A 1968 photo of Jomo Kenyatta wearing a sombrero and grinning from ear to ear as he receives Kenya’s Olympic contingent from Mexico speaks volumes about what the Olympics meant for Kenya five years into independence.
Kenya’s third Olympic outing, its second since independence, had returned an impressive nine-medal haul, demonstrating that not only were Kenyans equal to the world’s sporting scene but they were also highly competitive. The lessons from 1968 are still valid and valuable for rugby, a recent entrant into the Olympic family.
In colonial Kenya, the 12,000-capacity African Stadium on Donholm Road, as Jogoo Road was then known, would often be packed out during athletics and football meets. Other than beerhalls, supplied generously by the colonial government, and social halls, there were few options for an African looking for weekend entertainment. To the north of the city, Asians played racquet sports as well as hockey and cricket, while to the west, in the European part of Nairobi, whites played bowls, golf and raced horses.
In the strange relationship where Europe had awarded itself conservatorship over Africa, everything was divided by race. Kenya’s colonial commentator, Elspeth Huxley, described a further hierarchy in Nairobi’s settler social scene; the well-to-do and Nairobi’s senior government officials went to the Nairobi Club and Muthaiga Club while the working class, civil servants, train drivers and farm managers, enjoyed a lower level of social and sporting life. Perhaps because of its nature, rugby — a game that required few inputs: boots, stockings, shorts, a shirt, quorum and a spirit of adventure — fell into the working class level of colonial life at the Parklands Sports Club, the Railway Club and the Civil Service Sports Club.
Once it got going, the Rugby Football Union-Kenya was quick to make a reputation for itself. Founded in 1921, the union lay dormant “due to a lack of enthusiasm and support”, wrote a 1929 account of Kenya’s rugby history, until 1923 when a meeting of players at the Stanley Hotel kicked the union into action. Chaired by a Reverend Orr, the meeting had started out to form one playing club but voted instead to split Nairobi into two clubs. Within a decade, local competition grew to eleven playing clubs in towns along the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu and its branch lines, and on the East African coastline.
As is still the case today, competition revolved around the Enterprise Cup, a trophy gifted by a visiting team from the HMS Enterprise. The ship had arrived at the port of Mombasa to provide naval security during the visit of Britain’s Prince of Wales to the colony in 1928. Led by the ship’s chaplain, Harold Stevens, a boxing and rugby team had toured the colony, going along the coast and following the railway. The Enterprise Cup, a handsome trophy, kept local competition buzzing, and teams visiting the colony would follow the path beaten by the HMS Enterprise’s sporting party.
Strategically situated between the UK and South Africa, East Africa made a convenient stopover for visitors arriving by ship, and when flying became increasingly more common than sea travel, Nairobi replaced Mombasa, an equally convenient stopover between North and South.
Of greater importance was the Kenyan rugby experience. Landing at Mombasa or Nairobi, visiting teams were whisked around the country by rail, or in shared cars on Kenya’s unpredictable roads, staying in billeted accommodation, the tour party split up into the homes of hosts. A strongly contested game, won by the visitors, would be followed by a rip-roaring post-match party, providing the ingredients for many, many happy memories.
Rugby visitors kept coming: the Combined South African Universities, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, and a combined Oxford and Cambridge Universities team. In 1954, the RFU-K became the Rugby Football Union of East Africa, a strategic move that concentrated its efforts on building its own grounds on Ngong Road, administering representative matches, and running its beloved Enterprise Cup. The results were soon evident as well-known visitors turned up: Richmond RFC, a combined UK and Pretoria Harlequins tour, the British Lions, South Africa, the Barbarians and Wales.
A strongly contested game, won by the visitors, would be followed by a rip-roaring post-match party, providing the ingredients for many, many happy memories.
Around the same time as the RFU-K was restructuring into the RFUEA in 1954, Kenyan political activity escalated with the Mau Mau’s aggressive attacks targeting mainly African agents of colonialism, and political and labour union agitation restricted by the government to district level. Together with international pressure from within Africa, and voices of reason within Britain, the British government changed its outlook on its colonies. By 1961, social pressure had reached Kenya’s rugby community.
