Africa’s Hidden Potential: A Snapshot of Wrestling in Kenya
Associate Professor of African History
As the International Olympic Committee prepares to vote on whether to include wrestling in the 2020 Olympic Games, this article explores the grassroots potential of wrestling on the African continent. Through a small but vibrant wrestling program in Kenya, efforts are underway to connect Olympic Freestyle and Greco to Africa’s sporting traditions of the distant past. From inside the walls of a Nairobi prison to a highland soccer pitch in the Great Rift Valley, Kenyan athletes and coaches are working to revive traditional forms of the sport lost during the region’s colonial past. Kenya’s wrestling enthusiasts are calling for a historic resurgence of wrestling across the country with the hope their efforts will yield medals in future Olympic Games from not just the track, but also the mat.
Pulling up to the imposing gates of the Ruiru Prison, one would never think that this Nairobi penitentiary is the base for the Kenya national wrestling team. In a country known globally for its long distance running prowess, even most Kenyans are unaware of the wrestling program inside the walls of the prison system. However, a small but vibrant program does exist in this East African nation and recent efforts to expand wrestling across the country have also tapped into some hidden sporting traditions from the distant past.
Situated on the northern periphery of Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital city of three million people, the cool central highlands of Ruiru sit at just over 5000 feet and provide ideal training ground for a number of endurance sports. The prison serves multiple roles in this suburban Nairobi community. Spread out over hundreds of acres it houses inmates convicted of minor offenses and serves as the campus for the Prison Staff Training College (PSTC), educating recruits for jobs within the prison system. It is also the home base for a number of sports programs where prison employees are given release time to train for sports such as volleyball, athletics, judo, karate and wrestling.
Entering through the gates of the prison and heading to the wrestling room, one might see Kenya’s champion women’s volleyball team training or pass some of the country’s future cross country talent heading out for an early jog. Seeing recruits marching to be Kenya’s next crop of prison officers or catching a glimpse of the occasional stripped uniform of an inmate on work detail reflects the diverse activities behind the walls of the prison. Yet stepping inside one of the large lecture halls of the PTSC, there is no mistaking the atmosphere of a wrestling room.
On tattered mats procured from Europe when Kenya hosted the 1987 All-African Games, prison guards released from their regular duties lace up their shoes and train daily in both Freestyle and Greco-Roman styles. National team coach Eric Walucho, a former All-African and Commonwealth games competitor, is the chief architect of the training program in Ruiru. Introduced to the traditional style of the sport when he was a child growing up in rural western Kenya, Walucho immediately took to the Freestyle and Greco program when he joined the PSTC in 1995. As a trained prison officer he competed for Kenya in a number of international freestyle competitions at 74kgs and now head up the program under the guidance of the Kenya Amateur Wrestling Association (KAWA).
Figure 1 National Team Coach Eric Walucho instructing his athletes during a practice in Ruiru
Spending several weeks in 2011 and 2013 conducting research on the history of wrestling and working out with the PSTC team, I was impressed with the commitment of both the athletes and coaches. As a former wrestler and coach myself, the Kenyan athletes I met exude a passion for the sport that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers and connects supporters of wrestling across the globe. Most of the athletes were recruited by Walucho when they were students at the PTSC in Ruiru. Some had limited experience with traditional styles as young men in the rural areas, but it was not until they were in their late teens and early twenties did most of the Ruiru based athletes start learning Freestyle or Greco Techniques. Coming from the U.S. where most of the elite athletes start wrestling as early as 5 or 6 years old, I was both impressed with the level of technique for these late bloomers and dismayed by the lack of opportunities for youth wrestling and local competitions in the country.
Figure 2: Coach Eric Walucho (left) and the Ruiru Prison team, May 2013
Speaking with Walucho at length about this issue, I came to learn that little or no financial support exists for youth wrestling in Kenya and that Walucho routinely helps a few talented junior athletes with bus fare so they can commute several hours through the brutal Nairobi traffic to train in Ruiru. Spending time with Kenya’s elite prison guard athletes, many reported that without the support of the prison department they would have no time to train and may have never been introduced to the Olympic styles. For these athletes, the sport is both an opportunity to stay fit for their duties as prison guards and work towards bringing home medals for Kenya in major international competitions.
