Thursday, 23rd June 2022.
I find Wango near the arc where Nkrumah Avenue joins Moi Avenue, at the ATMs on KenCom House. The 70s-style, beige-coloured building, is one of Nairobi's most distinct landmarks is KCB's headquaters. Wango is dressed exactly how you'd imagine a free-thinking artiste from Nairobi would be fitted out. A flowery shirt, black jeans, a grey knit cap that bulges from the size of his locs and comfortable rubber shoes. On his wrist, he has a large red-and-white wristlet that makes the Kenyan bracelet next to it look like it follows the dietary advice of Amerix.
The full "I-am-a-freelance-Nairobi-artist" aesthetic.
He's a talented sketch artist who is as interesting as he is soft-spoken. The kind of person you'd forget you were in a room with because they spend more time observing and scribbling things rather than talking.
There's a branded van in the parking lot waiting for us from KCB, the official financial partner of the WRC Safari Rally and overall sports enthusiasts. We're headed to Kasarani to cover day one of the WRC Safari Rally, one of Kenya's most iconic national events, revered like national holidays and election would be. First organised in 1953, The Safari Rally was held to commemorate the Queen's coronation. Back when there were no ATMs, widespread credit cards, and definitely no mobile banking. Founded in 1896, KCB already had 57 years of banking experience when the rally started. 1,2,3,10,20,40..57. That was already five decades of valuable lessons, and since then it’s been a long, storied route towards perfecting how to bank Kenyans.
Then, as it is now, The Safari Rally route was as scenic as it was brutal. Picturesque little towns in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Empty villages with smoke billowing from huts one day and bustling metropolises the next. A punishing route for the drivers and a pleasant rush of thrill for the thousands, possibly millions, of onlookers. A yearly routine of human against machine, time, dust and mud...until 2002.
This year's rally is only the second installment after an 18-year hiatus, and the turnout on the streets and social media shows how much Kenyans had missed the rally. Their rally. Their yearly break from monotony. A chance for thousands of little children to wave tiny flags and have others painted with their cheeks painted while their parents wave and point their camera phones at speeding cars.
The Patriotism Cabinet Secretary, if we had one, would be pleased with this stuff.
Inside the van and away from Nairobi's punishing June sun, we must now deal with her infamous lunch-hour traffic. Thika Road, the city's busiest and biggest road, is clogged. There are crowds lined up to the safety barriers, with baton-wielding police keeping the enthusiastic fans away from the rally cars. VIPs, closed roads, and an excited population are the perfect ingredients for turn-off-your-engine traffic. Now, a journey which normally takes twenty minutes takes us an hour. Inside the van, we talk shop, about cars, and the art scene in Nairobi, the things people talk about to pass time.
At ground zero, Safari Rally is electric.
It's so loud that it's hard to have a conversation, there's the din of numerous people shouting, a chopper overhead every two minutes, and cars revving around us. I motion to Wango that we should head as close to the rally cars as the police will let us. It's a recently-dug track, and the soil, the colour of freshly-peeled beetroot, flies into your face if you're close enough to get an Instagram-worthy picture. There are many selfies and government and corporate suits with shoes caked in dust. Who probably couldn't turn down the opportunity to take a break from work, relive their childhoods, or see first-hand what their parents are always reminiscing about?
After we take enough pictures for Wango to sketch from, we head to the KCB hospitality tent. As expected, there's extra security, men and women in suits and uniforms, dark goggles and mild frowns. The bouncer at the gate has arms so big I wonder how he satisfies an itch in his ear. We show him our badges, he pats our bags and pockets for weapons or illegalities, and then we slip into the tent.
Inside, there are tables full of delicious-looking food in the catering tent, and there's no mean-looking chef at the chafing dish containing chicken. I tell Wango that I think that KCB really loves us because there are even tiny dessert cakes with frosting and cherries on them, and again, there is no chef to limit the number of cakes on your plate. If I am honest with myself, this is the real reason I went to writing school, to enjoy unsupervised buffet spreads and eat their contents to the sounds of choppers overhead.
