Kenya: Rose Wandera - Pioneer of Women's Football in Kenya

23 November 2019

During the monthly luncheon of the Kenya Sports Writers Association held at the Orbitsports factory on Likoni Road sometime in 1982, Clement Gachanja, the newly elected chairman of the Kenya Football Federation was asked what plans, if any, he had for the development of women's football in Kenya. He looked flustered.

The question had not come from one of the all-male journalists present. It came from a senior manager from Orbitsports.

He had surprised the chief guest with a strange, befuddling question and Gachanja was visibly trying to wrap his head around the idea.

He was not alone; it seemed obvious that no one else among all those men present had ever given the matter a thought. Indeed, a low murmur swept through the audience as Gachanja waited for the questioner to finish. Then, without a moment's hesitation, he said:

"No, we have no plans at all. Let them stick to netball."

The short answer was firm and final. Its dismissive tone and the body language with which it was delivered couldn't make it clearer that the idea wasn't worth his time.

There was laughter from all round - except from the man who had asked the question. He looked dissatisfied, even a bit perturbed, but he didn't follow through.

Maybe he was being properly-mannered or he was feeling his solitude - he was the only Kenyan of Asian origin in the room and also the only one, apart from the KFF boss, who was not a journalist.

He was the gracious host. Evidently, all the journalists were on the same page with Gachanja. The matter rested as soon as it was raised.

This must come as an interesting surprise to the girls of Harambee Starlets who, as of this writing, have qualified for the semi-final of the Cecafa Women's Championship in Dar es Salaam: once upon a time, the federation mandated to develop their game in Kenya didn't think they belonged to it.

If you asked them, they would give you a long tale of woe about their present circumstances and most of it would be real. They would also give you a long wish list and again, most of it would make sense. What they may not fully appreciate for no fault of their own is the sheer distance they have travelled to be where they are today.

The headlines of Nation Sport across the last 60 years of its existence may seldom contain the names of the people who have made this journey possible, but they live, or lived and they paved the way for them.

It is easy - and all too simplistic - to rubbish Gachanja and the journalists who thought the idea of women's football in the country absurd.

But they were just creatures of their time enjoying its comforts and struggling against its adversities. They didn't know better. It was up to those not satisfied with the status quo to move them from their comfort zone.

We live in a curious world today where many Kenyans are appealing to the beneficiaries of corruption to stop enjoying it. They can't. It is unrealistic to expect a person who is happy with the way things are to want to want to change them. It may be "kubaya" (bad) for you but to someone else, life just couldn't get better.

And the person to whom you are appealing for relief from your distress may be the very person who is profiting from it. His motivation is to keep you where you are, not to help you out.

In his long reign, former President Daniel Moi - and I wish him speedy recovery from his illness - gave us a catch phrase to describe any of our circumstances. He used to say: kaeni hivyo hivyo --

stay just as you are.

Those who were happy with their lot cheered him wildly. It was up to those who were not to do something about it. After many years of trying, they did.

They voted out his beloved Kanu in 2002.

To take on an entrenched culture, especially one that derives its legitimacy from beliefs handed down from one generation to another across centuries, is to choose a life of pure hardship.

Ask Rose Wandera. She is the mother of Kenya women's football, the trail blazer who entered a man's exclusive space and hung in there despite it being made clear that she had lost her way, who dismantled prejudices by dealing with one insult and one put-down at a time, who eventually won the grudging respect of those who previously held her in contempt because of her staying power and who eventually retired after a full career, leaving a legacy that includes today's Harambee Starlets.

Because of her, we take it for granted that a woman's football match is normal. Of course, it is. The point is that it wasn't always like this.

"Physical violence is bad and thankfully, I did not suffer it in any severe form," she told me. "But psychological violence is just as bad. If it were not for my training as a social worker, I doubt I would have survived. It was too much."

Enjoying her retirement in a quiet corner of Kakamega County, she bursts into laughter when I ask her what she usually did, as a Class One referee, to show recalcitrant men who was boss: "It was not funny then. It was very, very difficult."

As a young employee of the Eldoret Municipal Council in the 1960s, Wandera started off as a netball player. But she didn't stick to netball. She wandered into hockey. But all this time, she was thinking football. Yet there was no women's football in Kenya.

In 1970, she persuaded colleagues to form a football club and got other young women working for the East African Tanning Extract Company, a giant employer in Eldoret then, to do the same.

They started playing occasional matches between the two organisations and the seeds of organised women's football in Kenya were sown. Wandera played Number 9 - striker. Finally, her life had taken wing; she was doing what she loved. And until her retirement in 1974 to become a referee, it was her family, her job and hunting for goals.

But retiring as a player to become a referee was like jumping from a warm frying pan into a blazing fire. At least as a player, she just played against fellow women and then only informally.

But as a referee in a country where there was no structured women's football league, she could only handle men's matches. This is where cultivating nerves of steel became necessary.

"The hardest people to deal with were Gor Mahia and Re-Union," she says. The first problem was a tribal one - she and they came from across the "Mashemeji" ethnic divide. Though significant in those days of real rivalry when people could die unlike today's Sunday afternoon picnic outings, it was the easier one.

The second one was deep seated cultural beliefs which held that a woman was to be seen and not heard. Now here she was, purporting to call the shots in a game of men.

Many men found this insufferable. In fact, to dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists - and they came a dime a dozen - this was nothing short of an abomination. It was a hard space for a solitary woman to operate from.

When men must insult each other, the first thing that seems to come to their minds is the other man's stupidity. ("Kubafu", as popularised by former President Mwai Kibaki, readily comes to mind).

But when they are insulting women who are not their close relatives, the only thing they seem to think of is sex. Sexual imagery crowds everything else out of the mind. Frustrations and fantasies find release in a woman who cannot be controlled and what should be a disagreement about professional competence quickly turns into a commentary about sexual desirability.

"I never heard men asking each other whether they were married when there was a problem," Wandera says. "But every woman in a similar situation had to face that question. I tried to get other women to join me as referees and I got three very promising ones from Eldoret. But after a while, they dropped out. They found the sexism too much."

In her long career, there doesn't seem to be anything that Wandera didn't hear from men. Yet, whether it was the crude ones whose speech has no brake function or the polite ones who casually delivered to her what Nelson Mandela once eloquently described as "a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments", doing it, she didn't waver.

She learnt early not to process every put-down or else she would suffer a system overload. Not every challenge was worth taking up and energy needed to be saved for a larger purpose. Not every small man who needed to prove his manly superiority over her had to be engaged. She let some fights pass - but only some.

But some gender-based walls proved too high to scale. "I was once appointed to officiate a match in Sudan. But as I prepared to go, word came that I couldn't be allowed to handle it because it was against Islamic tradition for a woman to perform that task." She was so disappointed that she blocked the name Sudan from her mind and even now has difficulty uttering it.

"She is a pioneer who paved the way for other women to follow," says veteran referee and colleague GMT Ottieno, the Kenya Premier League chief of technical services. "She was a good referee operating in a difficult environment given the prevailing circumstances of her time."

Wandera retired in 2000 and now follows developments at Harambee Starlets and football in general in quiet anonymity in her Kakamega home.

The landscape has changed. Women's football in Kenya is now an accomplished fact. It is not a question of if but when it will be raised to its fullest potential.

For staring down gender prejudice and prevailing, she changed perceptions in her chosen vocation. Her historical place is secure and every woman in Kenya football -- player, technical official, government bureaucrat or journalist -- owes her a debt of gratitude.

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