This week, rugby’s first global superstar breathed his last. Every time when something as devastating as this happens, your mind goes back to the best times and stays there, not wanting to let go. Jonah Lomu’s such time was during the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
That is when he picked up rugby and thrust it in the face of the world. For me, it was an act weighty enough to be compared to when William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball and ran with it, creating the game, in 1823.
Lomu’s four tries against England in the semi-final, and especially the one he beat off three tackles, will be replayed for generations to come. They produced many converts to rugby – and brought sponsors trooping in.
He never won a World Cup, but he remains a joint top try scorer, even as his international career was cut short by illness. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with his death this week, on the heels of the great high of my favourite rugby team, Lomu’s beloved All Blacks, winning an unprecedented third World Cup.
Life does hand us some very bitter pills. Think of the seemingly invincible frame of Jonah Lomu, all 6ft 5in of him and weighing in at 120 kilos. He cruised 100 metres in 10.8 seconds, truly a locomotive engine of a man. He ran through hapless opponents – and these were strong people. As he told the London Mail on Sunday’s Oliver Holt last August:
“My way of thinking when I was running with the ball was that I will use every single option that is available to me but if you leave me with no option, I will run over you.” He did that to many people and in that unforgettable 1995 World Cup, he prompted England captain Will Carling to speak in surrender terms: “I hope never to run into him again.”
In this file photo taken on November 11, 2000, New Zealand All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu runs with the ball during the Dave Gallaher Trophy match between France and New-Zealand at the Stade De France in Paris. Lomu, regarded as the game’s first global superstar before kidney disease ended his career, died unexpectedly on November 18, 2015 aged 40. PHOTO | FILES | OLIVIER MORIN |
Yet in that interview Lomu was saying something so poignant a lump of something caught in your throat. He was expressing the wish that he could live to 55 years of age, just so that he could see his two beautiful sons cross age 21. Because of his diseased kidney, he knew there was a high likelihood of dying early and considered reaching 55 an achievement.
Towards this goal, he submitted to a regime of six hours of dialysis three times a week. His body had rejected the kidney donated to him and now this is what he had to go through to survive. The machine was now his kidney, purifying and re-pumping into his body the blood that first his own and then his donor’s could not. It was a difficult life, which he accepted with a fortitude and easy calmness that is truly inspirational. He never complained, never expressed bitterness or self pity.
“My goal is to make it to the boys’ 21sts,’ he said matter-of-factly. “There are no guarantees that will happen, but it’s my focus. It’s a milestone that every parent wants to get to. My dad died young and that makes you think. I want my boys to be healthy and if they get to 21, they should be fit and healthy and live a normal life.”
But this is one try that eluded him. At 40, Jonah Lomu is gone.
I mourned him by watching haka after haka until I think I had watched every haka that was ever performed by the All Blacks. Each haka gives me a blood rush and I am convinced that no poet composed something that is so soaring a celebration of life over death.
New Zealand’s number 8 and captain Kieran Read (left) leads the Haka prior to a Pool C match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Tonga at St James’ Park on October 9, 2015. PHOTO | BERTRAND LANGLOIS |
There is nothing in war lore in any culture to match Te Rauparaha’s Ka Mate, the haka the All Blacks perform before their matches.
And I watched it over and over again as I thought of Jonah Lomu, the family that he leaves behind, his relatives and his friends. This was a great man. And he was also a good man, gentle in spirit. They say he was always the first to visit the dressing room of the men he had run over. What a loss!
I live, I live
I die, I die.
This is the hairy man
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine.
Lomu now belongs to the ages. We sorrowfully bid him good bye. But up there where there is no nephritic syndrome, that rare kidney disease that has taken him away, William Webb Elis is preparing to perform his second greatest act since he disregarded the rules, picked up the ball and ran with it.
He will perform Ka Mate in welcome to the greatest exponent of his invention and happiness will reverberate across the heavenly universe. People will get a blood rush and everything will be alright. There is gloom down here now, but the sun will shine.
So long, Jonah Lomu, as the Zulu in the land where you burst forth before our overawed eyes say, hamba uathle – go well.
So Harambee Stars are having problems with allowances and ticket refunds? What’s new?
During last year’s Fifa World Cup in Brazil, the players of Ghana’s Black Stars staged a sit-in before a critical match and declared that only payment of their allowances in hard cash could move them. That prompted a curious international financial transaction: on the orders of President John Dramani Mahama, a plane load of dollars left Accra and landed in Rio de Janeiro.
This week, Harambee Stars and President Uhuru Kenyatta re-enacted the Ghana performance. The players of the national team refused to leave their hotel for the airport for a do-or-die match against Cape Verde in Praia until their long overdue allowances were paid in full. Foreign-based ones also insisted on a full refund of the air tickets they had bought for themselves on top of their allowances. No stories!
Frome left: Harambee Stars striker Michael Olunga, captain Victor Wanyama and defender David Ochieng at Wilson Airport before their departure to Cape Verde on November 16, 2015. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Harambee Stars defender David Owino strolls at Wilson Airport before their departure to Cape Verde on November 16, 2015. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
President Kenyatta intervened, the players departed, and arrived in Praia with just sufficient time to reach the stadium and change for the match. Like Ghana before them, the loss occurred long before a ball was kicked.
The recriminations have come fast and furious, filling acres of editorial space and saturating the airwaves.
Social media is ablaze. But, of course, there’s somebody somewhere whose ribs are aching with the pressure of his laughter. Mta-do? What is your attention span? This will be over in very, very short order and it will be business as usual because there is the important matter of another scandalous failure to conjure up.
We have come to accept this as the done thing when it comes to running our football. Nothing is too outrageous to move us into saying enough is enough. There is no penalty to be paid. In fact, such conduct could and does come with rewards.
This much we must just accept: we have a fatal flaw in our character and that flaw has a simple name – corruption. For us, corruption is a legal nuisance, not a moral problem. To us, corruption is a good thing if we are benefiting and a horrible one if it is the other guy eating. We are upset and envious when we are cut from the corruption food chain but sing hosanna in the highest when we are in it.
When you search our languages, it is difficult to find words or phrases that express moral revulsion at corruption but you find many that glorify forms of it. The Swahili language, as just one example, is awash with telling phrases. And it doesn’t matter whether it is the proper or the colloquial version of it. Mkono mtupu haulambwi. Muone kando. Toa kitu kidogo. Achote. Wazee watakula nini?
For as long as this is the acceptable way of life for a critical mass of people, let us just agree that we are going to fry in our own oil and that we shall never rise to our full potential. Our varied talents will always be subsumed by corruption. Corruption has the worst kind of relatives and friends: incompetence, nepotism, tribalism, cronyism. Against such an army, the chance of victory is nil.
Kenya football is now at rock bottom. It is going to stay there for the foreseeable future.
Talking about such concepts as the Africa Cup of Nations or the Fifa World Cup must represent the most outrageous self-delusion on our part, but I suppose the Constitution gives us freedom of thought, however misplaced the thoughts. It gives us so much freedom anyway, and spares us the responsibilities that go with them.
One man has looked this state of affairs in the eye and correctly identified the right path to follow. I am happy for him because he has just secured his future.
Many clubs are falling over themselves for his signature, but Michael Olunga has emphasised that the only deal that he will put his hand to is the one that secures his education.