GACHUHI: Tame Harambee Stars name decidedly past its use by date


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National football team got the nickname by decree, but it does not conjure up any feelings of inspiration now days, and is in urgent need to be changed to something that is truly awesome.

On December 16, 1976, Kenneth Matiba, the chairman of the Kenya Football Federation, decreed that from that day henceforth, the Kenya national football team would be known as Harambee Stars. There was no ceremony to it; it was not even done at a press conference.

Matiba simply issued a press release which dealt with a number of other mundane issues such as transfers and player discipline. Beyond expressing the hope that the national team would live up to the Harambee spirit as its new name indicated and that it would play with renewed dedication during the coming year, he had nothing more to say about the new brand.

For years, fans had suggested that the national team borrow a leaf from many other countries and get itself a name. It wasn’t a clamour and the subject came up in muted conversations, usually when the team played its numerous matches. In fact, when the announcement was made, it came from the blue.

There was nothing special about the December 16 date and the newly christened team wasn’t going to play until the coming year.

The culture of public participation wouldn’t take root in Kenya until long after the re-introduction of multi-party politics in 1991 and the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010 and so the team’s new brand had to come by executive fiat. In hindsight, there was a missed opportunity.

Other names could have been considered. And together with the selected name could have come the official colours – for home and away matches – that the team, like every modern one, is kitted with. To this day, more than 40 years later, Harambee Stars have no official kit.

During Harambee Stars’ last participation in the Africa Cup of Nations final rounds in Tunisia in 2004, one perceptive journalist noted the ironic situation of many African nations parading names of captivating wildlife while Kenya, the continent’s most famous Big Game destination, had a name whose meaning was known only to itself.

It was easy, of course, to understand how we had come to this. Harambee was founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s clarion call. It exalted people to pull together. Many public utilities and institutions changed from English to African names – or got them for the first time – during the 15 years that the first Kenyatta ruled Kenya.

A good many of them, especially the most prestigious, were called either Kenyatta, Uhuru, Mama Ngina or Harambee. It was not surprising that the national football team, with its mass appeal and flying the country’s flag, would fall into line.

After him, the government of President Daniel arap Moi, who proclaimed from the word go that he would follow in his mentor’s footsteps, went on a naming spree that matched or even surpassed Kenyatta’s.

Unlike his predecessor, the new president was a sports fan and Moi stadiums sprang up all over the country. The second choice name was always Nyayo, the president’s declared philosophy of peace, love unity. That explains why there is a Kenyatta, Moi or Nyayo Stadium near you.

In the course of the years that followed, many fans have suggested a change in name for Harambee Stars. I am one of them. Not only has the Harambee spirit been besmirched by corruption and lost its original altruistic spirit, but the national team could truly do with a make-over. It needs to be re-done, root and branch, starting with its name.

It has to be a comprehensive make-over, signifying a thorough culture change that leaves little or nothing of the present. A baptism, such as a name change is, is supposed to represent an exhaustion with the status quo, a desire to be reborn and a commitment to break completely with that tiring past.

It should not be a change for the sake of it. Otherwise, it would be like the exercise in futility that we undertook when we changed the name Nairobi City Council to Nairobi City County while leaving the kanjo culture intact.

During every Africa Cup of Nations competition since 2004, I like studying the nick names of the competing countries – and, of course, those of the victims they left in their wake.

I enjoy comparing them and asking my friends which they like and which they don’t. I have found that the louder and aggressive of my pals prefer the names of predators like lions while the quieter, more introspective artistic types are attracted to the names of their prey.

They also like names with an environmental touch. There are grey areas but in general terms it works out more or less like this.

I have no idea where I fall.

I will probably need the services of a psychologist to explain why I prefer some names to others. But I have no difficulty selecting them. This week, I will give you a list of 30 nicknames of African national football teams. I will give you, in order of preference, my 10 favourite ones.

Next I will give you, this time in order of distaste, another list of the 10 nicknames that I least like. Finally, there is a category in between or apart from the two. This is the category of names that elicit no strong feelings; the difference between their existence or lack of it is the same.

You know something about the English spoken by many Kenyans. It has many peculiarities, like asking somebody “otherwise?” when what you mean is “what’s new?” or “what’s on your mind?”

“Just there” is another one. It is said, usually by women, when they mean you are idling about when you should be doing something. Or that you are not interesting. For me, this third category denotes nicknames that are “just there.”

None in my 10-10-10 list includes Harambee Stars. The team is in a category of its own. This is because, entirely for emotional reasons, it has given me pride and despair in equal measure and will doubtless continue to do so for the rest of my life.

I must also single out one country for special mention. Of the African countries that I have visited, my favourite is Rwanda. Its president, Paul Kagame, is also the leader I admire most in the African continent. I am looking forward to his expected win in the Rwanda presidential elections in one week’s time.

That is why I feel some sort of obligation to explain why I have placed Rwanda where I have. It’s an old story. When I was a little boy, aged eight, nine or so, I was picking coffee when I accidentally disturbed a wasp’s nest.

I hadn’t seen it. The insects buzzed about angrily and I took off, running as if my life depended on the speed.

But after a short flight, one of them caught up with me. The sting on my back was so sharp that I still remember it 50 years later. Since then, I am as attracted to a wasp as you are to an injection before a tooth extraction. This should also help you to understand why I have placed the Wasp’s comrades-in-arms, the Scorpions, next to them.

There are three African football powerhouses that I have left out. I don’t know where to place their names. As Africa’s first country to gain independence, Ghana holds a special place in the continent and the name Black Stars is evocative. But only in the context above – without it, it falls flat.

And Nigeria should have come up with something more romantic, like Eagles of the River Niger, instead of Super Eagles which suggests an effort at trying to describe excellence that only succeeds in producing an exaggeration.

Finally, I would have wanted to include the very African-sounding Chipolopolo in my list of Best 10 but it translates into the dull Copper Bullets in English.

Nicknames, of course, keep changing. Nigeria were, for instance, once known as the Green Eagles. Tanzania were once Taifa Stars but are now Kilimanjaro Stars and Zambia used to go by the name KK Eleven – for Kenneth Kaunda, their first president.

So my list will change with time. I hope that by the time the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations comes around, and with the brighter chance that we shall qualify because the number of participants has been increased from 16 to 24, the public will get a chance to select a new name for Harambee Stars and that with the old name will go away chronic failure. Just hoping. And there is time.

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