I’m loading bottles of drinking water into the Hino bus at 5:45 AM when Korir eases his car into 4th Ngong Avenue. As the Nairobi City Stars CEO, I am headed to Kakamega with the team because he had said I could. I’ve always wanted to travel with a football team since I watched, (and rewatched many times) ‘All Or Nothing’ on Amazon; The crew follow a team throughout a season, and lay bare to the world training sessions, meals, pep talks (no pun intended) and what players are up to when they aren’t on the pitch.
He’s a knowledgeable man Korir, and the few conversations I’ve had with him whenever the team was playing gives me the impression that the team is in good hands. I’ve followed Nairobi City Stars since November 2021, when I got an epiphany that I needed to do more meaningful things with my Saturdays than chat up girls on Bumble and catch up on sleep. And so here I was, on a warm February morning, fist-bumping players and chatting with Coach Muyoti about how it was to play in the league and coach players now. He tells me when he won the league in 1998 with AFC Leopards (that’s the last time Leopards won the league btw), there weren’t any medals, only a cash prize that went to the club.
It’s different now, some things are better, players get sign-on bonuses that are almost what the prize money was then. Some things have remained the same, like the stadiums and the struggle to make football a financially-secure profession. We make small talk until the driver brings the bus to life and we board. I like that I’m on a first-names basis with most of the team and the officials. I’ve attended enough games to know most of them, (that’s what happens when you take time off Bumble to follow your passion guys)
The young midfielder Tony prays for the team, and the Hino bus joins Ngong Road at 6:05 AM, headed 380 kilometres away to Kakamega. It’s a short prayer, the quintessential Kenyan prayer on travelling; a mention about the bus manufactured by error-prone humans and the need for the almighty to protect us and ensure we don’t travel all those kilometres to Kakamega to donate points to Homeboyz. It’s a fitting prayer though, the team is on a bad run of form, and we are perched at the wrong end of the table. The team needs to win. Wins will preserve KPL status, get the team winning allowances, everyone will keep their jobs and the fans will be happy.
Last year, I saw Tony play for Vapor FC, a Kawangware-based team in Division One team, and everyone on the pitch knew he was going to the big leagues soon. Soon is here, and now part one of the dream is complete, and hopefully, when he makes enough minutes and gets his statistics right, he can move abroad, like Babu did. For a majority of the team, Kawangware is home. Maloba, Elvis, Babu, ‘Jamaica’, Tony, Muki, Herit are all from there. Last year, when the goals were flowing and we challenged for the league at some point, the parking lot was full of bikes and cars that brought fans. These year, things haven’t gone to plan and the vuvuzelas and stands are quiet. Hopefully, we win and bring the fans back.
The senior players sit at the back on trips like this, although the team’s oldheads, Muki and Pinchez, Kenya Premier League veterans who can deliver midfield masterclasses blindfolded, prefer not to make these trips. They probably feel like they’ve done enough 8-10 hour journeys across Kenya; Mombasa to play Bandari, Kakamega to play Homeboyz, Bungoma to play Nzoia and Kisumu to play Sony, and most coaches understand. So it’s Maloba, the dreadlocked, silky winger (think James Rodriguez with locs), Elvis, Babu’s brother who’s almost like his twin except that he plays defensive midfield, and the veteran striker Ezekiel Odera who has a touch like a prime, cigarette-free Berbatov, who take up space there.
I download ‘Listening Post’ on Al Jazeera and watch as we leave Nairobi behind us as a fiery orange sky blankets the city. The vibe on the bus is like an early-childhood trip to see the hot water springs at Lake Bogoria, minus the girls and snacks. When there’s lights, different groups play Luddo and poker as we roll on towards Nakuru. At Uthiru, we left Rooney, he’s a defender that didn’t answer calls to his phone and now he has to find his way there, minus the free transport and fiesta on the bus.
Towns roll by, small centres with M-pesa shops, welding men wearing grey, patched up overalls drinking tea from plastics cups, as women escort little children to school. I think about Kawangware, where I grew up. It was a collection of wooden houses with a croton tree that was always in bloom, outside. Like most of my neighbours, I was the first generation to be born in Nairobi, and that meant I spoke Kikuyu better than I spoke Swahili, let alone English. There was a school near where I lived, Kawangware Primary School, where Thiong’o and other skillful kids played, (I think he plays in Italy now, I see him on Instagram when I’m scrolling through). I wasn’t athletic or good enough on the ball to try out, and I’d just watch the kids play, until it was late enough to go get sent to buy paraffin for the lamp and the stove.
