We cut short our shoot in Hong Kong a week ago. Packed our bags, called our travel agent and rushed home. Zakayo had made it out of Kenya. He was in Singapore. And he was applying for a visa to go to New York to compete in the Empire State Run-Up.
It’s hard to even imagine what he must have endured. Just weeks ago, he’d been stuck inside a police compound in Eldoret. We knew the situation was dire when the BBC carried pictures of a burnt-out church in Zakayo’s hometown. Rampaging mobs had torched the building, killing some 50 people. Kenya was imploding. But despite the crisis, Zakayo managed to make it out. He arrived in Singapore in time to pick up an air ticket to New York and an invitation to race up one of the world’s most famous buildings.
Three weeks ago, Zakayo Nderi, a Kenyan shoeshine boy, was quite literally, running for his life. Now, he’s hoping to set a new record in a run up the Empire State Building.
Kenya has been mired in crisis ever since a disputed presidential election. Much of the violence took place in Zakayo’s hometown – Eldoret. Much of the anger was targeted at Zakayo’s Kikuyu tribe. Mobs torched a church near his home, killing dozens. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Zakayo and his family spent three hungry days cowering in a police compound.
The story of how he managed to leave Kenya is a saga in itself. But there’s even more – Zakayo Nderi doesn’t just want to do well in the race on the 5th. He’s using it as a stepping stone to a bigger things: this shoeshine boy from a slum in Eldoret is hoping to eventually become the first black person to cycle in the Tour de France.
But it was not to be. See, if you’re poor and you’re African, they make it extremely hard for you to get into the United States. The US Embassy in Singapore refused to grant Zakayo a visa – despite the fact that he had an invitation from organizers of the Run-Up, a return air ticket and a letter from a Senator. How ironic – that he should escape the mob and be thwarted by bureaucrats.
And so the Run-Up came, went and for us at least, became a non-event. Zakayo went home to Kenya yesterday, along with plenty of new gear and a new training programme. He and Nick say they’re done with stair-climbing. It’s all about cycling now. Come August, Zakayo heads for France. For Alpe d’Huez. For the ride of his life.