Ingwe: The golden age of AFC Leopards

In 1985, the shirt spon- sor for AFC Leopards was Crown Paints. It was a pioneer deal at professionalizing Kenya football, which was nev- er followed through and the club soon plunged into the doldrums, even getting relegated from the Premier League.

The desire for a goal was all too evident. As early as the seventh minute, the hearts of AFC Leopards’ true believers missed a beat when Mahmoud Abbas dropped a ball and Leventis’ Oyo Oguanlana just chipped it over. Minutes later, Leopards’ Dan Musuku handed over the ball to Leventis goalkeeper Edward Ansah when all alone. And more…

Unfortunately, it was Leventis who exhibited all the enterprise. I leaned over to a friend and said: “The Leopardscrowd is not cheering their team.” He turned my way and said: “Kenyan crowds don’t cheer their teams.” He was a former Harambee Stars player who knew the passion of Egyptian, Senegalese, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Congolese fans and was not impressed with his countrymen. Midway through the second session, when hope for a Leopards’ goal seemed to be ebbing away fast,

I asked him: “What should Leopards do now to turn this game around?”

He said: “They should change tactics. They should now just try to force a mistake. They should keep dropping that ball to (Wilberforce) Mulamba and (Dan) Musuku, who should remain in the penalty area so that someone’s anxiety might result in a goal. I can’t see another way. But they need the crowd. They need to be pushed. When you are out there and people are not cheering, you get tired.

But when people cheer you, you drive yourself harder. But I can’t see the crowd doing this. Kenyan crowds only cheer goals and then keep quiet.” It was a harsh judgment, but in this case true, because the Leopards crowd was uncharacteristically mute.

These were the proceedings of the 1985 Africa Cup Winners Cup semi-final between AFC Leopards and Nigeria’s Leventis United at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi. Leventis had brought to Kenya a healthy 2-0 first leg victory and all they needed to do was to hold on to it to reach their first final. AFC Leopards, Kenya’s pre-eminent home team, needed every last measure of character to overturn that. They needed their fervent crowd, with its ceaseless drums and horns. But things were not going well.

It is difficult to tell specifically what was wrong with the Leopards crowd because it was simply not there. There was a sea of people that apparently filled every spot available and yet it was possible to hear a pin drop at times. The running joke about the troupe of drummers and dancers that follows AFC Leopards was that they got so busy doing their thing that after every game they were attending, they needed to ask somebody else: “What was the result?” But that Saturday, things were different.

They, too, laid down tools and only resurrected after Leopards’ lone goal which, pitifully, was inadequate to get into Leventis’ path to the final. They left Nyayo National Stadium without having to ask for the result. I later spoke to Ansah and asked him, if how they had played is how they had planned. “No, no, it wasn’t.

He was a redoubtable defender with Black Mamba, a middle ranking team which, though never in the running for the league title, always gave hell to the big boys who kept Mamba in its place by constantly poaching its rising stars. Mamba thus had the characteristic of a plant whose head was always getting chopped every time it sprouted. It never grew and eventually died

We had planned to attack all the way but somewhere in the second-half, we started defending and lost concentration. That is how the goal was scored. We were not concentrating.” He seemed apologetic, jaded and a bit defeated as he dug away at his bottle of glucose: “It is the first goal we have conceded in this tournament.”

What did he think of Leopards? “They are a good side,” he replied. “They have a very good captain and a very good left winger. And also their right winger, the guy who scored the goal. Very crafty.” The captain was Wilberforce Mulamba, the left winger was Mike Amwayi, and his opposite number was Dan Musuku.

The semi-final remains the farthest AFC Leopards has ever reached in any CAF tournament since their founding in 1964. They had such a promising start when they got to the 1968 Champions League semi-final but over the decades, a repeat of this performance has ebbed further and further away. In the 2000s, it remains as distant as ever.

And yet this has always been a team brimming with talent. I was a young reporter covering the return league match between AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia on September 8, 1984. Leopards had won the first leg 1-0 and were gunning for a repeat. Gor wanted to even the scores. Even neutrals, such as there were, needed nerves of steel to contain the suffocating tension. But one player put on an astonishing act of exhibitionism that was completely out of character with the stiffness on the pitch.

This is what I reported:

“At 5:05pm, Leopards defender, Mickey Weche, overlapped and found himself confronted by Gor winger Sammy Onyango. He paused and found the way blocked. Without further thought, he trapped the ball between his right heel and the top of his left foot and sent the ball spinning over his own back and over his opponent. He ran past Onyango, trapped the ball again and sent it over to midfield. I thought that was art in its purest form, a performance worthy of the highest levels of football. Talent? We got it.”

In the purity of its genius, that piece of sorcery, together with the flying save that I once saw Mahmoud Abbas make and all the other countless moments of heart stopping artistry over the last 50 years, must have inspired the slogan “Ours Forever” among the club faithful. But, of course, that is only one side of the AFC Leopards story. There is another one, a less enchanting one. It is about how Henry Omondi died. He was a Leopards defender of the 1980s era; not as great as the legendary Josephat Murila or Daniel Anyanzwa or Jonathan Niva before him – but a first eleven member all the same; a big statement to make for a player of that time. He was an itinerant tenant who always lived in a single room in various estates in Nairobi’s Eastlands. One day, he failed to wake up on time.

After knocking on his door several times without answer, his neighbour and teammate, Peter Lichungu, peered through the key hole and saw him lying in what appeared a comfortable position on his bed. Lichungu was in a hurry and decided to let his friend continue sleeping but on running into Edward Kiiza, he made a point of telling him that he had unsuccessfully tried to wake Omondi up. Kiiza was a big Ugandan who had made Kenya his home.

