Ogutu Murage is one of those amazing Kenyans who is more widely known abroad than he is back home.
Having completed a two-year master’s degree in performance from Amsterdam University of the Arts and another year in Holland doing an artist’s residency, he has been touring with his commanding one-man shows all over the world ever since.
Fortunately, he recently chose to come back home, just in time to perform Because I always feel like Running at the Macondo Literary Festival at the National Theatre last Saturday night.
“My shows are still touring without me, but it was time I came home,” says Ogutu who, in addition to touring the stories of extraordinary African runners, had also been performing short stories (which he researched and wrote) based on the First International Conference of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in 1956.
On Saturday, his Running stories, which also contain elements of history, were staged in a perfect setting since the Macondo Festival was all about “re-imagining Africa’s histories” through the lens of literature and the arts.
It was “perfect” in spite of the National Theatre stage being cavernous (both wide and deep). What’s more, he had no accompaniment, only the man and his chair.
But he didn’t need more since his presence seemed to fill the entire stage with a quiet, self-contained energy which he extended graciously to his audience whom he invited to share a series of interactive calls-and-responses.
From that moment, he had us charmed and captivated by his storytelling about both well-known Kenyan runners like Kipchoge Keino and the lesser-known Tanzanian runner, John Stephen Ahkwari.
He laced all four of his stories with fascinating tidbits of history that made us grateful to know more about these remarkable East African runners. Like the Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila who in 1960 won the long-distance marathon at the Olympics in Rome.
Yet the thread that wove Ogutu’s stories altogether wasn’t just that they were all Africans from the east side of the continent. It was that they all reflected an extraordinary resilience and determination to win, and for good reasons.
As he noted in his graphic story of one unnamed runner from Ngong, the main motivation of many young Kenyans who train is their passionate desire to make running their way out of poverty.
Ogutu framed his initial story about the barefoot Ethiopian runner, Abebe Bikila within a wider, historical context. It began in 1935, the year the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopian and stole the 160-ton granite Obelisk of Axum. His poignant tale of “the Mad King’s” deliberate dismantling of the 24-metre (79 foot) obelisk also clarified how painfully devastating Mussolini’s crime must have been to Ethiopians whose country had been the last independent African country to be conquered and colonised by the West.
Ogutu even observed with some irony, the way all the other colonial powers were elated by Mussolini’s conquest, including his exiling of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. But the most painful symbol of, not just Ethiopia, but all of Africa’s subordination to Western colonial power was the theft of the obelisk.
It was within this context that Abebe Bikila’s gold-medal win of the Olympic marathon was so sweet. He became Africa’s first runner to win a gold at the Olympics. Plus 1960 was a historic moment when “the winds of change” were already blowing across the region and Abebe became a symbol of that sweeping tide of independence.
Kipchoge Keino’s winning at the 1968 Olympics was equally as sweet since he too was expected to lose against the American runner Jim Ryan. When his chances began to look better, he was actually threatened at gun-point to have his brains blown out if he dared to run. Yet Keino wasn’t intimidated. And when Ogutu took on the persona of a radio broadcaster, he made us feel like we were right there in Mexico City when the Kenyan crossed the finish line, a full 20 metres ahead of Ryan.
But when Ogutu finally told Ahkwari’s story of “defeat”, reaching the finish line over an hour after the race was officially won, we were deeply touched by how, in spite of the pain the Tanzanian endured, he still made it across the finish line. which had been the task his country had sent 5,000 miles to achieve, and he did.