Back in January before I have my own Arsenal blog I wrote a piece for O Posts based around the passion of Nigerian Gooners. I was astounded by my research at the time, but less and less so as I have got to know so many fans from Nigeria through twitter and through their comments on my blogs. At the time I was delighted to invite Nigerian Gunners who followed me to contribute to the article and it was their contributions that brought the piece to life for both this writer and the readers. (The link to the article is at the bottom of this blog.) At the time I was asked by a few fans from across the continent in East African Kenya if I would write about their passion, which was equally as strong? Well sorry it has taken so long @GoonerLex and @PaxArtetaGervis, but your patience has been rewarded.
In the summer period I will of course be blogging on developments as they occur at the Emirates, but instead of writing on our players at the Euros, which many other are doing so well, I will be taking ‘1nildown2oneup’ around the globe. The first piece inspired by Anders Bertsten (@BerntsenAnders) visited the passion for Arsenal in Norway and I decided that Kenya should be next. However the response to my low key announcement of this fact on twitter was so overwhelming and so brilliant that it cannot be a Kenyan blog on ‘1nildown2oneup,’ it will need to be a Kenyan week.
So with the help of some twitter buddies this piece will aim really just to set the Arsenal scene and backdrop in football mad East Africa. This will be followed by some Kenya guest bloggers later in the week, sharing their views and their own thoughts and journeys to the mighty Red and White.
The current population of Kenya stands at 40 million people. The majority of Arsenal fans started following us in the mid nineties during the George Graham era, but the fanbase increased enormously with the new style of ‘Sexy football’ brought by Arsene Wenger and jumped further with the arrival at Highbury of continental legend Kanu. Kenyan’s like most African football fans believe that Arsenal play football the way it should be played and this has resulted in Arsenal remaining the most supported club in Kenya despite the 7 year trophy wait.
Fanbase grew further with arrival at Highbury of African football icon
The influx of African players on the Arsenal team has played a big part, from Wreh, Kanu, Lauren, Kolo, Eboue, Ade, Song, all have increased Arsenal’s popularity in Kenya and also Africa. Of course this infux in no small part contributed to the success of the 1998-2004. Most of the Gunners who have assisted me with this piece began supporting Arsenal in 1998. To quote Richard Mwasya, (@RichievanPersie)
“I started supporting Arsenal way back in 1998, but my climax was the clinched the won the EPL at Old Trafford. When Sylvain Wiltord hit what proved to be the title clincher, I remember I and fellow Gooners dancing in the streets of Nairobi with my Bergkamp 10 jersey on, how I really relish such a moment again, it would be ecstatic.”
It is hard for us to perhaps comprehend just how massive Premier league football has become in Kenya. It has become hugely tribal and the passions run very high between Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool fans in particular. Some of my contributors argue that Arsenal are bigger than Manchester United , and others put us a close second, but the fact is that we are the best supported club and our fans there have stuck with us for what has been a difficult 7 years. When I say difficult I do mean exactly that as rivalries are intense and passion does spill over. All my Kenyan contributors have spoken of the constant ridicule and abuse they have to take, but they stand firm.
When I say it is a fact that AFC are the best supported this comes from the ‘Barclays Global Fan Report. 2011. The report suggests that 15 million of the £40 million Kenyan population follow the EPL, and of that 43% support the Gunners. This puts our support in Kenya at 6.45 million, some 16% of the entire populous. Manchester United come a poor second and Liverpool trail in 3rd with 36% and 13% respectively. It would appear Kenyans are traditionalist when it comes to choosing their football loyalty.
The City scene is fascinating and your loyalties determine where you will watch the matches and most fans tend to congregate together in pubs and bars with a known allegiance. The drinking locations are claimed and held by supporters and it is risky or dangerous for fans of other clubs to venture in. The official hallowed ground for Gooners in Nairobi is ‘Taidy’s Sports Bar,’ acknowledged by Kenya Gooners as the home ground. The whole interior is plastered with Arsenal colours, posters, fixtures lists and flags. Any opposition fan would be brave or unwise to enter on a match day. This is also where the Arsenal Kenya Supporters Club meets.