In 1961 Kevin O’Byrne, East African scrum half and teacher at the multi-racial Strathmore School, raised a side that impressively drew 12-12 with Kenya Harlequin’s second team, its “A XV”. In the same year Strathmore played Kagumo Teachers College, a national college for African teachers in Nyeri, in a curtain raiser match for the Nairobi District Championship, losing to Kagumo by 11 points to 3 “in promising style” according an article in the East African Standard. While Strathmore had prepared by playing against the Royal Technical College, which would later become the University of Nairobi, Kagumo had played matches against Njiri’s High school at Fort Hall, now Murang’a, coached by R. Hughes, and the United Services Second XV side at Eastleigh. Strathmore, Kagumo and the RTC later came under the ambit of the Eric Shirley Shield, an “A XV” competition, and soon after, an African Nyeri XV played “A XV” matches as Nyeri settler players retreated up the road to Nanyuki RFC.
It was through a different route that African rugby gained traction; from within former European secondary schools which opened their doors to Africans while maintaining the higher school fees that kept the majority of Africans out after Kenya’s independence in 1963.
Young school leavers would be welcomed into European rugby clubs, often by their sports teachers who played at the clubs, and in the following years, Ted Kabetu, John Muhato and Chris Onsotti were playing representative rugby against visiting teams.
As African participation increased, the often-asked question was how fair the selection for local and representative sides was. The years between 1976 and 1980 were the time of rugby’s “Africanisation”, as the major barriers to equal participation were challenged.
Miro RFC was the first African call for a representative side. Miro, the slang word for an out-of-town African who could not pronounce the name of the chocolate-flavoured drink “Milo”, had become a term of self-endearment. An announcement in a daily newspaper called for African players to attend an “All Black” training session at Impala club in 1974. Miro’s progress was slow, losing its initial matches, including a game to Lenana School, but it steadily gained momentum and a representative opportunity in 1976 against Roma Algida RFC, a visiting side from Italy. “Miro played attacking rugby from the get-go,” recalled Richard Njoba, Miro’s secretary and first African captain at Kenya Harlequin, speaking of Miro’s 20-12 win. The other representative side, the Scorpions had lost 16-13 to Roma Al Gida. Miro had made a point.
A year later, Mean Machine was formed. Named after a fictional prisoners’ American football team that played a match against its warders in the movie The Longest Yard, which had been screened in Nairobi cinemas, Mean Machine gained entry straight into the league’s top division. The team consisted of players who had for years considered leaving their clubs and forming a side. There was a union concession that gave Mean Machine the upper hand, perhaps out of the assumption that theirs would be an average performance — all other teams in the Kenya Cup competition played with equally split sides while Mean Machine were allowed to field a single side.
Playing out of their home ground at Lenana School, Mean Machine made it to the semi-finals, playing the Nondescripts Tigers. In their usual fashion, a boisterous busload of Machine supporters descended on Lenana. Mean Machine thrashed Nondies and beat Impala Boks the following weekend to clinch the Kenya Cup in their first attempt.
After their performance, Mean Machine players, many in their last year of study, did not want to go back to their old clubs. At the KFC on Kenyatta Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Kipande House — a grim reminder of the restrictions Africans faced in colonial times when they were required by law to carry pass-books — Mwamba RFC, the Rock, was born. The team took up grounds at the Railway Club near the city centre and the door to playing rugby was thrown wide open. G.B. Mills, the chairman of the KRFU wrote that “he was not convinced” that Mwamba’s formation was in the best interest of rugby. In his reply, Mwamba’s captain, Absalom Mutere, wrote that, “it is meaningless to talk about Kenyan rugby without using Kenyans as a reference point.” With easy access by public transport, anyone could walk into the Railway Club and play rugby. No longer did one need a school, university or close connections to play. Rugby was open to the public.
Miro were given another opportunity against visiting Blackheath in 1979. “Blackheath blacked out”, read the next day’s headline in the Standard newspaper about Miro’s 39-12 win.
The press had taken sides in the battle between Mean Machine and Mwamba and the other teams. “Nondies out to fix the new machine” said a cartoon mechanic holding a spanner, before Nondescripts played Mean Machine. As David Francombe, a Nondescripts stalwart and Kenya international put it simply years later, “It didn’t help that Nondies wore white and Mwamba wore black.”
In 1979, East Africa XV, or the Tuskers as they were called on tour, travelled to Zambia fielding a mainly African side, and in 1980 Kenya played Zambia at the RFUEA grounds under the new rule that players had to be citizens. It had taken a further 16 years for the first Kenyan side to take the field using citizenship as a criteria.
