By STANLEY ONGWAE and JAMES OMORO
The conundrum about night runners is a baffling one. The mere mention of the word ‘night runners’ sends chills down many people’s spines. It brings to mind a picture of unusual beings — faceless and nude individuals, who mark time by jogging or lurking in darkness before scaring cowards on village footpaths, and running round people’s houses casting spells.
Meet Jack Songo, he stands out amongst few men with a well-built athletic body in Pala Village, Homabay County. His towering height gives him the most coveted attribute of an established sportsman. He strolls with gait characteristic of a sprinter. Above all, his trademark wear is an Adidas tracksuit. Much of the detail about his favourite track event may be scarce, but he confesses he is a night runner.
He is not just a night runner, but as he says, he has even risen through the ranks from amongst fellow enthusiasts of the sport, to become a democratically elected president of all night runners in Kenya.
“Welcome to the ‘state house’ of the president of night runners!” he ushers in this writers.
The state house stands on a lonely Pala Hill in Ndhiwa Constituency. According to Songo, night runners’ nationwide activities are coordinated from the state house.
“But as you know the president has people who help him run the office efficiently,” he says.
The state house has only one rickety chair that has surpassed its life. As these writers get in, he sits on a huge bale of thatching grass piled in the L-shaped house. He is always kept afoot by his members on progress of their association that they want to register as a sports organisation. He takes his phone and dials a person he later tells us is the Homabay County chairman of night runners.
“The man I have been talking to on the phone is very powerful,” says the president after confirming to us that the man, one of his juniors, has to be present before he speaks to us.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
“Never joke with him,” he yells while peering towards a path separating his piece of land with a neighbour as the county chairman arrives aboard a motorbike. He identifies himself as John Monyi.
“This man can point just a finger at a flying eagle, and it drops to the ground either dead or alive,” he says of his junior.
Such are some of the great dark powers of darkness that night runners possess. Running at night is what they do best. And running while nude is what excites them most.
“We prefer running nude, although at times, especially during extreme weather, we wear very light and tight fitting garments,” says the county chairman.
He says a night runner doesn’t change appearance but can camouflage himself when confronted by a bold human. The county chairman says they can camouflage themselves as dogs, mules or gorillas in order to cause fright in people. He further claims that wherever they operate, they have monopoly to the night. No other earthling dares venture out. They say their extraordinary courage — which they only acquire in darkness — is what makes them different from other humans.
According to Monyi, their satisfaction is drawn from running at night, dancing, and scaring people. “When I am outside at night doing my theatrics, I cannot go back to my house until after I have scared someone either on the road or in their house,” he confesses.
If he doesn’t find anyone to scare, he always resolves to running round his compound or in a playground for him to be relieved of the urge to scare people. They also stage running using strange animals that they rear.
“We can ride on pet hyenas, hippopotamuses, cobras, cats and even leopards,” the president says.
Some of the things they claim they don’t do include killing people, or causing anyone bodily harm. However, they possess charms that when administered, can cause harm to people with ill motives on them.
“Many people who are thought to have been killed by night runners actually do not die of anything, but the fear,” says Monyi.
The much talked about mystery of making their victims mute is widely denied by the men who say they actually don’t make people dumb.
“If you meet me in darkness and I scare you and you know I am a night runner, the fear itself can make you lose your senses,” notes Monyi.
When night runners have met an ordinary person, they use all means necessary to scare them, as their chiefs reveal. They can bust into silly laughter or act strangely to intimidate and frighten them. Their president confesses he has been a night runner for more than three decades. He was initiated into it while in primary school and by the time he was in secondary, he was already a chief prefect amongst his night running peers.
As the leaders reveal, night runners have stratification by age. They say people who are closely related never mix during their activities owing to the fact that everyone who participates has to be naked. For example Monyi confesses his three wives and 15 children are night runners. The fourth wife is the only one who has not joined us, but he hopes she will join soon.
“I cannot run naked in the presence of my children because we need to reserve the lines of respect,” observes Monyi.
The leaders reveal they also have a huge following and their presence is felt everywhere including boarding secondary schools where they boast of student night runners.
For example, the president started by being a prefect of young night runners while he was a student at a popular boys high school in Oyugis town, Homabay County. During his times, he says they would go out and run in the school field or, at times, even sneak from the school compound to teachers’ compound. He would, once in a while, sneak to meet his colleagues in villages, at night.
Because they operate in darkness, night runners have a kind of magic light that they use to see. According to the leaders, the light may be in form of fire or just a light usually started using certain charms.
A night runner can inhale the charm and afterwards spit fire or make the tongue glow like fire.
If they get registered, as they demand, the nocturnal humans intend to showcase what they do to people during the day. As they confess, night running has nothing to do with religion. The president says his members are either Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, among other religions.
Both, Songo and Monyi, are devout Catholics who regularly go to church to worship the God of light and darkness. They are on a bid to demystify their practices by coming into light to document their activities.
“We want to turn the practice into a money-making venture where different people could come to see us perform our favourite night sports,” says the president.
He adds that their association has a widely founded membership from all parts of the country with more than two million members. What they say has crippled them is lack of finances to run their association as they continue to champion for its registration.
“Most of our members are poor and that is why we seek government recognition. After all, this is like any other sport and if sponsored, we promise to showcase our activities to all and sundry,” concludes the president.
Many people have had unpleasant experiences with night runners. They say it’s such a scary experience. Ann Ongure is one such individual. She explains how she once visited a relative upcountry and a night runner ruined the night by denying her sleep.
The night runner kept rattling the roof with what sounded like a stick. Her relative who was used to it, urged her to relax as it was only for some time, and the night runner would move to the next home.
“It was so frightening, I had never encountered such. I was literally shaking in the house before my relative told me the night runner never harms; to them, it’s a hobby from which they derive excitement,” a giggly Ongure said.
Surprisingly, whenever brave people trap night runners by loosely closing their door so as to easily come out the moment they begin disturbing, they always get no one.
“My friend once set a trap, but to his surprise, the moment he stormed out to see who it was, there was no one,” Ongure adds.
Owiti Msungu, from Oyugis, too, had his frightening moments with a night runner. While returning home from watching a late night soccer match at his local shopping centre, a night runner who had been lurking in a thicket scared him — by wailing, before chasing him.
Owiti, who confesses to being a wimp, took off in the opposite direction back to his local shopping centre with the night runner in hot pursuit. The second time, he claims, a night runner came to his house and kept on hurling pebbles and sand on his rooftop. It scared the hell out of him but he could do nothing.
For June Kemunto, it was scary and hilarious at the same time. While at home in Keroka during a Christmas holiday, a night runner decided to harass her and her family.
“It’s as if the night runners target people from the city more. This one stood right outside my bedroom window but neither me or my hubby could dare check him out. He kept on farting so loudly, before making strange sounds like that of a cat,” says June.
She says this went on for almost half the night.
“I guess the night runner had a bad stomach day. How can someone fart continuously for almost four hours?”