The pictures live on, in the centre spreads of society magazines of the 1970s and the ’80s and in the sports sections of newspapers. They live on in the family album; the grainy vignettes progressing from sepia and vintage, finally moulting to full colour.
The pictures are a timeline, a story, trip back to what once was. And in the middle is the man who, in his prime, was literally the largest show in the land, and the very picture of masculinity, and a name to match the narrative.
Mickey Ragos remains to date the most decorated bodybuilder Kenya has ever had. He holds the record for most Mr Kenya championships — ten of them, a resume bejewelled with several international competitions, including the prestigious Mr Olympia contest where he held his own against the best of the behemoths of the day, Lee Haney included, and the world championships against the stunningly toned Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In a sense, Ragos was to bodybuilding what Joe Kadenge was to football: an institution. For boys coming of age in the late ’80s and the early ’90s — the glory years of action heroes and Hulk Hogan — the images of the hulking 6’’2 Ragos stirred some macho; how could such a man exist, they asked and then went to the back of the house to coax their reedy frames into ripped tones.
And it is entirely possible that grown men envied Ragos, and secretly harboured some Ragos aspirations.
But nowhere was the inspiration deeper and felt than in the Ragos household in Dandora, an estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands. The Ragos brood of eight sons sat front-row in the hall; they lived with Superman, ate with him across the dinner table.
“I remember waking up early in the morning after a competition where dad had participated and running to the newspaper stand,” recalls Godfrey Mgeni Sanya. “I knew his picture would be in the paper. It was exciting.”
Mgeni, 41, lives in Doha, Qatar where he works as a gym instructor. He is one of three Ragos boys — others, Fred Sanya and Arnold Ragos, have taken up their old man’s trade, helping keep the name in circulation. It’s fruitless to try and argue away genes and Ragos’ eight sons certainly have their father’s, but genes can only carry someone so far.
Mickey Ragos exploded onto the bodybuilding scene as a teenager. He won his first title while still a student at Ngarariga Secondary School in Limuru in 1966, when he won Mr Nairobi trophy. He did it the old way: lifting rocks impaled with a wooden rod and eating platefuls of beans and ugali.
His passion consumed him totally, nearly driving his concerned mother to the edge; hardly anything else mattered, not chores, not even going to the club. It was this drive that would separate him from fellow competitors.
When his boys were still young, Ragos nailed a flat board to the back of the house. There, the rambunctious tykes would spend hours on end, roughhousing, each one trying to out-compete the other.
“I wasn’t trying to turn them into body-builders; just a way to keep their energy active,” Ragos, now 72, says. But he knew it was inevitable that they would pursue the trade.
To many outsiders, especially those who rely on news clips, filtered Facebook pronouncements and the blogosphere, Dandora is the poster estate for much of what is wrong with the ghetto: crime, dystopia, shrivelled dreams. The profile, though tempered with tokenism, is not entirely wrong.
Sure, the sore garbage dumping site on the edge of town and its marabou stork, spates of crime and an air of desperation are a reality, but a general sweep of bad branding hides the light that is to be found in these bleak dwellings.
Indeed, some of the most creative people in the arts and sports the world over have risen from places exactly like Dandora. Dandora, or simply D, groomed the pioneer rap group Kalamashaka and inspired the formation of the hip-hop fraternity Ukoo Flani.
It’s Saturday morning and Dandora area 41 is stirring to life. It is a relatively calm place and, it being a weekend, even serene. A well-toned young man in a cut-off gym shirt and grey sweatpants and sporting wiry dreadlocks stands outside the old City Council hall which now houses the Mickey Ragos gym. Ragos opened the gym after he departed the stage of professional bodybuilding in 1994.
The young man is Arnold Sanya, one of the three youngest Ragos’ sons. He spends nearly every day here, especially, like now, when his father is away on business. Sanya is the reigning Mr Kenya, Lightweight category champion. His name is the first order of the business, carrying with it some proud history.
“Yeah, it has something to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he says laughing. “The story is my father gave me the name after a tournament where Arnold was also a participant.”
Like the two men whose name he carries, Arnold is exceptionally proud of the sport, and the accomplishments of his father. The gym, he says, is part of the Ragos legacy. Inside the well-equipped facility, a half-dozen young men are busy at work. From the walls, pictures of famous bodybuilders in their element monitor the work.
