A Life outside the beautiful game: The Many Hats of Dr. William Obwaka

The story of Gor Mahia legend William Obwaka is one of discipline, vision and a constant need to keep testing one’s full limits.

Football in the country now has become a lucrative way of making ends meet, there is money to be made for the clubs, the officials and the players. It is a full time career for the players especially and they don’t have to juggle two or three jobs to sustain themselves and their families like years past.

Players are now easily making five-figure salaries while playing for clubs locally. A player coming to training in his own car is not a rare occurrence now and playing abroad has become the norm.

Harambee Stars can boast of a plethora of talented players based outside our borders either in the continent, Europe or Asia and the money to be made there is enough to make one inspired.

Michael Olunga

Take for example Kenyan striker Michael Olunga who currently plies his trade in the Japanese topflight after featuring for clubs in China, Sweden and Spain. Olunga, an engineering student, put aside his geospatial engineering aspirations to pursue a career in football and is now one of the best earning footballers this country has ever produced.

This though could not have happened 15, 20, 30 years ago. A player shunning a white collar job/career to play football was unheard of. It was the complete contrast, hanging boots for the classroom whether here or abroad was the everyday occurrence.

Players like Vincent Kwarula, George Nyangi Odembo, Nahashon Lule Oluoch and Sammy Kempes Owino just to name a few, quit football to pursue tertiary education and later took career paths aligned to what they had studied.

One player who trudged along this path and is our focus for Life After Football is Gor Mahia legend William Obwaka who played for the club during the 1980’s, the country’s most successful and entertaining period of the beautiful game, and quit right at the height of his powers and that of the Green Army to pursue medicine in university and is now a practicing gynecologist with more than 20 years’ experience.

Early memories

Obwaka was a lethal striker in his heyday and those who saw him play can attest to that. Speed and the ability to play with both feet made him a darling of the K’Ogalo faithful when he joined the club from Hakati Sportiff in 1984.

Born and raised in Ziwani estate on the outskirts of the Nairobi CBD, Obwaka was the eighth in a family of 10, seven boys and three girls and only him and his elder brother, the late Enock Obwaka played football at topflight level.

For him, just like any other player, the passion for the game started at a very young age while still in primary school at Starehe Boys Centre, a school he would take both his primary and secondary studies and often jokes that he “was part of the furniture” at the famed institution which has for years produced some of the best minds from this side of the Sahara.

“Football has been part of me since a very young age,” Obwaka starts off our interview. “Playing bare feet on a dirt stony surface with a ball woven out of polythene bags, torn clothes and whatever else you could assemble are my first memories of my football journey.”

Humble starts

That definitely strikes a chord as almost every footballer in the African continent, started at a similar point.

“Ziwani residents were and still are known for their love of the game. It is the same with the other estates around it and there is no way as a small child you can escape it. You will play the game whether you like it or not.

“I remember we used to have a small gang or team if you could call it that, of kids from the estate and we would roam almost every neighbourhood with our paper ball looking for teams to play against.”

It was something they used to do during the holidays and it would get them in serious trouble when they returned home, as most of the time it was after dark. But little did Obwaka know that it would harness a passion in him for the world’s game.

During his teenage years when in high school and after, and before joining the University of Nairobi after spending 13 years at Starehe, Obwaka would play regularly for Umeme B, a squad made up of young footballers looking to break into the senior team of Umeme FC.

He would break into that squad and feature sparingly as he juggled his passion for the game and his studies, this he says brought about discipline which laid the foundation for his life after football.

Obwaka would join the University of Nairobi in 1981 and would spend the next six years at the institution. Studying medicine at the time normally took five years but due to the 1982 attempted coup, students at the time were forced to suspend their studies by almost a full year.

During his early years in university, Obwaka played for the college team nicknamed the Red Brigades as well as for Uthiru Sportiff, a small team based in the town of Uthiru. He and Enock played there together before the latter, moved to Gor Mahia in 1982.

He (Obwaka) would not stay there (Uthiru) long after that as his goal scoring prowess had caught the eye of the late coach Jonathan Niva who was then at Hakati FC. Niva recruited him to try and bring back the glory to the club after several of the team’s high profile players like Peter Bassanga Otieno, Tom Olaba, and Sammy Jogoo Onyango had left for greener pastures.

