In 2013, following a tough breakup with his then-fiancé, Klaus went into a debilitating depression. He started Black Vikings London to give himself a focus and to drag himself out of the toxic whirlpool he’d found himself in. “I realised I couldn’t go on like that,” Klaus tells me over a pint of Guinness. “You have to have meaning. So if you can’t find meaning, then you have to fabricate something that will allow you to go on.”
Klaus concocted the Black Vikings’ “sagas” – physical tests and rites of passages the group partake in to push themselves and raise money for charity. “Each one addresses a weakness I have,” he explains. “Some address commitment, some address persistence, and so on.” Among the list of sagas is to climb the world’s three largest mountains, box for 100 consecutive rounds and to isolate in the wild for three months. “It’s all about physical betterment and mental freedom.”
In 2019, Klaus carried a 60kg railway sleeper barefoot and bare-chested for 7.2 miles across London. He marched for nine hours without realising he’d sustained a life-threatening spinal cord injury early on in his walk. By the end of the “Crucifixion Saga” he’d lost all feeling in his hands and arms, and in the days that followed woke up in a pool of his own blood and urine. Five days after completing the “death march” he was taken to A&E and had to have emergency surgery on his neck and back. He was committed to a three-and-a-half month stay in hospital, where he underwent intense physiotherapy and rehabilitation.
“In a way, [the sagas] have to be extreme, otherwise they wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “A saga is where you begin as one person and, somewhere on the way, a transformation happens.”
While he was in hospital, Klaus was visited by BVL’s Instagram followers, who brought him well-wishes and support. Almost two years later, he hasn’t regained full mobility or sensation in his right hand. “I have no regrets. It was something I needed to go through,” he says.
The week before we meet, Klaus completed a 230-mile, 15-day charity walk from central London to Dartmoor National Park. Eight of the Black Vikings started the saga, walking all day and wild camping at night, but only three made it to Dartmoor. This was the first instalment of their “Suffer Saga”, in which they intend to “suffer” in different ways for a total of 10,000 hours. In spring of 2021 they’re completing the saga by walking from Landsend to the Isle of Wight, then to Balnakeil in the Scottish Highlands – a stretch that totals over 700 miles.
“People don’t change willingly, so the only way that will happen is through circumstances you can’t control,” he says. “I have to put myself out of my comfort zone.”
Growing up as an Eritrean migrant in Naples in the 1980s, the struggles and hardships Klaus has faced haven’t always been of his own creation. “I was treated like an exotic animal,” he says, going on to talk about the impact that this racism had on him: “I used to pick out all the ants from my mum’s plants, and I’d get my mum’s nail polish and lightly paint one of the ants a little bit red. Then I’d sit there and try and see if it would be treated differently by the other ants. I was seven years old.”
Klaus moved to London aged 12 in 1990, and during his teenage years racist violence became a part of his daily life. “It was ironic, because there were actually more black people here than in Italy,” he says. “You might not believe it now, but there were four racist gangs in this [Old Street] area at the time. I hung out with a mixed group – a Turkish guy, a half-Irish half-Indian guy - and we were prime targets.”
BVL, he explains, is his way of adding meaning to the suffering he has endured, instead of suffering for nothing.
What started in Klaus’ homemade gym has grown into regular group training in London’s parks and fields, and a supportive network of devotees and social media cheerleaders. Over the years the group has evolved through different names and structures, but Klaus settled on “Black Vikings” in 2015.
“I liked the idea that it’s two words you don’t expect together. It’s an oxymoron,” he says. “There was a period where I started getting racists saying to me, ‘There were never Black Vikings, and there will never be any.’ I noticed how much it pissed them off, and I thought, ‘Now I have to keep it!’ It pisses off certain white people and certain Black people in equal measure. So, in a way, it’s unifying. It evokes such strong feelings from people.”
I can’t help but wonder if the extreme acts he puts himself through are a kind of veiled form of self-harm, so I put the question to him. “I never intend to [injure myself],” he says. “It’s a by-product of chasing that kind of struggle. It’s the same as if I was in a ring fighting and somebody punched me in a way that injured me.”
As for the future of the group, Klaus says he has plans to buy 100 acres of land and build a commune on it. “I want to have rooms where people can stay,” he explains. “The whole structure operating as one entity, living together, eating together, working towards the same goals.”
Many of us search for ways to free ourselves from our anxieties and depression. Some of us look to do good for others, some try to empower themselves, and some seek a better understanding of who they are. All of these motivations can be found in the BVL ethos – and although what they do might not be for everyone, it certainly seems to work for them.
“I’m most alive when I’m doing the sagas,” says Klaus. “It’s a sense of adventure, and everyday life doesn’t provide that.”