'Rugby without a ball': How James Kamweti struggles to explain kabaddi in Kenya
Kenyan raider James Kamweti has taken an unusual route to the Pro Kabaddi League. He looks forward to the day he can explain his sport without mention of rugby or badminton.
Hyderabad: During last Sunday's Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) match between UP Yoddhas and Jaipur Pink Panthers, the Hyderabad crowd suddenly went berserk when a raider scored two points. Surprisingly, these cheers were not for their adopted son Rahul Chaudhari, or even PKL's biggest star Pardeep Narwal. They were for James Kamweti, UP Yoddhas' Kenyan raider.
Hailing from the athletics-crazy nation of Kenya, this crowd favourite in the PKL is often mistaken to be a track athlete. But Kamweti chose to use his tall frame and lean physique to conjure magic in kabaddi instead. Or, as he tries to explain the sport to his friends - rugby without a ball!
"I have to tell people that kabaddi is rugby without the ball. People ask who is the ball then. I reply that I am the ball," Kamweti laughed during a conversation with The Bridge.
"Kabaddi is a baby sport in Kenya. Whenever we travel abroad for tournaments, that's when people come to know about it through TV. Nobody knows what the sport is. It is confused with badminton at times," he chuckled.
An influx of Kenyan players started in the PKL when a very young and inexperienced Kenyan team led by David Mosambayi put on an exciting show at the Kabaddi World Cup in 2016. Mosambayi was picked up by Puneri Paltan in the subsequent season, but there have been quite a few from his country since then to have followed him into the PKL. Victor Obiero (Tamil Thalaivas) and Daniel Odhiambo (Patna Pirates) are two others who are playing this season.
All of these players in the PKL - Mosambayi, Obiero, Odhiambo and Kamweti himself - have become coaches and promoters of kabaddi back home. In the PKL off-season, they give their time and money to train Kenyan kabaddi players.
Accidental Kabaddi Player - From Kenya to PKL
A lawyer by profession, Kamweti has been playing kabaddi for four years. He is now the vice-captain of the Kenyan national team.
Narrating his journey from the courtroom to the mat, he said, "It was by luck. Absolute luck. In 2018, I was going to class dressed up in my formal dress when a lady stopped me. I found the conversation amusing."
The lady in question happened to be Lavender Oguta, the President of the Kenya Kabaddi Federation, who spotted something in the then-volleyball player to suggest he could offer something special on the mat.
On how he took his baby steps training in for the new sport, Kamweti said, "One day I went there at 6 am in the morning and they asked me to raid. I did that, it was easy for me. Then they got serious and I realised it is a tough game. I found the game interesting and started going daily in the morning. It was a little tough as my whole routine changed. I trained for 30 minutes, understood some skills and then ran back to my class. That is when I realized I want to play this game more."
Last year, he got his big break when called up by the UP Yoddhas.
Now playing his second season and much more at home in India, James said he had been very nervous when taking a plunge into the PKL.
"I was in the auction last season but wasn't picked up. I gave up, but then I got a call from Michael (UP team manager) and he told me that we want to have you as a replacement for an injured Bangladeshi player. I was surprised. I didn't believe it till I was here in India," he recounted.
Kabaddi in Kenya
The inception of the PKL has not only revitalised kabaddi's popularity within India, but it has also globalised the sport. Overseas players like Kamweti come to the PKL, rub shoulders with the best in the world and take back the experience to promote the sport in their countries.
"It's really helpful being in PKL because whatever we pick from here, we will share this experience in Kenya. All the former Kenyan players in PKL are coaches back home now," the Kenyan raider said.
"We are trying our best to introduce the game all across the country. Kenya is divided into counties and we travel across the counties promoting the game. Right now, more than half the counties have kabaddi teams. Nairobi has more than ten clubs playing at the moment."
Relationship with fans and his team
It could be tough for overseas players to find their home in the PKL as there are considerable cultural differences - language being a primary one. But Kamweti seems to have gelled easily with his Indian teammates. Even when he is on the bench, he is usually seen playing a very active role.
"This is my second season with the UP Yoddhas - it's a dream for everyone to come here, to be picked up in the PKL. I'm experiencing a lot of diversity. I'm learning new things - when it comes to skills as well as everything else," he said about his experience in India.
"It is all organic. Everyone smiles at me. When they speak in Hindi, I have to pick and choose words. When I speak in English, we have people who can translate. These are good people to get along with and I learn from them every day," he chuckled while looking at his teammates.
For the crowd support he has drawn in India, Kamweti has nothing but gratitude.
"I am grateful for the fans in Pune and all over India. They make a huge noise for me wherever I go. It is a team game and my motive is to play with the team, be it on the mat or off the mat," he concluded with a smile.
From the suburbs of an African nation to the glitz of one of India's top professional sports leagues, James Kamweti has walked a long road, and he is ready to walk more so that the sports he loves get recognised in his country - without mention of rugby.