Former Kenya Rugby Union Chief Executive Officer, Ronald Bukusi pays tribute to Benjamin Ayimba who passed away on Friday 21 May 2021.
April 2016, Benja walked into my office carrying the trophy from Singapore, silver with red streamers tied to its wings. He was accompanied by his assistant coach, Paul Murunga and Team Manager, Newton Ongalo. He plonked it on my desk, flopped into the chair on the other side of the desk, gave me a huge grin and said, “Rona, Unaonaje?!”
I grinned back and said, “Well done!”
“Rona” was the name given to me in Malaysia, 1998, by our team guide who could not fully pronounce my name. This was the first Commonwealth Games rugby had been part of. This was where Benja and I really bonded. I had known him previously since he was about 17/18 in my then capacity as Executive Officer to the KRFU and his role in the U23 and then impact player for the senior team.
There is a picture of Senior team in the present KRU office, with all the players dressed up in the national strip and in the bottom right front row, kneels a young Benjamin Otieno Ayimba, in his U23 gear.
Benja pushed the envelope in life to the very edge and then some. He was my friend.
I met Benja when he was just out of school, he was 17/18 at the time. A young man loud, supremely confident in himself and his abilities and definitely going places. He told me, he was an “ Otero”, a star.
Over the years, I grew to love this man, who drove me nuts, frustrated the hell out of me, and yet brought me joy, laughter, confidence and a drive to succeed. Our passion ran deep.
Many knew him as a rugby player, captain, coach, analyst, critic. Benja, was my friend. He was loud, opinionated and had a rugby brain like very few in the country. We spent time talking about rugby, how it was played, how it could be played and how it should be played. We talked about selection, players both on and off the pitch, who can/ should make captain and why. We both had coached women’s teams, and talked about the differences of coaching men v women. I admired his spirit, verve.
In his earlier years, Benja was revolutionary. Things would happen and I would hear him coming from miles away. ‘’ Rona! We have to talk… This is not working” were his opening words many times. That would signify long heated conversations about allowances, kit, games, travel and always we would either agree or agree to disagree. It never impacted the affection we had for each other. After such encounters, he would stay away for a while and then show up and demand that I buy him lunch or something like that to make up.
Benja was an unabashed critic of the KRU and went on various shows and platforms and said what he thought of various positions taken. He made life uncomfortable for many, yet he stood for his team, players with everything he got.
Benja was controversial and got into various scrapes, and like a cat with nine lives, always seemed to land on his feet. Thus, it was no surprise to one day open the papers and there was a double spread on him. It was hard reading. I called him to ask him what was going on, and he said, “Ah Rona, you mean you read the papers?!” I left it at that.
In 2015, nothing gave me greater pleasure, than to call him one evening and tell him he had been appointed National Sevens Coach. Benja took the team to unheard of heights. And he told me many times over, during those times – “first we play, then the money will come.”
I am not too sure we were really prepared for success. It was really exciting times, yet we were not ready mentally and that impacted our preparations for the Olympics, later that year in Brazil. Yet even in that, he continued to push the envelope.
Many times, he would call and say, “Rona, talk to these guys, I can’t talk to them” and I would need to find the words to diplomatically put across his thoughts and feelings. The intrigue that is KRU rolled on and he was let go from his responsibilities.
But he did not stop there. He tried his hand at many enterprises, I remember driving down Argwings Kodhek road just past Yaya Center one evening and there, larger than life, on a huge billboard, was Benja, dressed in some dapper outfit, promoting some beverage. He tried his hand at motivational speaking with varying degrees of success. When I first knew him, he was buying and selling fish from Kisumu to Nairobi. Never a dull moment with this man, a ball of fire and full of life.
I shall miss his sometimes loud obnoxious self, with the “devil may dare” glint in his eye, always looking for the next championship to conquer.
He was my friend.