The Legend of Kadenge, the wing magician

Neville Pudo was striker for Black Mamba and later Kenya Breweries FC. Today, it is known as Tusker FC. Pudo did international duty for Breweries but not for Kenya. In the photo above, he leaves goalkeeper Mohammed Magogo, the Breweries international, on the ground as he heads for goal during a training session at the Nairobi City Stadium in 1988.

Joe Kadenge stood in silence on the main stand of the Nairobi City Stadium. Lost in thought, he followed the paces of the young men who were going through their training out there in the field. He turned his head slowly, from one end of the pitch to the other. Once in a while, he looked back at the few spectators who were watching the proceedings with him. And he also occasionally looked beyond the walls, the trees, to the horizon.

One of the greatest players to kick a football for Kenya was here to shoot a documentary with me. He was 80 years old and it showed. So, to climb up the steps, I had to assist him. To interview him, I had to go at his pace. What was most gratifying was the respect with which the young footballers and their fans were treating him. Everywhere he turned, they gave him the right of way.

“This is where my career bloomed,” he told me when he finally sat down. “Most of the greatest matches I played in my career took place here. My sons played here – although I confess that I expected a lot more of them than I got. Nevertheless, it gives me some of my best memories. That is why I wanted us to talk here.”

Kadenge is in my opinion one of three sportsmen who by their charisma overcame Kenya’s intrinsic weaknesses of tribe, religion and race to attract the nation’s universal acclaim. Children of diverse ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds grew up wanting to be like them. In the impressionable minds of these youngsters, they didn’t belong to where in Kenya they had emerged from; they were just Kenyans. The other two sportsmen who fitted this description are Kipchoge Keino and Joginder Singh.

For me, the missing link in my life as a journalist is that portion when I couldn’t cover him because I was either not born or was too young for the assignment. At all the critical intersections of my long sports writing career, his name appears before me. I must have been five or six years old when I watched my cousin glued to the transistor radio, brooking no interruptions, his arms making figure eights in the air to the relentless commentary by Leonard Mambo Mbotela:

“Kadenge na mpira, Kadenge, Kadenge, Kadenge,

Kadenge na mpira, Kadenge ana kwenda, Kadenge,

Kadenge, Kadenge…..shoot! Gooooooal!”

The moves by my cousin’s arms, akin to the flow of a meandering river, indicated that Kadenge had been weaving his way past bemused defenders. But those moves predated even Mambo’s breathless commentary; they were there before Kenya’s independence in 1963.

Kadenge was the 22-year old wizard playing for North Nyanza FC who burst into the Kenya Colony side in 1956 to start a 14-year career with the future Harambee Stars. The days of the Gossage Cup, which he ruled with aplomb are long gone and the number of players and fans who bore witness to his bewitching skills has dwindled with each passing season. They are the ones to whom we turn for narratives of the Legend of Kadenge.

One of them is Leonard Mambo Mbotela, the icon of our radio airwaves. He told me: “I started my broadcasting career in the 1950s. I was working under the tutelage of the late Stephen Kikumu. I started training in football commentary when Kadenge was at his best. I remember him as an extremely talented player. When he got the ball on the right wing, it was just so difficult for a defender to dispossess him.

“He held on to the ball for long. He didn’t usually pass it. Once he got the ball, he tried to get past everybody and score. That gave me the style of commentary that Kenyans came to know about. As Kadenge toyed with defenders, I ran my commentary like this:

“Kadenge na mpira

Kadenge na mpira

Kadenge na mpira;

Kadenge ana kwenda,

Kadenge ana kwenda,

Kadenge ana kwenda,

Kadenge! Kadenge! Kadenge!

Kadenge na mpira…shooooot!


“He was a very special person. My football commentating style started with him.” Before Kenya Colony’s victorious Gossage Cup campaign in Illala Stadium, Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika in 1959, the team played a warm-up game against Coast Province Combined. It hammered them 6-1 but pundits were not satisfied, pointing out that the massive win was not so much illustrative of Kenya’s superiority but the Coast’s ineptitude. Still, there was a bright spark in the team – Joe Kadenge. An archival report of those proceedings said that “the highlight of the game undoubtedly came from North Nyanza’s star winger, Joseph Kadenge.

From about 30 yards’ range, he smashed a powerful and accurate shot into the corner of the net leaving the Coast keeper rooted in his tracks.” Of the impending campaign in Tanganyika, it added: “If Kenya’s forwards can continue to produce shots of this calibre, they will score a hatful of goals.” And that’s what they proceeded to do: with Kadenge and striking partner Ali Kajo raking in the goals, Kenya proceeded to win the Gossage Cup, seeing off the much fancied Uganda. Kadenge was a star performer in the Kenya team that defeated Scotland 3-2 to win the Uhuru Cup on December 15, 1963. He was the scorer of the third goal. By that time, the Daily Nation had been born and it celebrated his “crisp, cracking shot into the net in the 81st minute” after coming in as a substitute for the injured Ali Sungura.

Scotland’s team included World Cup star Peter Lorimer whose right foot drives packed enough velocity to start a forest fire.

In 1981, Harambee Stars won the first of three consecutive East and Central Africa Senior Challenge Cup titles. The tournament was played in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The host nation, with fanatical home support and featuring superstar striker Peter Tino, was heavily favoured to win. But Harambee Stars had a redoubtable defence featuring Bobby Ogolla, Josephat Murila, Hussein Kheri and Peter Bassanga Otieno. It also had the best goalkeeper of the tournament behind them, captain Mahmoud Abbas.Tanzania and Kenya went on to clear all opponents and square off in the final where Harambee Stars prevailed 1-0. Above, Abbas introduces Josephat Murila of the Kenya team to Tanzania’s Sports Minister at the Sheikh Karume Stadium in Arusha during one of the preliminary matches.

