By ROY GACHUHI
Kenya said its final farewells to Nicholas Bett weeks back and returned to the difficult place it has been in times past when tears replaced cheers and the humbling introspection of the fragility of our existence took over from animated analysis of the great man’s last act.
The clock stopped. This time, forever. His race finished, his work done, his smile extinguished and his journey to the afterlife started, Bett turned over his earthly worries to us and throughout the week after that Asaba sojourn, we struggled to come to terms with what had happened in the aftermath of his accident. We could have given the world to reverse it. We needed him.
Police carry a casket bearing the remains of the late Nicholas Bett, former World 400m hurdles champion, on arrival at their home in Simat, Uasin Gishu County, as Bett’s wife Gladys Bett second (right) and mother Esther Boit follow on August 15, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |NATION MEDIA GROUP
Marathoner Eliud Kipchoge (right), and other mourners when they went to collect the body of the late Nicholas Bett, former World 400m hurdles champion from Eldoret Hospital Mortuary in Uasin Gishu County on August 15, 2018. He will be at their home in Simat, Uasin Gishu County on August 16. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Police perform the 21-gun salute during the burial ceremony of the late Nicholas Bett, former World 400m hurdles champion held at their home in Simat, Uasin Gishu County on August 16, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Multiple World and Olympic 3,000m champion Ezekiel Kemboi second (right), and Haron Koech, twin-brother of the late Nicholas Bett are overcome by emotions after viewing the body of the late Nicholas Bett, former World 400m hurdles champion during a burial ceremony held at their home in Simat, Uasin Gishu County on August 16, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Deputy President William Ruto second (left) accompanied by Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi (left) condole with Haron Koech, twin brother of the late Nicholas Bett, former World 400m hurdles champion, during a burial ceremony held at their home in Simat, Uasin Gishu County on August 16, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |NATION MEDIA GROUP
But we knew this was it. It was written in the place where we can’t read that it would end like this. And so with acceptance we bid him goodbye, from his gravesite to the countless places around the world where his lifted arms lifted our hearts. We wearily returned him to the family that gave him to us and wished them peace and consolation.
We have done this before and will doubtless do it again; it is the inevitability that no training regime and no lifestyle habit can forestall.
In our history, the first team to suffer the sudden loss, through a road crash, of a high achieving and still active member was the national boxing team. On the morning of March 18, 1972, Daily Nation readers woke up to this page one splash: “Boxing star John Olulu killed.” The headline kicker read: “Five die in accident: army vehicle overturns.” It was the splash story in The Standard as well.
“Kenya’s boxing star, John Olulu,” the story read, “was killed on the spot in a road accident yesterday in which four children also died at Kibirigwi, on the Karatina/Nairobi main road.”
Like Bett, Olulu was 28 years old at the time of his death. And like Bett, he was being touted as a coach in the making. In its message of condolence, the Amateur Boxing Association of Kenya said that Olulu was leading in the list of names they had to take over the national team.
‘WON HIS LAST BOUT’
He had a stellar career starting in 1962. He was a gold medallist in the 1965 All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo and became African champion at the end of the All-Africa boxing championships in Lusaka, Zambia in 1968. He also participated in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and made up for not finishing in the medal bracket by winning the bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1970. His last fight for Kenya was against Nigeria’s Carl Bobo during the independence celebrations in December 1971 in Nairobi. He won his bout.
First a light welterweight and then a welterweight, Olulu belonged to the generation of independence, the parents of the fabled Hit Squad of the 1970s and 80s that produced a world champion in Stephen Muchoki and an Olympic gold medallist in Robert Wangila. He was a peer of Philip Waruinge who won the Val Baker Trophy for being the most outstanding boxer of the 1968 Olympics.
His protégé, the middleweight David Makumba, told me this week: “He was my senior but we were very close. Both of us served in the Army in the 3rd Battalion which was then based in Nanyuki. I remember his death as if it is only yesterday. The soldiers were taking their children back to school. They were riding a Bedford lorry. As it started going downhill from Karatina, its propeller shaft came off and the driver lost control. One survivor told me that Olulu grabbed his son and held him close to his chest as the lorry started rolling. He lost his life but he saved that of his son.”
The heavy pall cast over the country by that tragedy was made even darker by the death of the children. It was the first such tragedy on our roads and the lamentations about crashed hopes and unfulfilled promises applied to Olulu and the children as well. Loud warnings were erected at the beginning of the hill a few kilometres after Karatina and later the road was widened but even today it remains one of the most treacherous sections of the Nanyuki-Nairobi highway.
