Rose Asiko Wandera’s heart skips a beat whenever she recalls Gor Mahia vs 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 linesman.
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 angry fans.
“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 for over 20 minutes, they drove me all the way to Nakuru,” Wandera, 75 vividly recounts.
She also found herself in court to testify in a case where AFC Leopards player lost his teeth after an ugly tackle from Kenya Breweries opponent in yet another competitive national league match played at Nairobi’s City Stadium.
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“Ms Aluoch, the magistrate demanded to know what a woman was 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 The Standard 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 latter. I was focused and always aspired to give my best despite a 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, 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 by dismantled prejudices by dealing with insults and eventually won the grudging respect of those who previously held her in contempt. 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 one of the leading local dailies, last year.
Wandera had just finished jogging and was busy feeding her livestock at Aligula village in Likuyani sub-county during The Standard team visit.
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 saw me enrol for refereeing course starting from lowest level right to the top,” she explains.
Asiko was a dependable forward in the Eldoret Municipal Council women football team them. “I used to play Number 9 in the squad.
“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 over division Four football league then when she completed 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 African games in Ethiopia and Uganda due to some technical challenges.
“Just when we were about to travel to Ethiopia, I was informed that culture over there could not allow women to attend football matches which were regarded as a male affair in that country. Due to challenges in travelling logistics, I lost the chance to officiate in Uganda,” she revealed.
“The were many challenges at these level because there was no pay and many a times, referees would be paid depending on collections made at the gate on the match day, more often, I could go home empty handed.”
She would begin feeling better after she completed her class one course and began featuring in big matches.
“Usually, we would be paid Sh2,000 by cheques, sometimes the cheques could 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 over because the cheque was sent to Kisumu instead of Eldoret. “The incident demoralized me a lot.”
Her first ever match was Bushere FC vs Abaluhya FC which she managed with a lot of ease.
“I was invited to officiate over a match pitying 10 Battalion vs Eleven Battalion in Nanyuki, I send off the pitch 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.
On 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.”
“Usually, 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 choosing to quit.
In her long career, there doesn’t seem to be anything that 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 hanged her boots in late ’90s but would work as a match commissar 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 talents and I was called in to officiate over several matches, the experience was quite satisfying,” she says.
To date, Wandera cherish football and she would rather go and watch village matches to satisfy herself.
“My worry is that county governments are doing little to nurture young talents, particularly the girls who are going to waste in homes.”
Wandera says she has made countless trips to the County Sports department in Kakamega seeking help to start a women football tournament in the county.