Depressed and stunned Gunners in the ‘Red Carpet,’ Nairobi after the Wembley shock v Birmingham
It was after leaving a football pub that the passion of one Kenyan Gunner over spilled after the disappointing Champions League semifinal second leg home defeat by Manchester united. Suleiman Alphonso Omondi, a 29-year-old Arsenal fan took his own life after the match. I have no wish to write in detail but for if you do wish to read the sad news from reports at the time click here (http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/15276445) Also after another local derby match, there was another tragedy and a number of people lost their lives after a panicked stampede. Alex Gachuru (@GoonerLex) told me that one of those to lose his life, Steve Ochieng, was a young Arsenal fan and from the incident fellow Gooners came together to raise the funeral expenses. But this was only the beginning, over to Alex:
“From the incident, Arsenal fans came together to raise the funeral expenses. Through the social network Facebook, they formed a supporters club by the name “Kenya Arsenal Fanclub”. In a space of one year the secret group had 2000 active members and they registered themselves with the government as a society. The club has a group, but since facebook limits the number of members in a group to 2000, we decided to create a website which is half way complete. By end of next month it will be complete I hope” (I will keep readers posted on this, thanks Alex)
With Nairobi city as its current headquarters, the supporters club began organising charity events, tournaments and camps among other activities. In no time Arsenal fans from other larger towns began following suit. Branches of the club emerged all over. It started with the coastal City of Mombasa, popular of course with British tourists, followed by Nakuru, Eldoret, Embu and Nanyuki. The group has a number of objectives but the main focuses of their fund raising and activity, is on working with the urban youth through seminars and sporting events to give moral guidance and to highlight the dangers of drugs.
I have been fortunate to have this further clarified by Dennis Njau, founder of the above described Arsenal Fan Club in Kenya. (@REALKafc) Derek confirms that the Arsenal fan base has grown above others despite recent barren years due to Wenger tendency to sign African players. He went on to describe how the Kenyan gunners inspired him to act:
“Their Loyalty and die hard attitude of Kenyan fans motivated me and few other Gooners through Facebook to bring them together. First we started watching matches together. That was after interacting for almost 2yrs since 2008 online. I formed group of around 15 members and in within 4 months we had around 50 active members in our meetings. Then we decided to support a charity by visiting a children’s Home in Nairobi called ‘Happy life Children’s Home’ and we donated food, clothes and Arsenal Mini-shirts to the children.”
“I have to say this was a milestone because after the positive publicity through a local Sports Radio Station called Radio Jambo, courtesy of a Gooner, who is also a Sports Journalist, Washington Gathuki Mundu the group hit a 100 members.”
Derek is in no doubt that the group’s reaction to the unfortunate death of the young Gooner as described by Alex assisted the awareness of the group and its work. The charity work, tournaments, camps etc as described have continued but where does this take the Real Kenyan AFC. I asked Derek the question and it is here that we in the UK may be able to help.
Club activities – Nairobi top left, Eldoret, top right. bottom left Nakuru and Mombasa
“We have asked Arsenal FC to be recognized officially by the club, but unfortunately, Arsenal Liaison Officer Jill Smith told me that they had put registration of supporters club on hold last week. I was informed by Smith that that they are re-addressing the issue and the whole process will be complete possibly before the end of year. With Arsenal FC visiting Nigeria, the Nigeria Arsenal Supporters club National coordinator Mr. Emeka has helped me a lot in communicating with Jill Smith. We have already a registered with the Government as a society and we want to engage ourselves in Running Group business and Workshops to advise Youth on Morals and Drugs.”
It certainly sounds as if all Gunners should be proud of our Kenyan counterparts, for running what is obviously sop much more than just a supporters club. I am hoping we can assist Derek and apply pressure on the club to recognise this superb organization and their work. Certainly I will be sending the link to this article to Ms Smith and a few journalists. Indeed a quick look at the Arsenal.com section of international supporters clubs illustrates the point. If you follow this link and click on the African continent you will see red dots all over but not sadly in Kenya, who so obviously deserve to be recognised. http://www.arsenal.com/supportersclubs. No disrespect to the island of Mauritius but the whole population is a quarter that of the number of Gooners in Kenya and yet it’s fan club is recognised by the club. I hope the situation is resolved but in the meantime Dennis and the Kenyan Arsenal Fan Club, keep in your own words “painting East Africa red.”
It would appear we are not alone in this admiration and recognition of worthwhile causes in Kenya. Our captain Robin Van Persie’s wife, Bouchra, is a patron and very active with the SOS – Children’s Villages Kenya Charity. The SOS charity have been working to protect and support children orphaned, deprived or sick all over Africa for years and in Kenya since 1971. Their new project launched in 2010 is to build a new ‘Children’s Village in Kisumu the villages have family education programmes as well as medical facilities. Bouchra is planning to visit Kisumu around the time of launch in July and Robin hopes to join her. The story is here:
The Gunners I speak to would dearly love to see their beloved Arsenal in the flesh and are casting envious glances across at their West Africa neighbors, looking forward to welcoming their heroes on tour this summer. The precedent is now set and the Arsenal official and commercial team are well aware of the huge fan base, so perhaps Kenyans can look forward to a future tour.
Coming soon will be guest blogs from individual Kenyan Gooner bloggers but for now I hope I have managed to begin to paint a picture of the Kenyan Gooner scene. I will leave you with thoughts from Richard Mwasy (@RichieVanPersie) once more, Alex Gachuru (@GoonerLex) and then finally with Albert Kahiga (@PaxArtetaGervis) summarizing his match day ritual and routine, in the case for Blackburn at home in February….