Within the prison system, Walucho and several other committed coaches sponsor active clubs at a few of Kenya’s prisons throughout the country. Next to the PSTC, the most active club in Kenya is the Naivasha Prison’s team which trains in the back room of the officer’s canteen, just a few meters from the walls one of Kenya’s most hardened maximum security facilities. Here a former teammate of Walucho and veteran Kenyan wrestler Linus Masheti trains prison officers daily on one of the other leftover mats from the 1987 All-Africa games. As two of only four known wrestling mats in the country, these two clubs represent Kenya’s top wrestling talent and form the base for Kenya’s Freestyle and Greco programs.
Figure 3: Naivasha Prison coach Linus Masheti (Right) with his athletes and coaches, May 2013
While the prison system supports wrestling, Walucho and other coaches are frustrated by the lack of funding to support local competitions or youth programs. In the past the Kenyan military and police also sponsored wrestling clubs with the height of Kenya international success coming in 1987 when the country netted four metals while hosting the All-African games. However, since 1987 there has been a slow decline of government support for wrestling within the military and police departments. As of 2013, Kenya wrestling’s governing body KAWA does not even have an annual budget and receives only sporadic funding for international competitions through the Kenyan Ministry of Sports Culture and Arts. Even though the government occasionally supports expensive international competitions abroad, there is little funding to support local events, youth programs and other efforts to expand the sport outside of the walls of the prison system. In Kenya, athletics and soccer are kings of the local sporting scene and government/private funding for sport goes overwhelmingly to these activities. However since 2010, a number of local NGOs and clubs have begun sponsoring a revival of traditional wrestling and Walucho sees these efforts as vital to expanding the sport throughout the country.
Grassroots Efforts: Traditional Styles and Africa’s Historic Potential
Outside of a few star athletes such as Egypt’s Karam Gaber and Nigerian/Canadian star Dan Igali, the African continent has not traditionally been a hotbed for Olympic wrestling talent. However across the continent, many African communities have indigenous forms of wrestling rooted in their cultural history. For instance, Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart memorialized the important historic role wrestling plays among the Igbo community of Nigeria when the books protagonist Okonkwo gains regional fame from his wrestling prowess. While local styles differ throughout the continent, many African forms of the sport resemble the modern rules for FILA’s Beach Wrestling, often with a single takedown determining the winner. Across contemporary West Africa (especially Senegal) the sport is still widely popular, with lucrative professional leagues and matches staged in larger cities routinely drawing crowds in the thousands. Yet in Kenya, wrestling does not hold the same level of contemporary popularity as it does in Senegal or Nigeria.
Figure 4: Kenya Prisons team competes in a friendly exhibition of beach wrestling in Mombasa, Kenya (December 2012)—Photo by 120 kg Kenyan national champion Hollis Ochieng
From the perspective of a professional historian of Africa I often wondered if the sport ever held the same level of historic popularity in East Africa as it did in West Africa. As part of my research over the past decade, I found countless citations in local oral traditions, ethnographies and in records at the Kenyan National Archives which reference wrestling as one of the most popular local sports as late as the early 20th century. However, wrestling across much of the African continent declined sharply during the era of European colonial rule from the late 19th century through the 1960s. In British colonial Kenya, indigenous sports like wrestling were not encouraged by the state. As part of the ethnocentric and racist “civilizing mission” British colonial propaganda and policy promoted only British sports such as soccer and rugby because it encouraged the adoption of European culture. In colonial official’s minds, learning popular British games was a way to discipline and control young Africans which they mistakenly thought would help quell local resistance to oppressive British rule. As a sport that was not encouraged under the tight grip of British colonial rule, wrestling’s popularity declined as a result but did not fade completely from Kenyan communities.
