There is a universal desire to impress guests. The moment you hear that visitors are coming is the instant you fly off the sofa and start wiping the dust on the radio that you have been ignoring all along.
Guests shake off our lethargy. But most important of all, they bring out the best in us. Because they are coming we put our best foot forward.
Big football tournaments are all about guests. When well organised, things get positively disrupted. We are not going to have guests next January because we have failed our exams. Chan is going to either Morocco, Equatorial Guinea or, in the worst case scenario for us, next door in Ethiopia. That would really be rubbing it in; Rwanda last time, Ethiopia this time? Lord, please.
The history of sport is also the history of the enormous lengths to which nations have gone to impress their visitors. Some have literary moved heaven and earth to shine in the eyes of their guests.
Even when their efforts don’t produce the desired outcome – and indeed sometimes they do go wrong – the attempt is of such a scale that the world talks about it long afterwards. In which case, it is worth it.
WATERLOO AGAINST URUGUAY
Consider this: to stage the 1950 Fifa World Cup, Brazil built the world’s largest stadium – the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. It’s capacity? 200,000 people.(Please note the year – 1950!) Things didn’t quite work out the way Brazil desired and 199,858 people witnessed the hosts’ Waterloo against Uruguay – a 1-2 loss in the final game. But the Maracana remains an icon of sports architecture to this day.
For its Olympic Games of 1976, the City of Montreal decided to build the world’s first outdoor retractable roof stadium. It didn’t pull it off and in the end it was forced to make the roof permanent. However, the effort was impressive.
But the hardware displayed in breathtaking infrastructure such as stadiums, railways and highways, is only half the story. The other half - the software - is the artistic ingenuity in putting together out-of-this-world opening and closing ceremonies. A great desire of nations hosting major sports events is to showcase this aspect of the genius of their people.
Many of them know they won’t win the big cup or top the medal standings. But they are desperate to tell their stories in spectacular ceremonies that are choreographed by their best producers and directors. These are the stories of the nation’s history and cultural life across generations, centuries and even millennia.
Some countries do this so well that what you remember most is this particular aspect of the tournament or Games and not the competition itself.
To the bureaucrats in our Ministry of Sports who wear mediocrity as a badge of honour, in Chan we only lost a football tournament. But difficult as it is for them to understand, a big football tournament means a lot more than football. The game is the main course, but there are many side dishes that come with it. Good business. Lasting friendships. National pride. Optimism.
To those of us who have witnessed many opening and closing ceremonies in our lives, the loss of the guests we might have welcomed in January is profound. We miss them. We also must agree that denying a chance to our most creative artists to show the best of themselves for our country is a crime that calls for the strongest condemnation. It is a crime against the people.
When I listen to statements coming from the Ministry of Sports, I’m constantly reminded of words once spoken in a raging fit of fury by the charismatic late Mozambican President, Samora Machel in a rally: “That ministry is full of useless people!” I can’t remember which of his ministries he was talking about but I know that as soon as he was done fuming, reports from Maputo said his heavy axe came down hard on them.
Let us reflect on what we have lost and comfort ourselves with the achievements of other peoples who are fortunate to get their act together.
The spirit of sport’s big heartedness drives us to admire them. Did you watch the opening concert of South Africa 2010? Did you see Lira belting out Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata to Hugh Masekela’s heart-melting trumpet? And did you absorb the splendour of the entire production?
The Fifa World Cup of that year gave those artists the chance to showcase their talents. It gave South Africans a massive party. But it also gave them a great psychological boost. In the face of the all the adversities they face every day, such a performance left them feeling like winners. When you met them, they showed it.
I have felt emotionally close to many opening ceremonies even when staged by people in far off lands. One of my most memorable was 2004 when Portugal staged that year’s European Nation’s tournament. There was a segment in the ceremonies depicting a ship sailing though a sea that dissolved into the flags of all the participating countries.
The ship was re-enacting Portugal’s centuries-old history of maritime navigation that echoed the nation’s promotional slogan: “the thrill of discovery.” I felt connected with that scene because of Fort Jesus in Mombasa and Vasco da Gama’s Pillar in Malindi.
If the mandarins at the Ministry of Sports want an example of what Kenyans can do given a chance to shine, I will tell them the story of Washington Omondi, George Senoga-Zake, Graham Hyslop, Thomas Kalume and Peter Kibukosya. In mid-1963, these gentlemen were given seven months to produce a song that depicted the soon-to-be-independent nation’s sincerest hopes and wishes.
The song, they were told, had to bring out all the positives the new Kenya aspired to especially the sentiments of patriotism, unity, brotherhood and progress.
They did it. On the stroke of midnight on December 12, 1963, their creation, Kenya’s national anthem which many people agree is one of the most eloquent prayers said by a people, boomed out for the first time at Uhuru Gardens.
In some cities of the world where it has been played, people have told me they like the sound of it.
“It’s a lullaby,” I tell them after clearing my throat for effect when they ask. “One of our Coastal peoples called the Pokomo sang the tune to sooth their babies into sleep.”
Our national anthem is the product of the incredible inspiration produced by all big occasions to which many guests have been invited.
One of the spin-offs from working in the world of sports is constant travel. It is one of the major reasons why many officials go into sports. Some bureaucrats have been to all five continents attending the Olympics, many other competitions and all manner of meetings. For Kenya, this has also come at a terrible price by way of theft of public funds. They go not to learn anything but just to line their pockets.
Last year, I took Content House’s boxing film, The Last Fight, to the 5th Luxor African Film Festival in the Egyptian city of Luxor. The gentleman occupying the neighbouring room was a Ugandan director with whom we became fast friends. Over the first dinner as the gentle breeze from the Nile blew softly against our grateful skins, I asked him: “Our leaders are career travellers. When they travel, what do they see?”
He looked up from his plate and the Ugandan in him craned his neck towards me. There was a piercing look in his eyes. This made me worry about my question. Then he said: “I was thinking about asking you exactly that!”
He was born in 1986, the year President Museveni came to power. We were in Egypt where the Nile finishes the 6,800 kilometre-journey that it starts in his country, Uganda. For long, we contemplated the massive cruise ships that lined its banks. They were moored on both banks – and they were many.
“Imagine the millions of dollars these people make with this river tourism,” he said to me. “It leaves Lake Victoria at Jinja. Imagine the millions of people who would want to come to where this river starts? But what’s there? Nothing!” He shook his head and continued eating.
“Our biggest problems in Kenya are tribalism and corruption,” I said to him. “My film is about their victims.” He looked me in the eye and nodded. His nod was the vigorous nod of a man who needed no elaboration. He knew.
“Our biggest problem in Uganda is Museveni,” he said. “I am 30 years old and I have not known any other president all my life. Most Ugandans are like me. He is a life-president and yet he has no ideas left. But it is impossible to remove him.”
I returned his look and nodded. My nod was also the vigorous nod of a man who needed no elaboration. I knew. We continued eating.
TOURED THE TOMBS
For five days, we were almost inseparable. As we toured the tombs in the Valley of Kings and Queens (The Pharaohs) learning about a civilisation that thrived 6,000 years ago, we kept returning to the question: “When our leaders travel, what do they see?”
After the festival, we took the same flight back home, Cairo-Nairobi via Entebbe. We were booked in seats far away from each other so before boarding, we said our goodbyes.
“Good luck in removing Museveni,” I told him.
“Good luck in removing corruption and tribalism,” he replied. We hugged and enjoyed a hearty laugh, the kind so full that it can even draw tears of mirth.
And yet what we were laughing about was not funny.