Wango in his element
A spot frees up, and we sit down. The tent is busy. Waiters are balancing food and drinks on trays, the click-click sounds of photographers taking shots, the laughter of new and old friends catching up over a view of Kasarani's apartment-dotted skyline. Rally cars speed in the foreground as 'Amapiano' plays from the mounted speakers. This will be one of the few times in our lives that we'll have a five-star meal, with choppers overhead and speeding cars in the distance.
Away from the food, and music, there's excitement in the air. The phones in hand. The smiles on people's faces. The country needed this break, a positive distraction from the fast-paced lives that modern-day Kenya demands.
We eat slowly, enjoying the sights, rally drivers flattening their gas pedals to save precious seconds, photographers scrambling to get shots that will please their editors. Onlookers, their mouths looking like black and pink-lined Os, marvelling at the speed and skills on display. The people who signed the Ksh 100 million cheque to the WRC would be extremely proud of this sight.
The Safari Rally is a national pastime. Wango
As the remaining cars finish their turns at the circuit, we wrap up and head to the van. The heat from the sun has sapped our energy, and we need to be at the opening leg on the shores of Lake Naivasha, almost 100 kilometres from the now-dusty fields of Kasarani, at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
Thika Road flows on the way back. The President's face beams at us from a billboard welcoming the drivers and their teams to Kenya. A few service cars speed past us like we are parked. We get to town, manoeuvre past the open-air markets of downtown Nairobi and disperse. There are clothes to be packed and phones to be charged.
Later, when the sky darkens into a beautiful hue of black, I meet up with Wango at Jamhuri Estate. A middle-class neighbourhood that has the bonus of proximity to Nairobi's CBD and the curse of expensive rent and the occasional dry tap. Our friend Temesgen is driving us up to Naivasha early the next morning. Part of the hundreds, if not thousands, of cars making their way to the Rift Valley town to catch a break from work and life in Nairobi.
At 10 p.m., as most of Nairobi prepares to sleep, there's a small party at Executive Apartment #20 in Jamhuri. Our friend Esperanza (real government name), had her birthday earlier in the week, and there's Ethiopian injera, soda and the customary cake to celebrate. Nothing too posh. Just photos, food, and impromptu speeches that millennials say at birthdays instead of saving them for funerals. Then we shower and sleep for all of four hours.
Naivasha is not far, but we need to beat the traffic that will pour into the town. At 4:30 a.m, we squeeze into Temesgen's blue Mazda Demio. Wango, Temesgen, Esperanza, Fiona and I. We disappear into Nairobi's Southern Bypass, indistinguishable from the thousands of cars drawn to the Safari Rally like moths to a light, headlights on, playlists on repeat at volumes that won't wake those sleeping in the backseats. Naivasha is calling, and we cannot resist.
Wango, Temesgen, Esperanza, Fiona and I in the blue Mazda. Wango
Friday, 24th June 2022
We get to Kedong', Naivasha at 6:30 a.m. The only thing that keeps me up is DJ Grauchi and the sheer number of billboards on the highway. The Kenyan general elections are about a month away, and campaigns are in overdrive. Politicians, as usual, are playing Russian roulette with the truth on blown out canvases. At the campsite, armed police in balaclavas point us to an al fresco parking lot. We open the doors to stretch, and the cold reminds us, brutally, to fetch our jackets from the back of the Mazda.
The campsite. Wango.
Next to us, there’s a Ugandan minibus. The occupants are deep asleep, exhausted from what must have been a day-long road trip from Kampala, or Jinja, or a village in Uganda where the Safari Rally passed once in the 90s. Obviously, the occupants had to watch it again, even if it meant missing sleep, comfort and 'Rolex'.
We call our agency lead, and she directs us to where the social media team is.
The nifty bus where we find the social media team. Wango
The social team, assisting KCB's marketing team in creating an engaging online presence, comprises photographers, influencers, car enthusiasts and lifestyle ambassadors. I know most of the team from social media, mostly Millennial and Gen Z virtual rock stars who have built online communities complete with inside jokes, slang and loyalty.
There's Osama and Joy with the jokes and light commentary, Lavender, Muthumbi, Mutinda and Kimanzi, for lifestyle, Julius,' Kalasinga' and 'Dr. Kanyuira' for the car and tech commentary and Richard, Gufy and Zollz for the photography. Beth, Blaze and Angie are the project leads, offering fly-on-the-wall support so that the tweets, the reels, the shots and the experiences come out exactly as intended.
