As a young kid growing up, you go about doing the things growing up kids do. You are a little troublemaker. It comes with the territory. But the constitution is very clear. You go about young lads’ business with gusto. Either sent to the shop or the market, or just going to play and looking for all the mischief your age allows. The constitution is very clear on that matter. You are a child.
On your way, you pass through thickets and bushy paths. Some plants are easy, like, you know, Sunday morning. But others are introverts, and like to keep to themselves. Like woke girls who don’t like their hair touched, the don’t like people touching them. Where they are. So they device a plan, a coping mechanism, top survival instinct they can figure out. And that is, if you ever touch them in the slightest possible way, they will give you a crazy itch, an itch for bad, you will scratch for day.
The name of that plant in your mother tongue is called, aila. And you are about to be that aila. In a very pleasing way, I promise.
It’s the long school holidays of 2019. You are almost finishing your 8 year stint as a fulltime teenager. You are just there, in Nyamasaria, minding your own business. Your school, Kisumu Day Secondary School is closed. So no friend around. You have just completed Form Three and you do not yet have the ulcers Form Four leaver hace due to waiting for national exam results. Your main plan is to not have a plan. Besides, you do not have a life. You don’t fancy the drinking and lazing around that the gweng offers. Gwengfiddich is not your thing. Nor is Obwa chieth liech. You’ve also tasted glory, and you are away, those things can take it all away.
Life is good for you. Even to you. Mostly.
Actually, your main plan is to wake up, do the basic chores assigned to you, pick up a kit bag you got from a trip to Barcelona earlier in the year, and go find people playing soccer. And play with them.
Your phone is such a basic phone. But it works. Basic functions too. Calls, SMS, maybe Facebook and YouTube, thanks to 4G Network. But that’s it.
Anyway, that basic phone rings. You see the name of the person calling. His name is Salim Babu. You know him. He is the Coach at Western Stima Football Club. He is your coach. Occasionally he or the other coaches will call you up to the main team. And when he does, you best step up to the plate.
The phone rings twice or thrice. You immediately know what the call is about. You love those kinds of calls. You pick it up excited. You tell yourself, ‘Ah, finally, ka-gig kamekam through!’
You pick the phone. He starts.
‘Fiti sana coaches.’
‘Habari ya mtaa?’
‘Kuko bien. Hakuna ile?’
‘Uko Odhus ama umesafiri Krisi?’
You force a laugh.
‘Niko area coach. Ata Krisi bado iko mbali. Herod ata hajasema watu waanze safari ya kuenda ile Census ya Jerusalem.’
Your coach laughs back. And then he goes straight to the point.
‘Aaah. Safi youtman. Cheki, buda. Tuko chini kiasi, na tunadai usaidizi. Nataka ucheze na senior team this month. Nguvu mpya. Unafikiria itaweza?’
‘Niko tayari coach. Itaweza kuweza. Ata saa hii ukisema.’
You both laugh.
‘Haya basi, changamka ukuje tizi.’
‘Mara hiyo hiyo master.’ You pause. Then you thank him. ‘Oya Coaches. Ahsante sana. Nimeshukuru.’
The coach says, ‘Uko sawa buda.’ And then he hangs up.
You jump up and about, because really, life is football. And that football, it is actually your life. You explain to your supportive parents about the call and they release you to go. Your 3 brothers are excited for you as well. But they know your abilities, so they are not ati that shocked. They are used to those calls.
Shortly you are on your way to Western Stima.
Your name is Benson Omala Ochieng. You are an elite striker. You have been playing as if all the top scoring Kenyan legends live in the inside of you. They do. Kind of. You are only 17 years old, and you will sit your KCSE exams in 2020.
But before that, and with that call, this December of 2019, you are about to rearrange a few historic Kenyan football statistics. In near super hero ways.
First, you are going score the most important six goals out of 4 games, scoring at every game. Secondly, you are going to be the first Kenyan teenager to score a hat trick in a premier league match. Zoo Kericho defenders and supporters are going to hang then heads in shame, after you will have helped fix them 4 goals against their 1. With those three goals against Zoo, you will also become the first Western Stima player to ever score a hat trick in a Kenya Premier League match.
Three goals. In one game. In top flight Kenyan football. Well I don’t know about you, but where I come from, we call that, GOALS!
