In December 2010, a 20 year old, Felly Mulumba, armed with just his football skills landed in Nairobi, aiming to make a living.
Knowing not a word of English or Kiswahili, all odds were stacked against him but he surmounted all the challenges then to not only learn his way in an unforgiving city but also conquer hearts both in and out of the field. Today he is the best defender on the land, a well deserved recognition after eight successful years in Kenyan football.
Today he is the best defender on the land, a well deserved recognition after eight successful years in Kenyan football.
We had a sit – down with the Bandari FC defender in our Q & A segment
Where did it all start from?
I have loved football for the longest time that I can remember but the initial deliberate steps towards a professional career for me started in 2004 when I played at an academy owned by the railway company back in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there I managed to get spotted for a premier league team called AS Bagole in 2005 and afterwards St Luc also in DR Congo where I was between 2006 and 2010.
What happened afterwards?
An uncle of mine based in USA felt I would get more exposure if I played in more established leagues and organized for me to come to Kenya on refugee status. So I traveled for days and arrived in Nairobi in December 2010 to stay with a friend in Kitengela.
So your football journey in Kenya was to start in 2011, but how did you start off?
It was not easy considering I only knew my language and French. There was a communication barrier and I think that denied me a fair chance but I still didn’t give up. In January I tried out with AFC Leopards but was unsuccessful in sessions conducted by Victor Wanyama’s dad. I then went to try out with Posta Rangers and on that day they had a friendly match. I was thrown in for the last 15 minutes and that was my big break.
Describe the ‘big break’
Well, at the time I was really desperate to get a team to play for and when I arrived at their training session at Railways Club, very few thought I could get into the team and I was a bit tensed as I waited for my chance on the bench. It came in the 75th minute. I said a short prayer and went out there and gave my all. After the game coach Michael Nam and David Ouma took keen interest and asked for my details and they invited me for more of their preseason training sessions.
So you got signed and registered. How was your first experience of Kenyan football?
It was not easy. Since I was registering on a refugee status, I had to wait for long as they worked on my papers and work permit. I had to sit out many matches though I trained with the team regularly. While this was a tough time for me, it helped me know more about Kenya football. I got to play in the last few games of the first leg but I was a regular in the second leg.
That was in 2011; you did not stay too long at Rangers
Yes; after a good season in 2011, I was approached by Sofapaka and the president gave meve a good offer and assurance of play time. Furthermore, David Ouma, my coach at Rangers was also heading to Sofapaka and given that he knew me well, I was comfortable making the switch.
After a year in Kenya, had you come around the language barrier?
Somehow, yes. You see at Rangers, I was really appreciated for my skill and relationship with people, not just team mates but everyone. Guys were ready to teach me a few Swahili words and I was corrected when I said anything wrongly. Of course they used to laugh at me but in the end I got to learn and that was the most important thing. When I went to Sofapaka it was the same, but there I found a number of players who knew Congolese language and French, it was a bit easy.
Apart from the language issue, how was it at Sofapaka?
After Rangers, I found a bigger and welcoming family at Sofapaka. At the time there was coach Ouma and Salim Ali, who were very accommodative and believed in my ability. It was not hard settling in and I enjoyed my time. Here I also got my first award as a player when I was named the third best defender at the KPL Awards after a good season.
The award was just your first, you went on to have a good run at Sofapaka. Take us through that period.
I had four great seasons at Sofapaka. By the time I was leaving I had won personal and team accolades, and I had also risen to become the team captain. In 2013 and 2014, we won the Charity Cup; in 2014 we also won the GOtv Shield. I was named the best defender in the GOtv Shield that year and I was for the second time named the third best defender at the KPL Awards. It is at this team that I also got to play continental football for the first time, in 2015, so you see Sofapaka has a special place in my heart.
After four years at Sofapaka, you left for Bandari. What informed your move?
