A Review of Kenyan Rugby
By Michael Mundia Kamau
Kenya’s unexpected good showing at the just concluded Safari Sevens, and subsequent qualification for the 2001 Rugby World Cup Sevens, must be commended. Ominously though, our loss to arch rivals Zimbabwe in the final and to Uganda earlier in the tournament, are an indicator of the low levels of progress that Kenyan rugby has made.
For many years now, rugby in Kenya has rightfully been considered a bourgeois sport, and the following has remained limited. The game was started in Kenya by settlers during the colonial era, and participation was indeed restricted to whites only. Standards in those days were high given that the respected British Lions toured and played Kenya. Africans got the first opportunity to learn and play rugby soon after independence in 1963, and soon after the desegregation of the school system. Even then the sport was limited to elite schools that had previously admitted whites only, such as the Duke of York (today’s Lenana School), and the Prince of Wales (today’s Nairobi School).
The first generation of Africans to play rugby included recently deceased Chris Onsotti, John Gichinga, Dennis Awori, George Kariuki (current Chairman of the Kenya Rugby Football Union, K.R.F.U.), Jim Owino and the legendary Mwangi-Kioi brothers. The first generation of African players must be credited with preparing the crucial groundwork for the second generation of African players to blossom further.
The legendary second generation of Africans to play rugby are credited with establishing Kenya as a reputable rugby playing nation in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. They were the new kids on the block, young, energetic and hungry to make a difference. The radicalism and agitation for change that characterized Kenya in the 1970s extended to rugby, with proponents calling for greater African participation in the game both at playing and administration levels. The period witnessed an explosive renaissance of Kenyan rugby. The second generation partly comprised Jackson "Jacko" Omaido, his brother Walter Omaido, Tom Oketch, Alunga Omolo, Peter Akatsa, Frank Ngaruiya, Stan Ramogo, Max Muniafu, Michael "Tank" Otieno, Evans Vitisia, Godfrey "Chief" Edebe, Peter Belsoi, Pip Omamo, Larry Okinyo, David Akelola, Wycliff Mukulu, John Akatsa, Tim Githuku, Ken Sagala, Andrew Kimwele, Frank Sabwa, Fred Odhiambo, Jimmy Owino and JJ Masiga (better known for his exploits as a Kenya soccer international). It was the second generation that was behind the formation of the University of Nairobi’s Mean Machine R.F.C. in 1977 and Kenyatta University’s Black Blad R.F.C. The intensity and drive of the young men that formed Mean Machine (Machine), is manifest by the fact that Machine won the prestigious Kenya Cup in its year of inception. This was a sterling achievement at a time when rugby was still dominated by white clubs such as Kenya Harlequins, Nondescripts, Impala and Western Kenya/Oribis. It was a most gratifying and inspirational accomplishment in real and symbolic terms, personifying the firm foundation that had been laid for Africans playing rugby in Kenya.
Another very notable accomplishment for the sport in the 1970s was that of Jackson "Jacko" Omaido in 1975 when he was selected to represent the East African Tuskers for a tour to Zambia. The now defunct Tuskers comprised players from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and was indeed our version of the British Lions. Jacko was then a school boy at Lenana School doing his form five, which made the accomplishment all the more magnificent, and is something that has not been accomplished again to date. Jacko would move on to play for Machine, Kenya and a host of other select sides such as Watembezi Pacesetters, Scorpions and Chairman’s XV. Jacko is indeed the best fly-half that Kenya has produced so far. His legend spread far and wide such that the Metropolitan Police of the U.K. had prior knowledge of him when they toured Kenya in 1980. I watched Jacko play in the 1980s towards the end of his career and was indeed every bit impressed. I asked to be introduced to him in 1982 and could not hide my admiration. It was also during Jacko’s time that the now defunct Miro R.F.C. ("miro" is colloquial for black ), was formed to cater to budding African players.
