Kenya: Adieu Joe Kadenge, Wizard of the Dribble

Photo: Capital FM
Kenyan football legend Joe Kadenge.

At barely 18 years old in 1953, Joe Kadenge left his Maragoli birthplace to pursue football fortune in Nakuru, then the Mecca of Kenya football.

It was a cold call on an uncle who didn't know his nephew was coming and why. But the obsessed youth had made up his mind and in the staff quarters of Nakuru Railway Station a decades-long career took off.

The uncle took him in and a few short years before our independence in 1963, the most enduring signature sound in the universe of Kenya football was born: "Kadenge na mpira" - Kadenge with the ball.

It was his fortune to play in an era when the radio and the newspaper comprised almost the entire mass media in the country. Television had a miniscule, elitist audience and there was no internet.

The single radio channel - KBS's Swahili service - Idhaa ya Kiswahili - with their ubiquitous commentators made you feel that you knew Joe Kadenge personally even if you had never met him. Avid newspaper readers red and re-read stories of his exploits and kept cuttings of them.

Musicians enjoy listening to themselves sing and politicians enjoy listening to themselves speak. Joe Kadenge enjoyed watching himself dribble past mesmerised opponents.

He was a wizard of the dribble and loved his own performance. So he hung on very long with the ball and Stephen Kikumu first and then Leonard Mambo Mbotela had no option but to keep cooing "Kadenge na mpira" into the radio microphone. That is how that legend was born.

Of course, not all Kadenge's team mates appreciated it. Enough of them have told me with a tinge of resentment that his escapades on the right wing may have pleased himself, the fans and the commentators with their millions of listeners and earned him plenty of fame.

But in football, solo play can sometimes be costly to the team - and it was the case with the wing maestro. Yet none of them could deny his mastery of ball control.

There were few like him and even fewer have emerged since. Even in his 80s, the feints, the sudden turns, the juggling and the power packed shots, were still well remembered. He symbolised the beauty of the game.

There was no Nation Media Group to record the exploits of the then 22-year old North Nyanza FC wizard when he burst into the Kenya Colony side in 1956 to start a 14-year career with the future Harambee Stars.

The days of the Gossage Cup, which he ruled with aplomb are long gone and the number of players and fans who bore witness to his bewitching skills have dwindled with each passing season. Now the master himself is gone and only the memories remain.

Kadenge was a star performer in the Kenya team that defeated Scotland 3-2 to win the Uhuru Cup on December 15, 1963.

He was the scorer of the third goal. By that time, the Daily Nation had been born and it celebrated his "crisp, cracking shot into the net in the 81st minute" after coming in as a substitute for the injured Ali Sungura.

He is also the only player to be honoured with a testimonial match by the football federation of the day. On March 11, 1975, Kenneth Matiba's KFF organised a match between Yanga FC of Tanzania and Abaluhya FC (Kadenge's club) of Kenya.

The honour match marked Kadenge's official retirement from the game and the beginning of his managerial career with Harambee Stars.

Kadenge had in fact retired from the national team five years earlier. It was Eckhard Krautzun, the German tactician who was preparing Kenya for its first Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon, who had finally pulled the plug on his international career. For some reason, Kadenge took it in his stride, focusing on his club career at Abaluhya.

Yanga, the Tanzanian champions, lined up against Abaluhya. The Tanzanians brought gifts with them, artefacts and scarves.

It wasn't much of a competitive game and Joe told me he cried a lot that day. "I was leaving what I loved most. I loved football. I loved to entertain the crowds. And now here I was playing for the last time. I got badly affected."

His unique hold on Kenya's football psyche was at an end. Hopes and Dreams, the book marking the first Fifa World Cup in Africa in 2010, celebrated Kadenge's career thus: "He was one of the finest players in East Africa in the 1960s and 70s, starring for Abaluhya FC, the club that later evolved into AFC Leopards.

In his prime, he provided class, flair and character both on and off the pitch; a player who regularly pulled off the spectacular. He was one of the pioneers of the Gossage Cup (and) his status as a Kenyan legend is long standing and fully deserved."

Kadenge desperately wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps. Wycliffe, Evans, Rogers, Oscar and most important, Francis, attempted to carry the family name but all fell by the wayside, before their careers had even seriously begun.

Francis' death made him despair and he wondered what had become of young people and their capacity to hang in there, to endure, to stay the course no matter what.

He mourned to me: "We were tough. We didn't complain. We just overcame." The failed careers of his sons gave Joe a big heartache.

But he soldiered on. Now the body that he once accused of getting tired of him has given in to the ravages of age and illness.

But death, even with its power to consume our bodies, has no power to take with it our memories.

And Joe Kadenge gives us great memories. May he take with him our sincere gratitude and rest in peace.

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