Kenya Builds Up on the Backs of Bodybuilders
By Kirsten DrysdaleJune 4, 2012
The discipline of bodybuilding represents much more than pumped-up muscle for one African nation — better health, a fair go and a robust democracy.
In a primary school hall in the highlands west of Kenya's Great Rift Valley a very shiny, very muscular man wearing a very small pair of Brisbane Broncos togs is grinning madly from the stage. The voice of Celine Dion yowls over the PA system with a medley of pop-ballad remixes played at top volume. The man pirouettes away from the crowd, flexes his lats and pulls the old Australian National Rugby League slogan "THAT'S MY TEAM!" taut across his clenched buttocks. Frenzy ensues. Teenage boys whoop, grown women shriek and children crouch by the stage with digital cameras while the judging panel watches soberly, making hurried notes between poses.
Welcome to Mr Kericho: the premier event on the Kenyan bodybuilding calendar and an unexpected window on modern Africa.
Kericho, a rural town about 250km northwest of the capital Nairobi, is the heart of Kenya's sizeable tea industry — no other nation exports as much of this brewable leaf. The countryside is a deep green brush of tea plantations, flecked with the white sacks of pickers and their colourful kanga headscarves. A few years ago, after the disputed election result of 2008, this famously tranquil place was shattered by an outbreak of unspeakable tribal violence. Peace has since returned — even if some of those who then fled have not.
It seems an unlikely venue for a bodybuilding: East Africa is hardly known for its gym junkies. But the event has an ulterior motive.
Mr Kericho exists thanks to sponsorship from the Walter Reed Project (WRP) — a US Military HIV Research Program with a local base in town. The competition is staged by a partnership of the fledgling Kenya Body Building Federation (KBBF), passionate local gym owners and athletes, and timed to coincide with World AIDS Day. All competitors and spectators are encouraged to take a free HIV test in one of the canvas booths set up at the entrance.
Kenya has made huge strides in tackling an AIDS epidemic which, a decade ago, afflicted more than 13 per cent of the adult population. That figure is now 6.3 per cent, thanks in large part to bold public-education campaigns which aim to overcome the stigma associated with the disease. These days, the social intricacies involved in "knowing your status" — and that of your partner — are standard fare for relationship-advice columns, TV chat shows and drive-time radio. Newspaper classifieds feature "positive seeks positive" personal ads, women's magazines run features such as "How many dates before you ask The Status Q?" and condoms are available just about anywhere you can buy Coca-Cola.
Norah Talam, the 37-year-old HIV/AIDS-prevention manager at WRP and emcee for this evening's body-building spectacular, explains the strategic thinking driving her organisation's involvement: "We try to promote HIV prevention through events like beauty contests and bodybuilding, where the activity appeals to the youth and where they actually receive HIV-prevention information during the activities." (Mr Kericho is targeted at young men; a sister event — the Miss Kericho beauty pageant — was held the night before.)
When the judges come to tally their scores between rounds, Talam will address the crowd about the importance of safe sex and getting tested. Her patter also explains that the new generation of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) means HIV is no longer a death sentence. She then proffers more free and friendly advice: "We have counsellors who can answer any of your questions. Just come and ask."
For the KBBF, tonight is shaping up to be a great success. The past few years have seen their dedicated efforts to building up the sport pay off — the hall is packed with a few hundred excited supporters, as well as curious locals for whom bodybuilding is a foreign and, evidently, highly amusing concept. Many have come to see the star attraction, guest judge Paul Mwangale, a Kericho man who in 2010 was crowned world champion at the international FAME Bodybuilding Championship.
The Mr Kericho prize pool of 133,000 Kenyan shillings (about AUD1,500, almost twice Kenya's average yearly income) has drawn competitors from as far as Mombasa, 750km away on the coast, and Kampala, in neighbouring Uganda. It's an impressive turnout.
The proceedings kick off with a group prayer — about 50 silent, hulking men with their heads bowed, sit on school chairs, the backs of which are graffitied with a love for Jesus that is ubiquitous across Africa.
After completing their registration and weigh-ins, the bodybuilders queue up beside the stage, at a trestle table loaded with laptops and leads. A pair of savvy young DJs is driving the gear, coordinating the "freepose" playlists from a growing pile of competitors' MP3 players and smart phones.
