Golfer who broke race barrier

Mr Richard Kemoli. PHOTO | FILE | NMG
Mr Richard Kemoli. PHOTO | FILE | NMG 

Richard Kemoli has been playing golf for 45 years. He was one of the first three black golfers to become members of Karen Country Club in 1972, a time when the green was all white.

His illustrious post-retirement career (worked for Commonwealth Development Corporation, retired at 60) that has seen him, at some point, sit in 15 boards in Kenya and some across East Africa. His most notable were in listed companies like Housing Finance #ticker:HFCK, CMC #ticker:CMC, Kakuzi #ticker:KUKZ, East African Breweries Ltd #ticker:EABL and Unga Group #ticker:UNGA.

He’s had a good run as an economist (Makerere trained) and now at 82, he likes nothing better than to tee off every week with his cronies for an 18-hole and a morning filled with war stories.

JACKSON BIKO met him at the club.


How did you, a black man, manage to get into a country club in 1972?

Back in those days clubs belonged to expatriates and at Independence most of them were leaving. I and some friends of mine felt that instead of beginning a completely new African club, we should infiltrate existing clubs.

So we “invaded” these golf clubs. Every Sunday afternoon—it didn’t matter whether you were a golfer or not—we’d say, “next Sunday we’re going to meet at Royal Club.’’ And we’d go and flood the place. We ended up being members at the Royal Club. I must have been 35.

At some point when I was a director at the National Bank of Kenya where I met Philip Ndegwa, who was probably the first black member here, I was invited to join and here I am. We were not more than five black members.

How was 1972 for a golfer?

It was completely different. Everything has changed; the course is completely different. There are more trees, a spa and other facilities. Mostly importantly we now have our own Kenyans, I call them indigenous Kenyans. I’m not being racist at all. And more importantly, we’ve been targeting the younger generation like you. Do you like golf?

No...not for me.

Oh that’s a shame. (Chuckles) The atmosphere is much more different.

You have done this for so long; what has been the impact of golf in your life?

First, it’s not really a physical game and you can play with anybody from the highest expert to the most incompetent. Your social class doesn’t matter. When you are here, you are all golfers. That grounds you. It’s a melting pot of people from different professions and walks of life. I have met many interesting people because of golf.

Golf makes you bolder to make decisions at work or family life. More importantly, it’s a discipline game. It’s got rules. There are 34 rules. You have to be honest in your game. If you hit the ball 10 times, don’t say you hit it six times even if no one is watching.

You have four children, if you were to give somebody starting out as a father advice, what would it be?

I have been doing fatherhood a long time, my last born is about your age. My advice is do not force a child at school to do what you think she/he should do.

Your function is to pay the fees until your child does whatever they want. Now, my children were never in boarding school at all until they joined university. Why? I wanted to bond and build a family. They are away at school the whole day so the only time you’ll be bonding is in the evening or weekend.

What challenged you most as a father?

I didn’t have any challenge apart from paying school fees, but provided the kids were doing what we had agreed they do, things were fine.
I’ll pay the fees and make sure there’s a place for you to come and for you to sleep, and food, and you do your stuff at school.

You’ve lived such an abundant life. What other dreams do you have left?

It’s not what I want to achieve. It’s for me to see that children and the young people who worked for me have succeeded. Where I have been a chairman, I’m very proud that about four of my employees have risen right up. One company where I worked— Bamburi —at one stage the average age of executive directors was 35. All my directors executives were in their 30s in Bamburi. I believe if someone has ability, the thing you inculcate in them is discipline and tell them there’s a job.

What is your philosophy on money?

I think without being greedy (Laughter) and without being ostentatious, you need sufficient money to live without appearing to be too high there, or not showing an example by being too low down there. Not being a miser and not being ostentatious. You should be seen not as somebody who is high flying, or somebody who is penny pinching. You should also help people who don’t have. I’ve paid fees and I still pay fees for many people. Some I don’t know or maybe I know the parent.

What regrets do you have? What do you wish you had done and didn’t do?

If I had more resources, I could have done more for the people in the village where I was born and the surrounding area. I built a secondary school, a church for the old people, a nursery school and a women’s social hall. I dropped electricity. I did all these by never once taking a politician for an harambee in my village, just friends and colleagues. But I wish I could do more.

Which period of your life do you think you had the most fun—30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s or now?

Between 40 to 55. At that age I had learnt a lot and I had more confidence. I had travelled widely. I think that’s when I was most productive.

What do you think is the source of happiness?

I’d rather talk of satisfaction.

Why can’t you talk about happiness?

(Pause) If you’re healthy, you should be a happy person. And if you’re a healthy person then you want to do something satisfactory and to get satisfaction from what you’ve done, something that you’ve succeeded in.

Satisfaction is a more realistic approach. Are you satisfied with what you have done in life? But without good health you can’t do much. You can’t move.