Kadenge the man is no less great than Kadenge the footballer. One of the great Ugandan footballers of his generation was Abbey Nasur. As a right winger, he had helped the Cranes to a second place finish in the 1978 Africa Nations Cup. When Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, was overthrown in 1979, the sportsmen he favoured because nearly all of them were employed by his hated army or police, became targets of retribution. Many fled, most coming to Kenya. Nasur was one of them. Along with hundreds of other Ugandans, he was held at the Kakamega showground and was staring repatriation in the face as Kenyan authorities prepared to ship back the unwanted refugees back home. Kadenge, then the team manager of Imara FC, knew of Nasur’s exploits on the football field and had heard that the frightened star was among the disheveled and dispirited Ugandans awaiting repatriation. He hurried there.

He talked the provincial administration into releasing Nasur, rented a house for him in Kibera and gave him a place in Imara. And he made sure that Nasur and his family never ran out of food. Nasur remembered all this for me: “I will never be able to thank Joe Kadenge enough for as long as I live. To this day, I am overwhelmed with gratitude each time I remember what he did for me. I played for Imara for two seasons and I helped nurture players like Wilberforce Mulamba and Francis Kadenge, Joe’s son.

But I don’t know what I will ever do for Joe. He treated me with a kindness more than the most loving father could.” In Hopes and Dreams, the book published to commemorate the first FIFA World Cup in Africa in 2010, Kadenge’s citation reads in part:

“Across Kenya, even those with little or no interest in football recognise his name and such was his impact that one of the most popular sayings in Kenya – ‘Kadenge na mpira, shuti goal!’ – is a tribute to the old master. Kadenge is still revered by most Kenyans up and down the country. Traffic police invariably salute and wave him on whenever they spot his taxi… Some people will tell you that Kadenge is to Kenyan football what Kipchoge Keino is to Kenyan athletics – a legend every young Kenyan wants to emulate. In his prime, he provided class, flair and character both on and off the pitch; a player who regularly pulled off the spectacular.”

The most player-centred and fiscally disciplined football administration in Kenya’s 52-year history is that of Mr Kenneth Matiba. That was the federation of the day when the sun was finally setting on Joe Kadenge’s career in 1975. On March 11, 1975, Matiba announced that the KFF would stage a testimonial match in Kadenge’s honour. Kadenge had in fact retired from the national team five years earlier. It was Eckhard Krautzun, the German tactician who was preparing Kenya for its first Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon, who had finally pulled the plug on the international career of the magician of the right wing. For some reason, Kadenge took it in his stride, focusing on his club career at Abaluhya and piling on the Kadenge na mpira legend. But finally it was going to be over.

Harambee Stars coach Francis Kimanzi during training at the Nyayo National Stadum on November 09 2011.The team is preparing for their preliminary World Cup qualifying match aganst Sychelles away on Friday.MOHAMMED AMIN

Yanga, the Tanzanian champions, lined up against Abaluhya on the sunny afternoon of March 15, 1975. The Tanzanians brought gifts with them, artefacts and scarves. It wasn’t much of a competitive game and on that afternoon at the City Stadium, Joe told me that he cried a lot that day. “I was leaving what I loved most. I loved football. I loved to entertain the crowds. And now here I was playing for the last time. I got badly affected.

His unique hold on Kenya’s football psyche was at an end. But the KFF ensured that his last match wouldn’t go unnoticed. It was the only time that Kenya football fans would hear of a federation honouring a retiring player.

Matiba paid glowing tribute to Kadenge and told him Kenya wouldn’t forget his service; he would immediately take over coaching the national team after his farewell match. The following Monday, Kadenge announced the national team that would take on Sudan in the Nations Cup qualifiers.

Thus began his managerial career. Kadenge desperately wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps. Wycliffe, Evans, Rogers, Oscar and most important, Francis, attempted to carry the family name but all fell by the wayside, before their careers had even seriously begun. Francis’ death made him despair and he wondered what had become of young people and their capacity to hang in there, to endure, to stay the course no matter what. He mourned: “We were tough. We didn’t complain. We just overcame.” The failed careers of his sons gave Joe a big heartache, something he carries to this day.

Yanga, the Tanzanian champions, lined up against Abaluhya on the sunny afternoon of March 15, 1975. The Tanzanians brought gifts with them, artefacts and scarves. It wasn’t much of a competitive game and on that afternoon at the City Stadium, Joe told me that he cried a lot

But ordinary Kenyans have always been kind to him. When he suffered a stroke in 2006, there was an outpouring of emotion and his hospital bed was flooded with sympathisers and it was hard for the medical personnel attending to him. The public cleared his bills. Grateful Kenyans have also sought to honour him in their own way.

A group of fans calling themselves Harambee Stars Fanatix, led by US-based Jared Origi, a brother of former national team captain Austin Oduor, inducted him into their Kenya Football Hall of Fame in 2013. He was their first inductee. They gave him a framed plaque and a cash award of KSh80,000. Joe was deeply moved by this citizen recognition.

It is decades since we last heard Kadenge na mpira. That is gone, probably forever unless someone down the line of his grandchildren and great grandchildren takes up the Old Joe’s mantle. Kenya’s right wing has also been that much poorer without him. But what shall never die is the legend of Joe Kadenge.

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