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Last Man’s stori ya jaba denies villagers Safari Rally

By Makau Kitata

Easter was a time of Safari Rally and new names. In those days when seeing a car in the village was rare, rally drivers were like presidential candidates at election time. They traversed the whole of East Africa on village roads. To us boys, the winner became the fabled undisputed legend of all time.

We enjoyed seeing the flying mavericks turning muddy village roads into dust. To immortalise them, we manufactured miniature rally cars from discarded oil tins and raced them on our roads. Depending on whose make you fancied, we gave the toys and their owners names. Mine was Patrick Njiru; my cousin Muinde became Bjorn Waldergard. Mwendwa was Shekhar Mehta last year; this year, he was Vic Preston.

I considered my uncle James Mbai, a genius – especially when he talked to me while chewing his miraa. He spent most of his time with buddies at the khat-chewing base talking and reading newspapers. His friend Tom supplied all local dailies and a few foreign magazines. They were the only villagers who knew the difference between Lancer, Toyota, and Subaru.

“Did a Whiteman ever win the rally?” I asked my jaba-chewing uncle.

“Yes,” he said. “In 1972, one called Hannu Mikolla was the first non-Kenyan to win the rally. “That is when we started calling Kioko, the reckless matatu driver, Mukola.” In our language, the name means gangster.

This Easter was as muddy as Easter used to be. As we awaited the drivers to zoom through our road, I overheard my uncle and his khat-chewing buddies discussing the Safari Rally.

“Joginder Singh will just hide his vehicle in the bushes across the village beforehand and emerge out at the checkpoint when the time is perfect,” uncle said. “Brains, my man!” He pointed an index finger at his dreadlocks.

“And how would he evade detection?” asked Mutisya, his perpetual challenger.

“We have many leaves during this season to conceal a rally car,” he responded. “Your problem is thinking jaba is the only leaf used by intelligent people.”

This crafty way of winning the Safari Rally gave me an idea. “We are not far from the checkpoint. The leading rally car must be concealed somewhere in our village,” I figured.

Since early morning, before the sun was up, the whole village had been assembling along the main road of Mutituni, our shopping centre. Most of us small people were perched on slopes and rooftops. I was on a tree. I could see groups of people talking about the rally.  They converged near the few newspapers that were giving updates. Kimuyu, our primary school teacher, walked around with his transistor radio to catch the news live.

“The cars have now left Nanyuki and are heading for Ukambani,” said the announcer, “They are expected to pass through the Mutituni checkpoint at 11am on their way to Voi.”

“Eleven is too far for Njiru,” said my jaba-chewing uncle. “You’ll see him zoom past us in no time.”

Excitement grew to animated chatter at 10am, when we saw a helicopter hovering over our village. It circled the villages and came speeding over the rally route. Then it flew back as though to beckon faraway cars from the heavens. It floated above like a guiding star directing drivers who were using binoculars to trace the route from Turbo to Nanyuki and then to the Coast.

The helicopter soared around again, and I thought it spent a little more time near our village, where sand harvesters had cleared the trees and dumped the branches by the banks of Mutituni River. I immediately climbed down the tree like an eagle that had spotted a chick from above.

“Patrick Njiru is hiding his car at the sand quarry,” I screamed to the crowd. “He’s waiting for the helicopter to fly away before he appears at the checkpoint.”

My friends scrambled down their trees and slopes and raced after me. At the same time, word went around the market. The first rally car was hidden in the groves at the sand quarry.

I was leading the run with my friends in tow. Soon, the whole market crowd was sprinting towards the village to find the car.

On seeing us, the habitually indifferent sand harvesters and their truck drivers got alarmed. “These people have decided to end our sand harvesting business,” they thought.

Engines revved and a mighty cloud of smoke rose as the drivers cruised their lorries in a mad rush towards the main road. The desperate drive to save their vehicles from the wrath of villagers created a mini-rally.

“The rally car is hidden under the sand in the lorries,” I screamed. “They plan to offload it secretly and win the race.”

“Somebody empty those lorries!” my uncle and his jaba-chewing buddies commanded. “There is a car in there.”

At that moment, the organisers’ helicopter returned for a final inspection lap. The helmeted Whiteman next to the pilot stretched out his big camera and took an aerial shot. Then the chopper flew away, the way it had come.

We waited along the road that was now marked by lorries, their sand cargo poured out and scared drivers nowhere in sight.

“This is a perfect setting,” I observed. “We’ll see the cars flying over these obstacles in a minute.”

The villagers stood along the road – and waited.

At 6 o’clock, we heard the announcement from the radio. Our checkpoint had been cancelled. No cars were going to pass through our market.

Villagers trooped home disappointed, and the boys looked at me angrily.

My uncle asked me, “Last man, do you have an idea why they cancelled our market road?”

“I think they feared the lorry drivers would be faster and embarrass the rally drivers.”

“I also think so,” he agreed.

The following day, we listened to the radio announcing the results of the Voi checkpoint. As the cars headed for the Coast, I went to my uncle’s miraa base to catch up with the news. In one of the foreign magazines was the photo from the chopper with the headline, “Bizarre activity of natives cancels rally checkpoint.”

Since then, the organisers stopped the Safari Rally.  When it returned, they took it to electric-fenced private farms and game reserves in Naivasha.

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