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Coronavirus a big test for budding athletes’ aspirations

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ROY GACHUHI

By ROY GACHUHI
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My mental process has been different since house arrest begun. The name we have given it, of course, is a lot more benign: self-quarantine, suggesting something voluntarily undertaken.

It is anything but. Yet I have religiously observed its strictures: social distancing, for example, an aberration in human relations made to sound romantic.

I wear a face mask which I previously only associated with medical personnel. And unless I absolutely must, I never venture outside for the very thought that I could end up in our new concentration camps, euphemistically called quarantine centres on trumped up charges by people trying to shake me down for a bribe traumatises me.

This is nothing like has ever been imagined by any of us: an invisible, inaudible and intangible monster which in one fell swoop has shut down churches and brothels, stadiums and monasteries, casinos and retreat centres as if all of them do the same things.

My fingers have turned brittle because of washing them too often. But I must continue doing this because they say this enemy can kill you for doing ordinary things; ordinary things like operating your mobile telephone. Just living has been decreed dangerous.

All these have wreaked havoc with the mental process. What day of the week or what time of the day or what clothes to wear have become inconsequential considerations. Because, in this new dispensation, what do you need them for? What are you planning to do? With whom? Are those people also not under lockdown?

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Unlike self-quarantine and social distancing, lockdown has a refreshing honesty to its sound and meaning: invasive, involuntary and merciless. Just like what quarantine centre has since evolved into becoming.

This has its own implications on memory which is taking a beating with more ferocity than I have ever endured in my life. So if I begin this week’s column with the story of how my prospective career as a Harambee Stars right winger crashed years before it began and you discover I might have told you this in the misty past, please understand where I am coming from. On my personal ground, things are different. But I need it to make a point.

It was late afternoon one day in 1976 and my teammates and I were warming up on the Nairobi Technical High School football pitch. We were preparing for a match with either Pumwani or Eastleigh Secondary School — I’ve forgotten which. My teammate, Sammy Owino, was in front of me.

As I stretched my muscles, Sammy was ball-juggling. First with the right foot, then the left, then the right thigh, then the left, then the head. That was nothing. Who of us couldn’t do that?

But when he dropped the ball on his shoulder and also started bouncing it about there, my mouth fell open with shock. I stood there, stunned. Sammy was bouncing a ball on his shoulder!

It wasn’t just the effortlessness, which by itself was outrageous enough, but his attitude that it wasn’t even worth advertising. He didn’t call anybody to attention: “Look! Look what I can do!” He did it as if it was just one more routine, like reaching for your toes with knees locked.

It is at that moment that my football career ended. Having seen the apparition with my own eyes, there was no way things could remain the same. The first question to come to my mind was: “What am I doing on the same pitch with this guy?”

For the life of me, I could not see any value I could add to being in such company. Why don’t you find something better to do and leave football to footballers, I thought?

But there is context to what Sammy did. A week or so earlier, Pele, the greatest footballer that ever lived, had visited Kenya. At the cost of three Pepsi Cola bottle tops, we school kids had seen bits and pieces of soccer sorcery, as O Rei (The King) took Starehe Boys Centre schoolboys through an exhibition at Nairobi’s Jamhuri Park.

Part of what Pele displayed was juggling the ball on his shoulders. He started by bouncing it on his head several times.

He then dropped it to his right shoulder and bounced it about three times. Then he steered it back to his head before repeating the routine on his left shoulder — all in one uninterrupted sequence. We were ecstatic.

Youngsters love to imitate. It’s their default learning method. When a star sends a ball spinning over his back and catches it on his thigh a few paces ahead, it becomes the craze everywhere children are playing the game. When the premier goalkeeper specialises in stopping penalties, every kid everywhere wants not just to be a goalkeeper, but to stop penalties as well.

But on the stands of Jamhuri Park, there was no way for me to guess that my friend Sammy Owino, endowed with a prodigious football talent, would decide to play Pele. It is after he did that I walked up to him and declared my surrender.

I told him: “You will become a very great footballer and you will play for this country. As for me, I will go to the newspapers and become a journalist and I will be writing about you.” It was a boy’s wish, a boy’s dream. But it was also a sentiment so deeply ingrained in the marrow that it left no room for error or contradiction.

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And it came to pass in entirety. Sammy became the fabled “Kempes.” He was Gor Mahia and Harambee Stars’ unforgettable attacking midfielder whose brilliant tenure was all too short because he migrated to the United States and never returned.

They gave him that nickname after Mario Kempes, the Argentine legend who was top scorer in the 1978 Fifa World Cup. As for me, I went into journalism and even after leaving the newsroom decades later, I am still writing.

In what world is a 16 or 17-year-old boy or girl living today? I am not referring to the one whose future has already been secured by rich parents; I mean the one who has nothing but talent for a trade or profession, the one who has nobody to hold them by the hand, the one who doesn’t “know people” because there are none to be known.

With Sammy and I, we felt that exactly nothing could stop us from being what we wanted to be. And it is not as if there were no challenges. They were everywhere you turned. But then, there was also no coronavirus.

All week, I have been trying to put myself in the shoes of teenagers. I have been trying to compare their world and mine at their age.

In my time, our brains were bursting with hope and optimism about all possibilities. To become whatever you wanted to be was not a cliché. It was real possibility. Today you really need to work hard not to give a young person false hope.

Apart from taking proper care of ourselves, hope is all that is left and we need it in abundance.

But it should be real hope, hope that you can convert into a productive activity and hope for which you will not be charged money, which these days is drying up like a seasonal river.

For the plain truth is that every adult, including the most erudite, the most educated and the most exposed to the world, are all guessing about what will happen tomorrow. It may be an educated guess, but it is a guess all the same.

We couldn’t foresee coronavirus coming and therefore could not forestall it. We don’t know the extent of the damage it will do, except that it is a lot.

Most important of all, we don’t know who among us, at the end of its long destructive trail, it will take and who it will leave alive. To those it has already taken, may they rest in peace.

An old friend phoned me this week. He noticed the shortness of my breath in the conversation and asked in alarm what was going on. “I am planting a tree,” I informed him.

“You’re doing what?” he asked again because the line wasn’t very clear.

“I am planting a tree,” I repeated in a shout. “A lukwart tree.” Then I added: “I am absolutely sure that this thing is taking me nowhere.”

“Even if you knew for a fact that you were going tomorrow,” he replied, “you should still plant that tree. You owe it to the world. You found trees when you came. You should leave many more behind.”

His words were pure beauty. How wise! To all those young people who are calling me feeling despondent, I can only tell you to do something productive, whatever it is. Something good. What you can do is in your control, but the outcome is not.

It may be the outcome you desired, or it may not. It makes sense, therefore, not to focus too much on the outcome but in doing a good job, with good cheer. And then sit back and wait, with calmness.

Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who moved mountains to found the modern Olympic Games, spoke best about glory in effort and not outcome, with all it uncertainties: “The day when a sportsman stops thinking above all else of the happiness in his own effort and the intoxication of the power and physical balance he derives from it, the day when he lets considerations of vanity or interest take over, on this day his ideal will die.”

We don’t know why coronavirus came to us. Maybe we had become too big for our shoes, felt too important to care for anything except our impossibly swollen egos.

Nothing seemed sacred anymore. Maybe it’s just Mother Nature reclaiming her own space and giving us tough love: that we should be good human beings first, and good sportsmen and women second. That we should be good human beings first and good whatever else we trained for second.

It’s back to basics. Hubris lies defeated.





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