Blaze, our other project lead, offers us breakfast. That keeps us from sifting through the stands to find a reasonably-priced breakfast. I almost remind Wango that KCB really loves us, but I have potato wedges in my mouth, and while a lot of rules are forgotten when you're in Naivasha, etiquette isn't one of them. We munch in silence as we stare out into a dusty landscape.
Outside, as Gufy and his crew take action shots to compliment the #FeelTheRoar hashtag that KCB is using, I catch up with Julius. He's a car reviewer who uses feel and touch as he lost his eyesight as a teenager. His reviewing style involves feeling the edges of a car, hearing its engine and telling what make it is. Interestingly, he's cheated death four times; he survived a vehicle knocking him down in 2005, a stabbing incident from law school politics in 2017, a 120-sleeping-pill suicide attempt in 2002, and a festering stomach infection that led to blood poisoning in 2019. I ask him whether, as a believer, he feels like he made it through because he has a higher purpose.
He shows me a scar he has on his eyebrow. He got it from a dancing session, where he landed on his face. He's comfortable in his skin and casually, and darkly for some, talks about his vision loss like a person would speak of a lost sweater. He's taught himself dancing, spoken word, riding motorbikes, and driving and reviewing cars.
His higher purpose now? Living his life as fully and independently as possible. While in campus, he missed an interview because he waited for a friend to take him to the interview location. The friend showed up 5 hours later. He knew then that he had to depend on himself if he wanted things done. That's how he became a trained lawyer who is now schooling me about assistive technology.
Assistive technology is used by people living with a disability. Like feature phones having raised dots on the number 5 button so visually-impaired people can navigate their phones, the F button on laptops having a raised bump, or voice recognition software in smart devices. Earlier, he had to memorise hundreds of phone numbers. Now, technology has evolved enough to spare him that hassle. That's the same dedication he put into cars. Learning about their trims, body lines, and the inspiration behind each product line and engine.
He tells me that losing his sight made him train his other senses and heightened the existing senses. I ask him about regret and therapy. He says he used music. Nas, Joyner Lucas, Kendrick, and Eminem. Consumed lots of hip-hop and spoken word as therapy. Binged-watching Def Jam poetry and then poured his hurt on paper.
At this point, the crowds surge to the barriers. Car number one has been sighted. I let Julius go, so he and his wife can enjoy the rally.
After the morning rounds, I walk around the shopping complex. The heat and dust cover Kedong' like an unwanted blanket. Beth offers ice cream. The sun is directly overhead, and the queue is long. I wait for my scoops. The seller is a huge man with a kind face, incidentally called Julius. His ice cream business is a smart enterprise in the daytime Kedong' heat. He's a father of five, and he makes his income solely by selling ice cream, profiling clients from years of experience to know who to charge a 'regular' price and who to charge the 'VIP' price.
I carry his cooler box as he tells me proudly about his daughter, who scored a B in her KCSE. He's the archetype of a hardworking father who would haul a 10kg freezer just so his children have the life he didn't have. We sell four pieces, and he offers me one. He has a heart as kind as his face. I like Julius. I wish him well and walk to the barriers.
Action from the barrier section. Wango
The barrier section looks like an open jam jar with bees on it. There are many onlookers, Wango included; he's taking pictures while being very silent about it, as usual. The cars come in fast and loud, and the crowd wants to be as close as possible to the action. Now, it makes sense to me why there had to be four buses of police.
"Don't touch the barrier."
"You can't do that."
"I won't tell you again."
Being a police officer needs patience. Lots of it. I get my pictures and head back to the bus.
