We drew up at my
hotel and Akii joined me for lunch. He carefully read the entire menu while the
waiter shifted from one foot to the other. Finally, perplexed, Akii tossed it
on the table. "I am best in cafeteria," he said. "I shine when I
can see and point." He closed his eyes to visualize the ideal luncheon.
"Soup and chicken and beer," he said, and that is what he got.
Akii-Bua's third language, after Swahili and his Lango dialect. Occasionally he
would pause in our conversations, faced with concepts for which his English was
inadequate. The Swahili he spoke in my presence was, by contrast, a torrent. I
have no doubt that his is a swift, innovative mind.
I said he struck
me as a man having close ties with the land. He nodded and told me about his
early life. "My father was a county chief of the Lango district in the
north. He died in 1965 when I was 16. At that time he had five wives, but he
had divorced three others. We all lived together and moved with my father from
county to county. There was Moroto, where I was born, Dakolo, Kwania, Oyam. I
have forgotten some of them. Now my family lives in a small village, Abako, on
three square miles of land. At one time I had 43 brothers and sisters. Now, I
don't know." (Milton Obote, the recently deposed president, was a Lango
tribesman. When Amin took over in January 1971, he purged the army of Langi.
Those who escaped fled to Tanzania. Akii-Bua had eight brothers in the army at
the time of the coup. He said only, "We have not heard from them.")
my father bringing home sweets. There weren't enough for everyone. He set up
competitions, races over different distances. We ran in groups the same age. I
don't think I ever won. I had to beg sweets from my brothers.
school in 1964 and stayed home to look after the cattle. We had 120. I milked
them, I plowed with them, everything. In 1956, when I was very young, lions
took sheep and goats from our farm, even cattle. But none came when I tended
them. I did have a close look at some very big pythons. And we have wild
monkeys. They can tease you and throw things. They make you run away.
"Then I was
picked by a brother to be a cashier in his bar. I did that until I joined the
police in 1966. I passed my training in 1967." Akii-Bua is now an assistant
inspector, the equivalent of lieutenant.
first athlete was Lawrence Ogwang, a triple jumper who went to the Commonwealth
Games in Vancouver in 1954 and to Cardiff in 1958. And I knew athletes like
Patrick Etolu, a 6'8" high jumper, and Tito Opaka, a high hurdler, but I
never ran until I joined the police. We had to go to physical training at 5:30
a.m. We did three miles cross-country and exercises. Because I could do good
stretching I was selected for the high hurdles. Jorem Ochana was black African
record holder in the 440 hurdles and he coached me hard. He put a high-jump bar
a couple of feet above the hurdle so I would learn to keep my head and body
low. Can you see this scar on my forehead? Ochana was a superior officer. He
made me listen. I used to bleed a lot in our exercises, knocking the hurdles
with my knees and ankles, keeping my head down."
In the police
championships of 1967 Akii-Bua won four events and ran on the winning
mile-relay team. Thereafter he was put under Malcolm Arnold, a British coach.
The qualifying standard in the highs for the Mexico City Olympics was 14.1;
Akii's best was a pokey 14.3. A few months before the 1970 Commonwealth Games
in Edinburgh, finding Akii unable to improve over the shorter distance, Arnold
had him concentrate on the 400 intermediates, in which he ran 52.3 and
qualified. In Edinburgh Akii was eighth into the final turn, finished fourth in
51.1 and entered the hospital for a hernia operation. Six months later he did
49.7 on a lumpy grass track in Kampala and was invited to compete in the
Pan- Africa- U.S.A. International Track Meet in Durham, N.C. "The Kenyan
officials didn't like me to go," said Akii. "They wanted their men,
William Koskei and Kip Kemboi. They said my 49.7 was timed with an alarm
clock." Amply motivated, Akii-Bua whipped Koskei and the Americans in 49.0.
"I waved to the crowd before the tape. Maybe without that playing I could
have run 48.7, 48.8." As he recalled that finish he was refilled with its
happiness. "I'd wave again," he said.
In early 1972,
Akii-Bua embarked upon six months of training unprecedented in ferocity. "I
started with lots of cross-country. I ran hard twice a day. Then I set up five
hurdles, high hurdles, every lap and put on my 25-pound coat [a weight vest]
and did four times 1,500 meters over the hurdles. That was it every day,
building stamina. The police gave me $150 to go to Kabale in the west where the
hills are very steep."
are steep here in Kampala."