FAST AND FURIOUS - Hockey in Nairobi - Atunya

FAST AND FURIOUS - Hockey in Nairobi

TextMartin ThomassonPhotoTobias Lundkvist

With one iced rink in the whole of Kenya, a parking lot in central Nairobi serves as the training camp and meeting place for the city’s young players. Each Sunday, kids from all over the city gather at Aga Khan park and play street hockey. The games are ferocious, the spirit joyous. We went there to learn more about the emerging Nairobi hockey scene.

Eight players in 4-wheeled rollerblades stand motionless in the corner of a parking lot with sticks resting on the ground. It’s the beginning of June in central Nairobi, Kenya. The day is humid, the temperature an agreeable 24° C, usually the case this time of year in this East African spot.

Spectators rest atop the wall separating the parking area from the pavement. On each side of the parking lot sits two small goal cages aligned with the white lines indicating the driving lane. Deep bass rumbles from a yellow Matatu bus air-sprayed with the face of NBA star Steph Curry.

The puck drops.

The players spring into action and fight to control it, their blade wheels making tiny screeches on the parking lot concrete as the spectators cheer. The turns are unfathomably fast, done without stops “Russian style”.

It’s Sunday in Nairobi at Aga Khan Park, and for a group of local kids, that means street hockey day.

Nairobi hockey is ferocious. Played both on the ice at the country’s only hockey rink and in the streets, it embodies the Kenyan spirit of making the most of every opportunity.

As the pandemic hit Nairobi, many hotels had to shut down partly or entirely. One of them, the Panari hotel, houses what is probably East Africa’s only hockey rink. Consequently, ice hockey players all over the country suddenly found themselves without a proper training location. Luckily, the parking lot at Aga Khan park just off Nairobi’s business center provides an opportunity to hone your skills and bond with other players.

Each Sunday, kids from different parts of Nairobi come to Aga Khan Park and play roller hockey pick-up games. In the relatively moderate weather of Nairobi, the park turns from a parking space into a kinetic blend of rollerblade screeches, hockey sticks on asphalt and quick transition plays. Whether you’re a hockey player or rollerblader first, it’s here you go to test your abilities and learn from your fellow players.

The Aga Khan pick-up games are extremely simple. Gedion Mutua Amiani, 22-year old forward for Kenya’s National team, The Ice Lions, explains how the games work: “We meet at Aka Khan on Sundays and divide ourselves into two teams, and that’s how we do it”.

No goaltenders or referees are used. True to the loose structure of pick-up, players sit down on the bench when they’re tired, only to be replaced by other players. It all flows spontaneously and organically.

To explain the rise of Kenyan hockey, we have to turn our attention to rollerskating, a visit to Nairobi by Canadian students and the amplifying influence of YouTube.

Roller skating has been popular in Kenya for decades but really took off in 2010 when Nairobi County, which owns the Aga Khan parking lot, permitted skaters to use it on Sundays in an effort to provide a safer alternative to skating in the streets. Since Sunday is church day in Nairobi, Aga Khan is empty, leaving plenty of room for skaters of all ages and genders to go hard.

Many of the street hockey players at Aga Khan started out rollerblading and picked up a stick later on. How the sticks entered the picture may go back to a student visit in the mid-aughts.

According to this theory, hockey on ice in Kenya started and grew after students from the University of Manitoba on a research project in Nairobi in 2006 discovered the Panari Hotel’s ice rink. On their next visit to Nairobi, some of the students brought hockey equipment and started to play. When people in Nairobi saw it, they wanted to try it out themselves. And from there, it grew.

An essential factor for the acceleration of Kenyan hockey is unquestionably YouTube. Most of the players at Aga Khan park ascribe the evolution of their game to the channel. It enables them to access and analyze the plays by their favorite NHL players. Then they try out what they see at home.

“You know, most of the time, when I’m at home, I’m doing nothing. So, I end up on Youtube watching videos of Sid Crosby. And then I try to apply his techniques”, says Gedion.

One of the players who keep coming back on Sundays is Hassan Ali Shah. He began with roller skating a few years back, then fell in love with street hockey in 2018. “Since then, I just play hockey hockey hockey every Sunday.”

A considerable number of the kids that play the Sunday games travel hours to play. Some even roller skate 30 kilometers from the outskirts of Nairobi to get there. They arrive early in the morning and play until the evening.

The sense of community on Sundays at Aga Khan park is palpable. People of all ages gather to hang out and watch street hockey. The atmosphere is relaxed and upbeat.

“It’s just so much fun here”, Hassan Ali Shah says. “You come, you meet your teammates, you play, you joke around. No matter how your day started, you go home happy.”

For the players, Sundays in the park are precious. Many of them have made their best friends here. Benjamin Mburu, a coach and a hockey veteran despite his 26 years, explains the importance of the park to him.” Since I put on my first pair of skates in 2012, I’ve made many friends here. I’d say a large number of my friends I’ve made here. Friendship is key.”

All of the players we meet in the park agree. Aga Khan park fulfills an essential social function for them. It also provides a much sought-after opportunity to hone their skills by playing and training together. Since the players are scattered all over Nairobi, they don’t get a chance to see each other on weekdays.

Aga Khan plays an essential role in helping Kenyan hockey evolve. In fact, a case could be made that the park is the foundation of the nation’s hockey farming system.

Not surprisingly, the park became crucial during the pandemic, especially for Gedion and Benjamin. They represent the Ice Lions – Kenya’s National team. With the rink in Panari Hotel closed down due to corona restrictions, the park was their only option for playing and training together.

Hockey is an expensive sport. It’s equipment-heavy, so the financial investment for any beginner is felt in the wallet. Furthermore, sticks break and skate laces snap frequently.

Many young Nairobi players come from low-income families who live in slums like Mukuru and Kariobangi and can’t afford new gear. So, they have to be resourceful with what they have. If your stick breaks, it’s far from used up. There are ways to mend it. You heat the edges over the fire, tape the stick together and heat it again to get a perfectly usable one.

The stick and skates represent something bigger than the sport itself for Kenyan hockey players. They are concrete objects that provide a sense of direction. Because in the slums, it’s easy to fall into crime and drug abuse. The game is an antidote to that. The stick and the skates represent another way of life. “Hockey means so much to me. It has helped me stay away from bad company”, Juma Shikanga from Kawangware tells us.