‘The Kili’ shows we can also run our way to elusive African unity
Saturday February 25 2023
This weekend saw the twenty-first edition of the Kilimanjaro marathon. The race, which started as a very local affair involving mainly Tanzanians, has now grown to become one of the important sporting events on the continent, drawing participants from over 50 countries representing “all the continents of the world except Antarctica”, according to Aggrey Marealle, one of the organisers.
All ‘the Kili’ needed to happen was the coming together of a politician businessman of the Moshi area, Philemon Ndesamburo, who had a tourism business; John Addison, a tour operator from South Africa; a former athletics champion, Leonard Mandara, and Marealle, who was an executive of the national brewery, whose Kilimanjaro beer brand became the logo.
At its inaugural race, “the Kili” attracted only 750 runners, mainly locals, but now it boasts more than 13, 000 participants, and still counting.
Enticed into sporting
Indicators show that our people, though often faulted as non-sporting, can be enticed into sporting activities when the conditions are made favourable to such pastimes. Many years ago, a Norwegian non-governmental organisation ran a programme called “Sports for All’ and managed to attract hundreds of people in the Dar es Salaam area. As I was involved in sports administration then, I engaged with the programme from the government side.
I could not fail to notice that many of the people who came out to run and do aerobics were especially attracted to the T-shirts, caps and track-suits offered by the Norwegian sponsors—sometimes winners received cash prizes — and I warned against that practice, to no avail. The Norwegians had a budget approved in Oslo, and they had to spend it, while our locals liked to have shiny sports gear, and it was availed.
Run for their lives
My thinking, which came up against the grain, was that people should not be coaxed into doing sports because of T-shirts and caps, but rather they should run, literally, for their lives. What I feared came to pass eventually when the SFA programme wound down and our runners dried up, as I had thought would be the case.
Yet, happily, in a number of Dar es Salaam dormitory districts, jogging clubs started sprouting, and soon the towns upcountry bought into the idea. (There was a downside to this flurry of sporting clubs, though, in that after stepping out — usually in their sparkling new gear — the members jogged, ran, walked, sauntered, or otherwise carried their weights along for a few kilometres, before stumbling “accidentally” onto a well-known pub, where they settled till dusk in pursuit of non-sporting pleasures. My defence for this kind of aberration was that these people would have taken their nyama choma and beer anyway, so it was good that they had at least done a little sweating before the feast!).
Now, It is safe to say that every Tanzanian town that takes itself seriously has a marathon of one description or another; the new capital city, Dodoma, also boasts one, although ‘The Kili’ still reigns supreme and may stay that way for a number of years to come. It could easily grow into a truly international marathon to rival the big ones, London, Chicago, Tokyo, Rome…
Target African runners
But at this stage we should be targeting African runners, with whom we could soon craft an “Africathon” that could be rotated every year and Africans and non-Africans of all ages could run the continent, discovering Africa. These would also be occasions to discover and learn how our people live and exchange with their lived experiences
There are many ways to make the ideal of African unity a reality, but one is not through the African rulers of today who have patently refused to become leaders, preferring to remain rulers much as the colonial administrators were before them—just rulers. The “Africathon” should help to break that mould alongside other non-state interventions that should seek to liberate civic spaces from the clutches of state operatives, who, despite their monopolistic grip on civic spaces, have no clue on how to deploy these to advance Pan African thinking.
It is clear that more and more young men and women are finding new openings in sports that they were denied in other fields. All our governments in the region should deliberately invest in the quest to promote the Africathon and other sporting activities already known to our various communities. The Africathon could, for example, include tournaments of Senegalese wrestling and other ancient expressions of African virility and nimbleness.
But the promotion of sporting activities in our communities will require a lot of special rearrangements. The allocation of pieces of land in our neighbourhoods for recreation and sports and putting them under the care of local governance structures for protection and improvement, would be a great starting point. Getting recreational facilities close to where people live would help a great deal.
It would also help to make our roads more walker/jogger friendly by demarcating sidewalks, cycling and jogging lanes. We need to liberate our town roads and re-educate our drivers to make them understand that they have no monopoly on the use of our roads. The police forces also need to rein in the boda-boda riders who have been killing pedestrians and joggers from their laxity in observing traffic rules.