WHATSAPP | 11TH JULY 2022, 21:50
The first time I talked to Tony was after a game they had at Impala in January. I took photos of him and Robin, his teammate, and I had to take his number so I could share the photos after I got them from the camera’s memory card. He was as funny then, as he is now.
It’s 9:50 PM and we’re on a WhatsApp call rounding off questions I feel will add to knowing him better. Around Kawangware and Gatina, everyone that loves football, knows Tony. The Vapor FC player that wears 13, and won’t play for them for long, a bigger team will surely come for him. They have to. How can they not? He finds his teammates with passes as easily as a player on FIFA would, he runs nonstop for 90 minutes and his only off-field addictions are memes and playing video games.
Like most teenagers, he uses the word ‘bro’ more as an interjection and punctation mark than a salutation, uses the word almost as many times as he laughs. He’s a fun, cheerful character that is genuinely very easy to like, and after the fifteenth ‘bro’ in less than twenty minutes, I ask him about the city he’d want to travel to the most.
He doesn’t even think about it. It’s like he has thought about it before, and for long. For adventure, and for the Eiffel Tower. He’d like to play in Ligue One one day, like Oliech did, and he has every reason to believe he can. He is as silky on the ball as he is efficient in the tackle, imagine a taller, younger Modric from Gatina, with a firm handshake and that can dance effortlessly to afrobeats.
If he gets to Lille, his dream team in Ligue One, what will ground him? Stop him from becoming another talented prodigy that squandered his riches on a fast life and drugs? He talks to me about running away from poverty and how seeing so much ruined potential around him ensured his focus on avoiding the fast life is laser-like. At this point, I am honestly so glad that Mark Zuckerberg made WhatsApp calls this clear, so I can hear a young African king talk to me about what he loves and the sacrifices he and his family have had to make for his dream to work.
At primary school in HGM in Dagoretti, he went to school with Timothy ‘Babu’ Ouma, another exciting teenager, already capped for the national team and headed to Sweden for next season. Kawangware has produced a lot of footballing talent, and as a child Tony had a front seat to the careers of Ken and Denis Oliech, Anthony ‘Muki’ Kimani, his brother ‘Thaish’, and the younger generation of Martin ‘Zizou’ Nderitu, Benson Iregi, Ayub Timbe, Musa Masika and Oliver ‘Vago’ Maloba.
Throughout secondary school in Upper Hill, being from the same school as the free-scoring Olunga and the acclaimed drill artiste Scar from Wakadinali was great but it was a surprising choice for who had the biggest impact on him. His Literature teacher, Mr. Opiyo.
“That teacher really believed and fought for me bro”
We all need someone who believes in our ability, and for a young Tony it was at Mr. Opiyo’s house where he would spend the night when they were sent home for fees and it was late to go home. The same teacher who was his guardian of sorts in school, doing what he could to ensure Tony spent as much time as he could in school and not home due to fees and suspensions. At this point, even if WhatsApp’s connection iss dodgy, Tony’s desire to do right by Mr. Opiyo and pay the favour forward is as clear as a call made when both phones have full bars.
Tony’s case, he was on a full sport’s scholarship until the Principal that advocated for it transferred to another school and the policy was scrapped, highlights the need for a better approach to scholarships. There’s too many gifted children in Kenyan homes wasting their talents in schools that don’t have the platforms and capacities to take their potential to the next level like Upper Hill did for Tony, and Olunga and the other talented kids that got quality education based off their talents and application.
As the clock ticks towards an hour, we talk shop about girls, and learning French to impress the love of his life so far, he’s only 19 and there’s a lot to learn. We talk until my ears are hot, and I let him get to bed, to send memes and watch YouTube compilations of Xavi and Yaya Toure, his two favourite players.
GAME DAY | July 10 2022 10:00 AM
GAME DAY | JULY 10 2022 10:00 AM
Shortly before the team bus takes us to a game in Kitengela, Tony tells me the story of how he became a footballer.
He was about eight or nine, and his older brother would come home with medals and prizes from football. “I wanted to bring home something too bro” he says, in his distinct booming voice, which sounds like he swallowed a Harman Kardon speaker and the surgeons at Kenyatta couldn’t get it out. Back then, he was into gymnastics, and in a football-crazy society, that was never going to be the reason he brought home medals, much-needed flour and cooking oil if he won a competition. That’s how he started with football practice, with Citylanders, the team that gave him his first taste of the world’s most popular sport.
And now, years later, he still can’t get enough.
Fresh from high school last year, he dove straight into Division II, the third-tier of Kenyan football with Kawangware’s Vapor Sports FC. Div II, as it’s commonly known, is not as lucrative as the Kenya Premier League, Kenya’s highest level of professional football. Although if you are talented, and work as hard as Tony does, then you might have a shot at the KPL, and who knows, even to Europe or better-paying leagues.
