One Saturday morning exactly two months ago, I started running in an attempt to slow down. I tightened the white shoelaces of my orange Reeboks as I walked out of Masjid Nur Mosque in South C and on to Ole Shapara Road. It was 5.30 A.M and the world was covered with the blue-grey hue of twilight. I pulled the hoodie over my head. I felt a mix of dread and exhilaration before I began, a sudden shiver, like a child about to enter a pool. I walked a hundred meters into the road and started running.
The cold morning air rushed into my face. The bright yellow lights of the passing cars stung my eyes. My heart woke from its peaceful slumber and started knocking hard on my rib cage. And my feet, which were not accustomed to vigorous activity especially at this early hour, were stiff and draggy. I could hear them complain.
“This is highly odd,” said Left Foot to Right Foot. Left Foot is the obnoxious of the two. He rarely blinks, has a worrying homicidal streak and is exceptionally lethargic and malevolent. He speaks with an English accent, not the cute folksy kind that the actor Michael Caine speaks but the eccentric, upper-class one that the television character Stewie Griffin of Family Guy belches out.
“Very odd,” Right Foot said. Right Foot has the temperament of a diva. She is raw, tell-it-like-it-is and no-nonsense. I call her Cookie Lyon.
“What’s going on jeffe?” Stewie said. He likes to call me “jeffe” but in an ironical, derisive kind of way.
“We are going to be running every morning at this time folks,” I said. Stewie and Cookie looked at each other and laughed out loud.
“Aaah, that’s a good one. Funniest joke I’ve heard in a while,” said Stewie.
“I’m supposed to be getting my beauty sleep and all,” Cookie said.
“Guys, I’m serious,” I said. “Starting today, we are doing a 3Krun every morning. Better brace yourselves.”
Stewie looked up at me for a long time, with wide eyes, and only blinked after noticeable intervals of twenty seconds. “Why are you doing this to yourself jeffe?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean. Hmm. How do I say this politely? Isn’t it a little weird for you, I mean you can’t get any skinnier than this if that’s what you are aiming for. Virtually impossible. Makes me wonder where all the food goes too. It barely reached us down here anyway.”
“True that,” Cookie said. “It’s welfare shit down here man. I mean, look at me, I’m a grown ass black woman but I swear I got Taylor Swift’s behind.”
“Justin Bieber’s would be a more accurate comparison,” Stewie said.
“Oh, shut up Stewie!”
“Guys, listen. Being skinny doesn’t mean you can’t exercise and be healthy. Let’s try to be a little more positive, shall we?”
I took the corner at the Kenya Water Institute and turned right at Akiba Estate. I breathed in deeply through my nose and the air rushed into my lungs. My breathing was getting heavier and my pulse was already high. My feet pounded against the tarmac. My jacket bristled at the movement of my arms. I could feel beads of sweat trickling down my back.
I tried to remember the last time I broke a sweat like this, but nothing came to mind. I was a reserved child, growing up. I was also an active child, though not the most active of children. Perhaps my being active was not a matter of choice but by circumstance. Together with my brother and cousin, we would be up by 4 AM to go to the duksi—the Quranic school—where we would stay until dawn. We would then spend the rest of the day shuttling between the duksi, school, and the mosque. This naturally meant that I had a rather active early childhood.
In the early years of primary school in Garissa’s Tetu Primary, we used to have physical education (PE) classes several times a week. When the bell rang, the children would stream out the classroom and make their way excitedly towards to the field behind the long lines of classrooms. This would be in mid-morning. There was excitement on our faces and the cheer of a child expecting an adventure. We set would set hurdles with sticks and jump over them and skipped rope and played football.
The experience of playing on that field as a six-year-old was unexplainable to me, surreal even. The mid-morning weather was rid of the harsh intrusion of the hot sun. The morning breeze had a calming effect as it blew over the sandy field and made the loose iron-sheet roofs of the classrooms creak and squeak in the distance and the acacia trees whistle to its tune. The sand was cool beneath the feet. Sweat sparkled on skin. I could count each tiny golden grain of sand, spread my arms as wide as I could and run as fast as I could.
When we were not playing football, we would run behind something, a tire, a wheel, propelling it with a metallic rod specifically fashioned for this function. Sometimes we would sprint to see who the fastest runner was. (I emerged the fastest most of the time.) We would dare each other to jump off one of the small hills on the edges of ADC Farm. When bored, we would hang on to a tipper truck that fetched sand. Other times, we would pay ten shillings each to ride the only bike available in the neighbourhood, from the matatu stage at Furaha Shop to the shops at the Wardi family where the women sat outside selling milk.