I had a good time at Sofapaka, and I had grown well; I felt I needed a chance to further grow and this called for a new challenge. Bandari came for me and offered me a good deal but the most important thing, in 2016 they were going to play in the CAF Confederations Cup. This is a dream for every player. With a heavy heart I had to say goodbye to a very special club.
At Bandari, how was it settling in?
It was not easy for the first month. The weather and general social set up in Mombasa is different from Nairobi but in my life I have gone through a lot. I did not let weather pull me down; I had an ambition to grow in football and I said no matter what, I will get what I want.
Was there any particular player, or official you feel made it easier for you to settle in?
Yeah. Remember here I found former team mates at Sofapaka, the likes of Wilson Oburu, Anthony Kimani, Musa Mudde and more they were really helpful. My new team mates also helped me slot in and the officials were also very supportive and understanding. Our former Team Manager – Obwaka – was particularly very instrumental for me. He was like a father here, not just to but all players; may his soul rest in peace.
After two years at Bandari, you are now the captain. How did this come to be?
I have been very lucky in my career, especially here in Kenya. I have always been handed leadership roles wherever I go, perhaps it is because of how I relate with people but I can also say God has been very faithful to me. At Sofapaka, I was chosen by players and it happened so at Bandari and I do not take this for granted. It is a big responsibility for me and I know I owe my fellow players and the club for this.
You have won a number of awards, but the biggest came this year when you were named Defender of the Year in KPL. Does this give you pressure going into the coming season?
Not at all. I have been in this game for long enough and I know how to handle situations. I always pray for the right decisions and I ask God for a good game. He has been good to me all through and I know He can’t let me down now. Also, it would be very selfish for me to take all credit for this award; my team mates have been very crucial in me winning it and I cannot leave them out.
You have not had trouble slotting into coaches’ plans wherever you’ve played. How would you describe Bernard Mwalala’s time at Bandari?
First, I thank God that I have played under very experienced and supportive coaches. I don’t remember ever having a misunderstanding with any of my coaches. As for Mwalala, I’d say he is a good coach anmd I am happy that when he came, he slotted in very easily to the model coach Ken Odhiambo had set. He is fair and he is open. He is supportive both on and off the pitch and I know we will grow as players and as a team under him. When he came, he went all out to motivate us and a crucial thing he brought in, was the addition of pace to our game.
In the 2018 season you had a chance to try out in Lesotho, what came of it?
It was all good and the club is still in communication with Bandari. I am still hoping and praying that things go well.
One thing that has also come from the good season you had in 2018 is the call to have you in the Kenya national team. What do you say about that?
It is good for my profile, but then people need to know that I am still playing under refugee status and I am still Congolese as per the papers I hold. However, in life I have learnt that you can never really close up to any possibilities. I am in constant contact with Florent Ibenge, the DR Congo coach and maybe I will one day get to represent my country of birth. Kenya is my adopted country, and I have a lot to celebrate about it as well so if the chance comes I will also consider.
Tell us about the gun drama in Kericho earlier in the 2018 season
That was an incident that was really uncalled for. While in the pitch we noticed some commotion on our bench and the referee had to temporarily stop the game. As captain it was just sensible that I go to the bench and try to calm my people down but getting there, I found a man who I think was drunk and he had a gun. When he noticed he was outnumbered, he made an attempt to reach for the gun but I am glad no one was injured though I feel the league management needs to do more to secure teams from such people.
How has your family stepped in to support you in your career?
The world over, no player can succeed without the support of family. Mine has been very supportive and understanding and I’d say they are the reason I got the awards I managed this season. From all the rigors out in the field, you need that calm and accommodative environment back at home and I should say I get that always.
Finally, what are your ambitions going forward?
For me the bar is set; after a good season in 2018, it can’t go any lower. I am looking at helping my team challenge for titles in the coming season and I also want to get to new heights as a player. My secret is to put God first, train hard and stay disciplined. I believe next season will be better.
NOTE: THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE 15TH EDITION OF THE SOKA MAGAZINE