Leisure pursuits: tennis, jogging and painful stomach-flattening (please do not try this at home)

I settled in to the small bungalow. My social life revolved around a good circle of colleagues and friends , my work was progressing well and evenings without a TV were filled with writing, reading or doing a large jigsaw of a Dutch tulip festival left behind by a previous tenant (this took about 3 months to complete).

Rwanda is a small country filled with beautiful landscapes of rolling patchwork hills and offers many adventures at the ends of its winding roads. My weekends were filled with short breaks to lakes and national parks of volcanoes, gorillas, giraffes and zebras.

It was one Saturday morning when I ran on the treadmill in the Novotel gym and was puffed out in under 10 minutes that I realised there was one vital thing that was missing in my life: physical exercise.

(It was only several weeks later I realised that Kigali is at an altitude of 1,500 metres and this could have contributed to my risible performance. Even though on the flight from Nairobi, Rwanda rises like a mountain fortress to meet the plane, you soon lose sense of being at altitude. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it).

This post continues the series ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ – for a full table of contents, click here

I got myself a tennis coach; Aimable was softly spoken with a serious, focussed demeanour; slim and tall he glided around the tennis court effortlessly, managing to stretch in to his shots without ever rushing, looking flustered or breaking in to a sweat.

Every Tuesday evening for 6 months, on a floodlit clay court in Nyarutarama he improved my game. I learned to volley, serve, smash, and do forehands and backhands. We even had a ball-boy to help us. I could never have got this level of intensive coaching in the UK without a high price tag. My Rwandan life gave me in many ways a higher standard of living than in London – a better and shorter commute, a bigger house, better weather and good value quality tennis coaching.

When we played Aimable would call the shots in his native tongue, Kinyarwanda the language of Rwanda. If he said Karihanse it meant the ball was out and if he called karimo it meant the ball was in. I confused these two and it often caused issues with score keeping.

At times like these I devise my own system of remembering words. I ‘ve used it throughout my life since I was a student. For karihanse, meaning out, I imagined ‘curry-hands’, and my hands being covered in curry, a particularly oily chicken tikka masala to be specific, causing my racket to slip and the ball to go out. For karimo I imagined a carry-more bag with which I could make the ball go in. After I had these images in my head, I never got it wrong in our tennis matches

(As brief aside, as a student I sometimes used this technique to remember foreign words. I never forget the Latin word ‘currit’ means ‘runs’ (don’t try to picture this, or the rationale); the German word for ugly is ‘hasslich’ (I just imagined the face of British politician Michael Hesseltein). The more colourful the comparison the easier it is to remember.

For the French word for condom, preservatif, I just remembered a huge pot of preservative jam with a condom in it. The grosser the more memorable and effective. 30 years after sitting my French O Level I can still visualise that disgusting pot of jam.

Anyway I digress. During the dry season, the red-orange dust reigns supreme. It sits suspended in the air, coating car bonnets, shoes and laces, window sills and gates, sullying collars and cuffs; it tricks the mzungu in to thinking he has a tan till it vanishes down the plughole, it enshrouds the spilled emulsion of stars that once adorned Kigali’s nightscape and lets the full moon impersonate Mars.

The clay tennis court at Nyarutarama became dusty and slippery – barely weeks ago it had glistening patches of mud around the baseline, ready to trick an anxious server; now it had ridges of Ovaltine powder-puffs ready to suck energy from a first bounce and to send the ball scurrying away for that coveted second bounce in a tiny orange cloudburst. Tennis was no longer just about tactics and athleticism, but the coping and enduring of sneezing noses and itching eyelids. It became about managing clouds of red dust that ended up in every imaginable orifice.


Peter, who I shared the bungalow with, was really sporty. He was a boxer for the Kigali Police and he had made a set of weights from tins of Nido powder milk filled with concrete and joined with a metal rod which we used to lift for dawn exercises on the veranda.

One morning he knocked at my window at 5.50 a.m. and we touched fists. Peter often employed cool language for his hello like “power man” or “Jah Man” or my favourite, which he used that morning, “vrai jama” which is half French half Swahili for true friend.

We started jogging at 6 a.m. across a cobbled road to the Sonatube roundabout. Kigali is a joggers’ delight with plenty of hills to make legs and lungs work hard. The air is fresh and clean at 6 a.m., the dust is yet to be whipped up by car tyres; the sun is a gentle, celestial disk just warming up, the early light is clear and hazeless, and the grass embankments and city trees seem to emit a tangy  chlorophyll infused aroma.

The special thing about jogging in Kigali is that you get applauded when you jog. It’s the closest I ever felt to being a proper sportsman and claps from the boys outside the telephone shack, hoots from cars and buses made the gradients more bearable. The applause were not for my standard of running, I’m not that fast, nor because of my visible foreignness. It was applause of innocence, an appreciation of getting out and about and getting fit.

From the Sonatube roundabout we ran past some ramshackle houses made of mud and tin roofs with bricks on them to hold them down. One of the shops was falling apart, no glass in its window frames; on its frontage was a word in flowery letters: ‘Boutique’. We passed the petrol station at Rimera and then back up the slope and by 6.30 a.m, we were home.

Then the weight training started. In the yard, Peter brought out his Nido powder milk tin weights; he pulled them above his head, behind his head and then, on his back, he pushed them up and sat up.  He let me have a try; I could barely lift it – it was a total of 40 kilos of solid concrete, the weight of two checked in baggage, carefully disguised as humble powder milk.

“I have a special technique for flattening the stomach,” Peter said.
“Oh is that so,” I said. I treat any special technique for removing body fat, making hair grow back, removing wrinkles, get rich schemes to earn $3,000 in one hour with a degree of healthy cynicism. Rarely in life do short-cuts work. If there’s gain to be had, it usually involves hard work, pain or rampant corruption.

He told me to lie on my front. I did so. He sat on my knees and slowly released his full body weight. I could feel my knee caps push against the hard ground. They started to hurt. He grabbed my chin with both hands and then he pulled my head up backwards. It was as if he was riding a dolphin. My windpipe tightened. I could hardly breathe or speak and he pulled my chin tighter. My spine was like a bow, he was the archer.

I tried to tell him to stop; this is difficult when someone is holding your chin from behind, bending your spine backwards you you have a 100 kg boxer sitting on the backs of your knees. I was sure either my spine or windpipe was about to snap. I felt like a mattress.

He let go after a few seconds. It seemed longer.

Infact, I seemed longer.

‘Bloody hell Peter, you nearly killed me,’ I said rubbing my throat with both hands.
‘Yes but look, your stomach is nearly flat,’ he said pointing.

I didn’t care about that. I patted away some small stones embedded in the skin of my knees. There was pain and no gain; I was just happy to be breathing again.



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