Yesteryear Swahili football commentary on radio was as beautiful as the game

A young football commentator Mohammed Juma Njuguna at work in the BBC’s London studios in the 1970s. Njuguna was among Kenya’s greatest Swahili language football commentators along with Stephen Kikumu, Salim Juma, Salim Mohammed, Leonard Mambo Mbotela and Ali Salim Manga. PHOTO | FILE |

What you need to know:

  • Stephen Kikumu, Salim Juma, Mo’ Juma, Leonard Mambo, Ali Salim amongst others held audiences captive with their lovely turn of phrases in Kenya’s national language.
  • Kikumu, the 1950s and early 60s radioman, is the father of this genre of communication.

I am not sure if this is the case anymore but in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Swahili was unquestionably the language with which the people of Kenya enjoyed their football.

One of the most fascinating sights in my career was watching fans going to the stadium carrying a radio to listen to the Swahili commentary of the very game they were watching.

For them, it was a double helping of sight and sound. For some fans, the commentators were an integral part of the game, just like the players, the referee and the coaches.

The great radio commentators gave us joy and high blood pressure at the same time while making expressions that will outlive them.

But citizens of all callings and ages also found a way of playing with the Swahili language when describing simple moves in a backyard kick about or expressing awe at the exploits of the nation’s stars.

Both fans and commentators developed a unique discourse for the game which was often lost in translation. And they elevated hyperbole into an art.


In early geography lessons, the teacher told us that the Equator is an imaginary line that divides the world into two equal parts. But the Equator was something else altogether in the football field at break time.

Any boy who had the misfortune of having the ball passed between his legs as he tried to stop an opponent suffered these humiliating taunts: Alikatwa Equator!”

To the energetic children growing up in the Eastlands suburbs of Nairobi, “kukata mtu Equator” meant dividing your opponent into two equal parts with a football.

It was a mark of distinction and the hero wore his accolades on his sleeves. Whoever could do that to people again and again was a respected “man.”

In my view, Kenya’s greatest Swahili language football commentators were Stephen Kikumu, Salim Juma, Salim Mohammed, Mohammed Juma Njuguna, Leonard Mambo Mbotela and Ali Salim Manga.

Kikumu, the 1950s and early 60s radioman, is the father of this genre of communication.

He inspired the others and they certainly made a good job of it.

I have never carried a radio with me to a football stadium but Ali Salim Manga once said something that made me appreciate the motivation behind those who did.

In 1994, I was watching the Kenya Breweries versus Motema Pembe Africa Cup Winners Cup final at Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi on television.

Manga was doing the commentary. We conceded a direct free kick and the big Congolese man designated to take it started walking backwards to gather momentum.

He seemed to walk forever. Then he stopped and surveyed everybody before him – defensive wall, goalkeeper, referee et al.

Before he set off on his full-blooded run for the shot, Manga announced: “Msikilizaji, kama ungekuwa hapa, ungefikiria ni ndege inajitayarisha kuondoka. (Listener, if you had been here, you would have thought it is an aircraft preparing for take-off.)


For the life of me, I could not think of a better comparison. It was all there: the backward movement from the packing bay, the pause on the threshold of the runaway, and then the mighty charging down.

Stanley Oloitipitip was at one time Kenya’s Minister for Culture and Social Services.

The portfolio included sports.

Oloitipitip, who once publicly boasted that he could spend Sh150 million on the wedding of his daughter if he chose to, was a large man who lived even larger. For his unusually huge girth, you couldn’t miss his arrival anywhere.

And Mambo didn’t when Oloitipitip arrived to preside over one Madaraka Day Cup final at the City Stadium. “Namuona pale mgeni wa heshima, Mheshimiwa Stanley Shapashana Oloitipitip, aliye waziri anaehusika na mambo ya michezo akiwasili…amejaa-jaa, bwana waziri…” (“I can see the arrival of the chief guest, Hon. Stanley Shapashana Oloitipitip, who is the minister responsible for sport. He is full-full, the honourable minister…”) This is called lost in translation.

There is no way to convey Mambo’s informal description of the minister’s figure.

It is also open to whichever way you prefer to interpret it, positively or negatively.

Gor Mahia had a player called Martin Ouma. His nickname was “Ogwanjo.”

He had long throw-ins from the touchline. In one of those derbies against AFC Leopards, the ball went out and Salim Mohammed momentarily had difficulty about whether it was going to be throw-in or a corner kick.

“Ni kona ball,” (“It’s a corner ball”) he said at first, before correcting himself: “Aah-ah! Ni mpira wa kurushwa.” (“It’s a throw-in”).

