Zakayo lives in a slum, a five-minute matatu ride from downtown Eldoret. It’s called Langas, a place made famous by the post-election violence last year. This was where some of the fiercest tribal clashes erupted, where dozens died. A row of burnt-out shacks just outside Zakayo’s house, is a reminder of the tensions that continue to simmer.
At first, we couldn’t quite understand why Zak chose to set up home in this incredibly ugly part of town. The area, so devoid of trees or green, was rubbish-strewn, foul smelling and crawling with drunks. They were everywhere. On one of our many visits, one tried to hurl a duck at us. The squawking bird flapped in our faces, bewildered and terrified. We ducked, shuffled away, and spent the next few hours wondering just what else Langas was going to throw our way.
The slum, with its streets overflowing with churches (Holiness and Repentance! Revival, Now!) and garbage and dirty sheep and shit-splattered pavements was like nothing, nothing we’d ever seen before. Poverty and opportunity. Hope and despair. Religion and sin. Everywhere. Random women stopped to ask us for money. Children begged for candy. Self-proclaimed men of god reached out for a chat, their breaths, heavy with the stench of alcohol.
Zak’s house is a little oasis in the madness. He’d grown up in Langas and tried moving away last year. But then the clashes erupted. And he had felt compelled to move his young family back to the area he knew best.
“They wouldn’t attack us here. This is a Kikuyu area.”
Tribal rivalry was something we struggled hard to grasp during our time in Kenya. It was always there. Always simmering. The taxi driver who drove us into town on our first day in Eldoret was a Luo who described Kikuyus as hardworking but cunning. Another, a Kalenjin, said Luos were smart but lazy and would never accomplish anything.
“But what about Barack Obama? He’s a Luo.”
“Ah, yes. But he’s half-American. The American side is hardworking.”
A third, a Luhya, refused to believe that Turkanas could cycle competitively. They were just loafers who spent their time sleeping in the fields, he said. He’d obviously never met Sammy – a Turkana who came in second during last weekend’s race.
And so it went on.
We know now just what a huge undertaking Nick has embarked on. Tribal and ethnic politics is a dimension we’d never considered. The new cycling camp – a former pool hall in a quieter part of town – will eventually house 10 of the best riders Nick can find. There are now Kikuyus and Turkanas. There might well be cyclists from other tribes soon. On races, they slap hands, say hello and just get on with it. But as teammates, they’ll have to put aside old prejudices and work together.
And if they do, maybe Zakayo will finally have the confidence to move his family out of Langas. For good.