What you need to know:
- Former rugby international who became the first indigenous Kenyan to captain the Karen Country Club lawn bowls section in its 74-year history
Karen Country Club, founded in 1937, can take pride in being one of Kenya’s most famous golf clubs.
It has hosted the country’s, and indeed the region's, foremost professional golf tournament, the Kenya Open, 12 times. Folklore has it that in the early days, it was not unusual for a round of golf to be interrupted by the appearance of dangerous African game like a pride of lions on the course.
In the bowel of the club, in between the greens and fairways are majestic trees, decades, possibly centuries old, giving vestigial images of a once-thriving tropical paradise.
At a corner of the iconic club, named after Karen Blixen, a Danish author best known for her book “Out of Africa” that described her 17-year-stay in Kenya in the early 1900s and which was adapted into an eponymous Academy Award winning movie released in 1985, sits another pristine wonder.
From afar, bird-chirping audible, you notice giant acacia trees with branches majestically reaching out unlike a condor, wings fully spread, surrounded by numerous weeping bottlebrush trees, interspersed by flowering poinsettia, their brilliant red blossoms adding an exotic feel to the Karen flora.
In the clearing, measuring about 40 metres by 40 metres, lies one of the most meticulously maintained grass surfaces in Kenya: the Karen Country Club lawn bowling green.
The urge to lie down on the aesthetically appealing green carpet and roll on it like a child full of play is almost irresistible.
This Saturday afternoon, a triples lawn bowls game is taking place on the six-rink green. One of the players in action is former Kenya rugby international Mumo Musembi, who has written history in Kenyan lawn bowls.
He is the current Karen Country Club Lawn Bowls captain, and the very first indigenous African skipper in the 74-year history of the club.
Wearing loose-fitting jeans and T-shirt, the easy talking 50-year-old Musembi glides on the immaculate surface like a fish in water, gleefully rolling forehand and backhand balls as he follows through his play.
With each roll he takes several steps forward, head tilted as he animatedly wills the ball to hit its mark around the jack– smaller white ball. It counts in winning a game.
One of his opponents is accomplished Kenya player Joseph Kitosi, but Musembi, looking very much in his element, goes on to win the game with a score of 14 points.
“In lawn bowling, you play different people, different styles. It is not as simple as it looks. There are many aspects to the game. It is very interesting. I love it,” the architect says.
But how did a man used to the rough and tumble, physically chaotic world of rugby switch to the smooth and suave, serene environment of lawn bowls?
You will have to go back to that fateful day in 1997.
The former rugby hooker recounts: “I was playing for Mean Machine and it was our last Kenya Cup game of the season against KCB. During a putdown, the scrum lifted. I could not entangle myself. That pressure got to my neck and it broke.”
He calmly pauses for a second or two. He could as well have been talking about the day’s weather. “I actually remember the bones breaking. Luckily, for me, my spinal cord was not affected. I was in pain but I could move my limbs, my fingers and toes. I sat out the rest of the match and, in fact, even had a drink with the boys after the game.”
Musembi pauses again, his eyes lighting up in amusement as he breaks into laughter.
“I was young and foolish. You know how boys are...” More laughter from the subject and the scribe, a former rugger too.
Retired rugby players are known to proudly bear their battle scars and injuries, like treasured war items, bravely acquired. Musembi is no different.
“I was still in pain though and when I returned to the university I was forced by concerned friends to visit the sick bay. The attendant almost panicked, insisting I go for a scan, which I did at Kenyatta Hospital. It revealed I had broken a vertebra,” he says.
The X-Rays revealed he had broken the C2 bone of his cervical spine.
He adds: “The doctor said that they could not tamper with it. The bone could not be re-attached. A decision was made that since I could move around without any problems, they would let things stay that way. But I was strongly advised never to engage in vigorous physical activity, including running.
“It was devastating. The following week Kenya was flying out to play Tunisia and I had been named in that team. I was supposed to pick my visa that Monday. Can you imagine?”
He asked himself, “Since I cannot run, what sport can I get involved in that does not involve running?”
“That is how I ended up here (at Karen Country Club Lawn Bowls),” he says.
