Tribute: The Benjamin Ayimba I knew
A friendship that lasted 30 years, a vision for rugby development, the rise and fall of Masaku Sevens and plans for Kenya Rugby League
The story of my beloved friend and legend, Benja, can’t be told in one day or one piece. It will take many years and generations for his story to be told.
Our friendship dates back 30 years ago in 1991 when it started in Kisumu at 14 years of age when we were getting into the game of rugby which we were madly in love with.
I had joined Form One at Kisumu Boys School and he had joined Maseno School after completing primary school in Nairobi. Maseno is just up the hill from Kisumu. It was the same year that Kisumu Rugby Club was being set up.
We were rivals on the pitch every time Kisumu Boys played against Maseno School for four years. He rose to captain Maseno as I also became captain of Kisumu Boys rugby team.
As new team Kisumu Rugby Club didn’t have enough numbers in training or even to honour fixtures, several of us from Kisumu Boys School were recruited by Gwada Ogot, Jos Odaga, Jimmy Owino, Godie Raila and Jack Ogal (who was our teacher and Coach at KB at the same time and also our team mate at Kisumu Rugby Club), among others, to train with the club in the evenings and on some weekends.
Many players from our school were scared of training with the club (for obvious reasons) but few of us were actually attracted to play “adult rugby” with the big boys. It greatly improved our physique and skills and by the time I turned 16-years-old, I started playing club rugby for Kisumu regularly.
Because of the lack of numbers during games, the club officials started “channeling” Ayimba from Maseno and Makanga Vincent from Nyang’ori School to join us for matches against other clubs. Our bond grew even stronger during these few occasions. So by default we helped in the foundation and development of Kisumu Rugby Club , and I believe this is when the spirit of rugby development was born in Ayimba and Me. In later years after retirement from playing the game, we committed ourselves to rugby development in the whole of Kenya, a story for another day.
After school Benja joined Impala Rugby Club in Nairobi and I would join Mwamba Rugby Club when I moved to Nairobi for Tertiary Education in 1997.
We reconnected again and kind of picked up our rivalry on the pitch and great buddies off the pitch. That same year we would get into international rugby and play for Select Kenya National teams. It was around this time during the national teams training that we realized that we were born in the same year, 1976, same month and only days apart, me on the 23rd and him on the 27th. This made our bond very very tight. I used to call him during my birthday and brag how I was now older than him, and he would catch up with me on the 27th…. and we had great fun with this. We started having our private joint parties quietly, where the guests were only the two of us, with beer.
His intellect and leadership skills were A1, always the great diplomat and first class gentleman who would always negotiate during our projects .He greatly complimented me with this gentle character because I am quite the opposite.
One memorable occasion where he showed his leadership skills was when we travelled to Zimbabwe in 2003 for the International Test series, with him as the captain of Team Kenya. We played the first test vs Zimbabwe Universities Select team in Harare at the beginning of the week, after which we travelled to Bulawayo for the main test match against Zimbabwe national team, the Sables, at the Hartsfield Stadium.
Our hosts had given us an old bus for the journey from Harare to Bulawayo, complete with an elderly male driver! A journey that’s supposed to take a few hours, turned out into a whole day's trip. We believe that our Zimbabwe friends had bribed the driver to drive slowly too… something that they keep denying to date.
You can imagine the restlessness of the squad of almost 30 Kenyans on the journey, plus we couldn’t harass the driver because he was a Mzee. Benja worked his great leadership skills and helped to calm everyone down . We were supposed to reach Bulawayo in the afternoon, in good time for the Captain’s run (pre-match training) on the pitch at Hartsfield.
It's standard requirement for all international games to train on the pitch you will use one day before the match, for you to familiarize and “acclimatize” yourselves with it. Ayimba realized that we were not going to reach Bulawayo in good time, and decided to make a call that we stop and train midway in one of the towns.
Of course some of us “rebelled” as expected but he prevailed. So when we reached the town of Gweru, we checked around and saw a school with a rugby pitch next to the road (thanks to good town planning) I believe it was Gweru High School. So we stopped, changed into a kit and had our one hour training here, then proceeded with the journey. We reached Bulawayo at night ( around 7pm) and went to check out the pitch in darkness!