At Nakuru, we stop at an eatery that has the worn-out tables and tired staff that most people would say shows good and fresh food. I have a sausage and tea, I’m not hungry. The players eat full meals, their dietary needs are different from mine, I spend my days writing copy for my clients’ Instagram captions, they spend their days running more kilometres in a day than the average Kenyan runs in six months, intentionally. I bask in the sun, and think about Muki and Pinchez, my back is on fire from the short trip to Nakuru. Pinchez and Muki are smart, but then again, I wouldn’t have space on the bus if they chose to come for the trip, so I push my earphones into my ear canal and brace myself for the incoming four hour trip.
For anyone that hasn’t been to Kawangware, it used the old Githurai. Before social media, we probably had the reputation that Githurai and Kayole have now. Now, it’s safe, you can pick a call at Msalaba, Coast or Muslim and nobody will ask you for anything. The bad reputation? Most of it was ignorant, although in 1995, when I was five years old, I saw someone mugged and stripped to their underwear at the ‘Congo’ stage. He was drunk and people acted like they didn’t see the thieves steal everything from him, I remember wondering why nobody wanted to help. It’s one of those memories that never leave your brain, like the smell of burning plastic. Nobody does much to help in the ghetto, if you’ve never lived in one. When you’re young, you think it’s because they’re mean with their money, (I don’t mean the government, fuck the government, they only came to pick up bribe money from the busaa sellers, or to pick up bodies whenever someone died or was killed). Then you grow older and you learn about generational trauma, and cycles of poverty and that sometimes people can’t be helped, no matter how badly they seem to need it, and you understand why people stood by and watched that man get stripped and why even today, for you to survive, you have to mind your own business.
The bus driver is good at his job, Korir chose well (and I’m not saying this so they take me on more trips, they really run the team well), and we shortly get to Kapsabet. The team alights to stretch their limbs. On the road, motorbikes speed by at speeds that would leave no survivors of there were unseen bumps on it. We take in the clean air. One of the perks about playing for a well-resourced team that can afford to honour fixtures like Nairobi City Stars, is that you get to travel. It not business class, and the hotel rooms are small and cramped, but you get to travel and take in the sights and sounds. Kapsabet is green, even in the middle of a drought that has turned the country brown and yellow. Old men watching cars ask us where we’re from and their eyes don’t light up when we say Nairobi. It’s a city that splits opinions, some have made fortunes there and some get chills from the horrors they saw and went through. The players warm their muscles as the bus makes its way to the small bridge where the rest of us take pictures and think about tomorrow’s game.
I remember where I was when Kawangware United went to the Premier League. I was walking towards Ndurarua, probably going to buy potato-filled samosas when the matatu with Thaish (he’s a legend in Kawangware and Muki’s older brother, because the genes are good these sides of Nairobi) and other players at the top passed me. I didn’t care much about football at that point but I could tell the people that did then, were proud. If the government hadn’t run down every available system that worked in the area, that should have been a photographed memory for the kids in Kawangware, DEB Muslim, Gatina and Ndurarua Primary Schools. For them to learn and know that anything they work towards is possible. In Lavington, where my mum worked her fingers to the bone for me to attend, we had Patrick Njiru come on Sports Days and we’d be wide-eyed and giddy to see and hear the sports cars. I know life can’t, and will never be fair, but the kids in the schools from Kawangware deserved better, the young men on top of the van deserved better.
As the towns change from Nandi-sounding names to Luhya-sounding ones, even the sleepy players wake up. It’s only a matter of time until we’re in Kakamega, and we can sleep for an hour before there’s practice. I’m glad I didn’t have the talent for it, because I love the game but I hate the physical requirements. Run. Train. Gym. Watch what you eat. I tried to train with Tony and Vapor last year for a week, and I could smell the blood in my lungs. What made me so mad was how effortless it was for them but how tortuous it was for me. In Swahili, they say ball ni ngumu (football is hard) and if you ever spend a day in a footballers shoes, you’d respect them ten times more, if you didn’t already.
