Dancing Rasta with his locks held together in a bun at the back. Cool Joe with his afro and his comb perched in his hair even during the game. Let’s not pretend that we didn’t play soccer with combs in our hair because we wanted to be cool like Cool Joe. Big Mo, and ile kipara yake bigi, clean-shaven, his head glinting under the spotlights. Who was that one with the hair plaited in neat lines, the one who went to play for Palmintieri in Brazil? Soipei. Halafu Shakes Makena, main man mwenyewe, with that spiky hair of his.
Later, there was Twisting Tiger (red flaming hair) and El Matador (hair tied back in a ponytail) and The Blok (blonde, with bangs covering his eyes) and sijui who else and sijui what other hair, but that’s later. For now, we look at watu wetu wa kwanza: the firsts.
Pale Strikaland, three in the afternoon. Lunchtime kickoff. Supa Strikas against Mighty Shabbs, whose owner/president Martin always dressed in purple drug-lord suits and had a puffy drug-lord beard and wore glinting drug-lord rings on his fingers. Mighty Shabbs, whose defensive stalwart was Ogonga Thom, a bruising defender with a penchant for disregarding the rules, and who played Dirty with a capital D. Mighty Shabbs, whose star player Moseti Ndung’u was agemates with Shakes, and in fact they had been childhood nemeses, and in fact they had been classmates and in fact when they sat their high school exams Moseti stole Shakes’s results and exchanged them for his own (how this was possible we never asked), and because Supa Strikas didn’t let in anyone who had failed their exams, Shakes couldn’t play for Supa Strikas, but Moseti, with our hero’s stolen results, could, until, of course, the theft was discovered. Shakes was welcomed into the Supa Strikas dressing room and given the jersey number, 10, that his father had worn years back; Moseti was consigned to play with Mighty Shabbs.
These matches were hot. Ogonga was always pulling off just nasty shit, and Martin would throw around his purple drug-lord money, play in his purple drug-lord suits, and try to win the games for Mighty Shabbs. They never said that he was a drug lord, but with those suits and those rings and that beard, you just knew. And Moseti, he was maybe technically as gifted as Shakes— he danced and scythed and weaved his way through that Supa Strikas defensive line—and then it would be only him and Big Mo, and often Moseti would score the first goal, and we’d spend the rest of the time waiting for Shakes to do something next.
My best friend when I was in class one was called Ernest, and we even wrote compositions about each other, zile za “My Best Friend.” Tukiwa class six or seven, Supa Strikas went to Spain to play Barka FC, whose main person was Riano (who we all knew was a derivative of real-life Ronaldinho), and Riano could dribble like crazy, tricks and feints like the real-life Ronaldinho, and Ernest when we were in class six or seven could also dribble like crazy, and so when we were class six or seven we called him Riano. I haven’t seen him in years, but every time he likes my tweets or my pictures on Instagram, I remember Riano when we were in class six or seven.
All of Shakes Makena’s adversaries, I remember them: Riano, and that giant keeper who played for FC Aztek in Mexico, and Andromeda, the star striker of Orion FC (yes, I got the reference, and thought myself very smart for doing so), and the scientist type who was in charge of FC Technicali, and Soipei, who despite being teammates with Shakes, was in love with Shakes’s girlfriend Caro, and that particular story ended with Soipei going to play for Palmintieri, away from Caro and Shakes. And, above everyone else, Moseti. These people felt real, and our emotions were real, and I felt guilty for liking Moseti, because he was Shakes’s sworn foe. This was not a comic. This was the story of the world’s greatest soccer team.
