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A letter from my tennis pupil and power of the playground

Saturday July 6 2019

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark hits a return against Rebecca Peterson of Sweden during their women's singles third round match of the WTA Wuhan Open tennis tournament in Wuhan on September 25, 2018. PHOTO | NICOLAS ASFOURI |  AFP

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I recently received a letter from Ms Elizabeth Ndinda. I was highly delighted to hear from Ms Ndinda and I wrote back immediately to thank her and tell her that I would be glad to hear further from her. I am yet to open my mailbox this morning, but I am eagerly looking forward to reading what she has written.

You of course already know how delighted I am to hear from my acquaintances, friends and, especially, you, my reader.

When the correspondence is about my writing and the few random experiences I share with you, I always endeavour to write back and share further with you.


The few times when I have not written back, and for which I deeply apologise, have been when your letters caught me in moments of either sagging energy or erratically wandering memory.

Back to Ms Ndinda’s letter, what particularly touched me was the time frame from which it came. My correspondent wrote to ask if I was the Austin Bukenya that was her tennis coach at Loreto Convent Msongari. That was an obviously easy question, which I answered readily and proudly in the positive. But then, a whole host of other questions rose in my mind.


To begin with, the latest times that I coached tennis at Loreto Msongari would have been the late 1980s. Moreover, the players I coached were mostly from middle to lower primary school, aged between eight and eleven years.

How and why could Elizabeth have remembered me from those distant and tender years of hers?


I am hoping very much that she will tell me that I was such a good coach that I was, and remain, simply unforgettable!

An alternative answer that would equally please me would be that I made tennis such good fun for her that she developed a lifelong love for it, and whenever she thinks of it, she thinks of me.

But I should not be coaching my correspondent on what to write to me, should I? In any case, her reasons for asking may be very far from my narcissistic presumptions. Do you, for example, remember Proscovia Rwakyaka’s poem, “The Beard”? I hope I am not like the thick-bearded preacher who thinks he has won a convert, when the presumed convert is only weeping in memory of her slaughtered bearded Billy goat.

I must admit, however, that I found it rejuvenating being taken back to those relatively youthful days of mine and reminded of my racket-swinging days across the tennis courts of Kenya. I believe I told you of how I got into the action.

Trying to shake off my mid-thirties sluggishness, I had resumed my junior school tennis game as a fitness exercise.

But I soon found myself struggling to get fitter and fitter in order to play better and better tennis. So, I was a winner either way.


Indeed, if my correspondent was reading this column and started wondering if I was not too old and decrepit to be writing newspaper articles, herein lies the answer. The tennis has kept me in reasonably good trim all these years.

You, my good reader, should take this in more than jest. Medical professionals are almost unanimous in their recommendation that, next to a sensible diet, regular exercise is the best natural contributor to a healthy lifestyle.

The sad truth, however, is that very few of us, especially in the urban middle classes, put in even the minimum expected exercise to sustain a healthy body. The naughtiest among us even boast that the only exercise we indulge in is lifting and lowering glasses at the local Karumaindo (pub).

But back to my mwalimu realm, we tennis coaches were assigned by the Kenya Lawn Tennis Association (KLTA) to schools like Msongari and St Mary’s, and Hill School and Moi (Highlands) Girls in Eldoret because these schools asked for our services.

Some cynical observers, including even some parents at these schools, quietly muttered that these co-curricular (read “extracurricular”) activities, like drama and “elite” sports, were a waste of time, distractions from academics, just to maintain the schools’ images of being “high cost”.

You may have heard me say that these institutions were, at least at the time I was associated with them, both as parent and as coach, more high-value than high cost. This means that the kind of all-round (or in current parlance “holistic”) education that they strove, and hopefully are still striving, to give to their charges was far above anything that could be quantified in monetary terms.


In the case of sports, for example, whether it was football, tennis, rugby or swimming, I can only quote (even at the risk of being severely criticised) what one exceptionally successful British colonialist said. “The British Empire was built on the playgrounds of Eton, Rugby and Arundel.” I quote from memory, but I know that Eton, Rugby and Arundel are some of the old English public schools where most of the British empire-builders were educated. I could not be an imperialist, even if I wanted to. But I note, with surprise, that you and I are still communicating in English nearly sixty years since the Empire “expired”.

The moral of the tale is that, quite possibly, the tennis or netball court, the football or rugby pitch and the swimming pool may be the ground on which the future African Commonwealth will be built.


The values and principles of sustained endeavour, teamwork, honest competition and fair play (“sportspersonship”) that we impart to our young people on the courts, pitches and racing tracks of our school playgrounds maybe the foundation of the brave new Africa that we all desire to see.

Anyway, I am invariably grateful and gratified to hear from you, whether you are my reader, former student or, like Elizabeth Ndinda, my former tennis pupil. You may even be a combination of all these.

So, keep writing, please. I will now open my kikasha (inbox).

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]