Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Footsteps in the Dark: The Night Runners of Kenya

From Our Strange World:


The night runners are known by different names in various communities. They start their activities from midnight and close shop around 3am. In some areas they start as early as sun set. Elders agree that some villagers derive excitement from brandishing torches of fire or parts of exhumed corpses while naked.

The chairman of the Luo Council of Elders, Mzee Riaga Ogalo says night running is a vice that may take eternity to eradicate from several communities.

“Night running (Juogi in Dholuo) is a hereditary trait. However, some people learn it from their neighbours and others are inducted after marriage,” Ogalo says.

Ogalo says night runners are ordinary persons, adding that many are respected members of society during the day but are dreaded at night.

“We know of some who go to church and take sacraments but are different people at night,” says Ogalo, who comes from Kasipul-Kabondo.

The Ker (Luo elder) says some night runners cry, imitating sounds of small children being strangled. This causes residents sleepless nights.

“Jojuok do funny things but are the worst people to encounter because they think their acts entertain,” says Ogalo.

Some night runners are lynched while others are left as they are considered harmless.

“Those lynched are accorded normal burials while others are beaten with the villagers hoping that they discard the vice,” he says.

The Luo elder says some night runners are called by their names during their nocturnal activities to intimidate them. Elders from different communities concur that old habits diehard and several culprits have been beaten senseless in an attempt to make them quit the vice.

There is a belief in Nyanza and Western provinces that the night runners are too fast to be caught. The night runners seldom are violent but the choice of their paraphernalia is what scares their victims. Villagers say some night runners rear snakes, which they carry during their nightlong escapades.

There are extreme cases where corpses are exhumed and used to perform nocturnal activities by experienced night runners.

Ogalo says the vice starts at an early age, and people graduate after years of performing.

“There are children who accompany their parents and pick up the skills from them. It is a hereditary trait, which makes some children see it as normal,” Ogalo explains.

Elders say some women are introduced into the vice after they are married to families where night running is pivotal. But Ogalo stresses that the night runners were known, adding jogam (go betweens) enjoined the two to be a couple.

“Jogam know families and their behavior, thus they cannot link a man from a good family to a woman whose family practices night running,” he adds, with a chuckle.

Young men and women have tales of encounters with night runners while escorting their friends in the wee hours of the morning after sneaking from home at night. Principals of various boarding schools who do not want to be named, say dealing with the vice, especially in girls' schools, is difficult.

“We have girls who have been accused by their dormitory mates of running around dorms laughing loudly while naked,” a principal in a Nyanza school says.

The principal adds that there are occasions when girls wake up with razor blade cuts on their necks all attributed to the night runners.

“It is a vice that will take long to curb. I was a principal in schools in Western Province where night running was a headache,” another principal says.

Many principals concur with this opinion, saying that suspension of the culprits does not solve the problem, as the vice is hereditary. Teachers assert this fact adding that the numbers of girls practicing the vice increase in third term before the national examinations start.

“The best we can do as principals is to warn the girls and transfer them to dormitories which, do not have long corridors,” another principal from Western Province says.

Mzee Joseph Oduor, 67, from Kotengo, Kogada village in Ugenya, says night running is inborn.

“Jojuok must eat well before going on duty because they run continuously for more than three hours,” he says, adding, “They also answer calls of nature on your doorstep.”

The story is the same in Gusii land where residents of Keumbu, Suneka and Nyakegogi have lynched suspected night runners and their families. The Kisii who call the night runners abarogi say most of them not only disturb at night but also perform witchcraft.

Villagers in Kisii, however, do not take chances with abarogi but strive to kill their families.

Mzee Moses Kedemi, 79, and Paul Chukunzira, 72, from Kidundu village in Central Maragoli, say the community is dealing with the vice.

“Some of the night runners are elderly people we know we cannot trap them at night because they are too fast on their feet,” says Kedemi.

Kedemi and Chukunzira who are Maragoli elders say night runners are referred to as avaroji, adding they have been a nightmare for ages.

Residents of Sigulu village near Bumala market in Busia District claim a known old woman is one of them. Oduor says night runners know each other making them agree on areas of operation.

“They agree on villages they are going to cover and within a specific time - some men go on the missions with their wives and children,” Oduor says.

He adds that some night runners come to Siaya from neighbouring Busia to pour soil into huts through spaces between the walls and grass-thatched roofs.

“There are some who run around brandishing logs of wood calling names of all the dead people from the area,” Kedemi says.

Some villagers in Nyanza believe that those who want to trap night runners should eat cold food.

“They can smell people who have eaten hot food. Eating cold food will confuse them and enable one to trap them,” Oduor says.

He reveals that female night runners cannot hide the vice for long from their husbands saying their bodies swell at night.

“Bodies of female night runners swell at night as they sleep in their marital beds just before their husbands make love to them,” the old man says. Many villagers in Western Kenya concur that the vice needs to be dealt with urgently.

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