It’s 6.40 on Saturday morning inside the Parade grounds of Manyani Maximum Prison in Taita-Taveta County. Though it’s a weekend, the yard is teeming with life. Hundreds of prison wardens in bright yellow jerseys form a large circle. They are accompanied by their spouses and other family members. From time to time, they jog a little and smack their hands for heat to keep the early morning chill at bay. Dozens of children frolic excitedly and jog a little, mimicking the adults.
Moments later, a single sharp beep of a whistle splits the air. The crowd surges out of the compound in four rows. They run at a moderate pace along a narrow rugged path across the thick tangled bush and all this time, every person maintains an arms-length distance from the other. At the front and the rear are wardens armed with a rifle
Though not a new tradition at the maximum security facility, the Manyani runs, as the exercises are called, have lately gained traction amongst hundreds of wardens and their families living within the expansive correctional facility. With the Ministry of Health directives on keeping healthy as one method of fighting Covid-19, the voluntary but grueling activity has become a sudden attraction for virtually everyone in the prison.
The Officer-in-charge of Manyani Maximum Prison, Bison Madengwa terms the exercises as not only a way of enhancing health benefits for Manyani community but also one that strengthens the bonds amongst hundreds of families that live in the vast prison.
Manyani Prison is an island community. It borders Tsavo West National Park and it is thereby cut off from the rest of human settlement areas. The vast sprawling bush, teeming with wild animals, spreads for kilometers all around with their closest neighbors being Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Law Enforcement Academy; another isolated community.
“As a society, we have many homes for wardens and other workers in the facility. These exercises are crucial in keeping everyone fit especially at a time we are told to be healthy. They also help us bond,” says Madengwa who joins his juniors and their families in those grueling runs.
The trainers say the runs are more than just mere exercises. They term them as the ultimate test for a body’s resilience and human endurance. The conditions are tough. The punishing bush trails are dotted with obstacles like protruding roots, rocks and carpets of double thorns; the sweltering temperatures rapidly dehydrates the body and there is always the risk of encountering some aggressive baboons or warthogs along the paths.
Darius Ndombi, a master trainer, says such conditions are perfect for pushing a body to the limits. The runs are done with military precision. After a five-minute jog, there is designated stop-over for runners to do spectacular bush aerobics. The breaks are also meant to give the aged and children time to breath. They huff and puff from exhaustion but there is no reprieve until the entire length of 12-km is covered.
It is all sweat, screaming muscles, burning lungs and protesting feet and joy as the participants plod through the vast savanna land.
“We never rest because of a little tiredness. We keep going until we are completely exhausted. We must cover the intended distance,” he explains.
While the bush trails are largely fun and enjoyable, the towering rugged rocky hills that must be conquered by sheer strength and will are not. As a rule, all joggers, adults and children alike, must climb to the very top. Experienced and young runners easily jog up the steep sides with little exertion while children scamper up with many breaks in between.
The elderly wardens, senior officers and those not accustomed to the climb struggle up with knees popping and joints creaking. While some are glad to be pulled up, others are determined to conquer the hills by themselves even if it means crawling on all fours.
The sheer excitement of the runs and adrenaline rush is intensified by the presence of herds of elephants deep browsing deep in the bushes.
“They don’t not bother us and besides, we have the armed guards to scare them away should they become too curious,” explains Samuel Okelo, the chair of the Manyani Runs.
Mr. Kelvin Wamalwa, the clinical officer at the facility and an enthusiast, says such activities are very helpful in managing medical conditions like diabetes and High Blood Pressure. He pointed out that some of those conditions could be fatal if one was infected with coronavirus and thus the need to manage them through rigorous exercise.
“Most people might be living with mild diabetes and even HBP but don’t know about it because they have not been tested. The conditions can be fatal when one is infected with Covid-19. Through the exercises, we manage such ailments, improve body’s wellbeing and boost immunity to diseases,” he said.
He further discloses that after the runs, there are extensive health talks by medics. The communal runs are done twice a week; on Wednesday afternoon for an 8-km run and Saturday morning for a 12-km one.
By Wagema Mwangi