One of Kenya’s greatest runners of the 1950s, he brought honour to a grateful country only to die a sick, broken and forgotten man
Chicken wasn’t his favourite delicacy, but it most certainly held a dear place in Mzee Nyandika Maiyoro's heart!
Any session with the legendary Kenyan athlete would, no doubt, have left you in stitches as he relived his glory days and his travels with the Kenyan team abroad.
Maiyoro died at the age of 88 on Sunday, taking with him the rich history of Kenya’s first days in international competition.
He succumbed to tuberculosis at Kisii’s Christa Marianne Hospital just hours after his kinswoman Hellen Obiri won the senior women’s race at the National Cross Country Championships in Eldoret to continue a rich legacy Maiyoro had launched in the 1940s in Kisii.
More on the chicken story later.
Mzee Nyandika Maiyoro — not Nyantika as we got used to calling him over the years — started off running in 1948, competing for Nyakegogi, his Catholic primary school in Bobasi, and later Nyaribari in Kisii, where he habitually won inter school competitions.
"Our local chief (Musa Nyandusi) coached me and urged me to run for our location where I won and qualified for the district competition. At the time we had around 25 locations," Maiyoro recalled when I interviewed him at his home on the outskirts of Ogembo town in Kisii County in 2013.
Specialising in the 5,000 metres, (at the time three miles) Maiyoro starred in the district competition and qualified to compete against athletes from Kipsigis, Nyanza and Western Kenya for a place in the provincial team.
"I won my race at the 1949 national championships in Nairobi and the 'wazungu' told me that I would run for Kenya at the East Africa Championships in Kampala against teams from Uganda and Tanzania."
At the time, the Kenyan team was made up largely of Nandi athletes.
"The Nandis would have their ears pierced as a traditional ritual, and they were known for this, and when we went to compete in Uganda, the Kabaka even asked who I was as I didn't have such piercing."
Running barefoot on a grass track in Kampala, Maiyoro emerged victorious in his three-mile speciality, a title which he defended the following year in Dar es Salaam.
"In 1951 I decided to go back to school but the 'wazungu' came looking for me and even offered me a job as a veterinary officer, earning a salary of 25 shillings a month, so that I could continue with my running," he reminisced.
Maiyoro completed a hat-trick of regional victories in 1952.
"It was then that the 'wazungu' told me that I would travel to a bigger competition in Madagascar (Indian Ocean Games) to represent Kenya.
"That was my first time to board an aeroplane. We were taken to Nairobi and camped at the Jeans School. The 'wazungu' took us to a shop and fitted us with new clothes and they also bought us ties which they helped us to tie and warned us not to untie them. We didn't know what ties were all about or how they were tied.
"On the day of travel, we woke up early and went to the Eastleigh Airport. We were nine of us including Kanuti Sum, Kiptalam Keter and others … We went into the plane and we were shown how to fasten the seat belts, and bade farewell to the people on the ground.
"But when the plane started taking off, we were screaming 'take us off! We are going to die!' But the 'wazungu' officials comforted us to calm down as nothing would happen."
In Madagascar, Maiyoro won the 5,000m, leading a string of Kenyan victories.
But the changeover to metric measurement in Madagascar posed a huge confusion for Maiyoro.
"I remember I was in the warm-up area and they called competitors for the 5,000 metres. I paid no attention as I knew I was competing in the three-mile race.
"I remember coach Evans rushing up to me and asking 'Nyandika, are you not competing? They already fired the starter's gun!' I told him I didn't know I was competing in the 5,000 metres+. What I knew is my race is the three miles."
There were 30 athletes in the race and when Maiyoro belatedly emerged from the call room, they had already covered just about three laps.
"I remember fans and officials laughing at me, thinking I was crazy. But they allowed me to start, and after six laps, I caught up with two athletes … after the seventh, I caught up with seven more … I could hear some 'wazungu' now saying 'Nyandika will catch up with all of them!"
At the bell, the Kenyan legend had decimated the field and, to the surprise and chagrin of many, he went on to win the race against all odds, definitely the most memorable race of his career."
As a reward, Maiyoro was elevated from veterinary officer to social services officer and made numerous trips to Asia, at one point staying at the historic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
"In Kenya, I saw Indians as rich people, but in India, I was surprised to see them fishing in Bombay and begging on the streets asking for rupees!"
