Next Thursday, Kenya will be 50. I will be there to see 21 heavy guns being blasted by the Kenya Navy in keeping with ancient military tradition.
For 50 years, our national celebrations have been dominated by the Kenya Defence Forces and since this big party will be no exception, I might as well use this week’s column to reflect on their contribution to our sports heritage.
By happenstance, a KDF team provided my first newspaper article. This was on August 3, 1977 when as an intern with The Standard, I wrote a report headlined “Air Force flying high” that ran thus:
“Kenya Air Force FC kept up their winning streak in the Nairobi Provincial Division 1 Zone ‘A’ league by squeezing a 2-1 victory over Kenatco at KAF last weekend. Kenatco drew first blood with an eighth minute goal by Onyango but Air Force player/coach Robert Miningwo erased the deficit by scoring in the 18th minute to make the half time score 1-1.”
Those were the 62 words that launched my career and I learnt at once to contend with the sub-editor’s knife; details of the winning goal were chopped off.
About 10 of the next 36 years would be spent covering KDF football teams and, of course, their boxers and athletes as well.
The Air Force and the Navy’s football teams lacked verve and couldn’t be seen in the national radar but the Army provided the heavy artillery in the form of Scarlet and later the consolidated team, Ulinzi.
If I was asked to nominate the outstanding KDF footballer of the last 50 years the nominee, without any hesitation, would be Ambrose Ayoyi, whom we all called the Golden Boy.
To celebrate 20 years of Kenya’s Independence, the country unveiled the Nyayo National Stadium (and the soon to be infamous Nyayo House) in 1983.
That year, Kenya hosted the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup after winning it in Dar es Salaam and Kampala the two previous years. The final at the new stadium featured Kenya and Zimbabwe. Ayoyi entered himself in the books with the first goal scored there after a great combination with Joe Masiga on that memorable November 26 afternoon.
But misses rarely get into the books yet they account for many heart stopping moments. Those who were there and can remember will forever be awed by his left foot rocket-like effort from all of 30 metres that ricocheted off the Zimbabwean cross bar and soared perpendicularly into the sky. What a spectacular try, infinitely more arresting than his goal that gave Harambee Stars their third consecutive Challenge Cup.
He was one of a kind. Despite his lethality, markers always lost him. The ability to de-mark himself was a talent that seemed reserved for the Golden Boy alone. Nobody else came remotely near.
Passes from teammates always found him with hectares of space to operate from. And his left foot! It seemed that that was all he had on the football pitch but nobody missed his right one. It probably would have been too much of a favour from the Almighty.
He was a star performer in the Harambee Stars of 1982 which beat Uganda Cranes at Nakivubo in what is historically the stand out encounter between the eternal rivals.
He slotted in the third penalty kick and with Mahmoud Abbas performing miracles against the Cranes’ penalties, victory was signed, sealed and delivered.
His teammate at Scarlet, goalkeeper Washington Muhanji, had much going for him: height, strength, reflexes, positioning – even mouth.
But there were two apparently insurmountable obstacles – Mahmoud Abbas and his own personal discipline. In those days, there ever was only one Abbas, Kenya One, and he reigned supreme, eclipsing all comers. It was Muhanji’s fate to be good when there was another one so much better.
There was irony in the discipline issue. It was to be expected that the defence forces footballers would show exemplary conduct arising from the nature of their profession.
Not always so. Some of the worst excesses came from them – ask referee GMT Ottieno. Before consolidation of all the KDF teams into one Ulinzi Stars in 1995, there was an outfit called Kahawa Cannons. (READ: GMT Ottieno: The ref who has seen it all)
Apparently, it had as many ruffians as footballers. Once a colleague of mine, Mike Ngwalla, writing in the defunct Nairobi Times, described Kenya’s main league football teams in admirable detail before reserving this one for the garrison team: “The rogues who go by the name Kahawa Cannons have no place in a league played by civilized football teams...”
Unlike Cannons, who were not averse to roughing up referees whose decisions they did not like, Scarlet were a generally well-behaved team. (Maybe even GMT might concur notwithstanding that horrific slap he suffered at the hands of Gideon Nyangi during a match Scarlet lost to KTM).
Still, despite boasting quality players like Jack Sihul, Ayoyi’s sidekick, they never consistently challenged the big guns, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards, for continental places; that was left to Tusker, then known as Kenya Breweries.
