Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Safari Simbaz Trust – Kenyans with a great Cause

Driving away from the madding crowds of Nairobi is always a pleasant prospect. Away from traffic snarl ups, smog and the usual city’s bustle, it’s heartening to leave and breathe fresh country air for a change. I was meeting with 37 year old David Kinjah whose reputation in the Kenyan cycling circles preceded him. Our destination was just past Kikuyu town. As we drove to his place we got hopelessly lost so I turned to a bunch of boda boda riders asking (and hoping) if they know Kinjah… they all did. One of them, Kahiga offered to ride ahead of us and direct us to his house for 50 bob.

"Last minute checks"

Kinjah made his international race cycling debut in 1995 and has represented Kenya in the last 3 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpar Malaysia in 1998, Manchester in the UK in 2002 and in Melbourne Australia in 2006 despite several hurdles along the way. He is well known in the annual Cape Epic race held in South Africa and his cycling career has taken him to several countries.

He is also one of the few highly regarded bike mechanics in Kenya, possibly in Eastern Africa having about 19 years experience in the cycling industry. All kinds of clients come to him for his expertise ranging from the local boda bodas (affordable bicycle taxis that have grown to an almost cult-like following in small town Kenya) to the more serious cyclist athletes who can all count on him for precision work.

I googled him and got back almost a thousand hits all illustrating his race times and stats in local and international races. I put some of his race times against more international recognizable names and was impressed by how he stood out right there with some of them.

Basically our man is a star.

So why isn’t he as well known as the Schleck or Amstrong you may ask?

Well, the reasons are vast and varied.
The tenuous situation with the Kenyan government (past and present) and the sporting federations are more often than not tangled up in politics and corruption. This tends to dampen the spirits of otherwise excellent sportsmen in Kenya.

But I am not interested in talking politics today.

Lets go back to Kinjah and the work his doing with Kenyan youth.
I had heard about a cycling club he started in the mid 90’s called the Safari Simbaz that helped train and coach several riders some of whom ended up riding for the Kenyan team. Recently the club evolved to a fully fledged Trust and with the help of a few individual well wishers and are trying to tap into the potential of especially young unprivileged Kenyans. Kinjah set up a grassroots training camp in Kikuyu were he moulds athletes into well rounded cyclist athletes and trains them as bike mechanics.

"Pila 18 years old maintaining his bike"

When I went out to visit last week he had 2 trainees with him, Davis Kinuthia aka “Katapila”18 year old and Francis Nango aka “Franjes Nangos” a 17 year old orphan (who Kinjah has since then “adopted”) currently under his training programme. The boys look at Kinjah as their mentor, their coach and their family. He gives them hope, direction and a work skill that can take them out of their otherwise grim circumstances.

“I have taken some boys literally off the streets to come and train because I see in them a special kind of quality and hunger and willingness to learn.” said Kinjah as he looked proudly at the boys as they set up a tray to serve me tea and snacks. I also got to spend sometime watching his latest trainees prepping for a “short” ride to Karen to fix a couple of bikes. There was a certain methodology in their routine. Despite having Kinjah’s full attention as we talked about cycling in Kenya, his eyes always fell to what the boys were doing and how. Quietly but firmly, he righted wrongs and always took notice of accomplishments no matter how small. The boys would swell with pride at the encouragement, my eyes slightly eyes watered at that. Kinjah spent his early life in Mombasa and he loved sports and got involved in it at a very young age.

“Basically boys in the neighbourhood would drift around the beaches in the afternoon or evening to play and we would make up a team each day depending on the number of boys who came out that day and come up with a football match. It was unstructured and loose but even in those casual games we played very good quality ball.” “Football was interesting but I had to rely on others and sometimes they let you down by not turning up. So I opted to try out running. I was actually quite good at it too.”” “When I was about 24 years old, I came across an old bike my cousin had. It was a racing bike past its sell-by date so to speak. I asked him if I could borrow it for a while and restored it and rode from my parents to my grandfather’s farm for fun. I loved it.” Its been a long arduous ride since then and from his first BMX bicycle that he bought in 1993 and set him back Kshs.1,000. He is now older and wiser and feeling the need to help the young ones at a chance of cycling sports in Kenya.

