Date: 12 May 2017 22:31
The fortunes of one Samuel Abisai continue to excite discussions among millions of Kenyans, both those so low that they do not know where their next meal will come from and those so high that they can afford to build a skyscraper and wait for years to fill it up with tenants. Abisai, of course, is the villager who won Sh221 million in the Sportpesa jackpot the other day.
In any currency, $2.21 million is a hefty sum. According to financial experts, unless Abisai does something abnormally foolish, his future and that of generations of his family is secure.
The amount involved boggles the mind, but there is exactly nothing new in this news. Since the ancient Greeks gave us organised sports more than 3,000 years ago, humankind has bet on outcomes.
While competitors in the field pursued prizes such as a crown of olive leaves and a statue of oneself built in their honour, spectators in the stands bet on who was going to get those. Betting is as old as sport and will last for as long as sport lasts.
If you tried to find out the reasons why people bet, you will end up with the character descriptions of the people surrounding you.
Let’s consider just two: In the opening match of the 27th Africa Cup of Nations in Angola in 2010, the hosts racked up a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 lead against Mali. The fourth goal came with just 16 minutes remaining on the clock. At that point a punter decided to place a bet on Mali. He wagered $7.8, about Sh780.
The bookmakers were happy. But what happened next? Mali flooded Angola with goals. Final score: Angola 4-4 Mali. The punter collected $7,800 or Sh780,000. Is there a person near you who behaves like that punter?
Case two: In September, 2001, Tottenham Hotspur was playing Manchester United. At the point at which they led the Red Devils 3-0, a Tottenham fan placed his entire mortgage on his team winning the match. He was trying to impress his new girlfriend. But United came back and won 5-3. The fan, or rather fool, was left homeless - and probably single, too. What kind of person does such a thing?
TAKEN KENYA BY STORM
Betting is the craze that has taken Kenya by storm. But that is only because the technology has changed. That is the only new thing. In this era of the smartphone, you can bet on anything in the world from wherever you are in it. This makes the joys and agonies immediate but more significantly, the news goes viral there and then.
News about the newly-minted millionaires and the newly dead from suicides reaches us in a flash in our workplaces, worship centres, restaurants, market places, washrooms and in between commuting.
Yet something or the other has always taken our lives by storm. When I was a little boy, when James Siang’a was the Harambee Stars goalkeeper, I remember the craze was boogie dancing. It drove parents into despair. Our young people are getting lost, they mourned. I don’t know how the problem of boogie dancing was solved. I suspect people simply grew.
Then came other problems, like television. Parents said children were no longer studying because they had become addicted to television. It was apocalypse now. But I no longer hear that television is the national disaster that it was hysterically made to be. In fact, save for the quadrennial conflicts over the remote control during the Fifa World Cup, it seems to be a major asset. But even these conflicts seem to be receding into history because there is a sports bar around the next bend on the road.
There was a time when it was impossible to hold a conversation of any duration with a Kenyan without talking about pyramid schemes. It had been their turn to take the country by storm. Some people won, others lost. Some became really sick. Many are those who died, some suddenly and others slowly. It is the winners who baited the losers. And all that seems splendidly forgotten.
In dealing with the ancient phenomenon of sports betting that predates the Bible but which we are erroneously calling a new craze, I think we should be less emotional and more pragmatic.
First, let us just accept that betting is not going anywhere. It can’t for as long as a sports competition is taking place somewhere in the world. Some people are just conditioned to bet on who will win and who will lose. Some do it carefully and others destructively.
It would be delusional to wish betting away. Understandable as this may be, it is also unhelpful to just mourn the ruin it is causing to family incomes while fomenting a culture of dependence on chance rather than hard work. If we are not going to outlaw betting, or tax it to death – both of which I think are impractical – I think we should figure out how to work with it. And although there is much to desire about life in biblical times, we should be realistic enough to accept that the smartphone is here with us and that we cannot undo the revolution in communication that it brought to us.
Since 2010, I have littered this column with stories of personal tragedy that befell so many players who did duty for Harambee Stars. Some of those stories haunt me and I sometimes find myself asking if it had to end like that. People with little formal education who, upon retiring from the national team, sank into deep poverty. They only really had their football to give us and when they couldn’t play any longer, life was gone.
Remember these players and the joy they once gave you: Hesbon Omollo, Haggai Mirikau, Patrick Nachok, Anthony Ndolo, Henry Omondi, Abdalla Shebe, Enock Obwaka, John Zangi Okello, Charles Otieno, Tairas Omondi, Abbas Magongo, Sammy Onyango, Paul Oduwo and many others. Their stories should have ended in a better way.
In November, 2014 I did a story on Dennis Oliech describing the sunset years of his Harambee Stars career. Truth be told, I was fearing for him. He was our first celebrity footballer and he had entertained us as much with his pace and power around the penalty area as with his battles with the inept characters who ran the Kenya Football Federation. Today, among other things, Oliech is a brand ambassador of Betway, one of the betting companies in Kenya. This is new.
If our former stars can have a life after their careers and help poor children come out of their misery by spending their earnings in talent academies, I will celebrate that. It is progress. It is better than to die at Mama Pima’s chang’aa den, ruminating on the years the national anthem was played for you.
If the betting companies can plough their supernormal profits into helping alleviate the debilitating poverty that afflicts so many of our talented young people, they will have my support. But they must be seen to do it on the ground rather than in glitzy media events.
Let these companies help improve our infrastructure. Improvement means something tangible, like sponsoring academies and not just erecting massive billboards near dilapidated stadiums.
Ruining oneself by betting away the family income must be called for what it is – a personal problem. Like boogie dancing and watching too much television before it, it is not a national problem.
I have difficulties with Kenyans’ penchant for self-emasculation. In many situations, I identify a great inclination to point fingers, even at inanimate objects, rather than to look within. In 2006, I was invited to speak at a school function. The parents were to give short motivational speeches to the students who were about to sit their KCSE examination.
One after the other, the parents bemoaned the negative effects of television on the study culture. They blamed it for mass failures in the country. Finally it was my turn. I shocked the audience when I opened my remarks with the statement that I did not have a problem with television. You could hear a pin drop in the hall. I had never seen so many disapproving eyes looking at me.
I asked the students: “Anybody who has ever gone home and the TV shouted at you, ‘switch me on! I have nice cartoons for you!’ please raise your hand. Nobody did. “You see,” I said in triumph, “the problem is not the TV. The problem is you. You are the one who goes to the TV. By itself, the TV was never going to switch itself on.”
It was a Church-sponsored school and it was important to underpin my talk with a religious theme. So I referred to the verse in Genesis that says man was given dominion over the earth, control over all things. I told the young candidates: “All those among you who have read any version of the bible that says you were given control over all things except TV please raise your hands.”
Nobody did. “You see!” I said in more triumph. “If TV was not made an exception, what is your problem then? Or what is written in the book must be left in the book and not believed and implemented? The problem is with you, not your TV. If you deal with yourself, the TV will not harm you.”
Substitute TV above with betting and I rest my case.