On the field, I could express myself perfectly without using too many words or thinking too much. I could dance and visualize and create. I could feel. There was fear and possibility and uncertainty and conflict and ego. Body and mind were in seamless synergy—perhaps the primal, unspoken language of man and nature.
Thursday and Fridays were the off days for the duksi. In the evening right after school, we would set up make-shift goalposts with rocks in the small clearing behind the duksi to play football. (The duksi was located between Furaha Shop stage and the shops at the Wardi’s.) Often, just as the goalposts were set up, one boy would decide it was the perfect time to settle scores with another. Abdiwahab, thin but brave, would fight with Ndovu, who, as the name suggests, was strapping. Mohamed would face off with Shukri. Mothers would be mentioned a lot, and not in a good light. The losing parties would try to disrupt the oncoming match. After a period of mediation, however, a rigorous team selection process would begin. This was to ensure fairness because some boys were deemed, by consensus, to be so unreliable you could not be sure whether they were playing for your team or the opposition.
The game would begin. The ground was small and rocky; its perimeter, thorny. Save for the few intermittent bouts here and there—especially when a goal was scored and the conceding team, predictably, denied its legitimacy—we would get lost in the process of the game. Time and space would cease to have meaning; rules and responsibilities would be forgotten. It would be yellow dust rising and feet thumping on ground. It was a story being told, but with feet rather than words. It would be noise and cheer and triumph and sighing and defeat. It was blood and tears and sweat and boys playing barefoot—a primal, instinctual poetry. And when the sun was all but a red curtain beneath the dark silhouettes of the thatched houses, we walked home, scratches on our elbows, sand baked onto our skin, bleeding, happy.
My feet thudded against the tarmac as I picked up speed. There is little life on the road except for a few cars. Watchmen, in thick jackets, shuddered at the entrances of apartment buildings, their faces betraying signs of a long night. The short, thickset, grey-haired homeless man left his make-shift bed at the foot of one of the buildings and crossed the road and to urinate on the well-manicured grass outside Kongoni Primary School.
I turned left at Kenya Water Institute and right at Akiba Estate.
The stretch from Akiba is long and punctuated with the occasional bump. In the east, tall trees and apartment buildings formed dark shapes against a sky suffused with the slightly dark brilliance of the yawning sun. In the west, a large yellow moon was visible. Overhead, a lone, fading star, the last one. My pulse quickened. My lungs ached with so much air.
“Hang in there folks,” I said to Stewie and Cookie. They were barely keeping up. Stewie was drenched in sweat and his tongue wailed like a dog’s. Cookie was panting and looked as though she was about to collapse. “You could’ve at least given a brother a notice man,” she was saying.
We came to the small field tucked neatly between Five-Star Estate’s western wall and Wilson Airport’s southern perimeter wall. I stopped at the edge of the field next to the boda-boda riders, bent over and clutching my knees with my hands. I was drenched in sweat. A fusillade of steam shot out of my mouth with every breath. I walked inside the field and sat down on a small patchy outgrowth.
“Something’s terribly wrong with him this morning,” Cookie said, lying flat on her face.
“He has gone bonkers,” Stewie said. “It’s official.”
“Guys, could you stop talking about me in the third person,” I said. “It’s rude.”
“I don’t suppose he’s heard about this but there’s something called ‘Child abuse,’” Stewie said.
The field was bald in the middle area and the soil there was dark and smooth. A young woman dressed up for work crossed the field. A man awakened to her sound from the grass beneath the wall. Two young men clad in grey hoodies starting exercising near the man. Though they did not speak, their movements were in perfect symmetry as they walked up and down the field doing exercise sets—an indication that they have been doing this every morning. Another young man who seemed to be about twenty started exercising near where I was seated. He was dark and fit and quick on his feet. He had tight fitting sportswear. He was doing some exercise routines with relative ease and high frequency.
“Goals,” I said to myself, looking over at the guy.
“I suppose everyone’s dreams are valid,” Stewie said.
“I know you don’t mean that,” I said.
“No, I do not,” Stewie said, looking up at me, lying on his back on the ground.