"Upon return from the Madagascar games," he recalled, "the Governor came to receive us at the Eastleigh airport along with a band that played music to celebrate our success."
LAND OF THE WHITES
That was just the beginning of Maiyoro's winning spell that in 1953, then still training at Jeans School, Kabete, (present day Nairobi School), under sports officer Archie Evans, also saw him triumph in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
In 1954, Maiyoro was selected to travel to Vancouver, Canada, his first trip to the “land of the white people”, to compete in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
"I was told to go home and bid farewell to my family in Kisii," he told me.
"But when I got home, everybody thought it was a lie … ‘There is no way you are going to the land of the white people,’ they told me."
And the trip did materialise, with Maiyoro travelling in the company of fellow pioneers Kiptalam Keter, Joseph Lesai, Musembi Mbathi and Kanuti Sum, among others.
Nineteen-fifty-four also saw the emergence of Maiyoro's famous student, Kipchoge Keino, as the Kenyan team headed to the Vancouver British Empire and Commonwealth Games featuring the likes of Arere Anentia, Seraphino Antao, Kiptalam Keter, Kanuti Sum and Kimaru Songok.
Maiyoro emerged fourth in the three-mile race at the Games that marked Kenya's first major international competition.
He then managed seventh in the 5,000 metres at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne (in a race won by Russia's Vladimir Kuts) and at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Maiyoro again finished just outside the podium, in sixth place, in the 5,000 metres.
Four years later in Tokyo, Maiyoro carried the flag at the Games but didn't compete, and Wilson Kiprugut Chumo went on to win Kenya’s first ever Olympic medal — a bronze in the 800 metres.
Back to the chicken story …
Maiyoro once earned an expenses-paid trip to Finland where he would train and compete for two weeks.
"Archie Evans was told to travel with me on condition that he footed his own bill, but he couldn't, so I travelled alone."
Back at the hotel in Helsinki, Maiyoro was present with a precarious situation: he could hardly read and when given the menu at the dining area, he didn't know what to do.
"The only think I knew was 'chicken' so I ordered for chicken."
But as the days wore on, Maiyoro would order chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner, drawing the attention of his hosts who later discovered that he could hardly read and the only English word for food he knew was ‘chicken’!
"They would then take me to the kitchen and show me the foods that they were preparing and ask me to pick what I would like prepared for me."
More surprises awaited him upon his return to Kenya.
In 1961, Maiyoro received a summon to travel to Buckingham Palace and meet the Queen, Elizabeth II.
"On arrival, I was told that the Queen would grant me a medal, the MBE. I asked 'what is that?' And was told it's a huge honour — Member of the British Empire."
And so Maiyoro, born in 1931, the father of 19 children from two wives, was decorated and given a Sh6,000 cash reward to go with the medal, a tidy sum in those days.
"When I returned home, President Kenyatta called me and asked to see the medal and a few years later, President Moi was to award me with the Silver Star medal."
Maiyoro was inspired by the medals he was awarded.
"In fact, when you write to me, you should address your letter to 'Nyandika Maiyoro, M.B.E., S.S.!" he told me with the smile as our interview wore on.
But that's about all the respect that the legend enjoyed in his retirement.
He died a troubled man at Kisii’s Christa Marianne Hospital just after 8pm on Sunday.
A house inside the Gusii Stadium that the colonial government awarded him for his outstanding performances in athletics in 1952 is perennially being eyed by grabbers who have already eked out a huge chunk of his 50-acre farm at Nyansiongo, given to him by President Kenyatta for his service to the nation.
"I see people earn millions these days for running. In my day, we would earn maybe Sh20 or a chicken …
“It's sad that the little I earned that day, including my house in Gusii Stadium and the 50 acres of land given to me by President Mzee Kenyatta in the presence of presidents Nyerere and Obote, is being targeted by grabbers!," lamented the man who served on a long spell as manager of the Gusii Stadium manager before retiring to farming in 2002.
Not a happy ending to the story of a legend who, dead at 88, enjoyed the enviable tag of being the first Kenyan to compete internationally in athletics, a sport that’s now Kenya's breadbasket!