Isitoshe, you are going to be named the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) Player of the Month Award for December 2019. The youngest player to ever win it. And the third from Western Stima.
That award will be brought to your school in January, by the top leadership of football in Kenya, their sponsors and your team, because by then, schools have opened, and well, double math lessons, and chemistry in the afternoon heat of Kisumu is a thing you never want to miss. Those big people from Nairobi will also bring you a 49 Inch TV, in case you want to see yourself score those goals. Or a Manchester United game.
Again, your name Benson Omala Ochieng. And you already are an itch, a real aila, to you opponents.
The fact is, though, scoring goals is not new to you. You have been a goal-scoring machine since you were seven.
You do not think about like that, but what you have achieved in the soccer pitch is no mean fete.
Let’s start at the beginning.
You started playing what looked like serious football at the age of seven. Your biggest football hero then, was Denis ‘The Menace’ Oliech. You were part of the choir that sang, ‘Oliech, Odinga, Obama’ at the littlest provocation. You were a dedicated soldier for the Mighty Green Army. Right now, Michael Olunga and Marcus Rashford are the people you aspire to be.
As you are growing up, your father, Peter Oluoch Ochola, a legendary footballer himself who played and scored goals for Migori Uzima Football Club, wants you to focus on school. Your mother too, Pamela Adhiambo doesn’t like games when it comes to school.
But a fruit does not fall in Mpeketoni yet the tree is in Siaya. Your brothers are exceptional players too. Your elder brother, Vincent Otieno will be an all round defender for Ulinzi Youth. The one who follows you, Duncan Odhiambo will play for Ka’Sagam as he awaits the soccer magic to fully engulf him. And a lot more playtime, really, because that is where you believe the magic is.
Your lastborn brother plays a different game altogether. The one that involves opening books, and reading what’s inside there. Book is his most favorite place. And he knows things. He is in Miwani with your mother, while you are in Nyamasaria with your father.
When the love for that round thing hit you and your four brothers, you always found ways to escape and go play football. And it will pay off. You would run away, even from Sunday school, just to have a feel of inflated leather on your bare feet. Your parents will always remind you that you are crossing the line, and will reprimand all of you. Sometimes even
But hey, anything, for the love of the game. And you love the game.
Soon, your father will hear about your fame on the the dry patch you called ‘Old Trafford.’ He would let you guys off a lot easier than before. Provided you did your house and school work. Besides, sports would be a welcome idea when he was not at home, working at the Kisumu City Council offices.
You would join and play for Chipolopolo FC in Nyamasaria as a youngster before the eyes of Manyata United would see you. Soon, even Harambee Stars coaches and scouts will come to find out which fish is this that seems to swim well outside the great football lakes of Nairobi. They will give you your rightful spot in the national team, and you will thank them with two goals at the CECAFA Under 20 Championships. The first one a brilliant volley, the second one, a mild tap. Hiyo ya pili ni ya kutoa.
But that is in about 5 years to come.
But you are still Benson Omala, an aila plant coming to full bloom.
From the time you hit 10 years, you become a permanent player for your school team. Height notwithstanding. You lead your primary school to countless trophies and national representations. You cannot count the goals you’ve scored, but a 20 foot container would be a good place to start. In 2016, you lead you school to become the Lake Region Champions.
It ends there after KCPE. You now have a much bigger fish to fry in Kisumu Day. And there, at the secondary school levels, that is where you shine. A good one.
You go in with a gem from your dad. ‘Blossom where you are planted.’ With which he meant, ‘when it is school time, it is school time. Thrive. And when it is football time, it is football time. Thrive.’ Which also technically meant, all forms of you kicking a soccer ball between Monday to Friday is banned. Unless it is part of PE or the School ball games, NO SOCCER.
And then Saturdays, sports time. If there was nothing to do in school.
But you, you are who? You will make ways.
You will lead Kisumu Day to the quarterfinals of 2019 Kenya Secondary Schools National Ball Games competition. You will lose the game to Dagoreti High School. Two goals to nil. They had been told about you, and they came specifically to make life hell for you in the pitch. They succeed, and it’s a loss.
You will lose the game in your home turf of Kisumu. In front of the biggest crowd ever at a secondary schools game. The whole crowd cheering for you. But you have to get used to losing, and learning from it. That’s what Champions must learn.
