Rose Asiko Wandera’s heart skips a beat whenever she recalls Gor Mahia versus Re-Union topflight league match that was played at Moi Stadium, Kisumu in the ‘80s.
Hell broke loose when angry fans started baying for her blood after she allowed a goal ruled offside by her assistant to stand.
Cornered, Wandera had little time to think of an escape route and in a ‘spot-kick’ speed, she managed to escape the wrath of the charged fans. The match had not ended.
“I passed between a police officer’s legs in a flash and disappeared into a nearby thicket as Gor Mahia fans ran riot. It was a daring move because I was not so familiar with the environment. Luckily, the police came to my rescue after the melee that lasted over 20 minutes.They drove me all the way to Nakuru,” Wandera, 75, vividly recounts the events as if the incident happened yesterday.
At one time, she also found herself in court of law to testify in a case where an AFC Leopards player lost his teeth after an ugly tackle from Kenya Breweries opponent at Nairobi’s City Stadium, same season.
“Ms. Aluoch,” the magistrate demanded to know, “what was a woman doing on a football pitch?”
“I got disappointed and asked her what she thought she was doing in court. I was declared a hostile witness and chased away,” she said.
Wandera, a mother of six, told Standard Sports that she never entertained nonsense on and off the pitch.
“Big teams including AFC Leopards, Gor Mahia, Breweries (Tusker FC) and Re-Union featured respectable players. However, I was not intimidated by the players’ popularity. They knew I would not hesitate to pull a red card in case they demonstrated indiscipline on the pitch,” she said.
“All that mattered to me were the football rules which I followed to the letter. I was focused and always aspired to give my best despite myriad of challenges I faced, being a woman referee,” she added.
The Kenyan woman could possibly be among the pioneer female referees in the history of football in Africa and the first ever in East Africa.
“She is the mother of the Kenya women’s football, a trail blazer who entered a man’s exclusive space and hung in there despite it being made clear that she had lost her way. She dismantled prejudices by dealing with one insult after another, but eventually won the grudging respect of those who previously held her in contempt because of her staying power. She eventually retired after a full career, leaving a legacy that includes today’s Harambee Starlets,” Roy Gachuhi, a veteran sports writer described Ms Wandera in one of his captivating articles published in Daily Nation last year.
Wandera had just finished jogging and was busy feeding her livestock at Aligula village, Likuyani sub-county, when Standard Sports visited her.
She developed interest in refereeing as a young employee of Eldoret Municipal Council in early ‘70s. “I started off as a netball player and also tried my hands on hockey. However, my passion for women football made me enroll for refereeing course starting from lowest level right to the top,” she said.
Asiko was a dependable forward in the Eldoret Municipal Council women football team then. “I used to play as a number 9. Apart from participating in Municipal Council games, we could play entertainment matches during celebrations.”
She won numerous accolades as a netball, hockey and women football player then. Wandera was first appointed to officiate in Division Four football league after completing her Class Three refereeing course.
At one point, Wandera also trained as a boxer and even sought to learn more about the game. The training entailed theory work, fitness course and tests in other areas such as judgement, precision among others.
She lost an opportunity to officiate at the African games in Ethiopia and Uganda due to some technical challenges.
“Just when we were about to travel to Ethiopia, I was informed that the culture over there could not allow women to attend football matches regarded as a male affair in that country. Due to challenges in travelling logistics, I lost the chance to officiate in Uganda,” she said.
“The were many challenges at the time because there was no pay and many a times, referees would be paid depending on collections received at the gate on match day. More often that not, I could go home empty-handed.”
Things begun to get better after she completed her Class One course and began featuring in big matches.
“Often, we would be paid Sh2, 000 by cheques, sometimes the cheques would go missing if sent to a wrong address and because they were open cheques, you would never get your money.”
In fact, Wandera didn’t receive her wages for the very last match she officiated because the cheque was sent to Kisumu instead of Eldoret. “The incident demoralized me a lot.”
Her first ever match was Bushere FC versus Abaluhya FC, which she said she managed with a lot of ease.
“I was invited to officiate a match pitting 10 Battalion versus 11 Battalion in Nanyuki. I sent off four players over indiscipline during the match which I can say marked the beginning of my career as a professional referee.”
Wandera would sometimes find herself right in the midst of fans looking for a particular person who hurled insult on her.
In one occasion, a fan insulted her questioning her ability to make a good wife and mother.
“This got me agitated and I had to square it out with the man.”
“I would deal with such fans there and then. Sometimes, I would show them the red card, that is how I managed to earn myself some respect and the name “no nonsense referee.”
Feeling lonely in the male dominated game, Wandera started reaching out to women and encouraging them to embrace sports, particularly in Eldoret where she worked.
Some of them agreed to train as referees, but could not stand constant insults from fans, hence chose to quit.
In her long career, there doesn’t seem to be anything Wandera didn’t hear from men. Fortunately, she never suffered any severe form of physical violence in her illustrious career.
The former nursery school teacher hung her boots in the late ’90s but would work as a match commissioner until around 2001 when she exited the stage albeit in style.
“It was around the same time AFC Leopards scouts had come down scouting for talent and I was called in to officiate several matches. The experience was quite satisfying,” she said.
To date, Wandera cherishes football and often goes to watch village matches to satisfy herself.
“My worry is that county governments are doing little to nurture young talent, particularly the girls who are going to waste at home.”
Wandera said she had made countless trips to the County Sports department in Kakamega seeking help to start a women football tournament in the county.