Even now it’s odd to read articles and papers and Wiki entries describing Supa Strikas as “a pan-African association football-themed comic, about the titular football team dubbed ‘the world’s greatest.’” I never thought of Supa Strikas as a comic; the league was real life. Comics were Archie and Beano and Dandy and the comics the girls in class hid from us and said they were only for girls but which we read anyway. Or they were so heavily white and Western and American that they were fantasy. Or they were NGO-funded, prevent-AIDS, prevent-early-pregnancy, prevent-premarital-sex rags with moral lessons, and any story with a moral at the end is clearly a work of fiction. Listen, the coach of Supa Strikas was a portly square-faced man with glasses called Benson Mulei, and the coach of the Kenya national football team was a portly square-faced man with glasses called Jacob Mulee, and you are telling me that’s not the same person? Or, the fact that Shakes was a fresh-faced kid with spiky hair/locks who got into the team when still in high school and became its star striker, and you are telling me that Shakes was not clearly an allusion to Dennis Oliech, a fresh-faced kid with spiky hair/locks who got into the Kenya national team when still in high school and became its star striker? Come on.
Later came the discovery that Supa Strikas had never been solely a Kenyan thing. Once, I was talking to my Nigerian friend Ife and he told me about Segun “Shegs” Okoro, and how the comic became popular in Nigeria because Mr. Biggs, a fast food chain, started to carry it. I searched for the term “Shegs Okoro,” and there were all these Nigerians on Twitter talking about how Shegs Okoro was the greatest footballer of all time, talking about his childhood-friend-turned-rival, some chap called Aniekan, and I wonder now whether Nigerians imagined that Shakes Makena was based on Obafemi Martins, a fresh-faced kid with spiky hair/locks who got into the Nigeria national team when still a teenager and later became its star striker.
This, then, was the magic of Supa Strikas: eschewing a globalized uniform comic, they had different versions of the comic in different countries. Sure, while the core tenets might have been the same in all the editions, the identifying principles were tied to the country it was sold in. For example, while the captain, Dancing Rasta, was a Rastafarian mountaineer in all the countries, in Nigeria he was called Kazeem Oluwole Thunder aka Dancing Rasta, while in Kenya he was called Sam Otieno aka Dancing Rasta. In one of the issues I read, he went to the Fourteen Falls in Thika in search of something from his father, narrowly escaping being eaten by crocs, and I can easily imagine him, in Nigeria, going to waterfalls in some town along the River Niger, narrowly escaping being eaten by crocs. Or, how, in Kenya, Cool Joe’s government name was Joe Waweru, and he owned a nightclub in Nairobi, but he could also easily have owned a nightclub in Kampala or Lagos or Gaborone.
Inspired by the British comic strip Roy of the Rovers, which was about a fictional British footballer called Roy Race, Supa Strikas was first published in 2000 in South Africa as a comic book about a footballer from the township of Soweto. (In Kenya, Shakes Makena was from the township of Mathare). It was distributed as a monthly pullout by South Africa’s most widely circulated newspaper, the Sunday Times. In Kenya, the newspaper of choice was the Saturday Nation. My family was Adventist, so we wouldn’t get the paper on Saturdays, but the Sunday morning after its publication I’d go to a newspaper vendor I knew, and he’d sell Supa Strikas to me for five bob.
My friends and I, we all had footballer dreams. We’d read Supa Strikas religiously and try the moves when we played football: the dragback; hitting the ball from the side of the foot so that it’d spin the air when it moved, a la Cool Joe’s crosses; the bicycle kick, a Shakes Makena special. (There were playing cards, too, and we played religiously. I was always Mighty Shabbs.) Sometimes, in the issues, there’d be detailed instructions about how to pull off a move in a game, no matter how simple the move seemed. Like, how to head the ball. First, leap into the air. When leaping, hold your arms to the side of your body, bent at the elbows. This makes sure there is space around you. Then, move your head backwards from your neck, and when you bring it forward again toward the ball, by propelling your v-shaped elbows backwards at the same time, you can generate power for the header. So, naturally, this is how we all headed the ball.
Once, Kenya participated at the African Cup of Nations, Africa’s continental football competition. This is in the comic; real-life Kenya’s participation at AFCON is rare and, when it happens, transient, the team sent home early. For some reason, Shakes and Chippa, Supa Strikas’ then first-choice strike duo, were lost in the Sahara Desert, victims of a plot by Moseti to make himself Kenya’s main striker. There, they forged an unlikely bond, the Young Turk and the veteran master (yes, my eyes are rolling too), and somehow managed to get a flight to AFCON from the desert. When they got there, it was the final game of the tournament, and Kenya was losing at half-time. Chippa and Shakes were quickly subbed in, and though tired and sleep-deprived and lethargic, scored the goals that led Kenya to a comeback victory, and Kenya won the African Cup of Nations.
