Away from the rough and tumble sports, there is a less-hyped, unhurried, orderly game of the bowls played in well-manicured lush greens at various sports clubs in Kenya.
This is lawn bowling or “bowling on the green.” It is sometimes called a gentlemen’s sport, not because ladies are not allowed to play but it has a code of conduct.
Joseph Njagi, the Kenya Bowling Association vice chairman says courtesy and the spirit of true sportsmanship heavily guard the game.
‘‘It is a friendly competition,” he says.
Esther Ndung’u, a bowler, says players are not to hurl insults at each other, shout and should shake hands with opponents before and after the game. This has seen Ms Ndung’u not only become a passionate bowler but also a champion.
Five years ago, her husband encouraged her to play lawn bowling at Muthaiga Sports Club. She did not know much about a bowl, bank and a jack.
“ I didn’t like the game immediately as it is slowly-paced. But after a year, I began to enjoy it,” she says.
The lawn bowls have a “bias” that gives the balls a flattened appearance, she says, which requires one to curve their shots towards the jack. The wood closest to the jack holds it which makes a score after a round.
‘‘Competitors used to wear all white and we still do, although in some clubs that is changing,’’ she says.
The sport started in 1901 in Nairobi country clubs and was played by Whites but now a new breed of young African bowlers has emerged throwing woods and winning.
Today, most clubs even sponsor workers at the greens, with most representing Kenya in bowling championships.
“Previously, it was challenging as Europeans were the majority and would fund themselves to play in various tournaments. The government later came in and sponsored most tournaments where we represent Kenya,” says Ms Ndung’u as she prepared to play a single match against Andrew Jones at the Mombasa Sports Club.
In the bowling circle, Ms Ndung’u is also a household name. She played in Zambia in 2015 and 2016 where progressively won a bronze and a silver.
She is currently the best and the most valuable player as per the African States bowling tournament held in South Africa having played for the last five years and led the AST 2017 ladies’ team that won gold.
“I train four times a week for three hours. One needs to master bias, length and strength needed to throw the wood so as to make a score,” she says.
Ms Ndung’u is also among bowlers expected to battle it out in the trials to form a Kenyan team for the Commonwealth games scheduled for April 2018 in Australia.
In most clubs, the game is a pastime for retirees although they are looking to woo young players who are the lifeblood of any sports. Polo, snooker and golf clubs are also struggling to woo young Kenyans.
Most young people find these games dull and favour more extreme sports such as basketball or rugby. But rolling lawn balls down a green can actually make you sweat and unlike alley bowling, lawn bowling may require one to run around.
In some developed countries, the game is also recording low memberships and there are concerns the sport may be dying.
In Kenya, another challenge is that the game is only played in country clubs such as Nairobi, Muthaiga, Mombasa, Ruiru, Limuru, Karen and Njoro, locking out non-club members.
Mr Jones, the secretary of the bowling association which organises tournaments and friendlies says there are no schools participating in the game to nurture young talent.
‘‘Most greens require a great deal of maintenance which is costly. But the game is very nice as it involves a lot of people hence ideal for team building,” he says, adding that alternatively schools can use the dining rooms spread with a short mat and bowls, a cheap option for training amateur bowlers.
The bowlers say the benefits of the game go beyond mingling with the well-off in society.
“It is an exercise, it is very enjoyable and of course we play international games where we meet and share experiences. It is actually addictive,” says Mr Njagi.
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