That journey had, however, started much earlier.
Musembi’s father, David, team manager of the all-conquering Kenya Breweries FC team that won back-to-back Kenya Football Federation Super League titles in 1977 and 1978, was a member of the exclusive Nairobi Club, so playing at the facility was not a problem for the rugby-injured lad.
There, he met accomplished players like Joe Fahey, Michael Karanja and Charles Wambugu who held his hand as he learnt the ropes.
Musembi even acquired his own balls – a sign of his dedication to the game, purchasing them from Macharia Kabogo, one of the pioneer African players.
“These guys encouraged young players like us to play and change the face of the game in the country,” Musembi says.
He went on to be elected Nairobi Club Bowls Section captain for 2008-2009, becoming the youngest skipper in the history of the club, at 35 years of age.
“It was an interesting and a nice social game. It worked for me. You play against each other and no matter the intensity of the rivalry, both sets of players buy each other drinks after the game. Just like in rugby. I stayed,” he says.
To understand how Musembi has made a difference in lawn bowling you will need to look at his rugby history.
He was born in Nairobi in 1973 and bred in the same city, attending primary school at St Mary’s and secondary at Strathmore School where he excelled in swimming, hockey and rugby.
He had the brains to secure a place at the University of Nairobi to study Bachelor of Architecture, one of the most highly-sought courses in the country.
In his own words, he did not play much rugby in his first year in 1992.
“I was just a first year and the Mean Machine team at that time was teeming with big names. One of my good friends Victory Ohoya dragged me to start training with them. There I met senior players like Shaka Kwach who traumatised me the first time I went out for training by making me run like I had never run before. At the end of the session I swore never to train with the team again,” he says.
Instead, Musembi embarked on a personal fitness regimen that saw him hit the road on long runs. He returned the following year a fitter, more focused player, easily making the university’s Eric Shirley Shield team.
He broke into the Mean Machine first team in 1994, sharing the dressing room with varsity legends, the likes of brilliant stand-off Sammy Khakame, scrumhalf per excellence Tolbert Onyango and outstanding backs Thomas Opiyo and Paul Murunga.
He was part of the Machine side that finished runners up in the Kenya Cup in 1995.
His true leadership qualities came out in 1997. It must be something his mates at Machine had seen.
“I was elected Mean Machine chairman in absentia in 1996. I remember I was in Mombasa when the club held its Annual General Meeting in Nairobi. The outgoing chairman Tito Okuku made an executive decision that I would succeed him. My name was proposed in the meeting, seconded without hesitation and I was then voted in by acclamation. That is how I became chairman,” he says.
It was a baptism by fire for Musembi as he took over a team that had lost 12 of their top players who had cleared their studies.
Still, they became the first Mean Machine side to play in the final of the Great Rift 10-a-side tournament.
“We won the Christie Sevens beating KCB in the final after eliminating a star-studded Quins side featuring several Kenya Sevens internationals like Jeff Tolo, Sammy Khakame and Felix Ochieng, in the semi-final. This is one of the trophies I treasure the most in my rugby career. I won it with a set of new players, many of them first years,” he says.
He captained Machine a year later. Meanwhile, Musembi proved good enough to receive international call-ups, first for Kenya Clubs 15s, Scorpions, before the big one — Kenya Simbas, came in 1997.
Even after his neck injury, he went on to acquire a World Rugby Level One coaching certification in 1998 with the encouragement of KRU Development Officer, then Briton Stuart Urquhart.
In the end, Musembi reached Level Three qualification that allowed him to coach coaches. His rugby coaching stints are notable – Mean Machine head coach (1998-2004), Kenya Under-20 head coach (2000-2002), Cheetahs Super Rugby Franchise (2003-2005), Kenya Simbas forward coach (2004-2006), Buffaloes Super Rugby Franchise head coach (2006), Nondescripts coach (2005-2007).
It is this dedication to the project, resolute spirit, gusto and adventure that he has brought to lawn bowls.
“When I joined, bowling was predominantly a game of whites and old players. It really did not reflect Kenya’s diversity. From about 2008 we started deliberately encouraging new players to pick up the game.