In a scene saturated with rowdy self-seekers, KDF have given Kenyans some conscientious and devoted officials who worked hard for the public good. One such that I dealt with was an army officer named Captain James Ombati. He was the diligent and meticulous fixtures secretary of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya football league. He was an amiable man, very pleasant to work with.
But Kenya football being what it is, the branch was soon engulfed in mortal wrangles. One faction brought a statement saying that it had overthrown the other and was now in fully in charge. They brought the names of their officials to the Sports Desk and we duly carried their statement. Capt Ombati’s name was in the list of officials.
This had apparently been done without his knowledge. As soon as he saw his name in the paper the following day, Ombati made haste to the Sports Desk. I’d scarcely seen a more unnerved individual. He was truly scared. He let it be known that he had nothing to do with the ‘coup’ which he said impugned on his professionalism as a military officer.
GREATEST KDF ATHLETE
“I cannot participate in something like this,” he said. “This can have severe consequences on my career. You must correct it immediately. I have nothing whatsoever to do with what took place.”
We duly carried his statement. Nothing happened to him. In fact, he was later promoted to the rank of Major before fading away from the scene. We missed him.
I will forgo an opinion on the greatest KDF athlete of the last 50 years in favour of giving an account of my most poignant encounter. It was in 1984. I was attending the wedding of a close relative. The encounter was in Nyeri during the evening reception.
Henry Rono was not one of our guests; he was a resident in the hotel. Here was one of the greatest sportsmen of all time that I had been privileged to cover. He smashed four world records – the 3,000metres, the 3,000 metres steeplechase, the 5,000 metres and the 10,000 metres – in a dizzying 81 days at the height of my reporting days.
I had interviewed him several times in Nairobi and Mombasa. And I had come to not only admire his greatness, but to like him as a person as well.
But on that night, I was shattered by what I saw. He was sloshed almost senseless. I tried to make conversation but he kept patting my shoulder and asking: “Why so many questions?”
He didn’t answer any, not coherently anyway. He was on his road downhill, from the greatest athlete never to have won an Olympic medal, the darling of the tracks of the world, to going under, literary, because he wound up washing cars in the basement of buildings in America.
When he was at the height of his powers, African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest at the New Zealand All Blacks rugby tour of Apartheid South Africa. They wanted the International Olympic Committee to kick out New Zealand from the Olympics or else.
But the IOC demurred. There went Rono’s hopes. In 1980, he was still young enough to win big. But the then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the United States rallied all its allies to boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest. Kenya was among them and forever, Rono’s hopes of an Olympic medal went up in flames. He took to hard drinking which consumed literary everything he ever had to his name.
Mid January, 1985, Rono announced his intention to return to the track. He participated in a relay race at Nairobi Dam over a distance of four and a half kilometres. His time was 16 min 0.2sec. He said after the ordeal: “I feel so tired, but I am determined to keep it up.”
On January 26 that year, I wrote this of him in my then “Off The Pitch” column: “Three years of total inactivity. A tremendous devotion to the products of Kenya Breweries. Absolute disappearance from the limelight. A massive addition of body weight. Loss of two world records.
“Not any more. The wrong must be corrected. Where he was, is where he’ll be, probably further. One of the world’s greatest distance runners is ready to go again. Welcome back to the scene, Henry Rono.”
He never returned to where he had been – a truly long shot by any objective estimation - but mercifully, he got hold of himself. He dried up and took up coaching youngsters in the US – the best thing a master like him could do. Other KDF athletes, of course, scored firsts for the young republic.
Wilson Kiprugut became Kenya’s first Olympic medal winner after taking a silver in the 800 metres at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 while Naftali Temu won Kenya’s first Olympic gold medal in 1968. He took the 10,000 metre race.
There was a time Kenya Breweries had 11 sports disciplines in its stable. There was also a time when parastatals such as Kenya Airways, Posts and Telecommunications, the Railways and the Harbours had many sports teams playing for them as well. These comprised the annual Kecoso Games. All that is so much water under the bridge.
It is a big, big loss to contemplate on this 50th birthday. That leaves only the Kenya Defence Forces – and other disciplined forces such as the Police – as the brightest beacon to budding sportsmen in the foreseeable future. Let’s go and watch the guns go off, and the fighter jets thunder overhead and look forward to better times than we’ve heard this far.