There's a steel-cast staircase on the side of the bus, and I'm staring at the most breathtaking sight I've seen since I saw the View Point past Kimende. Numerous shrub-filled hills which blend into the landscape, and even with the dust, the scenes would sell numerous copies as postcards. I whip out my phone and take pictures. After a while, I'm joined by Karina. She's a Finnish motorsport enthusiast who speaks good Swahili and travelled to Kenya to cheer on her compatriot Kalle Rovanpera. He's 21 and already racing cars. I bite my tongue to avoid comparing my life to his. Instead, we talk about coffee, running, sandy beaches in Diani, and corruption with Karina. On the horizon, the sun turns into the colour of a well-done croissant, and the air turns cold. Karina and I descend the stairs, exchange pleasantries, and she melts into the Kedong' crowd.
We head back to the hotel, a considerable drive from the venue. The hospitality industry will do well this weekend. Thousands of people have flocked to Naivasha to watch the rally, enjoy the experience and live fully. Whether that means a concert so loud, your ears ring the next morning or a night out dancing till your limbs feel like they are on fire, accommodation is as important as a fully charged phone and food.
At dinner, while going through my gallery alone, I realise from WhatsApp that I lost Wango and my friends from Nairobi to their friend, who offered them accommodation in Naivasha. I force myself to eat, shower and get into bed at exactly 2:30 a.m. Tomorrow is Soysambu, the most iconic stage of the rally, and I have to be ready for it.
Saturday 25th June 2022
At 4:30 a.m., we leave for Soysambu, the crux of the rally. The WRC website says there's a river crossing, steep entries, rocky climbs and muddy trucks to overcome for the drivers. It's cold, and the branded hoodies from KCB are a thoughtful gift. Part of having a long, storied history is the wisdom to invest in people. Being 126 years old as a corporate means that in addition to loans, ledgers and security, you understand sports and how they shape and influence culture positively. I hope I'll see Evans Kavisi and Nikhil Sachania in action, the two Kenyan drivers sponsored by KCB, as part of the 1.2 billion that KCB have invested into motorsport in the last 19 years...however, it's the Finn, Rovenpara, who enthusiasts tip to win. Still, I hope that Evans and Nikhil have a good showing.
Evans and his co-driver Absolom. Wango.
After breakfast, I walk around the rally village, overjoyed to see how much fun people are having. Since COVID happened, it's been a while since we've had something joyous to celebrate together as a country. An event of this magnitude, full of nostalgia, but able to capture the zeitgeist of present-day Kenya. I walk around the village, soaking in the sun and looking out for Julius for some ice cream.
Instead, I meet Jonathan while watching the rally cars come round the bend. He's only eight, but he's taking photos like a seasoned pro. I speak to his father, Paul, who's taken Jonathan and his two brothers to 32 out of 47 counties. Those are impressive numbers, even for adults. Paul, a rally enthusiast, is not your average selfie-wielding enthusiast who forgets about the rally as soon as the podium finishers are announced. Instead, he's a rally-loving enthusiast who has taken Jonathan to rallies in Kajiado and Athi River and far-flung Lodwar for The Great Run. I call Gufy to take a picture of Paul and his family. Gufy is a soft-spoken artist who is as good behind a lens as he is behind a spoken-word mic. He directs a quick photoshoot for me, and I make a mental note to give him his flowers while he can still smell them.
Evans and Absolom in full speed. Gufy
As Gufy heads for more action, I ask Paul what lessons Jonathan would pick from the rally scene that other children wouldn't. Off the top of his head, he tells me about open-mindedness. Travelling to remote areas and experiencing different cultures ensures that Jonathan will grow up knowing it's okay to be different. That mindset is an important skill in a society that is becoming more diverse yearly. I leave Jonathan having an ice lolly, probably sold to him by Julius, and head to the tent for lunch.
After lunch, I'm seated with Osama. A Twitter personality who I'd describe as a blend between a comic, an online activist and a genuinely curious individual who takes on world-renowned economists and masculinity coaches like they were his peers. He loves Timberlands and Kangol hats as much as he likes the Hip-hop legend Biggie Smallz. He's also as impulsive as he has child-like honesty. One minute he's on the dusty plains of Soysambu with us, and the next, he's atop a KCB-branded chopper, creating laughs and engaging his 94,000 Twitter followers. He speaks exactly like he tweets. Short quips that have his Twitter community hanging on his every word. "It isn't much, but it's honest work". He laughs a lot. An infectious, carefree laugh. I think Blaze and Beth did an amazing job with the lineup. It's like the casting for Prison Break. You can't imagine anyone else getting those iconic roles from Fox River to Sona.
