As the likes of Mary Keitany and Janet Wanja excel in athletics and volleyball respectively, more women are being drawn into sports. While some are becoming ardent fans, others are athletes while the rest are managers, referees and coaches. The young women brave the cold, the physicality and excitement that comes with sports to make a career out of it.
Name: Vanessa Okara
Whenever her team — Kenya Harlequins — plays, Vanessa does more than just cheering them. She runs up and down the touchline, running scrutiny on her side’s players to monitor any strains and injuries. “I am in charge of the players’ welfare. As a trained nurse, It is my duty to ensure they are in fit physical shape to play. I treat their injuries, and accompany them to the hospital when the injuries are worse than I can handle.” And yes, she says she gets allowances at the end of the day.
A former student of Mukumu Girls, a revered sports powerhouse, Okara developed the bug of sporting from her days in high school. I have been a sportswoman for seven years now. I played basketball and later rugby in high school. I represented my school in many occasions, and won trophies with the school team,” she says.
What lured her into rugby to become so religiously attached and even offer services to players?
“I love the character of the sport. Rugby instils discipline among players such that a player cannot talk to the referee, unlike in football where players protest against match officials’ decisions. It is also fascinating how the sport has grown in the country in the recent years. Team Kenya has been doing incredibly well in worldwide series including winning Singapore Sevens last year, something that has grown the local rugby fan base. I want to be part of this phenomenal growth of rugby in the country.”
It is a matter of intrigue how a nursing trainee with a bulk of academic work to concentrate on, spares time to be with her team. “We have three weekly training sessions. I must attend two of the sessions and catch up with my classes later in the evening. We train the whole day on Saturday when I do not have other engagements.”
Okara, however, has since hung her playing boots. “With my job engagements, I do not see myself playing anymore. I have been a volunteer assistant manager of Kenya Lionesses. I now want to fully focus on the technical aspect of the game to be able to offer advisory services on the team’s medical and fitness matters,” says Okara.
Her love for rugby transcends Kenyan borders, and she has a keen interest on the trends on the global rugby scene.
“Internationally, my favourite team is All Blacks of New Zealand. In the Super Rugby League, I follow the Crusaders from New Zealand. They are the most successful club in the history of super rugby. I do not miss any of their matches on TV,” she says. To understand the sport better, Okara has taken to YouTube for tutorials. For Okara, the future is well plotted: “I could pursue sports physiotherapy in future to have a thorough understanding of sports medicine and perhaps become a sports physio with an interest in rugby.,” she concludes.
Name: Yvonne Owino
Favourite team: Manchester United
On a chilly Sunday evening in Eldoret’s Sleepers’ Club… Manchester United is in action against Arsenal. While the Emirates Stadium in London is doused in delirium, down here at the South Rift, the mood is electrifying. In a sea of male fans, a lady sticks out like a sore thumb. Yvonne Owino is in town for the weekend after which she will return to Nairobi, where she works as a lawyer.
I begin by asking her what she finds fascinating about her favourite club, Manchester United.
I may not be able to put that into lexical terms. I have a tattoo of this great club on my left arm. Perhaps that should best capture my feelings for the club. They have a rich history, a history that most clubs can only dream of. There have been both epic exploits and disasters too. Man United also speaks out against racism in football. They have a foundation that supports the vulnerable in the society. My all-time favourite is Ruud van Nistelrooy. I have supported the club since 2002 while I was still in primary school.
How did you break free from the chains of belief that football is a masculine subject? Do you face stigma in football arenas?
My father is a former footbal player for Kenya Power in Eldoret. Growing up, he would let me accompany him for training and matches. I would also watch matches on TV with him. I have learnt a lot about football from him. Yes, I have been stigmatised. A man once dismissed me saying that while my fellow women were worrying about culinary subjects I was busy analysing the offside rule. It was offensive. Nonetheless, I have met awesome people, whom I have held successful football charity events.
Have you ever (actively) participated in football, or any other sport?
I used to run short distances before I started playing football. I played as a forward but a year later I sustained an injury that ended my active participation. Occasionally though, I play for fun, and to keep fit.
Do you place bets on football matches? What is the highest amount you have ever gambled?
First of all, gambling is almost like a chronic disease. It is not something I would recommend to anyone reading this. I personally gamble, but that is after a thorough analysis of teams’ statistics. My love for football has seen me open accounts with seven betting companies. I bet for fun and other times just for the money. My highest bet ever was Sh10,000. I was so nervous throughout the match.
A career as an advocate is extremely demanding. How do you create time to watch football?
It is all about sacrifices. If you have a strong passion for something, you will create time for it. Football gives me so much joy, and pain too. Football gives me time to unwind and relax after a hectic week of pacing along the corridors of justice. I am also able to catch up with friends and meet new people. I have specialised in Family and Criminal Law but I intend to venture into Sports Law too.
Manchester United’s performance this campaign has been a mixed bag. What are your wishes for the club as the season’s curtains fall?
The last four seasons have been tough for Man United. It is as though former manager Sir Alex left with our winning charms. In four years, there have been three managers, something out of character for the club. But with Jose Mourinho in charge, hope has been restored. With an additional few players in various positions, the club’s future can only be brighter.