“One of the things I did at Nairobi Club was to encourage the club to allow non-members to play the game at their greens. They would charge Sh300 then. That facility allowed many new players to pick the game. The only condition was to become a member of Kenya Bowling Federation (KBF). Membership was Sh1,000 per annum. That opened up the door for many players to join.”
The upshot. KBF, formed in 1954 by an executive committee from Nairobi City Council Bowls Club, Karen Country Club and Vet Lab Sports Club, saw its membership grow from a paltry 40 to 150.
During its golden days in the 1950s and 1960s the federation enjoyed a membership of over 300 players.
For comparison, lawn bowl powerhouses Australia have 169,349 registered bowlers, England (108,774), Scotland (59,436) and South Africa (23,585). Registered bowlers in other leading countries are New Zealand (25,298), Wales (9,810), Ireland 5,985, USA (2,914), Malaysia 1,268 and Korea (1,200).
“Our target is to have over 1,000 members,” Musembi says matter-of-factly.
Under Musembi’s watch as KBF secretary, first in 2012 and between 2016-2020, and chairman from 2020-2022, hitherto moribund clubs Ruiru Sports Club and Njoro Country Club were revived.
Kenya currently has seven active clubs including Karen Country Club, Limuru Country Club, Mombasa Sports Club, Muthaiga Country Club and Nairobi Club.
“To keep the clubs going we make sure they hold tournaments regularly. Competitions can have up to 50, 60 players,” says Musembi.
Importantly, players now know they will be called up to the national team on merit.
“We changed the KBF constitution. Previously, membership was clubs. One club, one vote. We changed the constitution to allow one man, one vote. As long as you are a paid up member (Sh1,500 per year) you are entitled to one vote,” he says.
They also changed how selection to the national team was done.
He adds: “Previously, to make the team that travelled for a tournament a player had to deposit Sh50,000 to cover for air fare. If you did not have that money you would not travel. So, the team selected was not the best per se, but the one that had players who could afford the trip. That has changed and the performance too.”
At the 2022 Africa States Tournament in Namibia, Kenya fielded four new caps – lady player Jedidah Maina and men Kjellan Awour, Anwar Hamada and Douglas Egege. Significantly, half the team was below 35 years.
Kenya just missed out on a first ever quarterfinal qualification at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games on points difference.
Eunice Mbugua finished 11th out of 18 in women’s singles while Cephas Kimani finished 12th out of 20 in men’s singles
In August 2019 the Kenya Bowling Federation successfully hosted the biennial Africa States Tournament in Nairobi that featured six nations.
The hosts finished second on 29 points after big guns South Africa (36 points) in the overall rankings, with Zimbabwe (28 points) third. Benson Kariuki, now pursuing a professional bowling career in Australia, won gold in the men’s single.
Musembi, who still sits on the KBF board as the immediate former chairman of the federation, said they have been trying to get a public rink to open the game to ordinary Kenyans.
That will be a game changer, he reckons. Hopes of having one at Jamhuri grounds have faded following a legal tussle over the land ownership. KBF is now pursuing establishing a public green at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani.
You can tell KBF has benefited from the leadership acumen of Musembi that has been practiced in other fields outside sports.
Arguably privileged but certainly not ostentatious, Musembi served as the Hon. Secretary of Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) from 2013-2015. Before that he was the chairman of the Architects Chapter AAK from 2011-2013.
On the regional front, he served as the East Africa Institute of Architects President in 2013 and vice president a year earlier. He was instrumental in the signing of the EAC Architects Mutual Recognition Agreement that allowed architects in East Africa to practice throughout the region.
Under Musembi’s watch the institute launched a commemorative book, “100 Years of East African Architecture” to mark a century of existence.
The father of three was Director at The Kenya Railways Corporation from 2016 to 2020 and oversaw construction works and commencement of the line operations of the Standard Gauge Railway phase 2A, from Nairobi to Suswa, in his role as the Chair of The Strategic Projects Committee.
A certified mediator, Musembi is currently serving in the Public Health Committee for the International Union of Architects (UIA).
“Leadership is more about getting the next generation of leaders to take over. There are other things I also want to do,” says the Karen club captain.
"Come, let us play this game."