IN GOLD COAST
I like watching people.
Because in the “sport” of people-watching, you would never tell who the person you see could be.
That lady seated across the aisle could be one of the most brilliant scientists around, or the man crossing the busy street an architect with unrivalled taste for gothic architecture.
Or, indeed, the lady on the matatu from Banana to Nairobi could be a world champion in sport.
Well, Eunice Mbugua shuttles every morning on the matatu number 100 from Banana in Kiambu County to the city centre.
I doubt anyone, save for close friends or relatives, would identify her as Kenya’s best female player in the lawn bowls, let alone know if such a game exists.
Such is the background of the 31-year-old Mbugua who has represented Kenya with distinction in international tournaments, the latest being the current Commonwealth Games here in Gold Coast, Australia.
Mbugua was on Saturday eliminated from the women’s singles competition after failing to outwit Cook Island player Nooroa Mataio who edged the Kenyan out in the fifth round of the “Section C” competition.
Their match at the Broadbeach Bowls Club was timed out (two hours, 15 was allocated the match) with Mataio leading by the narrowest of margins, 19-18, thus being declared the winner at the buzzer.
Distraught, Mbugua, a last born in a family of three children, could hardly muster energy for this interview.
“I had this game,” she braved.
“I knew I had to win and wait for the classification to see whether I could make it to the quarter-finals, but she edged me out just as I was about to strike, with the buzzer making matters worse.”
Mbugua is one of two bowlers in Kenya colours here, the other being her age-mate Cephas Kimwaki Kimani, popularly known as “Fire” on the bowling greens.
In her round robin group games, Mbugua had defeated Catherine Wimp of Papua New Guinea 21-15 before falling 21-7 to Carmen Andersen of the Norfolk Islands last Thursday.
She then bounced back on Friday to score a 21-10 win over Botswana’s Nelly Senna.
But her 21-10 loss to Keri McKerihen of Canada on Friday evening left her requiring victory over the Cook Island opponent on Saturday.
But that wasn’t to be.
'SPORT FOR OLD PEOPLE'
Nonetheless, Mbugua has been the darling of the media in Gold Coast, with journalists amazed to see Kenya diversify onto the bowling green.
It’s not just about athletics and rugby.
“There’s a misconception that bowling is a sport for the old people, largely because indeed it has been dominated by fairly aged players over the years in Kenya,” she says, beginning to settle down at the Broadbeach Bowls Club media centre.
“But there’s an exciting crop of young players in Kenya now.”
Interestingly, Mbugua started off as a tennis player, even making the quarter-finals of the Kenya Open at Nairobi Club in 2010.
“It was while I shuttled to and from tennis practice at the Limuru Country Club that I would pass by the bowling green, and slowly I started developing interest in this sport,” she reminisces.
She would soon dump her racquet to venture onto the greens, lucky to have a willing coach in John Gichango who started training her in 2012.
And two years later, Mbugua was already at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, playing in the women’s pair and finishing fifth in the pool games.
“My parents have been supportive and have made an effort to learn the game,” she adds as I prod her on family support.
“They saw my sports talent in school and have always urged me on.”
Her retired parents – James Mbugua and Miriam Muthoni – run some businesses in Kiambu, and so do her two brothers, Simon Nderitu and Edward Nding’uri, the latter having just completed his university education.
Mbugua, just like the other upcoming players in the lawn bowls, struggles to get facilities and venues to train.
She shuttles three days a week to the Nairobi Club, where the Kenya Bowling Association’s headquarters are domiciled, for training sessions that cost Sh3,000 each month.
“It’s quite difficult for us.
“Having to pay a monthly fee of Sh3,000 is tough, and even then, getting a club member to recommend a player is even harder.”
Sadly for the sport, all bowling greens are located in private members’ clubs.
Kenya currently has seven rinks at Limuru Country Club, Nairobi Club, Karen Country Club, Mombasa Sports Club, Muthaiga Club, Ruiru Club and Njoro Club.
“What we need is a public bowling green that would make it easier for players who are keen on taking up the sport to have easy access to training facilities,” she implores.
Bowling equipment doesn’t come cheap, also.
A set of four balls, that each player requires as a basic, would cost an upward of Sh120,000.
Then there are the specialised competition shoes that go for Sh8,000, on average.
“I’m grateful to the National Olympic Committee of Kenya who gave me new balls and kit as we headed into these Commonwealth Games,” she adds, patriotically waving a miniature Kenyan flag as the interview progresses.
“Which (the flag) reminds me. I need a big flag to cheer Kimwaki when he starts his competition next week,” she quips.
Fan support is essential in bowling, contrary to the thought by many that the sport won’t ignite a Mexican wave on the terraces.
As the matches progressed on Saturday, shouts of “Aussie oi!, oi!, oi!” filled the air with about 2,000 fans urging the home players on.
“When there is good support, one is encouraged to perform and not to let the crowd down,” she justifies, quickly envisaging a return trip to Australia.
“I now want to train more and compete in the ‘Champion of Champions’ tournament here later this year, if I’m able to get the necessary financial support,” the alumna of Muthurwa Secondary School says, in reference to one of the biggest tournaments on the lawn bowls calendar for 2018 which will be hosted in New South Wales, Australia.
In her meteoric rise in this sport, Mbugua was last year named the best player at the Africa States Tournament in South Africa where she settled for bronze, and has dominated the Kenyan bowling scene.
“What we need now is more exposure because we have been playing well in Africa. This sport has a bright future,” she says, now with the confidence missing at the start of the interview.
Well, despite not advancing to the quarters, Mbugua, in my view, deserves recognition by her home Kiambu County Government, besides the national government.
That girl riding matatu number 100 from Banana to the city centre every odd day is a now a well-followed star on the global lawn bowls circuit.
Over to you, Governor Ferdie!
Surely, setting aside some cash from the county’s sports kitty to support Eunice isn’t too big an ask.
What is lawn bowls?
Lawn Bowls athletes are a picture of calm and composure, but this is set to be one of the most hotly contested, excitingly unpredictable sports.
Competing over a series of ends in singles, pairs, triples and fours (plus two new para-sport events), Lawn Bowlers demonstrate incredible accuracy and nerve as they aim to be closest to the jack. Just as when you think it’s decided, one fast drive can scatter the bowls and it’s game-on again.
In a nutshell, it’s a game played with wooden balls on a level, closely mowed green having a slight bias, the object being to roll one’s ball as near as possible to a smaller white ball at the other end of the green.
*Source: Commonwealth Games 2018, Webster’s College Dictionary