In sporting terms, last week’s Jamhuri Day celebrations were spectacularly different from those of 1965 when Kenya was a one year old republic.
At that time, the sort of record that revisionists could gladly erase from the books given quarter of a chance was set.
Ghana hammered Kenya 13-2. It was a celebration gone awfully wrong but thankfully, it has never happened again although on November 14, 1978 the country came benumbingly near to a similar catastrophe.
Kenya, the new, proud and ambitious republic, had invited the Black Stars to play its national team two friendly matches to mark its first Jamhuri Day.
At that time, the Black Stars were the reigning African champions – a pointer to the optimism and ambition of the newly independent country.
The match took place at the Jamhuri Park Stadium on the afternoon of Saturday December 11.
It was graced by President Jomo Kenyatta. The Kenya team was: Joseph Were, Tom Sabuni, Jonathan Niva, Anthony Mukabwa, Moses Wabwai, Joseph Okeyo, John Rabuongi, Nicodemus Arudhi, William Chege Ouma, James Asibwa and Moses Ambani.
James Siang’a substituted Were between the posts when the score was 8-1 – but I am getting ahead of myself.
Problems ensnared this match before the first ball was kicked. The coach at that time was Peter Oronge, a former Kenya international of great ability. The team assembled at Nairobi Railway Club for briefing but Oronge was nowhere to be found.
Father of Kenyan goalkeeping
That was long, long before the advent of the mobile phone but maybe even if the technology was available, he probably would still have been, as Kenyans are wont to say, mteja. Oronge never explained his disappearing act.
Ray Batchelor was the Rift Valley Provincial Sports Officer at the time. He was also coach of Nakuru All Stars FC, who would become the Kenya Football League champions in 1969.
The FA of Kenya got hold of him as a case of emergency. Batchelor managed to be with team for all of four hours before kick-off.
Today, James Siang’a, the father of Kenyan goalkeeping and for 15 years since independence the first choice for the country, remembers that episode of 47 years ago as if it was yesterday.
“I didn’t start. Joseph Were did. I can tell you for a fact that we were no match for the Ghanaians. They had not broken camp since winning the Nations Cup and as such were totally cohesive. In contrast, our team had hardly been together before the game. They were simply too fast, too strong and too good for us in all aspects.”
The goals started raining in before five minutes were up. Kenya’s horror took the form of a man named Ben Acheampong who was the Black Stars striker. Ten minutes before half time, he alone had shaken the Kenyan net four times. And he was not through with the Kenyans yet.
But this was already too much for President Kenyatta. This week, both Siang’a and Joe Kadenge, who played the much tidier second game, recalled to me the president’s restlessness as the Black Stars ran rings around his boys at will.
According to accounts relayed later to them by people near the President, Kenyatta, close to despair, asked in agony: “Where is Kipchoge to run around with these people?”