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In the prime of our youth, almost every boy desired to be Joe Kadenge. In Emanyulia and Jericho, we played football in the shadow of this great man. We called ourselves Kadenge.

You associated yourself with the grand legend of East African football, regardless that you kicked a tennis ball, or a homemade banana fibre ball. You juggled your polythene paper ball past other boys, echoing the agitated Voice of Kenya (VoK) sports commentators with the words, “Kadenge! Kadenge! Kadenge na mpira!”

In that age, even the black and white TV set was a status symbol. Only a few in an emerging African elite owned this thing. We did not watch football on TV. Moreover, they did not televise football anyway – with a few exceptions during the World Cup. The VoK radio more than made up for TV.

The most notable mental image they brought us was that of Kadenge tormenting defenders with his fast-paced magic. Few of us writing about this legend today ever saw him in action. I watched him only once, in 1974. We were brass high school lads, wrestling with the challenges of adolescence. A visiting team from West Germany was playing against Abaluhya United Football Club at the Nairobi City Stadium. We devised to jump over the perimeter wall of the stadium, to watch the match.

Kadenge came in as a substitute during the second half. He was now sliding towards retirement. Accordingly, we did not see the very best of him. Yet, the spark and magic were still there. He moved with the dispatch of the panther of the trees.

His body language on the pitch was fascinating. Confronted by a defender, he would bring the match to a pulsating pause. He feinted with the upper torso to the left, to the right and to the left again...He concurrently shifted both feet around the ball, his eyes fixed on the opponent’s. Then, suddenly, he was gone.

Much has already been said about this iconic player. You could find the rest in John Nene’s book, The Life of a Football Legend. You could hardly say more about this man without gilding the lily. What is left, therefore, is appreciation of what the lives of such persons as Kadenge mean to a country such as ours.

People like Kadenge are best seen in the  words of prolific Indian writer Deepak Chopra. Chopra has said of leadership, “A leader is the symbolic soul of a group’s consciousness.” This may be the consciousness of a family, a community, or an organisation. Indeed, it could be the consciousness of a country. Kadenge symbolised the Kenyan soul.

In essence, the leader is the soul of the group. At the height of his career, Kadenge desired the very best for his country. Each time we watch our sportsmen and women in competition, our collective desire is that we should subdue the opponents. Kadenge symbolised our collective desire to subdue Kenya’s opponents.

This Joe Kadenge passed on when Kenya’s national team, Harambee Stars, was competing for glory in Egypt. Even when they don’t bring home the trophies of victory, sports people desire greatness for their nations. In defeat and in victory, their hearts are in the right place. Kadenge’s heart was in the right place. He wanted Kenya to be great.

Yet, do we fail to lionise those who seek greatness for us? Kadenge has lived a life of neediness and deprivation. In his old age, he was virtually reduced to an indigent. He solicited from well-wishers outside a petrol station along Kenyatta Avenue, where he ran a taxi business with a lonely old car.

Kenya’s royalty had no time for this man in his hour of need. Today, Saturday July 20, expect to see this royalty in its multitudinous magnificence at his burial. Expect to hear glowing valedictory tributes about a man Kenya wanted to forget – and actually forgot. And he is not alone.

On September 9, 1972, four men brought glory to Kenya. Charles Asati, Munyoro Nyamau, Robert Ouko and Julius Sang won the men’s 4 x 400 metres Olympic gold medal in Munich. Earlier, in 1968, Kipchoge Keino led Kenya in a three gold, four silver and two bronze victory in Mexico. Daniel Rudisha, Charles Asati, Naftali Bon and Munyoro Nyamau clinched the 4 x 400 metres silver medal in Mexico. Philip Waruinge brought us a medal in boxing. In 1964, Wilson Kipkurgut brought us our first ever Olympic medal in the Tokyo games.

These boys are now either old men, or dead. Kipkurgut is 81 and forgotten. Waruinge is 74 and going. Asati is 73. Bon passed on quietly in Kapsabet, late last year. Nyamau, now aged 77, is a quiet retired soldier. Mercifully, we still hear of Kip Keino, regardless that some people have unsuccessfully attempted to besmirch his name.

It is disagreeable when we mention a few individuals in a special way in a country of many high achievers. Yet, how do your resist acknowledging a few of our glorious departed? There have been philosophers like Odera Oruka; literary scholars like Chris Wanjala; scientists like T R Odhiambo; medics like Joseph Maina Mungai, Nelson Awori and Hilary Ojiambo; historians like Gideon S Were and Atieno Odhiambo; geographers like Simeon Ominde and Robert Okoth Ogendo.

The least we can do is to build a reputable hall of fame for these stalwarts and hundreds of others. Meanwhile go well, Joe Kadenge. Sleep in eternal peace. Amen.

- The writer is a strategic public communication advisor.  www.barrackmuluka.co.ke

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