At the stands at Vapor Sport’s stadium, Tony, born in 2003 as Newton Ochieng’, is dressed like a quintessential Gen Z. A heavy black jacket, blue jeans that barely reach his ankles and grey moc toe boots. He has a black beanie that half-cover, half-expose his airpods. In Kawangware, like in most ghettoes around the world, footballers, like artistes, are hometown celebrities that get preferential treatment because of their talent. Every other minute, someone wants a picture, or to know if he’s ready, or how many goals he’ll score today. I’m used to it and I almost miss it when someone asks me to send them photos we took earlier. I ask them whether they have Telegram because WhatsApp compresses and distorts quality, the only bug Zuckerberg needs to fix if I was asked. Tony shows me how to send them as document files to go around that problem.
He’s used to going around problems, Tony. On the pitch, he gets past opponents effortlessly, like he has somewhere to be and they are escorting him there. Off it, he goes about his routine with the seasoned wisdom of an old man. Except he’s 19 and his WhatsApp status is full of memes and funny Tiktok videos.
I ask him about his work ethic. Physically, he’s almost as huge as some of the biggest defenders on the team, and that’s because of the hard work he puts in, on and off the pitch. His hands, large and leathery, can shield off an opponent on the pitch as easily as they can help him finish off odd jobs at construction sites. Most teams in Div II don’t pay players a living wage, and that is if they pay at all, so players have to be creative with how they afford their upkeep.
Born into a working-class Nairobi family, with three younger siblings, he doesn’t have the luxury of depending on his parents for money for boots, or transport or the numerous other expenses that being a human being demands. That means that he has to find a routine after practice that gets him paid. At his friend’s Protus’ cyber café and gaming station, he prints and charges the gaming booths, and does painting jobs when his father, a building foreman and painter, needs help.
It takes a lot of discipline to stay away from alcohol, drugs, crime and careless sex, I ask him about discipline and why he is so determined to make football his ticket from the ghetto. He has an expression on his face that I would describe as similar to getting to a smokie grill and hearing that smokies are now 40 bob, when I mention discipline and staying away from drugs. Excited to think about it, but dreading the cost. Here’s a teetotaller that doesn’t smoke as well, and I’m curious as to why.
He tells me about me about his older brother, Wilson, who passed away last year from injuries he sustained in a road accident. A speeding motorbike hit him and the resulting internal injuries ended his life. As good as Tony is; he’s elegant on the ball, aggressive off it, a coach’s dream playing at deep pivot, he says his brother, an attacking midfielder, was better. For ‘Willy’ though, a love for the finer things in life, and drugs, saw him abandon his talent at only 17.
Did discipline at home have anything to do with it? Tony shakes his head, “our father was as strict with him as he was with me”. We all make out our paths in life, and Willy had decided his didn’t lie within the game. On the day Wilson passed away, Tony got a red card for the first time in his career, a bad omen perhaps. As his brother had abandoned football, he spent his days at the sites his father worked at for his upkeep.
On the day he passed away, they hadn’t spoken in a week, as they often clashed over his alcohol intake.
“That’s why I don’t like holding grudges because you never know the last time you’ll see someone”, that’s the closest to an emotional Tony I’ll ever see. Losing a sibling is tough. Especially if it’s someone who’s only two years older than you and they introduced you to football, took you to school, shielded you from bullies. Yes, they chose a path you didn’t agree with but they’re still your brother.
Tony has a grey hat he wears that is a memento from his brother. Willy was the fashionable one, and in the room they shared, it fell from a hooked position at midnight, when Willy was in intensive care, a sign he took to mean that things had turned ugly. He turned off his phone immediately, and slept. In the morning his father confirmed his worst fears, his older brother was no more.
There’s lessons there. There are numerous escapes from the pressure cooker that is growing up and living in the ghetto. Drugs. Alcohol. Sexual addictions. “My belief in God and prayer helps me through” he says. You need a lot of prayer to overcome an event as dark as death, and the regret over said, or unsaid words. Like a rainbow after a heavy storm, this year, on Wilson’s birthday, the family welcomed another sibling, in addition to the two younger sisters that Tony already has, Macrine and Emily.
The responsibility of being an older sibling is tough, although it’s not something he can’t handle. In addition to boarding school and captaining his school team, Vapor Sports has a program that sees all players coach a younger team. This helps with understanding the game, because you can’t teach something you don’t understand, preparation and the responsibility of having a project that is external of your own life. It’s a brilliant idea that more institutions should adopt.
On the bus ride to Kitengela, he sits at the back window seat, a spot that is usually reserved for older players on most teams. Tony is a special player though, and he’s allowed special privileges. In addition to being extremely talented, he’s very hard working and is among the first names on the team sheet. He also has that childish approach to life that takes away the tension even in big games. At position 10 in a 16 team league, Vapor are guaranteed safety, but they’re far from the positions that would see them promoted to the second-tier, the National Super League.
An eventful game sees Vapor lose 1-0 against Avena FC, and a hotly contested final ten minutes seeing tempers boil over due to a disallowed Vapor goal by Tony’s teammate Abu. Still in high school, Abu is able to play because of Vapor’s approach to the game. Football is more of an evangelising tool, more than it is a means to trophies and glory. Promotion would be great, but the team is more invested in providing platforms for young talented players to express themselves and represent Christ.