In years to come, I would be told by an official of the Ministry of Transport that at the time I was asking, the Kibirigwi Hill was listed as the worst of all black spots in East Africa. It accounted for the most number and the worst accidents.
Though located deep in Central Kenya, it has been well known to many Kenyans from around the country because it is on the road that leads to key national facilities like the Kenya Police College in Kiganjo, the Army Barracks in Nanyuki and Isiolo and the Kenya Air Force’s Laikipia base.
Next to be robbed of one of its stalwarts by a road crash was the national football team. Early in September 1973, Kenya Breweries FC put on a splendid performance against the far more fancied Ismailia FC of Egypt to draw 0-0 in the first leg of that year’s Africa Cup of Champion Clubs at the Nairobi City Stadium. The man who orchestrated that performance was its player-coach, Charles Makunda who was confident that Breweries had what it took to win the return leg in Cairo in the following two weeks.
But that was not to be. Four days later, he was involved in a car crash in Nairobi that didn’t at first seem serious enough to merit national concern. It wasn’t a big story in the media. Makunda was taken to hospital and was expected to recover, probably even accompany his charges to Egypt. His condition, however, took a turn for the worse and on September 18, while Breweries were enroute home after falling 1-2 to Ismailia, he died. The players didn’t know of the tragedy until they landed in Nairobi.
Once on board the team bus at the airport at around 8 am before setting off for their Ruaraka base, the news that their player-coach had died during the night was broken to them. Standing at the front of the bus and with a breaking voice, Henry Gatete, the club secretary, addressed the weeping players. After breaking the news, he read the written condolence message from their patron, Kenneth Matiba, before distributing it to the assembled journalists.
Matiba said: “Our great Charles Makunda, coach and captain of the team, passed away last night. His untimely death is a blow to his family, our company, which he has so loyally and diligently served, and our young club, which he has helped to build from nothing to a great institution. Our sympathies go to his wife and family at this time of bereavement.
“Charles is no longer with us, but we will always remember him. In the circumstances that we find ourselves, the greatest tribute we can pay him will be to strive tirelessly until we bring the Africa Club Cup to Kenya.”
Matiba’s grief was understandable because Makunda was his original star. When he formed Kenya Breweries FC in 1969, Makunda was the first player to leave his club, Abaluhya FC, and sign up for the bottlers. He was shortly after followed by other players such as John Nyawanga, Samson Odore, Henry Misango, Francis Ooko, Jack Onyango, Livingstone Madegwa and Harrison Nyangweso from both Abaluhya and Gor Mahia.
Kenya Breweries became a giant overnight and Matiba was not one to forget the person who helped make that possible. Long after her husband’s death, Makunda’s widow worked as an employee of Kenya Breweries.
As a right back, Makunda was a mainstay of the national team, the future Harambee Stars. He was notable for a pace that was more associated with wingers and a ball dribbling prowess that belonged to midfielders. He was the backbone of the Abaluhya team that between 1966 and 1968 won the prestigious Allsopps Cup, the East African Club Cup, two back-to-back Kenya national league titles and other tournaments.
He reached a great high when he made the East African Select that took on English FC Cup holders West Bromwich Albion in 1968 and held them to a 2-2 draw. The other Kenyan players in the team were Jonathan Niva, Moses Wabwayi, Joe Kadenge and Stephen Yongo.
The outpouring of grief at the loss of Nicholas Bett took my mind back to these two sportsmen whose virtues were extolled as they were. They were high performing athletes with feet firmly on the ground. It is striking how many people said they got a helping hand from all of them. When people are finally in that state when they are not in any position to answer back, we tend to shower them with undeserved praise.
But in these three, there was no need to exaggerate anything; their achievements spoke for themselves. People reacted as if they had lost a bosom friend or a brother. They are icons of our culture through sport and they will write about Nicholas Bett 40 or 50 years from now as we are writing about John Olulu and Charles Makunda today.
Athletes follow proceedings during the burial ceremony of the late Nicholas Bett, former World 400m hurdles champion held at their home in Simat, Uasin Gishu County on August 16, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP
What are you most afraid of when driving on Kenya’s roads? Some people say it is meeting a van “flying” on the wrong side of the road while transporting miraa from Meru to Nairobi. I agree. At the same time, I am perpetually apprehensive about being surprised by an unmarked speed bump which resembles a drain pipe or a tree trunk and hitting it at 100 kilometres per hour.
It is too late to save the lives of our great sportsmen and all the Kenyans who have been killed or maimed on our roads. But it is not too late to change our attitudes, our road culture and hence our future.
First Published by the Daily Nation