“It’s not easy to find people running at this hour,” the gentleman said to me. He spoke in Swahili. I could trace an overtone of Kalenjin accent.
“Tell me about it,” Stewie said purposely inaudibly, turning away. “It’s an ungodly hour.”
“Even prostitutes have closed up shop,” Cookie said.
“Not easy to run at this hour,” I said. “Most people have to go to work.”
“Perhaps we could do these sets together. It helps when you are exercising with someone. I am Kevin by the way,” he said.
“Well, this is awkward,” Cookie said under her breath. It was. I did not think I could keep up with the kind of exercise the guy was doing. At least not on my first day.
“Run, Forrest, Run!” Stewie said. Cookie laughed and fist-bumped Stewie.
“You know what, I don’t see why I can’t do it,” I said.
“I don’t see why I can’t marry Charlize Theron,” Stewie said.
“Wishful thinking ain’t just a river in Egypt, my mama always told me,” Cookie said.
“You guys are so encouraging,” I said.
I felt motivated for some reason. Perhaps I wanted to prove Stewie and Cookie wrong. “Alright,” I said to Kevin. We began with some basic stretching and some routines that we used to do back in high school. This is not so bad, I thought. I could do these with my eyes closed. I flipped my middle finger at Stewie and Cookie.
But the “Mountain Climbing” exercise had me wishing I listened to Stewie. With my hands planted firmly on the ground and my knees stretched behind me, I tried to move my knees up to my chest and back, one knee after the other, as though I was cycling or climbing. After about five lunges, my stomach gave in and I lost all feeling in my knees; my knees deliberately refused to follow any of the instructions from my brain. “Way to go jeffe,” Stewie said from down below. “Way to go.” I remained in that positon—hands on the ground and bony buttocks suspended high in the air—until Kevin finished the set a minute later.
The next set involved holding my outstretched leg in front of me while grabbing my hips and standing on my other foot and then jogging in that position for a distance. Piece of cake, I thought. After exactly five leaps forward, however, my right foot decided, Cookie decided rather, she could not partake in such a “ridiculous” activity. “Nada,” she said. “Uh uh, I refuse baby.” She held her lips firmly together in defiance, flipped her hair, rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers while moving her hips from side to side. By this time, Kevin had been up the field and back.
We then lied on our backs, grabbed the back of the neck and held both feet up in a diagonal position. This was supposed to last for 90 seconds. Within some fifteen seconds, my stomach and my knees unanimously decided that Stewie and Cookie were “too fat” to be supported in that position. Doing the “Frog Jump” across the field had me weak at the knees and falling flat on my face in complete prostration. When we did the ‘reverse press-up’—lying on the back and planting both hands on either side of the ears and lifting the torso up and down—I simply fell back on my back and lay there having lost all my motor skills and some of my consciousness.
“I think that’s enough for one day,” I said to Kevin.
“Wise call jeffe,” Stewie said, vomiting on the grass.
“You’ll get used to it if you do it for a few weeks,” Kevin said, revealing a set of very white, strong teeth. He was always smiling. He had this air of positivity about him. He told me that he trained hard every day in Lukenya hills because he ran marathons. Ran a total of 45K every day. 45K! That must require discipline and strength, I thought. “Normal thing when you do it every day,” he said.
Kevin left and I lay there on the ground. It was brighter now though the sun was not fully out of the horizon. Beyond the Wilson fence were aircrafts. Their lights were ambers that flickered dimly in the fading twilight. In the distance, the hills of Ngong were grey in the pale morning mist. My body felt tired, unfit and weak.
As children, we played on borrowed time. We played when there were no classes, which was rare. Most of the time, we played in spite of the classes, knowing very well the consequences of our actions. Children will be children. Boys will be boys. Girls were not allowed to play at all. Our parents, though well-meaning, believed that play was unimportant, trivial, a waste of time and, consequently, unreligious. They believed sitting still, a sign of maturity; weight, a sign of health; curiosity, blasphemous; play, restlessness and antithetical to adult aims.
My history of physical activity is, frankly, quite brief and limited to my childhood; my history of inactivity is, however, quite long. The older I grew, the more my graph of physical activity dipped. Adolescence came with more study and less play. Young adulthood, lots of work and almost no play. When the door of school closed, the door of the office opened. I spent virtually almost all my waking hours either at work or in transit to and from work. In Nairobi, the typical 8-to-5 job is, in reality, a 6-to-8 job, considering the time you leave home and get back. When I got back home from work, I had just enough time to eat dinner and watch the day’s news. When the weekend came, I spent my Saturdays too excited about the fact that it was Saturday to do anything and on Sundays I was paralysed by the anxiety of the prospect of the long week ahead.