Still, that wasn’t the case. To put his flustered listeners on an even keel, Mohammed embarked on a delightful explanation which he repeated whenever the opportunity repeated itself.

“Kona, au kurushwa kwa Martin Ouma Ogwanjo, ni kitu kimoja tu!” (“A corner kick or a throw-in by Martin Ouma Ogwanjo is one and the same thing!”)

There were many words used by our commentators whose meaning I didn’t know. I never thought it necessary to consult a kamusi, the Swahili dictionary because they spoke for themselves and if they didn’t, the uncertainty was part of the drama. In fact, knowing the meaning even risked diluting its impact.

But I suspect that like “kukata mtu Equator”, some words are unlikely to be found in the kamusi. They are the products of rich imaginations. I have already forgiven myself the laziness of not wanting to find out which can be found and which cannot.

Why get in the way of a good commentary? What, for instance, is a kinyang’anyiro?

This was the standard description of a major match, such as a Cup final.

This same goes for kidumbwedumbwe. It sounds like such a huge thing. A colossus. It is during kinyang’anyiros and kidumbwedumbwes that a kizaaa-zaa occurred in the match. I verily understood this to be a goalmouth melee, especially in that of the team the commentator and all of us were rooting for.

At that point, and if the commentator was Mambo, the commentary went into speaking-in-tongues mode.

A kizaaa-zaa could not occur at a worse time than during the dying minutes of kipindi cha lala salama, as the second half was called. Fans braced themselves.

Anything could happen. I was always anxious about kipindi cha lala salama despite being enamoured of the poetry of the phrase. The outcome of proceedings during kipindi cha lala salama had grave implications on the mood in many homes during the coming week. Domestic tranquility was at stake.

What is a kombora in football? What is a mkwaju?

Reporting in English, we sports journalists have at times used phrases like “a rocket-like free kick” or “a grass-cutter” or “a block-buster.”

But I confess that nothing quite describes it like a kombora or a mkwaju. You know, sometimes you have these visions of the grass going up in smoke in the wake of the grass cutting kombora. You may imagine that a fan is hallucinating but that is his stark reality. It can’t get better if that missile results in the winning goal for his team.

The first time Abaluhya striker David Asibwa was called to the national team, a fan wrote to the Nation Sports Editor and disparaged the selection thus: “Asibwa turns like a bus.” This earned Asibwa a new nick-name, “OTC”, after the Overseas Trading Company buses that plied Kenya’s up-country routes at that time.

It says much of Asibwa’s size and movements that the fan could only think of him in terms of a bus.

Leonard Mambo Mbotela’s description of Asibwa in Swahili was just as evocative. He crowed into the microphone: “Asibwa, David Asibwa, pandikizi la mtu!” It translates in English as a man-giant.

In American football, a long, desperate forward pass, usually coming in the closing minutes of the game and with only a very slim chance of success is called a Hail Mary pass.

I didn’t know we had an equivalent situation until October 12, 1980, when City Stadium gatekeepers ignored my press pass and forced me to sit in the terraces among the fans.

I wrote a story about my unpleasant experience and the Mayor of Nairobi, Councillor Nathan Kahara — surprise, surprise — wrote an apology to me which I still keep.

It was a Gor Mahia versus Abaluhya league match.

I had never known that there could be a similarity between the antics of Nairobi’s hawkers and a football match until that day.

As night beckons after a hard working day, hawkers drop their prices in a desperate effort to make one final sale. They loudly advertise it as the evening price.

The league match in question was won 1-0 by Gor Mahia through a 35th minute penalty by Andrew Obunga.


It broke Abaluhya’s thus far unbeaten league run. I was reporting it. As the final minutes ticked by, something Hail Mary or what Nairobi hawkers do unfolded.

I wrote for the Nation: “There was an element of desperation in Abaluhya. They did everything. On the whole, they had more of the game. They were the more aggressive attackers. Ideally, the match should have ended in a draw.”

Abaluhya kicked long balls into Gor Mahia’s penalty area in the hope of forcing a mistake that could just result in a penalty.

That’s when a stricken fan beside me remarked: “Sasa mambo ya bei ya jioni yameanza.” With great difficulty, I suppressed a laugh that could have surely earned me a rearrangement of my dental formula.

It translates as: “It’s now time for the evening price.”

The English translation is flat. But the Swahili statement, in the anguish of its tone together with the look in the speaker’s face, travels inside your veins and lodges itself indelibly in the mind.