“Cycling in itself is not sustaining in Kenya. That is why I train these young guys on how to fix and maintain bicycles. It doubles up as a trade and of course I need them all to know how to take care of their own bikes. This takes the boys out of the streets and out of trouble and generally provides them with a job skill.”

Kinjah didn’t mince words about his absolute demand for commitment and discipline from his trainees.

“I don’t take nonsense and the boys know that. I can’t have them missing out training by just hanging about. For some of them I work with their parents and so when they miss out on a session I am in touch with the parents just to make sure they were not getting into mischief.

“It’s very easy for youngsters to be busy all day doing absolutely nothing! So I am very strict with them. Training and the bicycle I sometimes provide them is the one ticket some of these boys have at getting at a shot at something in their lives. You need to understand that some of them have absolutely nothing back home! At that notion, very few of them mess up training.”
With the Safari Simbaz Trust Kinjah hopes to provide a bigger and more structured platform for cycling enthusiasts in Kenya. One of the ways proposed is to plan nation wide community based race “Kijiji” races and other interesting cycling events in order to capture raw talent and garner some cycling enthusiasts. With an ever increasing need to focus on the environmental issues, cycling is working its way up as a good alternative as it is a non-carbon emitting activity. One cannot also ignore the health wake up calls, cycling is an effective way of keeping fit and with such a picturesque country, Kenya is an ideal cycling destination for locals and tourists alike. With this key issues in mind the Trust could do with as much help in can get to set up and make this positive impact on young Kenyans lives.

"Nangos" 17 year old orphan adopted by Kinjah prepping for a "short" ride to Karen

“The Safari Simbaz Trust way for me and other friends to give back to the community. I would like to share the vast experience I have gained and transfer some skills that can improve life in an economic, health and social way. I want to provide a wealth of information and help that I never got when I started taking cycling more seriously.” said Kinjah in closing our afternoon together.
As I watched Kinjah and the boys get onto their bikes ridding off and waving goodbye, I was struck by the stark comparison between “Pila” & “Nangos” who had a strong a sense of purpose and discipline yet all around the centre were little kiosks with dazed staggering boys on the roadside high on chang’aa a local brew. They too needed direction, they needed a chance.

The Safari Simbaz Trust hopes to do that one cyclist at a time.
They say the key ingredients for a good race include Discipline & Determination…a combination that also sums up the race called life.

"Off the Simbaz go!"

The work Safari Simbaz would do in the local community would pay off in so many ways. Kenyans with good ideas are always worth noting so let’s step up and provide our support in this worthy cause.


*******Safari Simbaz Website is in the works but feel free to get in touch with David Kinjah for more information on how you can get involved in supporting their cause.


Wambu said...

Very good article. I would just like to say that Kinjah is at the top as far as "nice" people are concerned.
When I lived in Kikuyu I would spend so much time with him. I loved the way he always encourages! He is a great couch and an even better person. Most humble person I know. He deserves all the good the world can give.
On a side note! He is right up there with all the cycling greats!

Wambu Nyoike
Dallas, Texas

Tim Smyth said...

Good article - I am glad to see Kinjah is getting the publicity he deserves. I cycled through Nairobi on my way from Cairo to Kampala earlier this year. I had a problem with my bike and not only did Kinjah fix it perfectly for me, he gave me a new derailer for free and let me stay at his house and shared his food with me that night. A truly inspirational man who we can all learn a lot from.

The next day I cycled to Naivasha with Pila and Francis although I feel I was a little slow for them! All the best to Safari Simbaz, what a great bunch of people
Tim Smyth

Dick said...

I echo Wambu and Tim's comments. Kinjay is the mainstay of cycling in Kenya. Please support the Simbaz in any way you can. Also look out of tours that will be launched soon. Read also my article on Kinjah at

Dick Morkel; Nairobi Kenya

Dharma said...

My name Dharma, I am a neighbour and a good friend of the simbaz. Francis Nangos I know him since he was a little boy as he also lived with my family sometime, since he joined Kinjah and the Simbaz boys 2 years ago, he has grown to a strong young man, very disciplined and even more adorable which makes all miss him very much, so we get to visit the simbaz lots of times. I can testify from first hand experience that this guys are hard working and very passionate of everything they do. I realy admire their lifestyle and determination to make a change in our community.I wish the simbaz all the success they need and many good things in 2010.