Immortalising Kenyan hockey heroes

 

Kenya’s Olympian Avtar Singh Sohal admires pictures of legendary hockey players, including those featuring him, that will be on display during an exhibition from September 19, 2016 at Sikh Union Club, Nairobi. PHOTO | ROY GACHUHI |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kenya’s Olympian Avtar Singh Sohal admires pictures of legendary hockey players, including those featuring him, that will be on display during an exhibition from September 19, 2016 at Sikh Union Club, Nairobi. PHOTO | ROY GACHUHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

 

By Roy Gachui

 

On Forest Road, home to the Sikh Union Club and where the story of Kenya hockey was first written in 1928, hundreds of players, technical staff and administrators have been made immortal.

 

On Monday night, Mr. Leandro Negre, the President of the Federation of International Hockey (FIH), will open the Hockey Section of the Club’s Mahan Hall of Fame – a stunning tribute to all the Olympic, World Cup and national players who have held that stick over the last 85 years.

 

The opening also coincides with ground breaking ceremonies to lay the club’s first astro turf which will be open to schools and colleges in a gesture of support for hockey development in the country.

 

“It’s a dream come true,” says Harbir Singh Rooprai, the Sikh Union club chairman. Unbeknown to many Kenyans, Kenya was once a hockey super power. It finished fourth in the first hockey World Cup in Barcelona in 1971, narrowly losing 2-1 to India in extra time in the semi-finals.

 

For years, it was a respected opponent of the countries that win Olympic gold today. And then, starting with the migrations to other countries that started in earnest in the early 70s, things went down sharply, never to recover.

 

In times gone by, it ran a highly competitive national league and its robust clubs and tournaments – the Dashmesh Cup, the M.R. D’Souza Gold Cup etc – were the stuff of dreams for a generation of hockey enthusiasts. But throughout the years of wilderness for this sport, characterised by the true Kenyan culture of politics of self-gratification and zero developmental ideas, the Sikh Union Club has remained a redoubt for the sport.

 

HOME OF KENYAN HOCKEY

 

The home of Kenya hockey is not the Kenya Hockey Union’s decaying City Park Stadium where you will not find just one photograph or historical document; it is the Sikh Union Club. Sports lovers with an interest in history will find the 85-year journey illustrated in the gallery a sentimental walk through time. It is a treasure trove of information. It is awe-inspiring.

 

Del Mudher is the researcher/curator who put it together. He roamed the world, searching for the legends wherever they lived, begged them for their stories and photographs and came up with what Mr Negre will inaugurate on Monday.

 

It was a labour of persistence, patience and not least cost. Clearly, what our national associations will not do for our sportsmen and women, some individuals and private clubs will. Mudher collaborated with historian Diljit Singh Bahra, a native of Maji Mazuri in Kenya who migrated to the UK in 1967.

 

He says: “I was part of the Sikh Union Club management committee in 2014/2015 and I got the opportunity to research the archives of the club and was amazed at its rich history. Equally, it saddened me that none of that history nor the vast sporting achievements were on show nor had any efforts been made to conserve and record past achievements.

 

“As an avid admirer of the Kenyan Sikh hockey greats of the past, I was always intrigued to find out how many players actually represented Kenya at the Olympics and World Cups that were played between 1956 and 1988. I started by speaking to the likes of legendary Olympians and honorary patrons of the club such as Avtar Singh Sohal and Surjeet Singh Panesar as well as Jasmer Singh Grewal amongst others who were immensely helpful with photos and their memories.”

 

Among the giants of Kenya hockey occupying pride of place in the gallery is Friends School, Kamusinga coach Avtar Singh Sohal. When I went to Sikh Union ahead of Monday’s ceremonies to see the exhibition, I found the 78-year-old working out in the gym. The veteran of six Olympic Games starting in 1960 is also the only Kenyan sports personality to feature in the Guinness Book of Records; in 1984, he was entered as the player who had made the highest number of international appearances for any country – 167 for Kenya between 1957 and 1972.

 

He told me: “This is our big day. I celebrate sportsmen and women. I have been involved with them all my life and will continue to do it to the end. I enjoy coaching school children; they’re a great joy for me. What I don’t like is the corruption in sports. And the last Olympics in Rio were a scandal. I find it terribly sad. I don’t know how we shall root out corruption in Kenya sport but we must keep on trying.”

 

The immensely fulfilling experience of watching history done so well had a down side for me. I kept thinking: we have clubs that we are proud of in this country – AFC Leopards, Gor Mahia. Where are their club houses? Where is their story recorded? Do they think it is a travesty to engage in such work?

 

Where is the home of Harambee Stars? Where is its story? Do the officials who go for office ever think about this? Politics for politics sake is just backwardness. It is a pity that so important a project, the preservation of history for future generations, does not register in the radar of our national federation and club officials.

 

Mahan Singh Sandhu is widely regarded as the father of Kenyan hockey. The Club’s Hall of Fame is named after him. He immigrated to Kenya from India in 1921 at the age of 19 and established the first links between the two countries. The first India tour of Kenya took place in 1947. A player, coach and administrator who was totally devoted to the game, Mahan played actively well into his 60s. He died in Malindi in 1967.

 

FIH chief Leandro Negre is himself a hockey legend. He is a former Spanish international goalkeeper and played at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

 

He served as President of the Spanish Hockey Federation from 1984 to 1992 and later took a position on the Executive Board of the European Hockey Federation (EHF) in 1993 eventually becoming the President in 2003.

 

He served as the head of EHF until 2008 when he was elected as the FIH President at the Congress in 2008. He is in his eighth year as President of FIH; he has been in one way or another part of the international federation since 1978. He has also been a member of the International Olympic Committee.