In the morning after I washed down a couple of anjeera pancakes with a cup of tea, I hurried out to catch the matatu. I spent about an hour each morning sitting among a bunch of strangers all too worried about getting late to notice anything around them, ears sealed by earphones, eyes fixed on the screen as they scrolled down their newsfeed. I listened to the croaking of the subserviced engine and conductor’s loud, vernacular conversation with the driver and Maina Kageni going on about plots. Amid the cluttering of man and metal, in that great rush of the masses, I would glimpse someone jogging on the pedestrian lane and I would feel sorry for the fat lady and feel lucky I did not have to subject myself to that. (Admittedly, I am a terrible person.) Enjoying the comfort of my seat and distracted by the thought of getting late, I could not see the effort and the discipline and the aspirations and dreams that the simple act of running represented to that lady.
I got on with my routine and spent the day sitting in a cubicle with the only physical activity involving reaching for the telephone and going to the lavatory. After a long day of sedentary work and an evening of avoiding collision with the masses and escaping loud blaring matatus driven by loud young men blitzed in a mix of cannabis and cheap spirit, and slow check-out lines, I came home with strained eyes and bad posture. Save for the computers and elevators; my life seemed Kafkaesque. This cycle of long hours and routine and petty frustration become my normal. Making as much money as I could became the measure of what had value and what did not. And the world thought this was the norm, the natural, “the default setting,” as the writer David Foster Wallace put it—and I only quote him to appear learned.
I sought distraction from the cycle, and they were plenty. Despite my strained eyes, I popped up the screen or removed my phone to watch an episode of television or went through the depthless newsfeed that was algorithmically engineered for my insatiable desire to repel boredom. To distract myself from the constant gnawing of something at the back of my mind. My thoughts became too scary to listen to; the screen, my ‘saviour.’ Whenever I found myself with the unfortunate company of someone I found impossibly boring, I pulled out my phone and googled “the fascinating lives of bees.” When at a social gathering where I felt alien, I went online to read the latest on Elon Musk’s efforts on the colonisation of Mars. When an intrusive but well-meaning old-timer tried to gentrify me regarding something or other, I googled “do penguins have knees?” (We have established that I am a terrible human being.)
There were too many tabs open, too many apps running, too many screens to tap, too many messages to respond to. Time became a sickly baby that has to be constantly lulled to sleep and “culture industry,” as it were, provided an endless lullaby. The experience of things and events and processes was replaced by an overwhelmed society’s obsession with efficiency. Everyday adult existence became a constant attempt at fighting boredom, distraction, loneliness, and burn out. In these present times, the fast life has become religion; taking a deep breath, forgotten, strolling with no aim, prosaic; concentrating, uncomfortable; keeping still, scary; stopping to smell the roses, as it were, lunatic.
I did two laps around the small field and then sat down on the small patchy outgrowth near the exit of the field. It was about 6.40.
“Why is he doing this to us though,” Stewie said to Cookie.
“Be damned if I know.”
“I think he should see a shrink. Can’t have this every morning.”
“Guys I am perfectly normal. I don’t need a shrink,” I said.
“’Course you are honey. ‘Course you are,” Cookie said, gently rubbing my arm
“I have a few on speed dial,” Stewie said.
“Why do you have shrinks on speed dial, little man? You are just a baby.”
“To deal with the stresses of infant life. The Fat Man. My ignorant siblings. That annoying alcoholic dog. And from the urges of killing my mother.”
“You a cute baby, aren’t you?”
“You could give him some of your Prozac. Nobody wants to go through this again tomorrow. Or I might have to kill him too.”
“I’m running out. Kevin Spacey needed some. He was in bad shape after, you know, what happened. Besides, I need them for my success anxiety.”
“Oh yes. Success can be quite stressful.”
“What about you weed stash and Codeine prescription Stewie?”
“Brian pulled an all-nighter on them. Stupid dog.”
“I hear you.”
“Don’t you wish he was normal like us though?” Stewie said, pointing at me.
“I do Stewie. But the normal always get stuck with the strange.”
“This has the hallmarks of a personal crisis caused by a life-altering experience,” Stewie said after a while.