Lakini sasa in thinking about all the different iterations of the comic, I wonder if Kenya won AFCON in this way in all of them. Is there a version where the two footballers kidnapped are Ugandan, or Zambian, or Nigerian, or Namibian? Does Tanzania win AFCON after their two star footballers get trapped in the Sahara Desert and make it for the second half of the AFCON final? Did Tanzanians, like us poor Kenyans, also imagine that their country was now an African football powerhouse, fueled by the Supa Strikas boys?
In time however, the focus of the writers of Supa Strikas shifted. Instead of editions distinct to the countries in which they circulated, the comic acquired an amorphous Africa-is-a-country identity. We didn’t notice it at first. The Supa Strikas team was promoted from the Kenyan Premier League into a worldwide Super League. So, too, was Mighty Shabbs. But then Mighty Shabbs was renamed: it was now Invincible United. Soon, Dancing Rasta was only ever referred to as Dancing Rasta, his Kenyan Sam Otieno identity buried. He became Jamaican; he was now, literally, the Dancing Rasta. Buried, too, was Cool Joe’s Joe Waweru. Big Mo was no longer Big Mo; he was now Big Bo. We knew people called Mo; we didn’t know any Bos. The coach stopped being called Benson Mulei. He was now, simply, Coach.
We didn’t notice the betrayal. The Supa Strikas team became more multicultural. El Matador, a vaguely Latin American striker who resembles the real-life Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani was brought in; The Blok, a vaguely Russian/Ukranian/somewhere-Eastern-European defender was brought in; Twisting Tiger, a Japanese whirlwind of a midfielder with red hair, was brought in. An animated TV show was made of the Supa Strikas, and most of the players, apart from these four main characters, acquired vague accents which couldn’t be placed anywhere. Moseti Ndung’u, a very Kenyan name, was now called Skarra. Shakes, globalized in this way, was no longer Dennis Oliech. But then, none of this mattered anymore. Dennis Oliech retired. We had grown up. We weren’t kids anymore. The Daily Nation stopped sharing the pullout.
And yet, in remembering the age when Supa Strikas and the Pacesetter books series and the music group Makoma were the dominant cultural forms across the African continent, I see now what can be described as the Supa Strikas move, so codified it appeared in almost all the issues of the comic. How it starts is that we’re at Strikaland, playing the Mighty Shabbs, ile game yetu moto, and Moseti is on the ball, harrying down on the Supa Strikas goal. He waltzes past one defender, feints past another, and evades a third, all of these nameless faceless unfortunates sodden on the grass. He shoots, and the ball appears to curl towards the top corner, but suddenly here’s the big frame of Big Mo hurling himself at the ball, and the keep catches the ball in one hand. Then the Supa Strikas counter. Big Mo throws the ball to Dancing Rasta, who begins to dance his way through the opposing midfield. On the touchline, purple-suited Martin glowers as the Dancing Rasta jumps over a tackle, his fierce locks swirling in the air above him, his arms bulging and threatening to rip his shirt, the black captain’s armband strong on his arm. Our captain then shifts the ball to his left, where Cool Joseph Waweru is making a run into space. Cool Joe takes the ball into stride and runs along the touchline, and then, just when it seems like he has run out space, he swivels his left foot and crosses the ball high into the box, where Shakes is waiting, marked by the snarling Ogonga Thom. There, the ball hangs in the air, and Shakes launches himself up, his back facing the Mighty Shabbs goal, and as he lifts his right foot towards him, the left hanging down on an imaginary pedal (the bicycle kick!), we catch a glimpse of Ogonga Thom’s face, his eyes ballooned in anger. Shakes Makena connects with the ball, and it sails into the top corner past the flailing arms of the keeper, and it’s the last minute of the game, and it’s the last kick of the game, and it’s the final game of the season, and the world’s greatest soccer team have won the league.