Si walisema asiyekubali kushindwa sio mshindani? You are a true sportsman.
But even more depressing, your father and brothers will be in that crowd too, as you sit down in those red uniforms, in utter disbelief, while the boys from Nairobi add insult to your injury with their celebrations.
Then the Safaricom Chapa Dimba Championships will come up, with a promise to send the top performer in the tournament to Spain. You initially don’t think much about it. You just want to kick the ball with other guys, and if travel and fanfare comes with it, sawa pia.
You are automatic selection for Manyatta United. And it is there that your true abilities are tested. And seen.
In the qualification preliminaries, you will score 10 goals. A whole 10 goals. Of course, you will give Winam FC 6 of those goals. Everyone who played against you would immediately start to feel the itch you are. Their coaches and supporters too. The scouts and officials of the tournament will mark you. Harambee Stars coaches will come to see you play.
At the regional finalists’ games, you will be the top scorer by netting another 5 goals, like the boss you are. 15 goals in two preliminaries, sending Manyatta Boys to the Chapa Dimba National Finals.
The most beautiful thing for you will be that your father will have watched you score all the 15 goals. He always comes to watch you play, tagging along a friend or a colleague, telling them, ‘Come I show you a phenomenon.’
Dad will always move heaven and earth to make sure he is available to cheer you on at every game possible. It’s a dad thing. The pride of seeing their offspring succeed beyond every imagination.
By the time you net the 15th goal, you are a marked man. On the pitch, and by the La Liga tour selection team. You are obviously a great player. You are starting to believe the hype. Your name will be included in the 32 Players’ team that will take part in the 10-day soccer camp in Barcelona, Spain. Fully catered for by Safaricom.
You will have a one-week Camp and stay in Nairobi, at the Ngong Hills Hotel. At that time you will have to get your passport processed and Visa’s to Spain acquired. It will look like tedious work, because you have never experienced it before, but it is what it is.
The Visa interview will have many questions and requirements that you will wonder where exactly it is you are going. But you will be helped through. Including the final consent to travel letter by your father who will send it via WhatsApp. And it will suffice.
Travel to Spain will be the most surreal, unexpected experience. You will see a glimpse of a section of football’s promised land, and then, it will be confirmed. This is exactly what you want for life. There and then, you will make a resolve, to be a good itch in the field.
The best itch you possibly can be.
In Barcelona, you will feel inadequate; you have just packed a small amount of clothes, your personal playing boots, and tracksuits from Safaricom. You will be kitted up by your hosts. But even with that, everything you know about soccer is about to be turned on its head.
First will be time.
You will have make it to the practice sessions way before time. An hour or so earlier. When they say practice is at 8:00am, they mean, you will start at 8:00am. Not that you will start to leave at 8:00am. Or arrive at 8:00am. Being on time is being late.
Secondly, you will have advance notice of what the plan for the practice will be. You will go to bed knowing exactly what the next day’s session is going to look like. Unlike anything he had experience.
The bigger difference though will be the sectional trainings, with the different coaches. Locally, and in school, you were used to getting into the field and just playing. In topflight soccer, you will learn, things are different. The defenders will practice alone, the goalkeepers will have their coaches, the midfielders will do their runs and the strikers will be taken through their individual paces.
After that, everything will be put together.
You will also be a tourist, seeing different places like stadiums and museums.
You will play friendlies, against different academies, but the highlight of your stay will be seating in Camp Nou to watch Barcelona take on Girona, a team your current inspiration, Michael Olunga once played for.
You will come home a different person. More exposed, more willing to learn. And then you will go for the Chapa Dimba National Championships.
You will score 3 more goals, two in the finals to help Manyatta United with last years Chapa Dimba. You will be tied on goals with three other with 17 goals each, to win the joint Golden Boot and you will receive the Ks. 50,000.00 prize money.
Not bad at all.
Sadly, your father will not be in the crowd this time because of work commitments. But you are sure he is cheering you on.
You will be very fulfilled and better resolved.
And then you will go back to Nyamasaria, back to school. To study until the holidays, when you will receive the call to go make history, for yourself, and for Western Stima. Still working hard at it, to be that itch you were called to be.