“My elder brother Enock used to live in Uthiru and he had a friend who had a small team called Uthiru Sportiff and sometimes I would play for the team whenever I was not playing for the university one. This was our launching pad as it was through our performances for that team that we got the chance to play in the topflight,” Doc, as he is commonly referred to now, says.

He spent two years at Hakati and played alongside other greats as James Jacaranda Ouma, Maxwell Ouma, Stanley Ofula and Moses Mulamba. But the club was struggling and almost suffered relegation at the end of 1983.

Leopards’ loss is Gor’s gain

The close shave at relegation marked the end of his time with the club as he left for pastures new. But before he joined Gor Mahia he had trials with AFC Leopards under then Ugandan coach Robert Kiberu. But Leopards were unconvinced of his qualities and their indecisiveness became Gor Mahia’s gain as it is with K’Ogalo that the now father of four would curve his name into Kenyan football history.

“I left Hakati because we were almost suffering the drop. I could not go down to playing lower tier football after I had made it to the topflight. That was the reason why I left.

“Most people don’t know this but before I joined Gor, I had opted to go to Leopards first because there had been a lot of controversy that was generated when Enock joined them because we are Luhyas. I wanted to redeem our name and that is why I went for trials there.

Too skinny for Leopards

“Unfortunately or fortunately, however you’d want to put it, I wasn’t selected because of my small frame at the time. I was too skinny and coach Kiberu though impressed by my skill set, told me that this was the reason I could not play for his team. He told me that I would have to wait a year to be considered and that I could not do so I went to Gor and the rest is history.”

He joined Gor in ’84 and won the league title in his first year with the team. The highlight of his tenure though would come one year later in 1985 during the CECEFA Club tournament (Kagame Cup) in Khartoum Sudan where he scored a brace in the final to claim Gor’s fifth and only regional title to date, in a  2-0 win over the Leopards team that had rejected him only two years earlier.

A fringe player before that final, Obwaka’s chance to take centre stage came fortuitously after six senior players namely; Abbey Nassur, Abbas Magongo, Bassanga, Abdallah Shebe, George Fundi Onyango and George Solo Otieno alongside head coach Len Julians had received two year bans each from continental football after their part in a brawl in a African Cup Winners Cup tie against Egyptian side Zamalek in ‘84 that resulted in the center referee suffering bodily harm after awarding a penalty against Gor.

This setback was a blessing in disguise as it made Obwaka, alongside other young players like George Nyangi Odembo (who would later become his brother-in-law) and Swaleh Oswayo make names for themselves at the club as they stepped up to fill that void.

That Sudan final was redemption for him but at the same time some sort of déjà vu as only three months before that, he had netted a brace in another all Kenyan final, as his Nairobi University side claimed the East African University ball games in Tanzania over rivals Kenyatta University.

“I consider the goals against Leopards in ’85 my biggest in my football life,” says the man who claimed seven major titles including the 1987 Mandela Cup during his eight or so year stay with the team.

School and play

Amid all the success it is easy to forget that Obwaka was still pursuing his studies and graduated in mid ’87 with a Bachelor’s in Medicine and a Bachelor’s in Surgery from UoN. He was posted in Mombasa at the Coast General Hospital for his internship and stayed there for two years, one as an intern and one as a general practitioner.

It took considerable sacrifice to attain his degrees while at the same time maneuver through the rigors of playing for such a demanding club like Gor. Sometimes he used to carry with him his school work whenever the team traveled away for matches so that he could not lag behind.

“Playing football and juggling that with my studies at such an early age was not easy. I became more disciplined during this period because I knew what I wanted. Football at the time was seen as a pastime and it did not pay as well as today. Players now cannot sacrifice as we did then because we only earned pocket change.

“Some of my lecturers, who were die hard Gor fans helped me in going through this period and whenever I had a problem with understanding certain topics they were there to help as they did not want my school work to affect my performances on the pitch and vice versa,” he says with a chuckle.

