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Kenya look to the world stage

By Michael Mundia Kamau

Kenya�s unexpectedly 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 desegragation 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).

Picture: Geoff Tolo on the break for Kenya at the 1998 Middlesex Sevens, held at Twickenham.

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 characterised 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 it�s year of inception. This was a sterling achievment 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.

Action from the Safari Sevens

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 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 hi! de 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 for 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 the Tom Oketch led Mwamba R.F.C. vanquished all clubs on the Kenyan scene including the dreaded Nondiescripts 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 ocassionally meet Tom Oketch, who now runs his own Quantity Survey firm, on the streets of Nairobi and greet him with alot 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.

Read Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of Michael Mundia Kamau's look at Kenyan rugby.


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