He was a redoubtable defender with Black Mamba, a middle ranking team which, though never in the running for the league title, always gave hell to the big boys who kept Mamba in its place by constantly poaching its rising stars. Mamba thus had the characteristic of a plant whose head was always getting chopped every time it sprouted.

It never grew and eventually died.

Kiiza promised Lichungu he would pass by and have a word with Omondi. Lichungu went on his way. Later in the day, Kiiza told Lichungu that Omondi never woke up. They had to break into his room when he failed to respond to the ever desperate bangs on his door. They found him dead.

Such a death is not exactly unusual but it is the manner of the transportation of his body home that was. His casket, with the handful of earthly belongings he owned – a few clothes, bedding, stools and soot-covered pots – was loaded on a tipper, the kind that self-offloads sand and ballast in construction sites. It was donated by a Good Samaritan. The involuntary thought, improbable as it was, is that is what could be done in Omondi’s final journey home.

It broke Lichungu’s heart.

“I have never seen a sadder sight in my life,” Lichungu told me. “Imagine somebody’s body being loaded on a tipper. Imagine his clothes and utensils and furniture with it. Imagine the scene of the arrival of that body home. There are many moments when I have felt low in football and some have made me quit only to return later after that relentless feeling. But this one reached a depth I cannot explain. To this day, it haunts me.”

This then is the totality of the AFC Leopards story. There is never a dull moment here. One of Kenya’s two most supported clubs has swung like a pendulum from greatness to mediocrity every now and then, but it has never failed to galvanise its fans even, strangely, when it plummeted to its deepest lows and was banished to the provincial league. It rose again, as it always has, and provided fans, opponents and neutrals with plenty to talk about; today happy, tomorrow sad, and funny the next.

How many can remember what was said when its bulky 1960s era striker, David Asibwa, was suggested for the national team? A wag, waxing analytical, thought that was going to be a mistake. He said: “Asibwa turns like a bus.” There and then Asibwa acquired a nickname – “OTC”. The Overseas Trading Company was an iconic organisation of the ‘60s that ran a highly efficient bus company whose fleet traversed the East African region. Its headquarters was the big building at the junction of Ronald Ngala and Landhies Roads in Nairobi, a bus stage that is still referred to as OTC today.

Despite the naysayers, Asibwa made the national team. In 2014, AFC Leopards marked the 50th anniversary of its founding. For a club that should be one of Kenya’s most hallowed social institutions, the event was as low key as they come. But there were still many Kenyans who took time off to reflect on the giants who made the AFC Leopards story. Even if there was no clubhouse to exhibit arresting photos of these men, they still remained in the mind, like an arresting slide show: Elijah Lidonde, Anthony Mukabwa, Joe Kadenge, Livingstone Madegwa, John Nyawanga, Wilberforce Mulamba, J.J. Masiga and the penetrating gazes of coaches Robert Kiberu, Gerry Saurer, Graham Williams and Charles Gyamfi.

AFC Leopards’ official founding is 1964. But its beginnings hack back at least two years earlier. Daily Nation sportswriter, Cyprian Fernandes, filed this report on March 10,


“Abaluhya United could be the name of the season’s shock side in the National League due to start at the beginning of May. Abaluhya United? It is an amalgamation of five teams, Samia, Bunyore, Kakamega, Marama and Kisa – four of the ‘pioneer’ teams of the League. Former Kenya wing-half Richard Pamba has told me that there will be a meeting in the near future to confirm the amalgamation. He added that Maragoli had been invited, but had not accepted.”

When that amalgamation process was going on, the same Nation reported that Abaluhya FC had knocked out Maragoli from the Ahsan Cup, by beating them 2-1. The Ahsan Cup started in August 1963 and Abaluhya FC was participating as records clearly show.

Before this, the Daily Nation of September 1, 1962 reported that Stephen Baraza, who sometimes played for Abaluhya FC, and had previously played for the Kenya national team in the Gossage Cup, was barred from turning out for Uganda as he had intended.

The Daily Nation of February 4, 1963 reported that Abaluhya-Elgon beat Abaluhya-Nyanza 4-2 in a friendly match. However, there is no information linking these two teams to the Nairobi Abaluhya Union FC.

On July 18, 1963, the Daily Nation reported:

“Some Kenya top soccer teams have accepted invitations to participate in the Allsopps Cup competition organised by the Kenya Goan Sports Association. The Mombasa and Nakuru teams, which are given a bye into the first round proper, will receive travelling allowances. The entries: Abaluyha, Caledonians (Scotsmen), Juventus (Italians), Luo Union, Maragoli, Nairobi Heroes (Goans), Scots Guards (British Army), Feisal, Liverpool, Nakuru All Stars.”

In this knockout competition, Caledonians beat Abaluhya 2-1 to lift the Cup at the Railway ground on August 5, 1963. Abaluhya’s scorer was a player named Agai, a trainee at the Railway Training School. From these records, it is therefore clear that Abaluhya FC existed long before the amalgamation of those five clubs into the strong, united club that it became after the pivotal event of 1964.

The club existed as an entity as early as 1962 and the events of March 1964 merely gave it a new look, exactly like the political directive of January 1981 converted Abaluhya FC into All Footballers Confederation Leopards Sports Club, AFC Leopards for short.

It was the same club in new colours. The new, strengthened Abaluhya FC beat Young Muslims 3-2 in Ahsan Cup on 19 April, 1964 to “win their first trophy in their first attempt” according to the Nation. Fifty years is a short time in the life of any institution because it is within the living memory of many people. But it is also a very long time in the lives of football players because of the shortness of their playing careers. At most, many do a maximum of 10 years. AFC Leopards has therefore produced five generations of players regardless of whether you are counting from 1962 or 1964.


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