In western Kenya traditional styles still can still be seen during festivals and celebrations among Kenya’s large Luhya speaking communities. In parts of the former Rift Valley and Western provinces, wrestling traditionally served as both a rite of passage for young men’s transition into adulthood and as a friendly competitive event between rural communities. Today traditional wresting is not as widely popular throughout the country as it was before colonial rule, yet recent efforts by local NGOs and the Kenyan national team have worked to revive local styles of the sport and expand wrestling popularities on the grassroots level.
Figure 5: Youth division during a clinic/exhibition of traditional wrestling in Kitale (May, 2013)
In 2011, National Team Coach Eric Walucho staged an unusual exhibition with local Nairobi wrestling club The Kivuli Bulls. Sponsored by a local NGO the Sports for Youth Development Initiative (SYDI), The Kivuli Bulls were one of several Nairobi based teams formed in recent years to promote traditional wrestling as a productive activity for Kenyan youth. Since 2010, a number of traditional wrestling tournaments have been staged in Nairobi and Western Kenya with local media highlighting the cultural pride the sport instills among the youth and the potential for these activities to be a breeding ground for future Kenyan accomplishments on a global stage. For instance, at a 2010 Nairobi tournament, the chairman of the Kibera Nubian association noted that ‘Our intent of reviving this ancient sport now is to see it grow into a status where we can represent Kenya in major international wrestling tournaments.’[i]
The 2011 match between Walucho’s Kenya prisons team and the Kivuli Bulls was the first of many forays into traditional wrestling for Kenya’s national team. With only four wrestling mats in the whole country and no annual budget for youth programs, Walucho believes that promoting traditional styles are the key to unlocking Kenya’s potential and expanding the sport among the youth. To promote a revival of local forms of the sport, Walucho needs only a patch of grass, some volunteer coaches and to spread the word among the young people of a given area. Since 2011, The Kenya prisons team has partnered with organizations like SYDI and staged a number of exhibitions of traditional wrestling in Nairobi, Western Kenya and along the Indian Ocean coast. Drawing scores of curious onlookers, Walucho and his athletes often provides a brief free clinic for those interested in learning more about the sport. Anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred fans have attended these exhibitions, which have provided a number of opportunities for Walucho to promote the sport across the country.
Figure 6: Day one of the inaugural Trans Nzoia Wrestling Championships, Kitale. (May 2013)
In late May 2013, I had the opportunity to attend one of Walucho’s recent efforts to expand wrestling outside the walls of the prison system. We traveled from Nairobi to Walucho’s home town of Kitale, the administrative center of Trans Nzoia County in the northern Great Rift Valley. As an agriculturally rich area in the heart of Kenya’s bread basket, Walucho organized a two-day regional clinic and first annual Trans-Nzoia Wrestling Championships at the local municipal sports grounds. Less than 50 miles from the Ugandan border, Kitale lies in the shadow of the 14,000 foot volcanic peak of Mount Elgon, making a picturesque setting for an outdoor Source wrestling tournament.
As the equatorial sun shone bright on a Friday afternoon, roughly 30 youth and senior competitors came for the first day of the two day clinic and tournament. Spending the first hour explaining the rules and local history of wrestling to the younger competitions, Walucho introduced a hybrid style mixing freestyle techniques with traditional styles of the sport. Employing two of his top prison athletes as volunteer coaches he then introduced a few basic techniques for the wrestlers to practice before staging some friendly exhibition matches on the soft grass of the municipal soccer field. The young Kenyans I spoke with were thrilled to participate in this event and immediately after the first clinic they were pressing Walucho to help them form a local wrestling club in Kitale.