For that reason, in search of trophies and the thrill of competitive football, Tony plays for FIFA Best. It’s a collection of local friends who play across the top three tiers of Kenyan football. It is nicknamed ‘national team’ by FIFA Best’s thousands of fans who fill their BP Kawangware home ground and feel they are so good they can play in Harambee Star’s stead at tournaments.
It means a lot for Tony to play at the grounds at ‘BP’ Kawangware. To understand why, you need to know why the half-green, half-dusty pitch is hallowed. Oliech, Kenya’s top scorer and arguably its best ever player, played here years before he made it to the headlines. ‘Thaish’, a hometown legend who played to an Ibrahimovic-esque age, and his brother Muki, played here. ‘Babu’, the current poster boy of Kawangware’s talent, plays here. It’s the equivalent of the Marcelo Bielsa Stadium in Rosario, in how it was a platform for Batistuta, Pochettino, Ever Banega, and Messi.
Any kid who dreams of playing football in Kawangware has to know ‘BP’, either as a fan or player. The grounds are not spectacular, or even an ideal pitch. It’s largely dusty with patches of grass. There are no stands or shops, although there are seats on sale during game days, and sellers will bring hot tea, coffee, groundnuts and anything else that will help you watch the game in good spirits.
At the entrance, there’s a metallic gate that denies access to the motorbikes that ferry fans on big game days, so that fans have places to sit. There’s a changing room at the far end of the pitch where FIFA Best changes during game days. I ask what he would like to be remembered for after he’s done with football.
“Academies bro, and to make the name of Citylanders bigger”. Facilities in Kawangware are few and far in between. More and better quality pitches would ensure that the talent in Kawangware is tapped, and that kids have places to be after school, which would work to stop the numerous vices that kids are otherwise exposed to.
Tony is a smart kid that doesn’t forget where he came from.
THE SHOP | July 3rd 2022 15:33
The movie shop where Tony spends a lot of his time is in Waruku. It’s either a five minute walk, if you have money to buy the snacks that line up the road, from Gatina, a cosmopolitan ghetto that has as many bars, posho mills and chapati sellers as it has people. Or a two minute walk, if you ignore the smokies, samosas and ‘simsim’ on sale. Gatina has a lot of the tell-tale signs of a deprived Nairobi neighbourhood; leaking sewage pipes, earthen roads, drunk men and women shouting their frustrations into the wind and about 45,000 people squeezed into a 1.5 km2 strip of land.
When he isn’t banging in goals for Vapor, (he really does hit the ball so hard you feel bad for whoever blocks the shot) and making light work of opposition defenders, Tony helps to load songs and movies into people’s phones and flash disks. He also collects money from the video console business in a partitioned section in the shop. With Gatina and Waruku being deprived areas, most of the kids who come to play can only afford to play FIFA at game shops, because in Nairobi’s ghettos, only a tiny percentile grow up with PlayStations in their houses.
As one of Nairobi’s largest ghettos, Kawangware hasn’t changed much since I grew up here in the 90’s, years before Tony was born in 2003. As with most of Nairobi’s dysfunctional neighbourhoods, it’s still a place where many memories are made and even more dreams die. There’s grinding poverty, children with empty stomachs and parents with overflowing thoughts. There’s missing teeth and limbs on some bodies, and scars on even more faces, that show how brutally violent the area is. There are iron sheet structures next to flats where owners drive to work. A microcosm of Kenya. Inequality and broken systems.
Tony wins the first FIFA game we play, my gaming pad genuinely has a problem but that’s the universally-accepted scapegoat of people that aren’t good at FIFA. It takes practice to be good at anything and I ask about how he got so good at playing midfield. He laughs again, and I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s making my PSG team look very ordinary, or because he just told me he started out as a right back. As he piles pressure on my defence, he tells me about how that slot grew his confidence receiving the ball from his keeper, playing short and long balls, weighing his options as he could see the full pitch and beating and defending players in one-on-one situations.
He’s a resourceful, well-behaved kid that works as hard as he is talented. That’s why Nairobi City Stars came calling. He’s slated to join them in the next season. Their midfield last season was one of the league’s most impressive; Sven screening the defence, Muki and Pinchez playmaking from deep, and Babu as the creative outlet. Very few teams could contain them, and it will be a step up to match their impressive numbers.
Very few things faze Tony, not even a comeback that I mount on our next game. “The experience I’ve gained in Div II, has prepared me for the top flight”, that and playing for FIFA Best, where he shares a dressing room with experienced and insanely talented players. I have a strong feeling that he’ll do well in the top flight, City Stars are a solid team, who have the right structures for young, ambitious players in Tony’s mould.
It’s dark now, and when I count, we’ve drawn our games. I came from behind to draw with a KPL player, that’s no mean feat. He sees me off to the bridge that links Gatina and Waruku. If things work out, he’ll be walking the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris soon enough. He has the talent, he has the industry, and Kawangware is rooting for him.