Richard: “Arsenal is the only EPL team in Kenya which has twitter and facebook fan clubs, for us we believe in our team and we have been with it through thick and thin. We never shy away from showing up at the pubs the next weekend even after an awful result the previous one, we cheer the team always. We just love this team, now and forever. In Arsene We Trust”
Alex: “Ever since I started supporting Arsenal, I have always believed being a member of the Arsenal fraternity is an advantage. I had little interest in football but the moment I laid my eyes on Arsenal’s team of 1998-1999 season, particularly the Dutch master, Dennis Bergkamp, I have never looked back. Up to date he is my all time favorite Arsenal player. I surely made the right choice for good things were to come and my all time favorite game came during the 2003-2004 CL group stage when we reversed Inter Milan’s 0-3 away win in their own backyard to emerge victorious with a stylish 1-5 victory. Words cannot describe my lowest Arsenal moment came when lost the 2011 Carling cup final to Birmingham. The hyped spirit among Arsenal fans excites me and even though that defeat brought majority of us to an all time low, I feel like the ‘next season’ taunt we receive will be over in the 2012-2013 season.”
Albert; “Match days are holy to me. I avoid anything that can distract me from kick off and finish any tasks early. My phone is fully charged from morning and I carry a spare battery. All my Arsenal shirts are clean & hanged up, all 10 of them… Texts are flooding my phone, all asking the same question ‘where are we watching today?’ We pick spots in order of game importance. I text my favourite Gooner friend Calvis (@calvisjrafc) ‘3points to the Arsenal’ the reply is the same, that means we are watching with beer. I have watched more games with him than anybody else. I get chills when it’s almost time to leave the house. If it’s a home game I feel more confident and my home shirts are spread on my bed. If it’s an away game, the same, I take one look around my room, Arsenal players on my walls all staring at me. On this day we are playing Blackburn at home, the game is at 6pm Kenyan time, 3hours ahead of London, we expect a win. I am a bit innocently supersticious, so I carefully choose the socks I will wear, if I wear the wrong pair, it will make me anxious. I only wear blue, red or white Nike socks when Arsenal play. I won them in a competition, nobody knows I do this. (They do now!) If I wear the wrong pair, outside the 3, it will make me uncomfortable the whole match.
The time is 4pm and I live 15km from the city, so it’s time to move, and ensure we arrive early to book the spot in the balcony. Arsenal low profile fans keep calling me to know the details of the game, as I am the most known Arsenal addict around my neighborhood. I pass through a popular cyber café, a spot we usually hang out for football banter, owned by a Liverpool fan… We discuss possible outcomes of the days games from all teams, a debate starts with rival fans, a Gooner joins me & we leave. At this time I login to twitter & Facebook & read what you guys are saying. Three of us arrive, while Calvis, coming from the other side of town, his sister, a Goonerette (@tinah_karimi) & an extra Gooner friend join us. We are now at Club Geez, We choose this pub when we have girls with us coz they serve good food. We are all clad in red and we look like a half team. The first beer is always drained down the throat like water to relieve any tension & the excitement to sink in. It’s around 5.30 now & pre match talks & analysis are going on, everybody is tweeting the team news. As usual Arsenal score first and the fans erupt, but as usual the odd equalizer reminds us to calm down. I always lose my voice when Arsenal plays on weekends due to screaming and cheering at the TV in frustration or joy. The way Arsenal plays leaves everybody grinning in the pub, when the score line is in our favour and everybody starts to dream.’ On this particular day, RVP & the Ox, fan favourites in Kenya, are tearing Blackburn apart, so it is party time for us Gooners! At 4-1 the gang is already celebrating, at 5-1, this means serious beer, at 6-1, only the neutrals have a voice! At 7-1, we are sweating like goats, our shirts are soaked, the tweeting is crazy and we have made new friends the game ends & we are still jumping up & down. The music is playing now & we dance like kings. On our way home the streets are filled with red and white shirts and me & friends are already planning the next games, happy as hell.”
My special thanks must go to Dennis, Alex, Albert and Richard for helping me bring this article to life. I hope you now have at least some understanding of the love and passion for our great club in Kenya. The reality is there are more Gunners in Kenya than there are in the UK. They can’t get to the Emirate’s like many of us can but their feelings for Arsenal run deep. Thanks for bearing with me, to the end of this journey into East Africa as I has so much to learn and to cram in to the article. Please look out for some individual pieces from some Kenyan Gooners later this week.
Link to Nigeria Post from January: http://www.o-posts.net/2012/01/boy-they-are-passionate-gooners-in.html
Until next time thanks for reading.
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