While we were at S-di’s place for Maghe Sankranti, in addition to M-dai’s story about the flatulent Peace Corp teacher, they told me a story about how they had recently attended a wedding party for one of the local Bhutanese refugee families, and that during the party one of the guests became possessed by a spirit or a god that wanted the party organizers to know that some ritual during the wedding had been conducted incorrectly. This went on for a while, and eventually two other people became possessed as well, and it created a bit of a ruckus at the party. That started a brief discussion about what actually transpired—was it a delusion? Or acting? Or real?
It reminded me of another story from my time in Kenya:
A week after arriving in Nairobi and going through program orientation our professors brought us to Western Kenya—Nyanza Province, the Kenyan state which borders the famous Lake Victoria—to stay with families in rural farming villages. The community gathered at a local school and each family stood up to proudly claim their American student, and one by one we were taken away to far reaching corners of the surrounding villages. For the first time, each American student felt they were finally on their own in East Africa.
My homestay sister and I road in the back of a pickup truck down the main road, and were eventually dropped off at a small cement building set up like a shop. My sister insisted on carrying my backpack, and I followed behind her on the footpath that led away from the road and into a thicket of grass and trees. I realized later that these footpaths, only wide enough for a person or an animal, were the superhighways of the villages, leading from one house to the next along the widely spaced farms.
Eventually we found our home, a mud walled building with corrugated metal roofing, blue painted wooden doors and wooden window panels that latched shut in the evening to keep out mosquitos. The family compound had three small buildings—a cooking house, the main house (which had a dining/living room, two bedrooms and a sitting room for special guests), and the eldest son’s two roomed home. There was no electricity, but there was an outhouse on the edge of the family compound, and many chickens and other small farm animals running around or tied up to stakes in the yard.
In a mix of Swahili and English I got to know the family quite well over the next week, and I was eventually told the story of the “Night Runners.” Nyanza is home to the Luo tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, the same tribe that Obama’s father came from. You can usually tell a Luo based on their last name—most start with “O.” Within the Luo tribe there is a superstition about people who were completely normal by day, but have an uncontrollable compulsion to run in the middle of the night.
Supposedly the propensity for night running runs (no pun intended) in families—so if your grandfather was a Night Runner then you might be one too—and is generally passed along the male line. A Night Runner can’t really help himself, and will get up in the middle of the night and run for hours; they say if you try to stop a Night Runner their bodies become swollen and bloated. Night Runners like to scare people on their run, and will circle around family compounds, throwing dirt and sticks up on to the metal roof to make a lot of noise, or will try to throw small stones through the gap between a roof and the top of the house wall. It isn’t a violent action, it’s more to be a nuisance.
In addition to being noisy in the night, they are rumored to have certain magical abilities—first they can possess animals and often bewitch them to come along on their run, and secondly they can possess a person, in the sense that if a Night Runner takes you by surprise from behind you become frozen to the spot, unable to move your arms or legs or any other part of your body. Once the Night Runner has passed, and is out of sight, your mobility returns.
Most of these stories were told to me around the table while the entire family sat together for dinner. The room was lit with two or three kerosene lamps, which helped to give these tales a ghost story type of mystique. I was assured that the village hadn’t had a Night Runner for many years, and that there were none around that the family knew of; however I was also assured that these Night Runners certainly existed.
Shortly after dinner the dishes would be cleared and put in buckets to soak and be washed at sunrise, and the family would retire to bed. As I was their “honored guest” for the week, I was encouraged to eat the most food, and the best pieces, and was given a hefty glass of milk especially for me as a treat for dinner each night (I’m definitely not a milk drinker, and I’d have to force myself to drink the whole glass) as well as cups of tea.
Not surprisingly at some point during the night I would have to go to the bathroom really badly. The outhouse was quite a distance in the dark at the edge of the compound, and doubly difficult to get to as the main door to the house was very securely locked. To even get to the door I would have to step over sleeping family members who were on mats in the main room. The first two or three nights I woke up well before dawn and wiggled in my bed until daybreak, afraid to make the journey to the outhouse before the rest of the family woke up. But one night I really had to go, and no amount of wiggling was going to save me until morning.
I’m the type of person who turns the lights on while on the way to the bathroom in my own apartment, on the slight chance I might bump into something unexpected. Now I was going to have to sneak out of a locked house with people sleeping in my path with only the aid of my small Petzl headlamp, then scurry across a farm compound in the dark African night, and hope that I wouldn’t a) bump into a farm animal, b) or a scarier bigger animal, c) or someone else wandering on the village paths that skirted the edge of the farm or d) a Night Runner who might freeze me to the spot while he runs around with possessed animals.