The hotel is okay. Nothing like the Ritz or Kempinsky, but we aren’t here for a party. It’s a fight for our lives, for our survival in the league. To keep the sponsor, Jonathan Jackson,happy. It’s a small bed, an even smaller TV and a working shower if you’re lucky. Ode knocks on my door, his shower isn’t working and he needs my charger to charge his phone. I’m happy to help. Ode once scored a goal that people said should have been in the Puskas awards nominations. Maloba is in the clip too, his locs were an afro then when Ode scored that goal against Got Mahia, record KPL champions and arguably Kenya’s most supported football club. We lock our rooms and leave for practice. If I was still on Bumble, I’d have searched for matches within Kakamega, see who I’d have chatted with. I think I’m allowed to have girls over, but the team can’t, discipline, both physically and mentally, is key.
Kawangware is one of the few areas with a team in the league, us, Kariobangi Sharks and Mathare United. Most of the other teams are community clubs like Gor and AFC Leopards or corporate teams like Bandari, Bidco and Posta Rangers. Like most ghettoes, there’s so much talent. So much that very few people care when someone’s talent is wasted on drugs, or indiscipline or drugs. Remember what I mentioned about minding your own business, people take that seriously here. Most times it’s as a result of culture, but sometimes minding your business can save your life. Like when you see someone you know robbing someone else, and you have to act like you didn’t see anything. And also, you can’t mention that to anyone that remotely looks like a policeman
Of all the sad cases I know, Njomo’s hurt me the most, even as a kid myself. Njomo was KPL-starting-11 good, he was knock-kneed, but the way he glided past opponents, you’d never even know. But ball never paid anyone’s bills back then, and he had to pinch people’s pockets on market days. I think a crowd found him one day, and they beat him so bad, he couldn’t play again, and he carries a dirty sack now, a bottle of glue on his lips. There’s lots of Njomos roaming the street, and others buried in Lang’ata and upcountry, only remembered on days when we go for reggae nights. So, what Nairobi City Stars means to Kawangware is that we get to see our own making a living from something we all love. That they can dress good, smell good, drive cars, set themselves, and those they love, up for life. All from the game that for so many years, almost took many from the hood to a gated community, almost, but didn’t.
Bukhungu is opposite the public pitch we’re training at. It’s at the Kakamega Reformed School. It’s a nice pitch btw, flat, green and the ball bounces nicely on it. Once the team leaves the bus, there’s rondo, and soccer volleyball where Ode shines because his touch is almost as good as the free-range ‘kienyeji’ chicken we’ll have later. Watching the team train, there’s a doctor on call, a team manager, Korir, Sam who manages the team,a social media manager..there’s about six direct jobs on the touchline. It’s nice to watch the team train but it’s also frustrating because there’s so much more that can be done to make these jobs sustainable. Ensure that Kenyan teams can sell players for millions of dollars and build and own their training and playing facilities.
I juggle a ball on the touchline. My touch isn’t Ode-like, but it’s not bad, I could probably shine on a weekday team on the turf but here, not in a million years. On the pitch, it’s pirouette after rabona after roulettes, executed with a weight of pass that football purists would smile at. All this effort, and talent, should be rewarded handsomely, that’s the least that should be done. No statues and naming of stadia yet, only a competitive salary, benefits and honouring agreements.
Three things show you’ve lived in Kawangware long enough to be official: FIFA Best, dressing nice and having pilau at ‘Mamushka’. Football culture is interesting, there’s a team to support, what to wear when supporting it and what to eat before or after supporting it. FIFA Best is Kawangware’s local team, Maloba, Babu and the other KPL boys play during off-season or when there’s a tournament with a fat cash prize. They’ve won so many times, when we lost last year’s Jambo Bet tournament, the atmosphere at Ndurarua, Kawangware and by extension FIFA Best’s home stadium, was like the Mineirão after the 7-1. Whenever FIFA Best plays, we dress up, eat pilau and get entertained. It’s one of the little joys of life, watching the boys play, not everyone can make a KPL match, and the KPL comes to Kawangware every time FIFA Best plays. There’s a sea of black and white, the team’s primary colours whenever the team plays. It’s like Man City having an open training session, except there’s Boxers and Bajajs in the parking lot instead of Audis and Lamborghini trucks.
The night is uneventful, and when morning comes, breakfast is served early, and the team goes for a closed-door meeting. I’m shooting pool when Rooney, the player who didn’t pick up when we stopped along the way, shows up. He’s clearly unwell, malaria or whatever illness puffs up your face and makes every step look as painful as a bet that’s lost by the team you didn’t want to select at first. Korir and the coach have a word, as we await lunch. Spaghetti, rice, chicken and greens. The doc tells me it’s so they can digest the food easily and still have energy for the match, it’s 90 minutes of end to end action, you need all the fuel you can get.
