Bizarre world of night runners
By Basil Tulesi
The middle–aged man was brought to the local administration police post at midnight by his neighbours.
They had caught him running around with a kitten, laughing loudly and knocking on a neighbour’s door.
He was practically nude, apart from his dirty, torn underwear. When cornered, his speech was loud, fast and difficult to comprehend.
But at the administration police post, he wrestled himself free from the policeman’s grip and took off, knocking down two stunned officers while bellowing at the top of his voice, "Riswa! Tawe! (shame the devil! No-o!).
People who know Atako (not his real name) in the Musanda Village, Kakamega County, were shocked.
Shocked that Atako could master the courage and strength to wrestle trained administration policemen.
Shocked that Atako, the family man with four grown up children, could be...a night runner?
It was no shocker for his immediate family, though. His antics were an open family secret.
Who didn’t know that he was, indeed, a night runner, having ‘inherited’ this bizarre behaviour from his grandfather?
Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to be the target of these night runners has hilarious tales to share.
A trade unionist, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, "A night runner would visit my homestead deep in the night and run around my house, while throwing small stones on my iron sheet roof, night after night. It was irritating – utter nuisance.’’
Isaac Okumu, a high school teacher in Butere, has had his fair number of encounters with night runners too.
In one encounter, the rascal would loudly grate his door and windows with metallic object.
Interestingly, he suspected a man from the neighbouring village because this particular man would meet him the next day and make statements suggesting that he could be the night runner.
He would for instance say, "Kumbe wewe ni muoga sana!" (You are such a coward!)
But that is nothing compared to the run-ins Isaac had with night runners, during his adolescent days when the allure of the village dance would send him ferreting across streams and rivers in the deep of the night.
He narrated a story about this night runner who accosted him on a pitch-dark night, creeping up on him on a narrow village path as he staggered home after a night of dancing and drinking.
Out of the blues, the night runner lashed at a pool of stagnant water, scaring the wits out of the young man and causing him to fall into a pool of stagnant water.
Apprehensive of his safety, he lifted himself from the murky water and ran as the night runner gave chase, right up to his doorstep.
He still remembers dashing into his hut, muddy, soaked to the bone, trembling and out of breath.
Contrary to popular belief and previous assumptions that night runners are, or were, predominantly older men of little or no education, village grapevine has it that female night runners not only abound but have more scary rituals, such as running around with wild animals like leopards (if tales from Lyamagale in Maragoli can be believed).
Some night runners are so nasty that they repeatedly bump on one’s door with their bums. When the irritated owner of the house opens the door to check, the crooks don’t take off.
Instead, they hoist themselves right above the door and tuck their feet in.
They repeat the charade again and again, keeping the hapless house owner irritably awake for half the night.
Some night runners are said to be barely out of their teenage years and according to Job Mwanza, one need not be illiterate to qualify.
While studying at the university, he says, "Fellow students noticed a particularly brilliant student running around at night."
Observing some of the weird things that happen in Nairobi, one could be excused for saying that while you can take the night runner out of the village, you can’t take running out of him.
Why, for instance, would a lone man be walking down Langata Road, adjacent to the cemetery, in the wee hours of the morning?
And have you seen people who dance like they are crazed in nightclubs, as if they are full of demons?
The Luhya believe that when a night runner is out there doing their thing, the spouse should be in the kitchen frying sim sim with one leg stuck up the cooking stone. If the groundnuts get burnt, it is believed that the night runner will be nabbed.
The upside is that you need to be in good terms with your spouse to succeed as a ‘professional ‘night runner.
Omusindalo, an elder from Mumias, believes there is definitely a correlation between a night runner escaping a possible trap and the spouse frying sim sim with one foot on a cooking stone.
"In the event that the spouse ignores this important ritual, then the night runner will definitely be caught in the act," he says.
Punishment has always been a severe beating, death in some communities.
It is also widely believed that night runners should not be publicly denounced lest they cast an evil spell on the people who do so.
Among the Kisii, for instance, witches are said to have the power to strike one dumb.
Children are, therefore, taught from an early age never to mention a witch’s name in the event that they recognise him or her.
It is such myths and beliefs that mystify, strengthen and encourage night running.
Edwin Wambani, a resident of Mumias, says catching a night runner is no child’s play.
For starters, the people on a hunt mission are not allowed to enter their homes for a specific duration or else the night runner will easily sniff the scents from their smoky huts.
Such men or women of courage must stay away from their houses and desist from feasting on meat or chicken.
In an operation of this sort, police officers, even if commanded by the commissioner himself, will certainly lack the capacity or ingenuity to operate with any measure of success.
Some psychologists may explain night running from a sleep disorder perspective.
It would also be interesting to read diagnostic manuals that attribute this behaviour to conditions such as Sleep Terror Disorder or Sleepwalking Disorder or even worse, Sleep Disorder related to another mental disorder.
But a thorough examination of sleep related disorders or any other mental disorders do not sufficiently explain night running, especially night running from the African cultural perspective.
This evening, somewhere in the villages of Kakamega County, the night will approach after a heavy downpour.
As the sun withdraws its last rays of light, a man or a woman – and it could be anyone from a respected teacher, nurse, banker or preacher, who knows? - will be preparing to go for a night run.
As you read this, in Mwitoti Village, a few kilometers from Mumias town, just like in many rural parts of Nyanza and Western, accusations and counter accusations roll extravagantly from tongues.
"He is a night runner. She is the night runner..."
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