“I could have won more trophies by now,” Arnold, known to friends and family as Arno, or Ras (because of his dreadlocks) tells me. “Problem is, I hadn’t refined the skill of posing, flexing and all that. But I have worked hard at it and hope to move up the ranks.”
Arnold, 31, carries a jolly confidence about him. When the talk veers to his elder brothers Godfrey and Shaka, he claims goofily that he’s the best, second only to his father.
“Mi ni mnoma, naeza wachapa (I’m the man)” he says in the lyrical Sheng’ (slang) of Eastlands.
“Even Shaka?” the question is posed.
“Well … let’s just say I’m heading in the right direction,” he notes.
Arnold’s reticence is understandable; his brother Fred Shaka, who lives in the US, is the most decorated and successful of the Ragos boys. A former Mr Kenya champ, Shaka relocated to the US nearly a decade ago. He was crowned MuscleMania Pro Heavyweight World Champion in 2016, and currently holds the overall Mr MuscleMania title. MuscleMania Pro is a certified natural bodybuilding fitness outfit.
In 2017, Shaka captured the Mr Universe title. The accolade was a particularly proud achievement for Shaka; it’s a title his father had set his eyes on in the mid-80s, but came up short. In 1986, Ragos entered the championship held in Japan. The competition featured giants that roamed the earth, including Mr Olympia Lee Haney, finishing 7th overall. And while Ragos doesn’t try to live vicariously through his boys, Shaka winning the title must have carried with it some vindication for the old man.
Shaka, who was born in 1982, is a frighteningly carved Adonis, with a midsection resembling a ladder. While his star is unlikely to eclipse his father’s — at least in Kenya, Shaka is his own man. His physique appears lab-made, or a sculpture hewed from an outsize ebony block of wood, as if someone sat at a table and drew the outlines of his staggering frame.
A PARENT'S JOY
You are unlikely to find a prouder father than Mickey Ragos. And while the resumes and accomplishments among his boys vary, the love is equally shared. The boys who once gambolled in the backyard and did squats are now all men pursuing their dreams, but the glue of the family trade hasn’t calcified.
“I’m proud of all my children,” says Ragos. “I never tried to bend their destinies, but it’s good that at least some followed in my footsteps.”
“I won’t dictate what my children will become,” said Godfrey Mgeni, the father of five in an e-mail interview with Lifestyle. It’s something the patriarch counselled when Mgeni and his siblings were growing up.
Alex Sanya, one of the younger Ragos brothers, possesses his father’s stock, and if he had chosen to pursue the sport of his father, he could have added some silverware to the trophy chest.
“No, it never was my thing,” he told this reporter, adding, “but I am proud of what my father did, and what my brothers are doing.”
After some time, sports people have to cross their Rubicon; the body departs, the feet can no longer chase the ball, the hands can no longer throw haymakers; the basketball rim enforces the Newtonian edict about flight and the waiting ground.
This reality hits particularly hard in the bodybuilding industry. Muscle gives way to flab; one only has to look at Sylvester Stallone or the former wrestler Ric Flair; but such is the way of life. But even as they face this reckoning, some of the more disciplined still retain some of the aura — the bigness of their top-coin days, somehow warding off the ravages of time even as the chassis comes apart.
In his seventh decade, Mickey Ragos has managed to retain some of the ‘it’ — that something that separates the greats from the mortals. Sure, his hair is speckled with salt-dust, and he has to use glasses to read bills and the sports pages he once lived in, but Ragos still cuts a kingly, even imposing, figure. He’s not yet ready to pick a cane and he surely isn’t sitting in a chair outside his house.
Most of this has to do with discipline, a component he welded into his training regime he committed to when he started out his illustrious trade in 1966. He jogs, watches his diet and weight. It also has to do with his gym.
“Training young people, interacting with them, and seeing their dedication gives me immense joy,” Ragos says. The young people’s vigour rubs off him, reminding him of his own youth when bodybuilding grabbed him by the hand.
They show a muscular man at the height of his prime. It’s unlikely that one of the grandsons won’t pore over the pictures or pull out the paper cuttings, point and say: “That was something. Grandfather was cool. Pops, can you buy me some dumb bells?”