On graduation, many ex-Machine players, and ex-Black Blad players, unwilling to play for what were perceived as white clubs and still teeming with radicalism, formed Mwamba R.F.C. which, like Machine in earlier years, steam-rolled the Kenyan rugby scene. Mwamba (which means "rock" in Kiswahili), carried on with the crusade to enlist a greater African share in Kenyan rugby. One particularly memorable season for me was the 1983 season when Tom Oketch led the Mwamba R.F.C. to vanquish all clubs on the Kenyan scene, including the dreaded Nondescripts R.F.C. and the equally dreaded Kenya Harlequins. Mwamba were very instrumental in instilling a deep sense of pride in those who related to their accomplishments. Other notables in the triumphant Mwamba side of 1983 included Jimmy Owino, Martin "Superman" Mwituria, John Akatsa, Peter Belsoi, Buba Muimi and Pritt Nyandatt. I occasionally meet Tom Oketch, who now runs his own Quantity Survey firm, on the streets of Nairobi and greet him with a lot of admiration. He always has a puzzled, curious look on his face, unaware that it is an admiration that goes back 17 years. It is true that heroes never die. Standards of rugby in Kenya were much higher in those days. When the Watembezi Pacesetters attended the Dubai Sevens in 1983, there were some New Zealand All Black trialists who made remarks of the respect they had for Kenyan rugby.
The third generation of rugby players arrived on the scene in the late 1980s/early 1990s as the likes of Jacko were waning. This partly comprised the legendary Edward Rombo, Gordon Anampiu, John Ohaga, Stephen Kimwele, Joseph Muganda, Duncan "Yakas" Kioni, George Adul, Henry Miheso, Oscar Khabure, Martin Ndeda, John Kiwinda, Tito Okuku, Solomon Munyua, Eric Kibe and JC Wakhu. Even at this later stage the black vs. white rivalry for the domination of Kenyan rugby persisted, though teams like Oribis R.F.C. and Miro R.F.C. had fallen away. Edward Rombo’s accomplishments were, however, the most outstanding.
For one, Rombo led Machine to two successive Kenya Cup titles in 1989 and 1990. Rombo was a class player who dazzled many a person with his brilliant back play. He had speed, mesmerizing side steps, was absolutely daring, and had an ability to quickly detect weaknesses in opponents and fully capitalise on them. I remember one such display at the Easter Blackrock Rugby Festival for clubs in 1988, when Rombo was playing for Machine. Stuart Melville of the U.K. were touring Kenya at the time and after their game with Machine, members of their contingent kept asking to meet "Rambo" (It was the 1980s and Sylvester Stallone’s action sequels "Rambo" were a big hit). Rombo also had a lip and is Kenya rugby’s equivalent of boxing legend, Muhammed Ali. He taunted and disarmed opponents with memorable phrases. All this caught the attention of selectors at the Singapore Cricket Club Sevens and led to Rombo being drafted into U.K. rugby league side, Leeds R.F.C. , for a professional career in 1991. Rombo further secured a scholarship to study law at the prestigious Leeds University. Rombo’s grand achievement wrote an entirely new and historical chapter in the history of Kenyan rugby. While at Leeds R.F.C. , Rombo played and excelled alongside the world’s best, such as former All Black full-back, John Gallagher.
Rombo’s achievement thus speaks volumes for itself and he indeed did Kenya proud. He certainly did not have access to the same facilities that the All Blacks did, but he nonetheless reached the top. Regrettably, however, younger generations of rugby players have not measured up to or surpassed Jacko’s and Rombo’s accomplishments.
The fourth generation of Kenyan rugby players is partly comprised or is comprised of Sammy Khakame, Paul Murunga, Thomas Lopokoiyit, Tolbert Onyango, Victor Ohoya, Sidney Obonyo, Albert Onyango, Thomas Opiyo and Christopher Onyango. It is a generation that is no less brilliant than the previous generations, but is one that hasn’t blossomed quite as much. The closest that this generation has come to a major break was in 1996 after the inaugural Safari Sevens tournament, when Sidney Obonyo was drafted to play professional rugby in the United Kingdom. Sidney was named man of the tournament after a dazzling display of running rugby. The deal however fell through and the reasons have never quite been made public. Sammy Khakame also deserves credit for a consistently brilliant display throughout his career in high school, with Machine, with Kenya Harlequins and with Kenya. Indeed Sammy Khakame, Jacko and David Evans (mentioned below), are the best fly-halves that Kenya has produced.
Whites have also made a most worthy contribution to Kenyan rugby, and as mentioned above, it is they that laid the foundation. As also mentioned above, the British Lions toured Kenya in the early years of Kenyan rugby, and this is a huge credit. Later years would see the emergence of greats like Roger Betramm, Andy Price, Johnny Yakas, Marco Brighetti, Neil McKenzie and the legendary Evans family of Rod, David, Mike and Clive. Rod Evans was an outstanding eighth man for Nondescripts R.F.C. and Kenya, and was also once Kenya coach. David Evans was an excellent kicker. Teams dreaded conceding penalties anywhere on the pitch because Dave would either venture deep into your half with fabulous place kicks for touch, or kick over three pointers, which he rarely missed. Nondescripts won many a game by virtue of Dave’s left boot. Dave could also sell dummies (soccer’s distant equivalent of dodging), something I never quite understood myself when I watched him play in the 1980s. There was something mythical about his dummies.
