I once wrote an optimistic piece on sport in South Sudan. “Despite The Shadow of War, Hope Springs Eternal for South Sudan,” the Editor headlined it.
I thought it was apt. But things have since dramatically gone south, and I am not talking about the long journey to the Southern Hemisphere here in Rio de Janeiro. The brutality going on in that country and the sorrow that comes with it is evident to whoever meets a South Sudanese, anywhere in the world.
I found myself in the same immigration queue with three South Sudanese athletes and a man who, by age and demeanour, was obviously their manager.
Before I could strike conversation, we were separated – the athletes were directed to their own queue. I linked up with them again at baggage collection but yet again they were whisked off before we could talk much.
“What’s your name?” I zeroed in on the only woman among them.
“Margaret,” she answered, and I told her mine, endearingly telling her that I was her Kenyan brother. It didn’t seem to register a thing. I laboured to try this and that – the similarity of our flags, sadness at the war back home. What event was she taking part in, what were her expectations? How is it like to prepare for the Olympics at a time of war? But everything just seemed to fall flat. One sentence answers and a weary smile.
I was about to grab the next athlete although he seemed even more distant, but they were led away. I contemplated them go, clad in ill-fitting green track suits.
They looked forlorn, and so out of sync with the vibrant mass of people bobbling around them. Hope does not spring eternal for South Sudan, I thought.
Then I turned again to the large advertising posters featuring Usain Bolt that welcome you to Rio International Airport. By God, you can stare at them all day long.
Power, life, optimism, energy, victory – think of any superlative along those lines and you will still fall short in trying to describe that look. There is a certain perfection in the Creator’s creation that draws you inexorably and reverentially towards it. Some people have it all, while others, well…..
I can’t seem to get this off my chest, so I have decided to write about it in the hope that I will avoid bursting a vein. I arrived here by way of a rather circuitous route – about five hours Nairobi-Dubai and 14 hours Dubai-Rio. Despite buying my ticket many months ago, and confirming my flight immediately that was open, I couldn’t get a desperately needed window seat. The plane was full, on both legs.
Window seats, especially when going to new places, are a must for me. I need to see as much as I can so that I can process it by putting it against what I previously knew.
I need every last detail; it might be, it usually is, a tiny nugget that will help me join two future sentences. Some things I need to write down, like an impulse, a feeling I know I will never feel again but which I need to remember. Others I don’t have to write down because they automatically commit to memory.
I had deliberately planned the Dubai-Rio leg during the day because I had never been to South America before. I craved to see the topography, to wallow in old geography lessons, to appreciate the deserts giving way to equatorial forests and rivers ending in the seaboard of the Southern Atlantic.
I wanted to see Brazilian territory as I finally made pilgrimage to the mecca of my football dreams, the land of Pele. I wanted to take in this slowly because I had all the time. I wanted to arrive feeling beautifully tired.
Well, not even Christ the Redeemer standing atop Corcovado Mountain, could help me. (Thankfully, I am living not far from His feet; his majestic statue is awe inspiring and looms large over everything below. The failed Catholic in me has already petitioned Him to make sure this does not happen during my homeward journey).
Nairobi-Dubai was a night ride. I could live with that. But not the day light Dubai-Rio. Not only was I nowhere near a window, but everybody – and I mean everybody - as if by conspiratorial agreement, pulled down their shatters until they were instructed to lift them just two or three minutes before we hit the Rio tarmac. It is as if I had been blindfolded at JKIA and the blinds peeled off inside the Rio terminal.
Before opening my passport to see my name, a charming and solicitous bank teller about to change my dollars into Brazilian reals asked my name. Under my breath, I shouted loud enough to startle flamingos in Lake Nakuru if I were standing atop Menengai Crater: “My name is Roy Gachuhi Umaru Abdulrahman Dikko! Did you get that? Just call me Umaru Dikko, for that is who I truly am!”
Remember Umaru Dikko? He was the influential former Nigerian transport minister and fugitive whom veteran coup maker and current democratically elected president Muhammadu Buhari attempted to smuggle from his London exile in a diplomatic crate.
Dikko was kidnapped, packed in a crate, injected with anaesthesia and was about to be flown to Lagos when suspicious British police and customs opened the crate to find Dikko and his Israeli anaesthetist inside it. Dikko was saved.
But I felt as if I had travelled in a crate – a luxurious one featuring five-star meals, impeccable service and superior in-flight entertainment, but a crate all the same. As I walk the streets of Rio, I am still at a loss how I ended up here. When leaving the plane, I didn’t make eye contact with the friendly people smiling at me; I forged straight ahead, like a released animal, upset about my empty notebook. Now that I have gotten that out of my chest, I feel better.
On Sunday, I will tell you what I have come to do here.