Osama in the KCB chopper. Zollz
On the bus to the hotel, I talk to Lavender about having her biggest campaign yet. She's a petite, pretty girl with a freshly-fixed pair of teeth. Bright, white teeth that contrast her colourful contact lenses. She tells me how much unseen work goes into a thirty-second reel as we watch the traffic ease away from Soysambu. There are numerous unseen takes that the audience doesn't get to see. They access only the edited final product, a thirty-second reel that can take up to an entire day to shoot. We shrug and agree that it's how life is, that you must put in a lot of work to get noticed. The bus' engine hums as we make our way to the hotel. I wish Julius were here to tell me about cars and who would want to stab a man who only wants to change the world for blind people, but he had an emergency and had to go home early.
We get to the hotel exhausted. With one eye open, I check my Twitter for the recognition people have for Wango's initial drawings. The comments please me. I get into bed and sleep for as long as Blaze will let me before he knocks on my door at 4:30 a.m
Sunday 26th June 2022
At Oserian, on the way to the Safari Rally's final stage, Osama shows me a flower farm he applied to work at a few years before he moved to Nairobi. The consequent rejection meant that instead of working the computer desk at a flower farm, he was on the bus with the rest of the team, creating content about a rally he had idolised since childhood in Eldoret, Kenya's bread basket. Most team members have day jobs away from social media, only moonlighting as influencers. Osama fixes laptops in Nairobi's CBD; Julius and Brian are lawyers, while Dr Kanyuira is an electronics merchant. Quintessential Nairobi residents, one job for paying the bills and another as a passion.
We get to the venue. There isn't much traffic today, and most of Nairobi's residents who made the trip to Naivasha, like Temesgen and my friends, are returning today, tired after a night of partying and living on life’s edge.
The hills at Hell's Gate. Wango
The hills at Hell's gate are so huge they can make you feel insignificant. Especially with so many people present. Hundreds of cars are at a makeshift parking lot where one can find anything from freshly-made chapatis to home-brewed traditional alcoholic brew. It's not hot today, and I feel for Julius and anyone selling ice cream.
Buying keepsakes at Hell's Gate.
Even in the dust around us, the President's tent is SUPER grand! Stationed at entrances and exits are tough-looking bodyguards with biceps the size of small banana trunks. The President’s arrival sparks a mass congregation where his choppers land. Police have a tough task keeping back the crowd trying to get as close to the President as possible, some for a picture, others hoping to explain their challenges, and others to see how he looks. The commotion makes me feel like I'd genuinely hate to be a policeman during that invasion.
After the President is whisked away, I notice the fashion on display. Loud and colourful, Kenyans, as they do for grand occasions, stepped out in colourful attire. Young, old, single, paired up, local or foreign. They are here to see the last of the action and to look good while at it. That also means business is brisk, although vendors tell me it's not as busy as the previous year. Election years have always proven to be tough for business people, and Paul Maina, the owner of Kikopey, a popular eatery on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway, laments the lack of patrons, unlike last year when the novelty of the Safari Rally being reinstated was fresh. I like to see the man in the street winning. It’s a heart-warming moment to see people earn their keep. Hopefully, next year will be better.
After the winners are announced, we direct the bus to watch the Jamaican reggae star Tarrus Riley perform at the Koroga Festival. He delivers an energetic two-hour performance with fans singing along to modern dancehall's biggest and most consistent singer. After, we all head back to the bus, joints aching, voices hoarse and thinking about sleep. Exhausted but happy. Because he's not here with us, I text Wango that after that weekend, I know for certain that KCB loves us. He doesn’t respond. He’s probably sketching all the things and people he saw at the rally.
The Jamaican reggae star, Tarrus Riley at Koroga.
The drive back home is surreal. The bus is dark, and everyone is asleep. It's been a rip-roaring weekend, and we left all our energy in the fields of Naivasha. That's what I will tell my children about the Safari Rally, that it is an enduring icon of roaring, dusty, sometimes muddy entertainment that has the potential to make you believe that almost everything you put your mind to is achievable. #FeelTheRoar
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