On June 4, 1985, a robust debate was underway in Parliament. It pitted the then Health Minister Peter Nyakiamo and members who wanted to know why the word Kenya had been removed from the Safari Rally title and replaced by cigarette brand ‘Marlboro’.

Malboro have sponsored the rally for 11 years since in 1980.

“I am aware Marlboro Safari Rally organisers through Philip Morris, their sponsors, are connected with a brand of cigarettes called Marlboro, and one can say that they are to some extent promoting the sale of cigarettes,” said Nyakiamo.

“I am also aware that the Marlboro Safari Rally is a great sporting event in this country, which we all enjoy and provides a lot of entertainment to wananchi during the Easter holidays.”

In the end, the members lost the battle to have the cigarette brand name removed from the sporting event that had come to define the Easter weekend.

That debate is but a snippet of the strong social connection Kenyans have had with the rally to the point of eclipsing the main religious events associated with Easter. This weekend is no different as Kenyans throng Naivasha for the 71st edition of the rally.

“For those who have followed the rich history of the Safari Rally, the association with the Easter holidays is nothing short of legendary,” writes Mwaura Njuguna, general manager of the Kenya Motor Sports Federation.

“Over the years, the  Safari Rally has become synonymous with the Easter weekend, a time when Kenyans traditionally take a break from their daily routines to savour the thrill of motorsport.”

In the glorious days of the rally, television in the villages was just but a distant rumour, well, there would be the occasional black and white ‘Great Wall’ box owned by the well-to-do fellow in the village. A few connected villagers would be invited to follow the action in the home with copious cups of tea.

To the rest, the local radio station, Voice of Kenya (later KBC), was the most credible source of information where they would track the vehicles’ movements, even predicting the exact moment when the first car would zoom by the village.

And as soon as word went around that the first car was around the corner, not even the toughest teacher could keep pupils in class!

Through the live broadcasts, Kenyans got to know of legends who kept the country awake.

There were Joginder Singh and Shekhar Mehta, two men who had a cultish following, Vic Preston, Bjorn Waldegard, Juha Kankkunen, Hanu Mikola, and local sensation Patrick Njiru—’celebs’ who would have been treading had they raced in the era of social media.

While radio is still a force to reckon with, today’s rally attracts a battery of about 100 local and foreign journalists while commanding global attention with a TV viewership of more than 100 million.

In the past, one kept a safe distance from the vehicles, usually taking the most elevated spot along the route lest the navigator read the pace notes in reverse causing the driver to veer off the road. One only got a fleeting glimpse of either the driver or the navigator but that did not stop an overzealous lad from proclaiming throughout the village of his ‘encounter’ with the crew.

Today, the rally has also become a sexy affair as racing enthusiasts and celebrities take turns sitting in the co-driver’s seat during the shakedown segment.

For example, Kalle Rovanpera, the winner of the rally in 2022 and who dominated the shakedown event as the precursor to Thursday’s rally in Naivasha, had to travel back to Nairobi for a ‘meet and greet’ with the fans.

And so, as the devout head to local churches this Easter weekend, the winner of the Safari Rally will be uncorking champagne for having conquered the rough terrain around Naivasha. And the curtains on yet another exciting episode of the toughest rally on earth will come down.

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