Mashujaa Day mud-ness: A journalist’s ‘journey’ into the Kericho stadium

The signs had been there the day before, as my travelling companions and I made our way into the Kericho Green Stadium, as it was called then, hours before President William Ruto renamed it after legendary athlete Kiprugut Chumo.

As we rode into the field, I took note of the prisoners in their striped uniforms and orange sweaters raking mud behind the stands and couldn’t help but mention to my colleagues – for the third time that day – that unlike them, I arrived prepared with gumboots and a raincoat which were at that moment tucked away in my luggage.

And though my thoughts were preoccupied with whether we’d find a decent place to lay our heads later that night, given the number of nonresidents expected to descend on Kericho for the Mashujaa Day festivities, something seemed amiss. “Where are the military?” I asked my colleagues. “They completed their drills earlier,” Emmy let me know.

At that moment, a skit around Universal Health Coverage was playing out on the field as Emmy’s band, the Bureti Superstars, milled about the stage having just completed their rehearsals. “They are the longest standing band in the Rift Valley,” Emmy, their manager and with whom I was newly acquainted, stated proudly – a claim I can neither confirm nor deny.

I had bigger fish to fry. The host of the two-bedroom Airbnb I’d reserved for KES 2,383.66 had just made me a ‘special offer’ of USD 110 which at today’s exchange rate converts to KES 16,522 for the night. And demanded an immediate answer.

That is how on the morning of Mashujaa Day we found ourselves making a one-and-a-half hour long trip from Bomet county to the Kericho Green Stadium at 3.30am. Watu wa Media had been advised to make their way into the stadium by 6am. Unlike what is expected, the car passes that had been issued to us were worthless on the material day. The police demanded that we disembark our vehicle and walk several kilometres to the venue.

It helps in moments like these to have one in your midst who can stand up to the authorities a make a persuasive case to be let through. I’m not that person. Fortunately for our team and I, Nick Wambua is. It also helps to have a driver who’s familiar enough with a place that he finds a way to deposit you as close as possible to the Gate C we’d been instructed to use.

Before we got to Gate C, we stopped at Gate B, in search of Gate C. The officer who stood guard outside Gate B informed us that this gate was reserved for dignitaries. But given there were no dignitaries in sight, we asked that he let us through. He had his orders.

We marched onward alongside Community Health Promoters in their blue aprons and carried red knapsacks on their backs. But before we could approach Gate C, we had to cut our way through a wall of humanity. Men, women and children waiting to be allowed into the stadium to witness the planned festivities for themselves. Little did we know that not more than two hours earlier, five people had been trampled to death. Unaware, my biggest concern at the time was that the contents of my handbag remain intact.

As we pushed our way through, there was understandably voiced discontent. Who were these entitled people attempting to cut to the front of the line – only that there were no lines, just a mass of raia. An officer standing between us and the gate kept shouting, “tengenezeni line mbili!” Loosely translated as “form two lines/queues”.

And in a misguided attempt to enforce this order, he began swinging his baton at the front of the semblance of a queue. We swayed, en masse. It was at this point that my colleagues and I got separated as we attempted to disengage ourselves from the multitude.

My colleague Wambui Kurema and myself managed to stick together, eventually shoving our way to the front, at the gate, and making it through. On the other side of the gate, we met a muddy morass. For a moment I wondered at the abandoned shoes we were stepping on, but foremost on my mind was making it onto the field.

Visibility was limited, and so we followed the herd of blue-apron-wearing, red-knapsack-carrying Community Health Promoters. We first followed them up a set of stone steps before they changed course and went under and around one of the spectator stands, KG5. One of them stated “hapa ni kifo.” [Here, this is death]. Little did she know the truth of her statement.

But, after the mud-ness, we made it onto the field, that nearby, distant Canaan. I remember telling Nick, “If it wasn’t for our Press passes, I don’t know…”

Later, after leaving the mass of bog outside, to standing on thinner films of mud, the march-past and entertainment concluded. Those who had not secured seats were allowed onto the field. A wall of security personnel was stationed between them and the VVIP dais, nowhere else. This got me thinking, who were they here to protect; the leaders from the people? Whose day was this, anyway?

But, I must admit, I ask these questions from a position of privilege because once again, on our return to Nairobi, after wiping the mud off our shoes and pants, we cut to the front of the line, hitching our ‘wagon’ to that of the presidential escort; cheering as we elbowed other vehicles to the side of the road because there is no place more intoxicating than at the front of the line – mud or no mud.

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