. I went into the next room and cried. It was evident that Oluoch would never make it to America to pursue his dream. The thought made me very sad.
I left Oluoch at night and returned home. I told him that I would be back in the morning to keep him company and he nodded. On the bus, I realized that if I had been accepted to go to America then I would probably be lying next to my friend or worse, be dead … I had cheated death, if only for a day and the thought drove a chill down my spine.
I alighted at Kibera slums, my head bowed low in thought and it took me a while to realize that something was terribly wrong! There was too much light in the always dark slums; the smell of burning wood drifted into my nose. I looked up and saw the bright orange in the dark night, the silhouette of running folks. A fire. Kibera slums were on fire! I stared in horror and disbelief as the soft breeze of the night moved the fire around from house to house, and then I started running.
“Dad! Mum!” I yelled to no one in particular. Folks were running in every direction screaming for their babies. “Daad!” I yelled as I made the last turn… A blast in the air threw me back and I fell on the ground dazed. I half raised my head and shielded my eyes from the light. The heat was burning my skin and I subconsciously crawled backwards until I could stand the heat. I coughed hysterically as fresh air rushed into my lungs. Black clouds of smoke rose high into the dark night and people around me wailed in grief. A feeling of foreboding filled my heart as I watched my father’s house burn. Where was my family?
“Karanja?” A voice called. It was my mum.
I turned and saw them, huddled together in fear. I ran over and hugged them and then together we turned and watched our home burn away. Everything. They had saved nothing. The little that we had was gone. All my childhood photos and certificates burned as I watched.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Someone tried to steal electricity for the street lights to connect to his home. There was a circuit shot and then this.” My father gestured with his hands. I felt really sad and especially so after spending the whole day at Kenyatta Hospital listening to the wailings of folks in pain. My life was falling apart around me and I couldn’t do a thing.
I walked away and my mum followed me with a worried look.
“Don’t!” she said.
I turned and looked at her. “I have to mum. It’s the only way out.”
She walked over and slapped me hard on the face and it hurt. “Snap out if it!” she yelled. “Don’t sell yourself short son. Your first instinct was right. You can take 200,000kshs and spend it in a few months, and then what? Wait for another amount? Another year? What happens if you break a leg or get hurt like your friend Oluoch? Ha?” I stared at her. I had never seen this side of her: so wise and strong in a time of tragedy. I didn’t have a choice but to listen. She continued. “You stick it out son, through thick and thin. We do it the hard way, but we do it together, until you get that job at the bank. The job will guarantee you a life until your hair is gray, you hear me? Am talking pension, health insurance and buying a house, not just spending cash!”
My mum gave me one last look then turned back to the fire. She gestured at our burning home with remorse. “This is our home son, be proud of it. Fate brought us here and it might not look like much but a lot of fond memories were build here.” She started walking away and I yelled at her.
“How? How mum?” I softened my voice. “How are you going to find the money to rebuild?” Skepticism in my voice, the sound of crackling fire in the night…sirens in the distance.
She walked back slowly, her eyes never leaving mine. She cupped my face in her blackened hands. “What happened to you Karanja? When did you stop believing in me? When did you loose your trust in God?” I lowered my eyes as she took a step back and showed me the palm of her hands. I saw the burns and bruises and winced. “These hands have fed, clothed and schooled you for eighteen years, haven’t they?”
I nodded, ashamed of my fear. She placed one hand on my right shoulder and the glow from the fire bathed her face. “You are not a child anymore Karanja, you have to stop seeing the world with your eyes and start seeing it with your heart.” She walked over to join the others.
I stood still as her words hit me. All this time, I thought that I was the strong one in the family, the savior, and the whole time I didn’t realize that I was the one who needed rescuing from myself. I was the one who was ashamed of my home. Why? Wasn’t this the same place where my soccer talents had been forged? I hated my weakness. For so long I had been walking around with a mask. A mask can fool the world, but it can’t fool your heart.
The land of my fathers was burning, both in the city and in the slums. Somewhere along the way, we had angered the gods.
A commotion caught my attention, a movement. I looked up and saw reporters rushing towards my family. I took a deep breath and stepped away from the shadows and into the light. They saw me, and recognition clouded their eyes. I had appeared in the news a lot of times, but never once in the midst of a burning slum.
The camera burned my eyes and this time I did not shy away from the light. I had lived in denial for too long. The spirit came down on me and I accepted the calling. It was time to stand up for my people and family… the us against the world.
“We are standing here with Karanja the Captain of the National soccer team, the Harambee Stars,” the reporter said. “Behind as you can all see, his home with that of hundreds more has been demolished by fire.” The reporter turned to me and unleashed a series of questions.
In reply, I decided to start by recognizing the famous words of Thomas Jefferson: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The people in the slums of Nairobi deserved a chance just like any other, and a country was as strong as its weakest link.
On this night, something changed inside me. I recognized it as a growing personality… a new pride in my fathers’ land… a need to mould fate and arc it towards a better tomorrow. I would henceforth make my stand in Africa and fight for its prosperity. I was finally a part of the whole. That even though the city of Nairobi was struggling to stay in stride with the likes of New York City, we would get there one day, and the answer was ours to place in the hands of the children.
Borrowed from the Diaries of a soccer player….
NB: With the help of the government and UN-habitat, the first batch of around 1,500 people to leave the slums of Kibera were taken away by trucks on 16 September 2009 and were rehoused in 300 newly constructed apartments with a monthly rent of around $10. The new communities are planned to include schools, markets, playgrounds and other facilities. The entire project is expected to take nine years and will rehouse all the slum residents in the city. With regard to the bombing of the American Embassies and the Twin Towers in New York, Osama bin laden was killed on May 2, 2011 by American forces in Pakistan.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...