Mfang’ano: Island of great soccer talent
My story this week started when a friend invited me to his rural home in Mfang’ano Island, Homa Bay County - my first ever visit to the iconic island surrounded by Lake Victoria.
I have this habit of looking for football-related snippets whenever I visit parts of Kenya with a history of football. That is how I penned up previous pieces from Turkana, Rabai, Freretown, Kitale, Eldoret, Nakuru, Lodwar, Berlin and Frankfurt, Kigali, Arusha and Juba in South Sudan.
Visiting the island is not for the fainthearted. The journey can be torturous and scary if you are not used to travelling on water and climbing rocky hills.
The place is inhabited by a community that confounds many - the Suba. Most speak Dholuo and when I asked for reasons, I was told they are unable to speak Suba because either one of their parents is pure Luo, or both father and mother, though Suba, always spoke to them in Dholuo. That although there have been instances when politicians have taken advantage to ‘set them free’, it has been very difficult. Thanks to historical intermarriages.
I witnessed this first hand when my friend asked me to accompany him to a funeral deep inside the island in a village called Wakula. There was this old man who conducted opening prayers in a language that sounded more Luhya or Luganda. I thought he would continue but in the end, he switched to Dholuo. I was baffled.
Seated next to me was another old man by the name Romanus Philip Onyango or simply ‘RP’. I asked him why the whole function was not conducted in Suba since we were at the heart of the community. Well, his answer is a story for another day and for another interest group.
The community resides in five main places namely Mfang’ano, Rusinga, Gembe, Gwassi and Mbita. Through long historical intermarriages with the Luo, the Suba language is classified as endangered and the modern generation hardly speaks or identifies with it.
My interaction with this old man formed the basis of my story about the island. ‘RP’ had also attended the same function but from neighbouring Rusinga Island. Also in the lake are several other islands namely Ringiti, Remba and the controversial Migingo.
Mzee RP, now 80, but although his gait may betray him when he speaks Kiswahili, one would think he was born in the 1970s. He was born around 1938 and moved to Nairobi in the mid-1940s after World War II. Like many educated Kenyans in Nairobi at that time, his father worked for Kenya Railways. That helped shape his outlook towards the world and fluency in Kiswahili and English besides mastering Dholuo.
RP was educated at St Peter Clavers Primary School and trained as a teacher in both Kenya and the UK. Before going overseas, he was a teacher in 1959 when he started off at St Peter Clavers. He later taught at St Philomenas on Racecourse Road, St John’s Kaloleni and was headmaster at St Michael’s Jogoo Road as well.
Can you imagine meeting someone who saw the City Stadium being constructed? I was excited. He was a goldmine of information on Kenya’s early soccer years.
RP narrated how before independence, most African communities that loved football (read Luos and Luhyas) who also lived around the railway quarters in Makongeni and Kaloleni, had their own teams. The Suba had their own team comprising players from Gwassi, Rusinga, Gembe, Kaksingri and Mfang’ano. They were called the ‘5 Nations’ or Pinje Abich in Dholuo.
They had among their ranks many talented players who did duty for Kenya. Mfang’ano, in particular, had good players whose names became prominent within football circles.
The famous Mfang’ano Street is named after the island I just visited and which many Kenyans cannot place on a map without the help of Google Maps. ‘Five Nations’ produced great football talents like Joe Okeyo Kapila ‘Mwalimu’ who commanded Kenya’s midfield with all the ball artistry never seen before. Okeyo from Wakula village in Mfang’ano shared the position with Steve ‘McQueen’ Yongo from Gwassi. Yongo was arguably the first Kenyan footballer to exhibit chest ball control. No Kenyan had ever chested the ball until McQueen did it around 1967. The McQueen name was derived from Steve McQueen, the American actor whose anti-hero persona rode on the counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s in films such as Papillon, Towering Inferno and The Great Escape.
George Solomon Otieno aka Solo from Gembe Island was Gor Mahia’s right-back for many years. He was in the heroic 1987 team and was famous for his hard tackles. Other players who hailed from the islands were Bernard ‘Zico’ Otieno and his brother Felix Otieno. Sons of Elisha Otieno from Kakimba Village in Mfang’ano, the duo played for Tusker FC and Gor Mahia respectively.
We also had Tobias Maira, Tillen Oguta and Tom Ogweno. Great players whose footsteps were followed by the mercurial George ‘Blackberry’ Odhiambo. All these stars, until recently, converged every December at the famous Sindo Sports Festival to showcase their skills and soccer club officials scouted for talent.
Going to our football records, we see many tournaments won by the 5 Nations team until around 1968 when Tom Mboya convened a meeting to form one strong ‘Luo team’. Like the Suba language, their 5 Nations team was swallowed and all their players mopped up by Gor Mahia. The perception was that the Luos had regrouped.
Mzee RP was among the people who saw the simultaneous dissolution and merger. He was at some point elected deputy secretary to Mahallon Danga. RP retired in 1999 and now leads a quiet fulfilling life on Rusinga Island. His only regret is that nobody has ever documented the role 5 Nations played in the formation of Gor Mahia in 1968.
When I promised to write something about it, he was excited and happy that finally their contribution may be acknowledged.
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