“Say what now?”
“Such events are common. They could be caused by the death of a pet but I rule that out because he can hardly take care of his hair let alone an animal. Spiritual premonitions are a common cause as well but I wouldn’t put my money on that either for the obvious reason that he does not strike one as the most likely candidate to receive divine communication. Wouldn’t you agree, Cookie?”
“I concur. He don’t.”
“A failed relationship makes more sense here, which failure is, of course, entirely the subject’s fault. Again, refer to the hair analogy.”
“I catch your drift. But let me get this straight: you are telling me we are all suffering here because dude sucks at relationships?”
“Guys, I assure you that has nothi—”
“Damn Stewie, I must say you are good at this shrink thing.”
“Oh thank you Cookie. You are far too kind. When you go for ten hours of therapy a week you are bound to pick up something, you know?”
Perhaps I started running not because of a life-altering experience, as Stewie would have you believe, but because the inactivity of the last several years had wrecked my posture, hurt my back, weakened my core and had me extremely lethargic and unfit. This inactivity has been exacerbated by the fact that I have been working from home the last several months. I often forgot about our health and well-ness. In our busy day-to-day life, we define health only with reference to the absence of disease. We ignore that the walls of the human heart get thinner and thinner due to lack of exercise, and with time, becomes as thin as a piece of paper, and fails.
I happen to be one of those unfortunate souls, such as yourself, that would not do anything that they feel they do not have to do. If I am debating whether or not I should do something, I ask myself three questions. Is it tough? Is it optional? And does it only have long-term benefits? If the answer to all three is in the affirmative, I decide promptly that I would not do it. I would then compartmentalize the guilt, with clinical meticulousness, preferably in the remotest recesses of my psyche.
In the last year, however, the plenitude of distractions turned to be unappealing. Boredom became boring. The limitless choices and freedom of the information age were, in fact, not freedom but enslavement. I have come to learn the value of pushing oneself. I realised that doing those tough, optional but meaningful things brought me more happiness, more satisfaction. The meaningful kind of freedom involves, as Wallace put it, “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort.” I cut back on television, trimmed down my social circle and turned off my Wi-Fi unless absolutely necessary. Instead, I used my free time to run and read and write and procrastinate. Choosing these was utterly difficult and shocking to my conscience. Naturally, I experienced withdrawal symptoms. I sulked like a child when I could not google “do boobs become breast friends?” I brooded when I could not stalk the actress Ruby Rose on Instagram. But like a recovering addict, I told myself that it was good for me. This is good, I repeated. This is good.
There was a difference with this new way of life, and I could feel it. I had more energy. When I ran and did all these things, I focussed better. I ate better. I attained some peace of mind. I was more in touch with the surroundings. I realized, in my pursuit of the existential, I had neglected the ‘mundane’ aspects of life, the ‘ordinary’ things, such as the hanging of clothes, the formidable spirit of the gate-man, the walk of a child, the drop of the leaf. Perhaps I learnt, as Emerson wrote, to “embrace the common” and “sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” Perhaps the “low,” the things we neglect in pursuit of the “important,” are as well beautiful and are part of the same grand design.
It was seven o’clock now and the sun was out. I stood up and started jogging towards the exit. The homeless man now sat near the exit, crouched against the morning wind. Two dogs lay sleeping on the grass at his feet. On the road, light traffic was building up. A school bus passed by. Sleepy-looking children leaned their heads against the glass windows, their dreamy faces brushed by the golden strokes of the morning sun. At the Water junction, amid the roar of the car engines, the subtle, poignant melody of a chime drifted from a nearby temple.
To run, for me, was not simple physical exercise. To run was to slow down in a world that glorifies the fast life. To resist the attention economy. To be present and see the simple events of everyday life. To run is to be still. To confront the terror of one’s thoughts. To tame our Stewies and Cookie’s, our weaknesses and base inclinations. To turn our misery, to borrow Freud’s lovely phrase, “into ordinary unhappiness.”
The last stretch towards the house was the toughest. Every muscle in my body was begging me to stop. I considered lying down in the middle of the road for a good ten minutes until I caught my breath. But a tiny voice inside my head told me I could do it. You can reach the house, it said. Naturally, I would ignore it. But I listened to it. Terrified of my gullibility, I sprinted the stretch to the end and stopped at the gate, holding on to the railing, panting.