Two years after Kenya played Zambia, a group of rugby players got together and, through Cliff Mukulu, a former Mean Machine captain working in the Emirates, organized a Sevens tour to Dubai. Unable to get union financing, the team called themselves Watembezi Pacesetters RFC. “They were expecting an expatriate team”, explained Denis Awori, who went on to chair the Kenya and Uganda rugby unions. A hot favourite among Dubai locals, who rooted for the expat beaters, Watembezi would have to win the tournament for three years consecutively before clinching the top prize, a slot in the revered Hong Kong Sevens. This time round the Sevens team toured as Kenya, complete with a Watembezi 15s side cheering them on.
If rugby is coffee, rugby sevens is instant coffee. A quicker, shorter game whose winner is declared within a day or two of the competition. All these qualities made sense to the touring Watembezi, who raised funds to tour annually, and after Dubai, played in the Singapore Sevens, always taking a schoolboy player with them.
Over the next decade, the International Rugby Board World Cup qualifying rounds took precedence over waning international tours and the focus of international rugby turned to African international matches, mainly against Uganda and Zimbabwe.
“It didn’t help that Nondies wore white and Mwamba wore black.”
More disruption came in the form of a change in Kenya’s school system that had far-reaching consequences, even for rugby. The A-level system was not accessible countrywide, creating a bottleneck for the few available place. The new 8-4-4 system redistributed the two A-level years, lengthening primary school and university education by a year, and, theoretically, creating a more practical approach. Gone was the rugby hierarchy of playing teams by year and weight, the tradition of the first XV and house rugby on multiple pitches. Pub conversations predicted the end of rugby in Kenya.
There was a twist, however, that turned that argument on its head. Soon after Mean Machine was formed, Kenyatta University College — Nairobi University’s constituent college 17 kilometres up the road — raised its own side, later known as Blak Blad, that played in the second division, but rose to the occasion to give Mean Machine a run for its money. Blak Blad’s old boys formed Damu Pevu, mature blood, a team that played a regular fixture against the incumbents. Blak Blad’s teachers took rugby countrywide, with Damu Pevu following in their wake running rugby clinics, teaching and preaching rugby. By the time the first cohort of the 8-4-4 system had completed its secondary cycle, in 1990, rugby was on the Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association’s annual calendar. With a development support system from the KRFU and the support of the International Rugby Board (IRB), the door to rugby was now well and truly open.
The Rugby Patrons, a reconstituted support organization that had guaranteed Rugby Football Union’s loan to the RFUEA for its grounds on Ngong Road in 1954, came once again to the rescue when local rugby was running out of steam, launching the Safari Sevens. Calling up Kenyan rugby’s old friends, mainly teams from the United Kingdom, an international Sevens tournament was started in 1996 that gave the game a much-needed shot in the arm.
By the time the IRB was launching a Sevens circuit in the 1999-2000 season, Kenya had ticked all the boxes. Not only had Watembezi set the Sevens pace, showcasing Kenya’s playing ability, the Safari Sevens had demonstrated a high level of organization, and nothing beats a good word from happy teams that have enjoyed Kenyan hospitality. Once in as a part-time participant, Kenya Sevens bootstrapped its way into full participation in the circuit, a system now maintained by relegation rules.
The IRB also strongly encouraged women’s rugby, a programme that was eagerly taken up by Kenya’s ladies, partnering with local rugby to run a women’s competition and playing their first fifteens international against Uganda in Kampala in 2006, and registering their first win, also against Uganda two years later in 2008.
After the IRB’s bid for the Olympics fell through in 2005, the IRB pulled all the stops, bringing in Kipchoge Keino, who had played rugby for the Kenya Police in the sixties, and Humphrey Khayange, Kenya Sevens long-serving captain, to the Olympic bid committee.
The IRB’s journey to the Olympics has been Kenya’s journey. It was fitting that both Kenya’s men and women qualified for the first tournament that was played in the Brazil Olympics in 2016.
When Kenya’s three gold medal winners came off the plane in 1968 to take Jomo Kenyatta’s handshake, their futures took three different tangents. Naftali Temu, Kenya’s first Olympic gold medallist — who had failed to finish his race in the 1964 Japan Olympics, coming in 19th position in the marathon — was gifted a shamba in North Mugirango to which he returned before he passed away from cancer in his fifties at the Kenyatta Hospital.
If rugby is coffee, rugby sevens is instant coffee.