Name: Mackenna Wambui
Occupation: Communication and Media
Favourite team: Harlequins, KCB
It is on a frigid Saturday afternoon. A downpour has just swept across Nairobi. A cold sharp wind soughs by, leaving in its wake frozen hands and ears. Clearly, it is the most unfriendly weekend to be out on an afternoon. Traffic is starting to build up, indolently snaking its way up along Ngong-Road, and soon, it will be a total turmoil. I am making my way to RFUEA Grounds. High up in the stands, ensconced among hundreds of men fans, a young woman stands out. Whereas there are other women in the stadium, this particular one has a certain air about her that distinguishes her from the rest. She sits in an apparent eagerness of manner, devotion emblazoned on her face. Occasionally, she starts a chant upon which the crowd responds with religious submission, and the anthem incises through the stadium with the din of charged anticipation. This is the turf of Kenya Harlequins rugby team. It is match day today, and the home team, Kenya Harlequins is hosting Nakuru RFC in a Kenya Cup rugby match. Mackenna Wambui is here to cheer her team, fondly known as Quins.
A graduate in Electronic Media, Wambui’s enthusiasm for the game dates back to 2013 when she was studying at Daystar University.
“In 2013 I was in my second year when I became the university’s rugby team manager. For two years, I was tasked with organising training sessions, kits, catering services and logistics during tournaments,” she says. oes it not feel edgy to be surrounded by tens of men on a frosty afternoon, howling and running hoarse, I enquire. “Not anymore. Initially though I would feel uneasy. Over the years, I have gelled in quite well such that today I am able to hold relaxed conversations with other fans and friends. I feel safe around the clique. No one bullies me.”
Wambui’s’s involvement in the rugby scene has been more than simply watching her team pull terrific performances against opponents and chasing silverware.“My enthusiasm for the game has given me a job opportunity. I am the Assistant Communications Manager at the Kenya Rugby Union, which earns me a living,” she says.
On what fascinates her most about the game, Wambui says: “The epic adrenaline rush of the game is my greatest pull. Most people imagine that the game is violent or a mess. Rugby has rules just like any other sport. A player for instance is only supposed to tackle an opponent who is holding the ball, and an airborne player should not be tackled until they have landed on the turf,” she explains, rising to applaud her team for a try.
And she believes rugby is a culture distinctly removed from that of other sports such as football. “Many times you will never know there is a tournament in town. Rugby fans are very civil and peaceful. Despite the rivalry between various sides, their love of the game takes precedence. That is why you will never witness any violent incidents in rugby stadia.” On a social scale, Wambui prides herself as a crowd’s darling, her easy-going personality to thank. According to her, her close friends are rugger supporters, the majority of who she met during rugby matches. “It has been a win-win engagement for me,”she quips.
Her prime dream is to travel with the Kenyan team for the (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) HSBC series at Las Vegas. Why Las Vegas, I ask. “Kenyans across the US throng Las Vegas whenever Shujaa are playing in the city. It is exhilarating to watch and cheer your national team playing on foreign soil.”
Name: Mercy Mutuku
Occupation: Public Relations
Across the city at Nyayo National Stadium, I run into Mercy Mutuku. This afternoon, the city has almost ground to a halt, and supporters, draped in their team’s colours, have painted the city streets into a mass of blue, white and green. A legendary match pitting Kenya’s most popular teams, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards, is going down at Nyayo National Stadium this afternoon.
Nearly everyone here has come to witness the hyped showdown. But not Mutuku. She is here for a different engagement. She is going to the stadium’s indoor arena, to watch a basketball match.
“Basketball is my favourite sport. My team — Daystar Falcons — is not playing today, so this afternoon I will be watching Zetech play against Cooperative,” she explains. “It is a fast-paced and much disciplined sport. A lot goes on in a basketball court at the same time: a player is blocked, another is crossed over and another is dispossessed of the ball. It is this rhythm, this coordination and this neatness of the game that tickles my fancy,” says Mutuku. She believes the game flows in her veins. “I played for my former high school and university until I graduated in 2016. I have been all over the country participating in tournaments. My life would be bland without basketball.”
Graduating and leaving her former university did not end Mutuku’s dream of playing basketball professionally. “I have been interning at Afya Sacco, but the internship has just ended. With no current engagement, this allows me to train and take part in non-competitive matches in the city. I hope to get a contract soon.”
However, she says it is not all glamorous in Kenyan basketball. “It is one of the sports facing serious neglect. There are no passionate sponsors, media coverage is below par and Kenyans do not support the game. The arena is only full during end-of-season finals. We could do better than this as a country,” says Mutuku.
In the Kenyan premier division compromising 10 teams, only players from three teams are salaried. “Most of the teams give allowances of less than Sh1,000 for every outing. This is demotivating, especially for players relying on basketball for their sustenance,” she adds.
This lack of motivation has pushed Kenyan basketballers to ply their trade elsewhere. “Most Kenyan professional players are now playing in Uganda where the pay is better. In Uganda, players are even awarded scholarships to advance their studies, incentives which are unheard of in Kenya.”
The disorganised nature of basketball in Kenya, Mutuku says, is catalysed by poor leadership and management of the sport. “Kenya does not participate in continental competitions as much as we should,” she laments. “Preparation of the national side is haphazard.” Mutuku adds that whenever there are competitions, players are huddled together, put in training camp for less than two days and flown out of the country to participate. “With these kind of hurried arrangements, basketball will continue trailing other sports in Kenya,” she warns.
The game is not complete without America’s National Basket Association (NBA). “It is the most well organised league on the planet. That is why it attracts the best quality players and multi-billion dollar sponsorship deals. I closely follow NBA matches on TV. I have a whole stack of basketball-based movies.”