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Rael Kamanda: The Juggling Queen

Here's how she got into freestyle football

BY Agnes Amondi

Nov 08, 2022, 08:50 AM

Devastating as it may be, the coronavirus pandemic pushed some people out of their comfort zones and forced them to pursue alternatives. At 23 years of age, Rael Kamanda is one such individual.

She is championing the growth of women's freestyle football in Kenya. She is just about the only female who's been involved in tournaments that have taken place. Away from this solo venture, she also participates in team football, currently attached to Kenya Women’s Premier League club Zetech Sparks.
Rael Kamanda comes from a sporty family. Her father and brother were footballers too. Despite her living with her step mum and father in Nairobi, as her biological mother opted for life in the rural area, there was no shortage of support for her and her footballing dreams.  
“I was born and raised in Kajiado. I grew up with my dad because my mum decided to live in the rural side. My dad stayed in the city and I preferred to live with him. We settled with my step mum and both were loving. Life was good.” 

“At the age of four, I discovered my love for football. My dad and my brother supported me a lot. I have played throughout my primary and high school life. When I was in form three, I received my first call-up to the Harambee Starlets U17 national team. My first game ended in a 3-0 defeat to Nigeria and I didn’t travel for the away match because of an ankle injury I sustained." 

"After high school, I joined my first premier league club Soccer Queens. After a short stint, I moved to Oserian Ladies and captained the team between 2014 and 2018. I then moved to neighbouring Tanzania for a season at Alliance Football Club in Mwanza before I came back home and joined S.E.P Oyugis. That's where I was when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country. I now play for Zetech Sparks.”

Opportunity Amidst Chaos

Rael Kamanda
The women's league had barely been played when it got cancelled after Kenya reported her first case of COVID-19 in March 2020. As that news filtered through, Kamanda could only contemplate her next move. 

“When COVID-19 hit, it really interrupted everything. There was no football. Life became even more difficult. Most players depended entirely on football as a source of income and had nothing else to do. 

"At least, I was running a soap-making business although it was small. I used to do it casually but when everything came to a standstill, I decided to scale up the business and produce larger quantities of soap for sale.”  
That was not the only change Rael made. For her football had to go on. With outdoor sport completely grounded, she found a way of coping with the sudden shift and got into freestyle football. 

“I used to do freestyle football for fun. Around March, that’s when I started taking it seriously. I had plenty of time and decided to do it. My sister recorded videos of me and I published them on social media for the fun of it. I never thought that freestyling could turn out to be a big thing.”

The Big Break

 “In November 2020, I came across the Red Bull challenge. I sent in a 30-second video showcasing my skills. In Kenya, we were only two ladies who took part and we qualified automatically for the Red Bull tournament.”

“I took part in my first ever National Freestyle Championship the same year. The tournament was held at the Simba Union Club, Nairobi. I was so excited but at the same time scared. For the first time, I met fellow freestylers, Oscar the juggler and Edward Murimi AKA Gatusso, who are far more experienced and have competed in huge events before.”
“I was new to this environment. All the attention was on me and I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. My competitor pulled out before the competition so I was the only lady amongst four men in the finals. 

"I was a bit afraid but the male freestylers were very supportive and encouraged me to have fun. I gave it my best shot, it was fun and I learnt a lot.” 

Kamanda was named the women’s National Freestyle champion after her first try, something she never expected. She received KES 35,000 in cash prize. “I was shocked and happy. That came at a very difficult period and it just gave me some relief.”

Taking It A Notch Higher

Rael Kamanda at the freestyle football challenge
One year later, the National Freestyle Championships was hosted in Kenya for the second time and Kamanda became a two-time freestyle football champion. Among the attendees was world-renowned French freestyle footballer  Séan Garnier.  

“I’d say that my win in 2020 was more about luck than anything. As for 2021, I put a lot of effort and hard work into my training. I knew it was not going to be a walk in the park so I had to step up my preparations. Along with that, I decided to look for more women to raise the number of participants. 

"In 2020, we were only two and my sole competitor withdrew. I managed to attract 15 women from Nairobi and three from Mombasa. Unfortunately, again, they pulled out and only four of us were left. I think some of them saw my videos on social media and felt intimidated. Despite that setback, I’m more than happy that the numbers doubled albeit by only two. It’s a step in the right direction.”
“We were in our semis when Séan arrived. We had to wait for his entrance and introductions to be done. I have been following him on social media and seeing him in person was amazing. We were on stage at the time competing and I got nervous. I never imagined I’d meet him one day but I just had to compose myself and stay focused.”
Courtesy of her win, Kamanda met the Frenchman who shared some insight on what it takes to get to the top in freestyle football.
Left: Séan Garnier, Right: Rael Kamanda VIA @KamandaRael6
 “I spoke to him for about ten minutes. He emphasised the use of social media for branding and marketing. He really encouraged me to keep going as the freestyle space is opening for young girls and women which means there are more opportunities to be utilised.”
After her successes, Kamanda was part of the team that represented Kenya in the Red Bull Street Style World Final in Valencia, Spain. Out of 90 freestylers, only 17 - eight women and nine men - travelled to Spain for the World Finals after a rigorous five-stage group process.

However, things didn't go as planned.

"Rules changed. We competed against men. This was unfair and demoralising to us because we were all knocked out at the quarters and went home with nothing. I hope the next time we have the freestyle competition, they'll put this into consideration."

"The world championship is coming to Kenya next and I am hoping that the management will take issues to do with gender equality and inclusion seriously to promote the sport."

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