Kenyan rugby however, still regrettably remains at the level of black vs. white with the age old rivalry still in place. This has greatly hampered progress. The point that white is as good as black and vice versa has been made, but there’s yet to be meaningful integration. In this respect I blame blacks as much as I blame whites. When Kenya won five gold medals at the 1988 Olympic games, it was black Kenya that celebrated. When Kenya beat the West Indies in cricket during World cup cricket in 1996, it was Asian Kenya that celebrated. When Kenya sent a polo team to Zimbabwe in 1996, it was white Kenya that celebrated. This is the situation that is plaguing rugby in Kenya, as much as it is plaguing all Kenyan sport. We need to borrow a leaf from Nelson Mandela’s action of donning a Springbok rugby jersey in the 1995 rugby world cup and going full out to support the former enemy. Mandela’s magnificent action of forging inter-racial harmony will only be fully felt and fully appreciated by future generations. It can be likened to a communist buying shares in the Coca-Cola company.
In this very regard, deliberate steps must be taken to forge stronger ties with South Africa, since they are at our doorstep. Many Kenyans now even get to South Africa by road, at a fraction of what it would cost by air. The South Africans play brilliant rugby and we stand to benefit tremendously by adapting their structure. More and more Kenyans must be encouraged to play in South African leagues and get the necessary exposure. We must be prepared to play in the lower leagues because standards in South Africa are very high. It’s time to lose sight of the shoreline and embrace higher levels. Schools rugby, indeed the grassroots, is also in dire need of revamping and here lies another bitter point of contention. As mentioned earlier above, rugby in Kenya is regarded as a bourgeois sport whose participation is confined to former white strongholds such as Lenana School, Nairobi School and Nairobi’s, St. Marys School. This is confirmed by the fact that the 18 year old school’s Prescott Cup has been won by only three schools: Lenana School, St. Mary's School and the predominantly white Rift Valley Academy.
This has been the cause of a further conflict of black vs black, where blacks associated with rugby are regarded as whites with black skins, "sell-outs", as it were. There was a move to spread the game to other areas of the country with the inception of the Damu Pevu schools league in the early 1990s, but this has not borne fruit. For a brief period in 1993, the Rift Valley’s Njoro High School dazzled crowds with brilliant displays, and it strongly appeared that Kenyan rugby was spreading its wings. This is a goal that is far from being realized and the Kenya Rugby Football Union (K.R.F.U.), and the Rugby Football Union of East Africa (R.F.U.E.A.), need to be sufficiently challenged. Control of the game in Kenya is firmly in the hands of a few and there is a reluctance to widen the expanse of the game, because this could very well result in a relinquishing of power by those in control. Economic interests have therefore hampered growth of the sport in Kenya.
Even the structure that existed in established rugby playing schools has largely collapsed. In the days that I joined high school, there existed different developmental and participatory levels. The form one level of participation was referred to as "baby colts." The form two level of participation was referred to as "junior colts." The form three level of participation was referred to as "middle colts", and the form four level of participation was referred to as "senior colts." Form fives played in the school’s second fifteen side, while form sixes played in the school’s first fifteen side. Exceptional individuals like Jacko and Rambo were already playing for their first teams while in form three. It is regrettable that no similar structures are in place nowadays.
Rugby is a useful sport for this country and its growth needs to be fully encouraged. Like soccer, it is a sport that requires minimal infrastructural input. Its growth in Kenya will, however, require a tremendous amount of worthwhile effort. It is rugby that made Edward Rombo acquire an education at the prestigious Leeds University. There are several other Kenyans who can benefit from similar programmes, and it is terribly disheartening that so much talent is going to waste in this country. At higher levels there are huge benefits to be reaped from lucrative sponsorship contracts and tourism.
Chris Onsotti, Jackson "Jacko" Omaido, Edward Rombo and Sammy Khakame belong to four brilliant generations of Kenyan rugby players, whose potential has not fully been utilised. Our focus now should be on developing the full potential of coming generations of rugby players in Kenya, on building rugby into a common man’s game in Kenya, and on firmly establishing Kenya as a top rugby-playing nation. This is an ambitious undertaking that can most certainly be attained.