Amos Biwott, still a schoolboy, and the only athlete with dry feet after the 3,000m steeplechase race, received a school fees grant to continue his education at Njoro Boys High School, after which he joined the Prisons Department, losing his job in 1978. After years of unemployment, Biwott found a job as a night watchman at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, where he worked for 16 years before retiring to his shamba. Kenya’s captain, Kipchoge Keino, had not qualified for the 1,500m final in ’64 in Japan, but he went on to beat the favourite, Jim Ryun, using compatriot Ben Jipcho as the rabbit to tire Ryun out, before powering through to the finish. Of the three, Keino went on to a stellar career, joining the Olympics Committee and chairing the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association in his senior years while running a children’s home.
The future lives of the Mexico Olympics gold medal athletes are prescient of those of today’s Kenyan athletes. From reliable sources, over the span of the IRB Sevens, national players have earned between KSh15,000 and 150,000 a month, money which is sometimes paid up to four months in arrears. It’s easy to point a finger at the Union, but sport is literally at the mercy of the sponsor, with a highly volatile cash flow that is dependent on the sponsor’s goodwill. It follows then that if a career in rugby, or in any sport in Kenya, is not coupled with another solid income — like a profession or a business — then the chances of long-term financial success are extremely slim. The government foots the Olympic bill, but the point is worth considering in the context of enabling athletes to pursue careers in sport.
Another consideration is winning strategies. Amos Biwott’s awkward jump that propelled him clear of the water, and Kipchoge Keino’s and Ben Jipcho’s rabbit strategy led by Kenya’s athletic coach, Charles Mukora, were strategies that provided the winning edge.
It will be up to Kenya’s brain trust to provide a working plan to secure victory. It doesn’t have to look good. There are lessons to learn from Biwott’s ungainly jumping style which got him across the finish line with dry feet and a gold medal. In this regard, Kenya’s win in the 2016 Singapore Sevens, to date the country’s lone success in the World Rugby Sevens Series, is worth a review.
Starting out in their third final, playing against Fiji who were in their 59th, it looked like a story already told. The final score was six unconverted tries to Fiji’s lone try. Six unconverted tries and the usual number of handling errors. The big difference that day in Singapore was Kenya’s relentless drive over the rucks. Ben Ryan, the Fijian coach, implored his side at half time to stop Kenya’s damage at the ruck, but it was too late. Kenya’s route one approach was the game changer.
Kenya’s poor performance in Brazil the same year can be put down to inexperience — Kenya’s Lionesses finished 11th and Shujaa 12th. Now that both Shujaa and the Lionesses have qualified for Japan, we expect a gold medal despite the odds. But we’ll accept any medal and might let our team off if they reach the quarter-finals. Deep down we know what we are capable of.
Sport is literally at the mercy of the sponsor, with a highly volatile cash flow that is dependent on the sponsor’s goodwill.
There is far more to play for than pride. There is a legacy that stretches further back than that line drawn in the sand in 1980 when players had to be Kenyan citizens, further back than independent Kenya, further back than that 1924 players’ meeting at the Stanley. It’s all a part of our history, and a compliment to those who participated, especially those that remained after independence. A glowing tribute must be also paid to the “Miro era”, and the outstanding athletes who opened the door of opportunity, and to Damu Pevu and Kenya’s teachers — rugby’s missionaries. And we have Benja Otieno to play for, an icon of Kenyan rugby who passed away in May. Caught in the net cast nationwide by the KSSSA games as a student in Maseno School, Benja was a part of the Kenya Sevens that won the Safari Sevens for the first time in 1998. He went on to play in the IRB circuit, coaching Kenya to their 2016 Singapore win and leaving a legacy that Impala, his home club, and Kenya can be proud of. Together, Kenya’s Shujaa and Lionesses stand on the shoulders of a rugby community stretching back over 100 years.
Guided by what has always turned out to be solid governance, the Kenya Rugby Union, or one of its several names over the years has, sometimes reluctantly, listened to the voice of its players and followed the democratic cycle of governance. The union has never been afraid to make key decisions, such as developing its own ground, raising a representative side, and getting differing factions to sit down. Perhaps because of the nature of the game, disputes can always be settled on the field, always within the rules.
When the Kenya Sevens came back from Singapore they visited President Uhuru Kenyatta, lifted him in a mock lineout, and gifted him a replica of the team’s rugby shirt. Hats off to Shujaa’s Andrew Amonde, who has been appointed as the Kenya Olympic captain. Maybe Shujaa and Kenya Lionesses will bring back a similar gift from Japan.