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Monate Akuei’s journey from dodging bullets to starring in rugby fields

RUGBY By Joseph Kipsang | April 22nd 2021
Monate Akuei. [Photo: Courtesy]

When you first hear it, the words sound so outlandish, so inexplicable, that you ask him to repeat them. 

I’m not joking,” he says with a touch of confidence. “I can still remember witnessing it; running away from war at the age of three.”

To most children, the journey through the rugby league ranks can be long and arduous.

For some, like Monate Akuei, the road set before them is longer, more challenging and distressing.

Born in South Sudan, Akuei spent most his childhood life at Kakuma Refugee camp.

Many nights, he slept hungry. Things were really tough that he even joined a criminal gang in Nakuru where he almost lost his leg from a rubber bullet while being chased by the police.

This was not what he really wished for life. But now, the 23-year-old is no longer running from police or dodging bullets, but he is running towards something else; stardom.

Akuei was born in the midst of war on March 7, 1998 in Nairus, a small town in South Sudan.

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“I was born when rebels and the government forces were fighting. We had to flee and sought refuge at Kakuma Refugee camp near Lodwar town,” said Akuei

At the camp, Akuei says life was tough. They would face mistreatment from different quarters. They were living each day at a time.

“After spending some time at the camp, our father was lucky to get a job back in South Sudan. We moved to Nairobi thereafter and everything was okay until war broke out again in 2012/2013 in Sudan. The money we were receiving from our father was no longer there, and life in the city became too hard to handle. We opted to move to Nakuru,” added Akuei.

While at Solai Secondary School, Akuei used to play football but in one of the school holidays, his curiosity was caught by a group of youth playing an oval shaped ball at Pangani Primary School. He later learnt the game was called rugby.

He requested to join them for a training session where he learnt a few techniques, but the dire conditions his family were living in could not let him enjoy the game.

He opted to join a criminal gang that used to snatch valuables from locals in Nakuru town. He just needed to survive.

“Initially, our father used to send us at least 50 Sudanese pounds, which is about Sh1,500 for our upkeep. When he stopped sending the money, I had no option but join a group of youth that used to steal from people,” he said.

“This gave me a very bad name and many people feared me. One day, I snatched a phone from someone. The Police ran after me and I was shot with a rubber bullet on my thigh, which took several months to recover,” he said.

Akuwei (left) of Nakuru RFC battles for the ball with a Menegai Homeboyz player during a Kenya Cup match played at Nakuru Athletics club in Nakuru on March 18, 2017. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

In 2014, he was expelled from Solai Secondary School while in Form Three. He later joined Kirobon Boys in Nakuru where he realised he had a great talent in rugby.

“The biggest motivation came when my friend Rolex Tanui challenged me to join him in training for rugby. I took it seriously. That is when I realised I was good at the sport as I was in football,” he added.

He joined Nakuru RFC Academy and in 2015, started training with Nakuru RFC third team.

Akuei was a fast learner as he helped his school beat Menengai High School and Nakuru Day Secondary school in the regional games.

But what attracted and motivated him to pick up rugby was the food the club was serving after each training session.

“Training sessions used to start at 3pm but I used to get to the playground at around 11am. I was looking forward to having the meal that was being offered. This was the only meal I could have for the whole day. At home, there was no money to buy food. I had to skip the evening meal for my siblings to eat in the morning,” he said.

After high school is 2016, his team joined the Nationwide league, which saw him make his debut in the Great Rift-10-Aside-tournament after Menengai Oilers team manager Enos Otieno, who was the Nakuru RFC coach, named him in the squad.

After the tournament, he was promoted to the second team commonly referred to as Wanyore.

“Initially, I could start as a substitute with very few minutes to play. Sometimes I didn’t manage to get to the field but as the tournament progressed, I was given more minutes. I was given a chance in the first team during the finals which we played against Impala at RFUEA grounds,” he said.

The lanky Nakuru RFC flanker’s Kenya Cup debut was in the 2016-2017 season against Mwamba RFC. Playing as a flanker, he scored eight tries in the whole season.

“I used to play number five before my Kenya Cup debut. Later, the coach switched me to the flank. At first, it was a big challenge because I had not played in that position before but the coach encouraged me a lot,” he said.

His call up to the national Under-20 team came as a shocker to him. He made the team to the Barthés U20 Cup in Madagascar but missed the trip since he did not have a passport.

Akuei when he joined Nakuru RFC Senior team.  [Photo courtesy of Monate Akuei]

The following year, he was named in the team again, but this time, his travel papers were ready.

“My debut in the national Under-20 was against Madagascar, where I scored a try. We later played Namibia in the final, where we lost 37-18,” he said.

Later that year, he was named in the national 15s team, Simbas, in the Victoria Cup where he scored two tries against Zimbabwe.

Akuei said winning the 2019 Tusker Safari Sevens against South Africa at the RFUEA Grounds was the most joyous moment in his rugby career.

Last week, Akuei signed for the New York Division One rugby club in USA. On the club’s Facebook page, the club announced that they have signed the Nakuru RFC danger man.

“Old Blue Rugby is excited to announce the signing of Kenyan international Akuei, who plays in the back row. The 23-year-old has played for Kenya 15s and 7s,” the club said. 

Reflecting on his rugby journey, Akuei singled out several individuals whom he attributed his success to. Nakuru RFC and Kenya Lionesses coach Felix Oloo tops the list.

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