A lot was happening in his life during this period and soon, football had to take a back seat. His medical career had finally begun to take shape and elsewhere, his relationship with Emily Njoki was heading down the aisle.

Meeting Emily

Obwaka and Emily joined the University of Nairobi together in ’81 and it took three years for this once swift lethal striker to make a move.

“She was doing dentistry so I usually got to see her around school. But it took like three years for me to finally see her for who she was,” he says about the one who would become his life partner, joking also in the interview that it took him “three years for the scales to finally fall off his eyes”.

After four years of courtship, the two would wed on the 11th of December in 1987, the same year that Gor were claiming an unprecedented continental crown to stamp their name among Africa’s greats. The wedding had initially been planned for the 5th, which was on the same day that Gor were playing the return leg of the final against Tunisian side Esperance and was postponed by a week so as to make it possible for his teammates to attend.

He did not feature in the latter stages of that cup success but did chip in with a few appearances and goals during the preliminary rounds.

After returning from Mombasa, Obwaka, then a government employee, would work in Westlands as well as the Pumwani Maternity Hospital while at the same time pursuing a Masters in gynecology which he attained in 1994 after three years of study.

During this time his tenure at Gor was coming to an end and he was not playing as regularly as he used to. He played his last game for the side in 1992.

After specializing in gynecology, Dr. Obwaka joined the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where he worked for seven years between 1995 and 2002 rising through the ranks from a Registrar to a Senior Consultant.

And as we have come to know about this fleet footed wizard is that doing just one thing is never enough and he has always been the first to stretch his capabilities. In those seven years, he lectured at the University of Nairobi in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, started his own private clinic called Gilead Medical Centre and though he never played for the national team, worked briefly as the Harambee Stars Team Manager in 1996 under the tenure of Montenegrin coach Vojo Garadasevic.

The highlight of this six month stint with Harambee Stars came in July of that year as Stars claimed a 3-1 win over Algeria in a qualifier for the 1998 FIFA World Cup at the Kasarani Stadium.

Medicine and Politics

Politics, one of the many hats he wears, begun for him in 2002 and is one of the main reason(s) as to why he left his position at KNH.

During the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) wave, Obwaka stated his ambition to vie for the Starehe Constituency parliamentary seat but would fall short at the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) nominations and as well as with the 2007 and 2013 elections.

In 2007, he would fall at the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) nominations to Bishop Margret Wanjiru and in 2013, even after changing constituencies, would yet again not make it past the preliminaries as he was edged by Joan Macodawa for the Embakasi North seat.

Football leadership

In between that in 2011, he tried his hand at football management after a caucus of former players nominated him for presidency of the then Football Kenya Limited (FKL). But the political wrangles that have rocked the game for many a year saw him withdraw in support of Sammy Sholei who went on to win the Vice President’s seat.

“I will not want to speak more on it but Joe Kadenge called me during that time and we spoke at length and I took the decision to step aside for Sholei. At the time my heart was in it (football governance) but I have since moved on and that chapter is closed for me.

“But I do believe that having someone who once played the game at the top echelons of management in this country is the way to go. Not just any other player, but a player who is learned and an elite who knows about management, leadership and governance.

Advice to players

“My advice to the young players currently playing and to those who are just entering retirement stems from that. To them I say don’t shy away from learning, play the game and add knowledge because there is a life after football even if you make it to the paid ranks in Europe. Prepare yourselves. I played football for roughly 10 years, but I have been a doctor for 30 years now. You have your whole life ahead of you.”

He did not stop practicing medicine during this political period though and in between, worked for John Hopkins Program for International Education for Gynecology and Obstetrics (JHPIEGO), A.M.I hospital in Tanzania while also running his private practice alongside his elder brother, Job.

Writing

He is also trying his hand at writing and is working on his first release called “After the Applause” a book centered on educating the country’s sportsmen and women on the need to plan for a life after the fame and glory.

Also, together with his wife, who became an ordained minister with CITAM, they offer talks on marriage and family life.

A man of many hats, he ceased being ours only as football fans long time ago. His name has transcended outside the beautiful game and life after football could not have been sweeter and more meaningful for one Dr. William Obwaka.

NOTE: This piece originally appeared on the 14th edition of the Soka Magazine