Checkout is easy. Hand in your keys, and get into the bus for the short trip to the stadium. This is exciting for me, as I’d assume it would be for any person allowed to travel with the team they love. It’s not going to be possible to explore Kakamega seeing as we head back immediately after the game, but Bukhungu is enough site seeing for me. It’s an interesting stadium, the shell looks good, like it’ll be a proper stadium when it’s complete. The ball boys tell me given the pace it’s been constructed at, it’ll be ready to be officially opened in two years time. The Kenyan society doesn’t rush infrastructural projects, unless it’s mosques and churches; schools, stadiums, roads, hospitals? We can wait for five years even. We’re a peculiar society.
After a short warm up, the game is almost here. Both teams find themselves in desperate need of a win. Kakamega Homeboyz have recently fired their coach, and they need a ‘new manager bounce’ ASAP. While we need a win to lift morale and climb up the table to the safety of a mid table position. Western Kenya is football-mad, and the stands show it, this isn’t even the region’s favourite team but the stands are full of fans in green and yellow, Homeboyz’s team colours. The game kicks off and because I brought a camera and the team gave me a media reflector, I have a front-row seat to the action. It’s an all-action game, end-to-end stuff although the momentum swings with Homeboyz for majority of the game.
It’s hot in Kakamega, literally and figuratively. There’s water breaks in both halves, and everyone has their game face on. We need to win, but so do they, so every tackle is full-blooded, every missed opportunity by Homeboyz is met by groans and shouts from the stands and relief from our bench. As a gambler, games like these usually end in the team with the new manager winning, players want to impress the new coach and get a clean slate and the coach wants to start off with a win. The draw we get is not what we travelled all this way for, but it could have been worse. At the press conference, Coach Muyoti talks about missed chances and correcting that in the following week’s training. The game doesn’t stop, even when the fans troop out of the stadium. I take pictures with Mudavadi, he’s the Homeboyz’s captain, and he’s really good, later I’ll regret why I didn’t ask him why he doesn’t honour national team call ups. He just does his business from midfield and goes home.
Kawangware is changing. I haven’t lived there since I moved to Murang’a in 2021. There’s nice-looking flats where iron-sheet ghettoes stood once, there’s tarmac roads and piped water. There’s hope that things are getting better, but there’s also a lot to be done before we can genuinely say that. Football takes the pain away, I know how much the game does for me, watching it live and on TV, reading about it, playing it on video games, football is more than a game for me. It’s given me memories, for the few years I played it, it taught me discipline and gave me life-long friend and even on Twitter, I talk to people I’ve never met like they’re family because we share a love of the game. Will we get a better pitch at Ndurarua, so the players don’t have to shed skin whenever they’re tackled? Will we get after-school programs for kids, so they can be busy and stay away from the vices that lurk in alleys and streets? Maybe, maybe not. This is Kawangware, tthis is Kenya, and people like to mind their business. I just hope that we’ll enjoy FIFA Best and Nairobi City Stars for as long as we can, until the ball doesn’t have anyone to kick it anymore.
At dusk, I talk to Korir before we head back to Nairobi. I’m feeling fresh because the showers at Bukhungu work, and we’re stood outside an eatery near Amalemba, and he’s in his signature glasses and a NCS-branded jumper. He tells me about integrity, and grit, and switching careers, from IT to the CEO of a football team. I ask him what wakes him up in the morning, and why he fights for these boys so much when he could be earning money elsewhere. He says he loves the game, and it makes him happy. NCS isn’t the only above-board team in the league, there are others who are commited to ensuring that players earn their worth, and are paid promptly and honestly. It’s a murky, corrupt world of Kenyan football, where officials drive high-end cars while the players they make money from borrow money for rent and basic needs. From Kakamega, to Likoni, to Kinoru to Lodwar, we need as many people who stand for transparency, accountability and progressive thinking as we can.
Kenyans love the game. They really do, local teams like FIFA Best, Kibra United, Ruiru Hot Stars are selling more jerseys than top tier teams, because they have a connection with their supporters, and they have a semblance of organisation. It’s a long road to profitability, but Germany did it after Euro 2000, where they finished bottom of the group and only scored one goal. The programs they formed gave them Muller, Ozil, Khedira and Neuer and a World Cup. There’s hope though, more young people are getting back to the stadiums, and teams are making it more accessible to follow them, and support them with social media and merchandise. Slowly, surely, we’ll get our league to be competitive and lucrative.