We’re ascending a huge rock covered in trees and shrubs following a paper trail. A literal papertrail of confetti, laid by red-clad rabbits that morning. Do It Sideways, the hashmaster, is shouting at us all: “On on? On on?”
There are more than 200 of us. A handful are separate from us, running at speed on a different, longer, unmarked path around the back of the rock, but the majority are hiking. At least half are going slow, far behind me. Me, I’m taking this opportunity to get exercise, fresh air, and camaraderie seriously, and I’m in the lead group, the top 10% or so of non-runners. Of course, most of that 10% are really not motivated by the hike at all, but by the beer truck waiting on a high slope halfway through the hike.
“On on!” Naughty Tease shouts, confirming we are indeed on the path after seeing a swirl of confetti behind a stone. Naught Tease’s name confuses me a bit, she seems anything but, a lovely Nigerian environmental lawyer with a heavy set frame and a walking stick, and she has been serious about her hike.
Who would have thought such a large group of walking enthusiasts exists in Abuja. But then Abuja is a Nigerian anomaly, and this group is half expats. Who would have thought Abuja has a place of such natural beauty, and thankfully now that it’s nearly 4 PM, the late spring day is not too hot. It’s my birthday next week and what better present than this opportunity to move my arms and legs and torso through such fresh untainted air.
“I don’t mind how this goes as long as I get a chance to exercise and be with people,” Naughty Tease tells me. Just Plain Paul, an Englishman who walks right behind me, has a different attitude. “Me I can’t wait to get to that beer truck. I’m gonna put down three cold ones before those stragglers even show up.”
We had started our day only an hour earlier at River Plate Park in Wuse 2, where beautiful Bottom Power collected 1000 Naira ($5) each from most of the hikers and Do It Sideways mastered the massive circle to get people to understand the rules of the hike. Called the “hash” for reasons I will soon explain, this bi-weekly hike happens in several of Nigeria’s major cities, and in many other cities around the world. At River Plate Park, Do It Sideways was in control. Then we drove thirty minutes to this remote location, and began the hike. Now it’s a free for all, especially when we get near the beer truck.
Bottom Power is there, grabbing Naira from those few who were late at River Plate Park. I just met her today but I must admit I’ve developed a quick crush on Bottom Power. She is kind, gentle, and firm, and I stand near her joking with her while she collects the money. I grab her a beer and open it with a second beer. As I don’t drink, I put the second beer back and grab myself a cold bottled Faro water.
I have stumbled via a friend of a friend on the Abuja Hash House Harriers. This group that does hikes every two weeks at a different location in Abuja is the local extension of an international group founded in Malaysia by colonial army officers and expatriates in 1938, which began holding group jogs every Monday afternoons to get rid of the excesses of the previous weekend. The objectives of the Hash House Harriers as recorded on the original club registration card dated of the time: promote physical fitness among our members, get rid of weekend hangovers, acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer, persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel.
In 1962, the second chapter was founded in Singapore. Now there are almost two thousand chapters in all parts of the world, with several in Nigeria. There are even two organized chapters operating in Antarctica. Members often describe HHH as “a drinking club for people with a running problem.”
New people on the hike are called “virgins”, and experienced hashers have “hash names” -often these names are lewd as you will have already picked up, but usually the names have double entendres which can let even children be present when the names are uttered without tipping them off.
Sergei, a military protocol officer from the Russian Embassy, tells me he rarely gets a chance to get out. Because he is always either on duty or on call, it’s rare that he gets to leave the compound so he cherishes these hikes.
Asil, a Turkish entrepreneur working in the vibrant Abuja construction industry for four years now, has been coming here the entire time and rarely misses a week.
Raj, an Indian engineer who works at an established company, is under a tree smoking. He seems, besides me, to be the only smoker in the entire group. Unapologetically I ask him for a stick and a light. I am practically the only one who is not drinking, so I don’t feel too bad at the moment about this horrid vice.
Eventually after about half an hour, the beer truck pulls away and the hash continues.
At the bottom of the hill, once the hash is done, Do It Sideways pulls us all together in a circle again. This time there is a toilet in the middle of the circle. A whole ceramic toilet, filled with ice. The virgins are called out including myself. Do It Sideways asks each of us “Who made you come?” and we are handed half a beer to drink very fast. I drink water instead.
Then two veterans are called out and given new hash names. Just Plain Paul becomes Quick to Whack It – referring to the same habit I noticed earlier of his apparently always being a leader of the hike so he can get to the beer as fast as possible. Just Plain Sheila becomes Heavy Sucker – referring to her habit of wheezing air as she walks. Hashmaster DIS pours – guess what – beer, over their heads.
Finally, an American woman who is the “security officer” for the hash steps forward and leads a vote on who has most violated the rules today. The competition is between several young women who are dressed like they’re going to a nightclub, a sweet looking girl who took an absurdly short short-cut once the beer truck left and beat us all back to this spot, and an Arabic young man who tried to pick up not one but two different girls in apparently a very clumsy manner. I stay very quiet at this moment due to my own efforts to pick up Bottom Power. The young Arab is punished by being made to wear the toilet seat like a necklace and sit on the ice, and is ordained for his prize by last hash’s “winner” Thor, using a toilet plunger, which Thor hands him afterward to hold along with the toilet seat until the next hike two weeks hence. Do It Sideways does the pouring the beer over his head honors, again.
Finally, Do It Sideways leads us in a group singing of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” accompanied by rude hand signals. He announces the location of the next hash. It is now getting dark, and everyone runs off.
Later, about a dozen hashers convene at Spice in Maitama, a wonderful all-you-can eat Indian buffet that tastes better than most Indian restaurants I’ve been to anywhere in the world. What a shock. Or maybe it’s an illusion, such food tasting way better after a long hot hike. And besides, Bottom Power is sitting next to me and I’m chatting her up. She tells me there is a volleyball game tomorrow with a small clique of this same crowd at Millenium Park, and a potential dance party later tonight. Suddenly I have friends outside of Gotel. Abuja is looking better and better.