We lost the game the following day, in a tightly contested match, with a very narrow margin. At that time we didn’t know that the bus that we travelled with called “Nyaradzo” was apparently a funeral bus, hired out for ferrying mourners for burials! Well the Zimbabweans had “killed” us already in their minds and we were “dead on arrival” by the time we reached Bulawayo!
We had stopped to cook our food at some roadside “kibandaski” which we took over from the owner, and Kieran Jethwa (the celebrated international Kenyan chef took over as our head cook. Ayimba was exemplary during this safari.
As we neared the end of our playing days, we jointly developed a vision to help develop rugby in Kenya and to help introduce the game to new regions and schools that didn’t have rugby yet. We helped to develop several teams, clinics and tournaments in Watamu at the Coast, Masaku, Kimathi Institute in Nyeri, Meru, Kitui, Bomet, the Eastlands of Nairobi, etc.
In Machakos we made our mark and helped to develop the club and Masaku Sevens tournament, which grew quickly within three short years to become an international tournament with teams from different parts of the world.
Ayimba worked very hard with me, to help this tournament become a success. Endless sleepless nights of non-stop designing and planning, plus looking for resources for the tournament. He was very reliable and completely dedicated and this made my work very easy. Never before had we seen a tournament with great impact in the community around it. The power of sports should never be underestimated.
In 2014, the event was sadly killed due a sponsorship rivalry. A mix of boardroom ego and a well-orchestrated plan to bring the first rising tournament. And it worked spectacularly.
This always saddened my friend forever. Since that day we started focusing a lot on the character of the people managing any brands that we were discussing sponsorship with. We learnt that sometimes it’s best to develop your tournament with small brands, who tend to be more human and are actually more intelligent.
In 2007, we also made a resolution that Kenya was an emerging world rugby super power and needed to have rugby league also present alongside rugby union. He dedicated himself to help drive this dream and we worked on it from 2007 to 2019 , when we finally got registered. Remember we had to go to court at the Sports Tribunal to get registration, took us over four years of battle but we won again.
In 2020, he started his work at Kenya Rugby League Federation, our new outfit as the Technical Director, and developed a bold vision of KRL qualifying for the Rugby League World Cup in 2025 and having a podium finish.
This one we will continue to develop in his absence now…… it's just hit me again that he is gone away forever, on a safari from which he will never return
We had so many plans for KRL, rugby Scholarships for kids,rugby school and academies, international test matches, starting the first ever professional rugby league in Kenya, ladies rugby development, the list is endless… even hosting an international rugby tournament in the wildlife of Samburu.
We had looked forward to having a big birthday party this year as we became 45 and wanted to invite all our friends, complete with a live music concert, we had even started thinking of which artists to work with for this.
Baba I can't never finish writing your story man, I have to stop for today.
It's been solid friendship and love for 30 strong years, today I say “oriti nyathiwa”. We loved you big and you loved us back and showed us your very best part and shared your intellect and knowledge all the time, to help us develop rugby.
We always joked that our friendship must have been crafted by God himself. We were born the same year, same month, days apart, we picked the game rugby in Kisumu at the same time.
Our ancestral homes (shags) are also in Alego in Siaya County , yes we are JOALEGO…..you can't make this stuff up.
He always called me Wuon-Nyiri (father of girls) on some days to get at me and I called him Wuon-Yawoyi (father of boys) . See, I have daughters only and he has sons only. He told me that he was envious of me having daughters only and often told him the feeling was mutual. We would laugh and have a drink as we designed our rugby projects. I will miss those “beer games” big time.
We had to meet in seedy joints most of the time cause he was so popular that everywhere we went, friends always joined our table, and this stopped us from discussing the stuff we wanted. So we loved hiding at the Railway Club Nairobi at our “corner” away from limelight, and here we would develop great rugby projects that worked out magic.
He collected several names over the years in rugby, Kapi, Stalwart, Koches, Baba... the list is endless.
My dear friend, your stories will never end and I have to stop here for now. I thank you very much for the love and support for the 30 years we have been together. Piny osiko to oksikie.
Your life is a testimony to all that we can achieve greatness, once we design it and work towards it.
Our mantra of #ONGEMATEK (nothing is impossible) always kept us going and made us achieve a lot of big projects. I will keep it alive baba!
Quicks Nyakwaka is the chairman of the Kenya Rugby League Federation