Kenya's middle class is a rapidly expanding, and consumer technology is as much a part of life here in the cradle of civilisation as it is anywhere in the developed world. This has spawned a wave of young African programmers, bloggers and innovators. Several leading tech outfits have recognised the growing potential of this market (and its creative capital); web giant Google, for example, is among those with headquarters in Nairobi, adding to the city's reputation as "Africa's Palo Alto".
Photo by Kirsten Drysdale
Photo by Kirsten Drysdale
Photo by Kirsten Drysdale
Backstage, I spot another pair of Broncos budgies and ask their host where he found them. "The mtumba", he tells me, "there are many there!" The word roughly translates from Swahili as "used cloth" but it invariably refers to the enormous second-hand clothing market on the outskirts of Nairobi: the final destination for Vinnies bundles of outdated Western wardrobe items and the sad runs of commemorative hats for second-place sporting teams. It's not uncommon to see Telstra MobileNet caps on the streets around here.
Old colonials say nothing has changed "the face" of Africa more than this tsunami of cheap jeans and T-shirts which, in half a century, has seen generations of traditional garb and animal skins give way to the Nike swoosh. Awareness of the used clothing market's devastating impact on local textile industries, along with a desire to reclaim their cultural identity, has sparked a "proudly African" trend among the continent's fashion designers, but it seems they've yet to corner the men's spandex market.
Further along the sweaty gauntlet of biceps and barbells is Wilson Munene, 28, a bodybuilder and aspiring model I first met at a junior competition some months ago. He's giving his bantamweight younger brother, Joseph, 21, a pep-talk while smearing him with cooking oil. "Symmetry, remember, left and right together!" he urges, holding his arms up in a double curl, "and you have to smile!" Joseph, shy but excited to be taking part in what is only his second competition, mirrors his brother's example. "Got it. I got it," he says.
Like many of their peers, Wilson and Joseph grew up with posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman as inspiration. "I had cut-outs from a magazine in my room, pasted on the wall," says Wilson. "They were the first bodybuilders I knew about. I looked at them every day."
Back then, he knew no Kenyans who were interested in bodybuilding, and there was no gym in his hometown, so he was forced to improvise. "At school I was discouraged from getting into it, because the teachers thought it was aggressive and violent, so I used to hide my training. I used stones as weights and used the rafters to do chin-ups … it is not a well understood sport here in Kenya."
Wilson and the KBBF are trying to change that. They want the public to see that far from being a thug's pursuit, bodybuilding is a discipline. "Too many young men are idle these days," says Wilson, who now works at Egerton University where he obtained his Master's degree in Agricultural Economics. "They are wasting time with drugs and drinking and promiscuous sex. Bodybuilding is a good way to focus energy and be healthy. I encourage them to come to the gym with me and get into bodybuilding instead." The WRP backs this effort — during one of her addresses between rounds, Talam spots a group of giggling teenage boys watching from the back of the hall. "You boys up the back there — you might have talent that you aren't even aware of! Explore your potential. Find out!" They laugh, but are clearly awed by the procession of strongmen on stage.
On winners' podiums worldwide, and at home, Kenyan sport is most strongly associated with endurance running. For decades now, the lean silhouettes of Kenyan athletes have dominated international marathons and long-distance races. Take one representative statistic: since 1978, no fewer than 18 of the top 25 male record holders for the 3000m steeplechase have been Kenyan. Newsagency stands in Nairobi groan with running magazines, the latest medal winners are national celebrities, and on any given day the long roads through the highlands are lined with the sinuous strides of stars-in-training.
Bodybuilding has nothing like that kind of profile, but the enthusiasm of this close-knit community is pushing up its popularity. The success of athletes such as Paul Mwangale has enticed potential sponsors, mostly South African sports-supplement brands, into Kenya. Everyone at this contest dreams of finding a backer.
The atmosphere behind the scenes is one of genuine camaraderie. The men spot each other under weights, and swap training and dietary advice. "Eggs, peanuts and milk for breakfast," recommends one. Another swears by ugali (maize meal, an African staple) and beans. Meat is expensive and a luxury for most people here, so any tips on cheap alternative-proteins are welcomed.
The common aspirations among these competitors are so strong that even stage briefs are shared, when necessary; in the event that rival competitors are donning the same colours, for example, or when someone wants to make a costume change for the finals.
No one, by the way, seems perturbed by the presence of a woman in the dressing room. Publicity is a group goal and by the end of the evening, I have about 600 photographs and scores of email addresses to sort through. Each competitor is thrilled to have shots of themselves for their online portfolios, and at the prospect of a published report.
