Growing up in a large family in Nairobi’s Old Racecourse Estate, a few minutes from Nairobi city center, I was your typical kid – full of energy and spending as much time outside the house. We would, together with the neighborhood kids, engage in a host of sporting disciplines such as football, basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket or table tennis.
I was part of the second cohort of the 8-4-4 system of education and sat for my Kenya Certificate of Primary Examination (K.C.P.E) at Racecourse Primary School which was headed by the famous educationist M.S Patel. When I sat for my K.C.P.E, I was placed among the the top 200 students nationwide and secured admission for my high school education at Lenana School before joining the University of Nairobi and later on, the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.
During my childhood, football was the undisputed sport, not only in Old Racecourse but across many Nairobi neighborhoods. Some of my greatest memories came from hard fought matches against the neighboring estates.
When I wasn’t outside running around, I took the time to read anything I could lay my hands on.Once in a while though, I would engage in naughty stuff. I recall once taking a hike with my buddy Paul Lwali to UpperHill School to watch AFC Leopards training when we were 10 or 11 years old. We got back home late and you can no doubt guess how it ended!
Introduction to rugby
My first encounter with rugby came as an eight year old. We dabbled in the game purely by chance when some of the older kids in rugby playing high schools came home with these odd shaped balls during the holidays.
At this point, rugby was just another game to me. Little did I know that the choice of Lenana School would impact greatly on the seriousness I would later apply to rugby.
Drive and inspiration
The drive and inspiration to take rugby more seriously came from people like Frank Aswani who captained Mean Machine in 1992. He happened to be a friend and neighbor and his influence did rub off on me. The exploits of Max Muniafu and the Watembezi Pacesetters in the early eighties were other key motivating factors.
Some of the initial drive and inspiration to take rugby more seriously came from my neighbor and friend Frank Aswani (Mean Machine RFC Captain in 1992). Max Muniafu, the Watembezi Pacesetters and their performances in the early eighties were another key factor.
Interestingly, rugby was not even my first choice sport at Lenana – it probably ranked third after basketball and hockey.
Samuel Maneno, (the school Principal at the time),was a basketball enthusiast and would on several occasions send the basketball captain to get me from the hockey pitch to basketball practice as these sports were played in the same term.
The fact that rugby and football were both played during second term put paid to my football ambitions as I started playing more rugby.
The great structure at Lenana was key in honing my rugby skills. I progressed through the different levels- starting with the Junior House team in Form 1 and the Junior Colts in Form 2.
I broke into the school’s second XVin early Form 3. My continued growth caused a selection controversy, a debate ensuing on whether I should be starting in the 1st XV.
Although I represented Lenana in table tennis, football, basketball and rugby; my development in rugby and basketball had reached the point where I was mainly a two-sport athlete. In many ways these two sports complemented each. A few tips during a Patrons Society sponsored coaching trip to Kenya by Mark Taylor(a former All Black and Wasps RFC coach at the time) were a game changer in my kicking accuracy.
Pioneering National Schools Champion
Winning the inaugural Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association (KSSSA) National Championship in 1990 was one of my early achievements. This tournament was hosted at Nairobi School with the final played at the RFUEA Ground.
We defeated Kakamega High School 36-6 to be crowned champions. I believe this competition has played a big role in the explosive growth of rugby in Kenya. Kudos to the Damu Pevu group for driving this initiative in all the schools they were posted to.
Club rugby and accolades
I left Lenana at the end of 1990 and joined Mwamba in 1991 during my gap year. The experience at this venerable club was invaluable. I had the privilege to be coached by Pete Belsoi and play alongside the late, great Jimmy “Green” Owino. These two gentlemen gave me the space to learn, make mistakes and grow – something I must admit was critical in my early breakthrough to the national team.
I moved to Mean Machine in 1992 upon joining the University of Nairobi, immediately slotting into the first team before captaining the side a year later. I view my time at Mean Machine as a success on the personal and team fronts.
I was voted the Kenya Rugby Football Union player of the year in 1992 while as a team, we dominated the local sevens scene, sweeping all trophies before us at one time or another.
We also had a fierce rivalry in the fifteens version of the game with Nondescripts in the Kenya Cup but we unfortunately came up short on the league title three years in a row.
Kenya Harlequin was my next port of call in 1996. I joined a very experienced team and finally laid my hands on the Kenya Cup three times – 1996, 1999 and 2003.
Being at Quins put me in a position to flourish and lead yet again. I am eternally grateful to the Onsando brothers (Ham & Joe), Paul Nyamodi, Dan “Scooby” Mugo and Alan McKittrick for the leadership, help and trust they placed in me.
I was among the pioneering group of 100 players selected to play in the inaugural Rugby Super Series in 2003. I captained the Rhinos to victory in that year’s competition. Our team was coached by the brilliant Tom Odundo and comprised of players from Kenya Harlequin, USIU and Nakuru. This is the same year that I earned my second player of the year award, 11 years after the first one in 1992.
Upon my retirement from international rugby in 2003, I moved to Denver where I played sevens rugby for the Denver Barbarians RFC, one of the premier sevens clubs in the country at that period until 2010. My involvement in rugby dropped off in the last five years, limited to following the sport online due to work and family commitments.
