/ 26 December 2005

Kenyan skaters flock to East Africa’s first ice rink

Eager for a dose of winter, Kenyans are stepping out of blazing equatorial heat into the chill of East Africa’s first ice rink for halting forays into sports normally associated with colder climes.

In a land where the only snow most people will ever see is at the peak of the country’s highest mountain, would-be Kenyan hockey stars and figure skaters have been flocking to the Solar Ice Rink in Nairobi since it opened this month.

”We used to see such things on television and in the newspapers and think it was something supernatural,” said Aden Sheikh (36), a security guard at Nairobi’s Panari hotel where the rink is located.

”Now it’s just at our doorstep,” said Sheikh, who was one of the first in line to lace up a pair of rental skates when the rink opened on December 16.

The 1 393-square-metre facility is billed as the largest of Africa’s three ice rinks — the others are in Cairo and Johannesburg — and can accommodate up to 200 skaters at once.

But a steady stream of customers seem bent on testing the capacity of the rink that cost nearly $700 000 to build and has a monthly maintenance and staffing bill of $11 600.

”It is a costly venture,” said Siggi Loeper, the Panari’s general manager. ”But we’ve had tremendous reception so far, even during typically slow weekdays.”

Much of the expense comes from the cost of keeping the ice at a constant -25 degrees Celsius and the ambient rink temperature at 12 degrees Celsius in African heat.

As a result, the entry fee isn’t cheap — 800 Kenyan shillings ($11) for adults and 500 shillings ($7) for children — in a country where an estimated 60% of the 32-million people live on less than a $1 a day.

”That’s the only thing that’s wrong with it right now — it’s very expensive,” said Olivia Otieno, a local DJ who picked up her enthusiasm for skating while growing up in Canada.

Still, she raved about the introduction of winter sports to Kenya, which she said could soon rival Jamaica and its famous bob-sleigh team in fielding athletes for seemingly climate-incongruous events.

”It’s a fantastic idea,” Otieno said. ”Home-bred Kenyans 10 years from now could be competing in the Winter Olympics, something we’d never dreamed of before.”

Loeper said he has already been contacted by Kenyan schools interested in setting up ice-hockey teams and is discussing the possibility of an African figure-skating federation with the rinks in Egypt and South Africa.

But with the sports less than a month old here, Kenyans have a long way to go to reach the level of a Wayne Gretzky or Michelle Kwan.

A recent visit to the rink found novice skaters clinging tightly to the boards, hesitantly pushing one foot in front of the other, ankles brushing the ice.

But the rink’s three skating instructors think that will change quickly.

”People are picking it up really fast, beyond their imaginations,” said trainer Vincent Ogura as a first-time ice ballerina hung desperately on his arm trying to steady herself.

Kenyan children are particularly eager to try out the novelty and have dragged many a reluctant parent to the rink where they watch nervously as their offspring bumble about on the ice, their faces lit with huge grins.

”The children are excited and the parents are worried,” said Uday Shah, who after a week of incessant pleading relented and brought his 11-year-old daughter, Satnam, to skate.

”That was great,” a flushed and breathless Satnam said, as she unlaced her skates and rubbed her hands after a session in which she spent as much time picking herself up off the frozen surface as gliding over it.

”But next time, I’m going to wear gloves.” — Sapa-AFP