The competition itself runs as it would anywhere. Each weight division performs a series of set moves, the judges calling out which muscle group they want displayed. The real fun — for the audience and contestants alike — comes with the two-minute 'freepose' rounds: here, each contestant shows off their best assets through choreographed moves set to cued lighting and the music of their choice — more often than not, this is a Backstreet Boys track. It's like interpretive dance meets Pumping Iron. 'Personality' and 'stage presence' are the two key criteria everyone strives to meet.
One particularly good performer — Ivan Byekwaso, 26, a Ugandan who wins the middleweight division — gets the crowd so worked up that the security guards outside decide to remove a few of the more inebriated supporters. For a moment things look tense, but in the end they leave peacefully.
In an attempt to curb the politics that can poison any sport where the judges' decisions are ultimately subjective, the KBBF has made fairness, and being seen to be fair, a priority. To this end, all decisions about the direction of bodybuilding in Kenya — the location of events, the selection of judges and officials, the rules of competition — are thrown open to all participants with democratic zeal. In the name of transparency, meets such as this start early in the day with hours-long open-mic debates. Contentious issues are resolved by 'show of hands' votes, or between competitions in online discussions via group emails, with ever unfolding replies.
These procedures, though tedious, are also symptomatic of a nationwide push for clean democracy. Wrangling much of this debate is Gerald Walterfang, whose interest lies less in the sport itself than in establishing the KBBF as a credible entity. Walterfang's organisation, Viwango (a term meaning "standards", he says), encourages "civil society excellence" through the adoption of minimum standards and good organisational practice by public groups. He's helping the KBBF work towards accreditation with the International Federation of Body Building, so that its members can be represented internationally.
"My goal is to see Kenya become a strong, functioning society," Walterfang says. "That means working with groups like KBBF to give them the structure and tools to succeed."
Walterfang's goal is shared by many Kenyans, who also increasingly express a frustration over the common perception of Africa as one homogenous disaster zone. It's an image media-savvy Africans are starting to fightagainst, by showing that across the continent people are enjoying the small joys of incremental progress. Here's one: a pocket of enthusiasts in a country of millions, who've turned out on a rainy Saturday evening to see who will be crowned Mr Kericho.
Tonight that honour belongs to Meshack "Priest" Ochieng. His nickname honours Lee Priest, the internationally renowned Australian bodybuilder from Newcastle. Meshack is only 28 but has been in the game for a while and is a well-respected, popular competitor. A gentle personality standing only 160cm tall, he boasts an astonishingly solid physique and his performance sees him take out first place in the welterweight division. The audience erupts when he brings his wife and children on stage to accept his prize, but soon quiets to hear his advice.
"Discipline is a must for one to succeed," he says so softly that even the amplifiers struggle to broadcast his words. "It's not being faithful to the Ten Commandments alone. It's being able to follow the training program as written, eat as required, and avoid what might make you perform poorly. Why do footballers camp far from their friends when preparing for games? There is a reason for that."
He thanks the organisers, the judges and his fellow athletes, then poses for photographs with friends and admirers —including a few of the teenage boys from earlier in the evening — while the rest of the crowd files out in search of beer, food and a ride home.
Talking after the competition, where he's just secured a financial backer who wants to send him to the world titles, Meshack, with his Mr Kericho trophy tucked tightly under one very well-built arm, says, "I am ready to compete on the international stage."
And it's likely he will, soon. Meshack recently added the Mr Kenya 2012 title to his CV.
Through the bustle of the departing crowd, I spot a notice board at the back of the hall. There, pinned next to a UN poster titled "War Is Not Child's Play" is a printed email titled "What A Life!" It features a series of poignant photographs of human struggle — an old Asian man with one leg, hobbling down a snowy road in bitter winter; a young Indian boy begging in the street; a small girl doing her schoolwork on a rock — with a caption under each making the broader philosophical point: "If you think you've got it tough, look at them."
The Economist recently acknowledged this bright-side attitude in a cover story titled "Africa rising: the hopeful continent". In a reversal of the editorial line it had taken 10 years earlier, the magazine pointed out that six of the world's 10 fastest-growing countries of the past decade have been African. Although Kenya hasn't made the list yet, these bodybuilders embody, if you will, the spirit of a boom that could carry the nation there: they've got optimism, confidence and drive.