As I stepped over the sleeping people and unlatched the door as quietly as I could, I peered into the dark expanse that came between the doorstep and the corrugated tin of the outhouse and I thought to myself, “If I run into a Night Runner, I am going to have a heart attack and die right here on the spot. I will literally just die of fright, I know it.”
I took a deep breath, and I ran like a crazy Night Runner myself. Luckily the only thing I saw on my journey was a giant spider on the wall of the outhouse while I squatted over the hole.
When our homestay was over, we traveled back to Nairobi to begin our courses. I signed up for an anthropology class on health, healing and sickness in Kenya. The professor happened to be Luo, and we were eager to ask him about some of the Luo cultural intricacies we were exposed to in Nyanza. At some point the discussion turned to Night Runners.
He explained that he had heard stories about Night Runners throughout his childhood, and may have even heard some of the night rustling sounds they made, but he never really believed they had “magical powers.” Then he went to university and sat in many Anthropology classrooms where he learned more about “magic” and “superstition” from an academic stand point. He was cynical. Sure, these were “his people” and he grew up with all the stories, but he believed more than ever that these superstitions were nothing more than that—superstitions.
“I was certain Night Runners were just crazy people out for a jog, but then one year I was home from university on break. I was your age, in my twenties, and I didn’t want to sleep early. Instead I decided to walk to the nearby village for some beer and dancing.” His eyes grew wide, “I was on the same path I had walked many times before, and I had no reason to be afraid. I had been walking for some time when I tried to take a step and my right foot was rooted to the ground. No amount of force could release it. Then I noticed my other leg was also stuck, then my whole body. I panicked, but nothing would move. I stood frozen for several seconds and heard a sound behind me, and a Night Runner brushed past. I continued to be stuck for several more moments before my limbs would move again.”
A cheeky smile appeared on his face, “I didn’t believe. I was absolutely certain that Night Runners couldn’t have the powers my grandmothers insisted upon. Logically, academically, it didn’t make sense. I was the most cynical of all! But I am also telling you, as your teacher, I experienced it firsthand. I know I couldn’t move. I can’t explain it, but for me, it was real. I guess you will have to decide for yourself.”
Even Barak Obama had a short passage about Night Runners in his book, “Dreams of my Father” from when he went to visit his family in Kenya:
A moment later we heard a strange, low-pitched moan off in the distance.
“The night runners must be out tonight,” Auma said.
“What’s the night runners?”
“They’re like warlocks,” Auma said. “Spirit men. When we were children, these people here” – she pointed at Granny and Zeituni – “would tell us stories about them to make us behave. They told us that at daylight the night runners are like ordinary men. You might pass them in the market, or even have them to your house for a meal, and never know their true natures. But at night they take on the shape of leopards and speak to all the animals. The most powerful night runners can leave their bodies and fly to faraway places. Or hex you with only a glance. If you ask our neighbors, they will tell you that there are still many night runners around here.”
Fast forward a few years… I’m sitting in the dining hall of my graduate school having lunch with several student friends. We are all international education professionals, and the past few days we have been swapping stories of interesting experiences overseas. I had just finished my Night Runner story, and one woman, a Caucasian woman from New York City who had been listening intently chimed in, “This is going to sound crazy… My sister married a Kenyan man. He is the sweetest man, very kind and gentle, but for many years every time he came to my house my dog would get very nervous and pee on the floor. It happened every single time. I know my brother-in-law wasn’t beating him, or hurting him, so I couldn’t figure out why the dog always cowered and peed in his presence.
“So one day I asked my mother. I said, ‘Why does Buddy always get scared and pee when Peter comes over?’ She answered, ‘I don’t know, they seem okay together later on. Peter usually takes him out for a run in the middle of the night most nights. It’s the funniest thing; I’m not sure why he does it.’”
“Is your brother-in-law Luo?” I asked the student.
“I don’t know. I never thought to ask, I just know he is ‘Kenyan,’ I’ll have to call my mother later.”
The next day at lunch we were all eager to know… and yes, Peter was in fact Luo.
“Maybe your brother-in-law is a Night Runner! That means your sister’s kids might be Night Runners too!” I said.
So are Night Runners real? Do they really have “magical powers” to possess animals and freeze people in their paths?
What about the possessed guests at the Bhutanese wedding party? Acting or delusion? Pretending or real?