National Team Call Ups
I was first called up to the national team in 1992 and represented Kenya until 2003 when retired from international rugby in 2003 as the most capped player.
In between, there were several milestones including playing in the first two Rugby World Cup Sevens qualifying events in Catania (1992) and Dubai (1996) before captaining the team during the RWC Sevens qualifier in Nairobi in 2000.
We created history by securing qualification to the 2001 RWC Sevens in Mar del Plata. In doing so, we became just the fourth Kenyan sports team after men’s cricket, women’s basketball and volleyball to qualify for a world cup competition.
I alsocaptained Kenya to their first ever win at the prestigious Safari Sevens in 1997. Ham Onsando, the Kenya Sevens coach at the time deserves a special mention as he literally got the best out of us.
A major part of my international career was geared towards moving the sevens team to the top tier after failing to qualify for the RWC Sevens tournaments in 1993 and 1997.
The qualification for the 2001 RWC in Argentina, improved competition in the Safari Sevens tournament and more regular participation in the IRB series enabled us to get to the top tier.
National teams then, and now
It was quite the challenge playing for the national team back then. We lacked quality opposition on a regular basis, something that stifled our growth and learning curves. The Kenya Fifteens also suffered as a result.
However, test matches started being scheduled on a regular basis and we could see the growth in how we dealt with our perennial rivals Zimbabwe and Namibia. The scores started to tighten and finally, we overtook Zimbabwe, next step was Namibia our major obstacle to RWC qualification. However at 4-6 tests per year this was still insufficient to move the needle to the next level.
The current Fifteens squad is in the good hands of my friend and teammate Paul Odera. He is a fantastic coach and I really look forward to Kenya qualifying for the next Rugby World Cup.
The Sevens team is also under the guidance of another teammate, Innocent Simiyu and I hope this time he gets the resources and time to implement his vision.
I believe the game is at a good place in terms of the personnel available.
However, the same challenges exist.
Do we have access to the funds that can keep the teams playing quality opposition regularly?
Sometimes I get the sense some of the players are pulled in all sorts of directions by outsiders out to cause mischief. Maybe we need to go back to the old message we had a few years back – work hard,win games and tournaments as success breeds success. Winning will open the purse strings of sponsors and the growth can continue.
Secrets of success
A pursuit of excellence demands one put in the commensurate level of work. This was my key driver as a player. I was early to training to work on my craft and late to leave training perfecting some skill.
I had extra personal training on team days off – training twice a day while the opposition is doing so once a day. I was always looking to improve and be the best at what I did.
I had the willingness to learn from other players in and out of the country -senior or junior to me. If they did something well, I broke it down and figured how to incorporate into my performance.This was the secret to success.
I was also blessed to have some fantastic team mates who were able to push me to be better every single day including Tolbert Onyango, Tom Opiyo, Shaka Kwach, Andrew Lopokoyit, Pablo Murunga, Gordon Anampiu, Jamie Johnson, Roger Akena to name a few.
Most difficult opponent
The most difficult opponent I faced during my playing days was Nondescripts fly halfDave Evans. He was so cerebral, seemingly knowing just when to make that move or where to place that kick. I learned so much from those encounters and stole so many ideas from him.
Challenges during his playing days
Top level rugby is high paced, physically and mentally demanding. The injuries take their toll. Working on recovery and getting back to better than you were before the injury is some of the hardest work I have ever had put in from a physical and psychological standpoint.
Reaching those levels took a lot of time away from family and other pursuits. I got to apoint where it affected my relationships and took a toll on my academic performances. I had to find the proper balance.
Advice to young and upcoming players
My advice to young and upcoming players is sit and talk to someone experienced. Set your goals and work systematically to achieve them.
The sport is professional in only a few parts of the world, so it cannot be everything yet in Kenya. Playing careers at the top level tend to be short due to the physical demands, so make sure you enjoy the game. One has to have other skills- so if you are in college, you have to make sure you give sufficient time to your studies, no ifs or buts. If you have an eight to five job, then you have to balance the games demands against your career demands.
Lessons from rugby
While rugby is just a sport and a small aspect of life; the life skills learned from a sport that emphasized teamwork, losing with honor and winning with humility are critical in my career and day to day life.
Managing teams, talented people, planning, being agile and adapting to change, especially during the pandemic are part of my work as a Program Administrator with the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Inspiration and motivation
My inspiration has always been and continues to be firstly my innate desire to excel, then my family, and teammates. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without my dad’s (Dr. Elijah Khakame) guidance and my late mum’s (Pastor Ruth Khakame) support. She was my biggest cheerleader including my siblings, many of whom were excellent sportspeople in their own right.
My motivation was always to improve as a player and team, so the lack of progress could be trying. However what I always knew and aspired to was leaving the game better than I found it. Having stood on the shoulders of giants- Max Muniafu, Eddie Rombo, Manuel Okoth, Evans Vitisia, Tom Okech to name a few; I truly believe I succeeded on that score.
This is the greatest accolade I can claim for myself as part of the Kenyan rugby fraternity.
This article was first published in the commemorative publication KRU@50 in February 2021. Download the full magazine on this link https://www.kru.co.ke/magazine/magazine-february-2021/