Figure 7: Finalists at the Trans Nzoia Wrestling Championships, Kitale. (May 2013)
By the second day, the number of participants and spectators at the event had doubled or even tripled in size as the word spread among the community. Organized into informal lightweight and heavyweight divisions for both seniors and juniors, wrestlers then squared off on Saturday in a series of bouts to determine the finalists, and eventual champions of the inaugural regional championships. With mixed backgrounds in traditional wrestling, judo and other martial arts a few competitors shined at the regional event drawing the attention of Walucho as potential recruits for his elite athlete program in Ruiru. Older spectators also came forth to offer their approval of the tournament and share fond memories of how wrestling was popular in the past. Overall the event provided exactly the kind of community outreach activity Walucho has envisioned, both introducing the sport to the younger generations and providing a moment of prideful reflection on the sporting traditions of the past.
While unlikely to produce immediate results on the international stage, events such as these are key parts of Walucho’s plan to expand wrestling around the country. With virtually no budget for publicity, Walucho raised about 200$ to sponsor the event providing simple t-shirts for the finalists and a free soda for all the participants. This was all that was needed to make the event successful in Walucho’s eyes with the competitors leaving excited to practice on their own and share their new knowledge with friends throughout the community.
As of June 2013, Walucho is developing a plan to sponsor more events like the Trans-Nzoia wrestling championships throughout the country. Given these events cost only a few hundred dollars to run, he is working on a modest proposal to the Kenyan government to fund a number of regional championships in 2014 with the eventual goal of having organized annual tournaments in each of Kenya’s 47 counties. This is an ambitious goal in a developing economy like Kenya’s. However, Walucho’s efforts fit with the development goals of the government’s Vision 2030 plan to expand local sporting opportunities among the youth. Local athletes and coaches are also exploring ways to fund these efforts through private donations or corporate sponsorships. Walucho believes that with even a modest annual budget of a few thousand dollars he can introduce wrestling to thousands of young Kenyans throughout the country, with traditional wrestling tournaments like the Trans-Nzoia championships serving as the recruiting ground for building Kenya into one of the top wrestling nations in Africa.
As the IOC prepares to vote to reinstate wrestling in the 2020 Olympic Games, much can be learned from the Kenyan case. Wrestling indeed has vibrant roots across the African continent and a recent traditional wrestling division at the 2013 African championships drew large crowds of supporters to the event. With minimal support, traditional wrestling could be the key to expanding the sport throughout the continent. With no need for shoes, singlets and costly wrestling mats, traditional styles need only a passionate coach and a tuft of soft grass or sand to practice on. As a sport that instills local pride and teaches cultural history, traditional wrestling is an important tool in grooming the next Karam Gaber or Dan Igali. Who knows, with committed coaches like Eric Walucho, the next African champion may just emerge from the rural highlands of western Kenya or even from behind the walls of a Nairobi prison.
A Selected Bibliography of African Wrestling History
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
Carotenuto, Matthew. “Grappling With the Past: Wrestling and Performative Identity in Kenya”
The International Journal of The History of Sport (Forthcoming, 2013)
Carroll, Scott. ‘Wrestling in Ancient Nubia’. Journal of Sport History 15, no. 2 (1988): 121–137.
Emecheta, Buchi. The Wrestling Match. New York: G. Braziller, 1980.
Faye, Ousseynou. ‘Sport, argent et politique: la lutte libre à Dakar (1800-2000)’
in Le Sénégal contemporain, ed Momar-Coumba Diop, 309-340. Paris: Karthala, 2002.
Paul, Sigrid. ‘The Wrestling Tradition and its Social Functions’. In Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History, eds William J. Baker and James A. Mangan, 23-46. New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1987.
Sériba, Mahaman L. ‘Traditional Wrestling in Niger: Between state voluntarism and ancestral symbolism’. Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde 42, no. 2 (2005): 18–32.
Sidibe K. and Wilfred Galloway. ‘Wrestling in the Gambia’ Occasional Paper No.3 (Banjul: Gambia Cultural Archives, 1976).
[i] Samora, Mwaura. ‘Traditional African Wrestling Gets its Grip Back’ Africa Review, 19 August 2010. http://www.africareview.com/Arts+and+Culture/-/979194/982640/-/mar1fhz/-/index.html