Tuesday, November 17, 2020

POLLY FERNANDES: a victim of politics



1967 M R D'Souza Gold Cup Winners: RGI : RGI defeated Kampala Sikh Union 2 - 1 at City Park Stadium on 16.4.1967Goal Scorers: Railway Institute: Nereus Fernandes & Tyrone D'Souza; Kampala S.U.: Ajit SinghBack Row: Alvitio Abreau; Silvano Gomes; Sylvan Fernandes; Neurus Fernandes; Leo Fernandes; James Fernandes; Octavio PereiraSitting: Tryrone de Souza: Chong; George Pereira (coach); Paul Nazareth (Cap); Moses Fernandes (S sec); Alu Mendonca; Reynolds D SouzaFloor (L - R): Polly Fernandes; Max Alphonso

                        POLLY FERNANDES

Nation Journalist

By Cyprian Fernandes


From left: Polly Fernandes, Fibi Munene, Norman da Costa, (late) Alfred de Araujo, (late) Sultan Jessa, a farewell dinner for Sultan

POLYCARP FERNANDES, the journalist who died in London on November 17, 2020, was a minor martyr of sorts. Fernandes was 74. The man he was named after, the Christian martyr Polycarp, was burned at the stake (AD 156) for speaking his mind and sticking to his faith. He was unpretentious, humble and direct. Polycarp, the reporter, was no saint but he was honest, humble and straightforward. He was also hilarious with a permanent smile. He was not a liar, nor was he a sensationalist.

Polly was deported from Kampala, Uganda after reporting on the football tournament, the East African Challenge Cup in October 1969. The Challenge Cup, between Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania, replaced the unforgettable old Gossage Cup.

Hence, all who knew him (and even those who did not know him in person but followed his stories in the Daily and Sunday Nation, Kenya’s leading newspapers) were shocked by his deportation.

Tanzania were improving all the time but the focus was all on Kenya and Uganda. Both teams played hard, unrelenting, never giving an inch, tough-tackling man-to-man football. Both sides had their light-touch players, too, but it was the gladiators in both teams the fans loved. The supporters were also gladiatorial in the stands. Loud, abusive and sometimes physical, they would quite happily invade the pitch regardless of the police, the police dogs and other security personnel.

Both teams had a philosophy, in Swahili: “Damu kwa damu.” Blood for blood, and “no surrender.”

Most players, administrators and match officials recognised in Polycarp a reporter of integrity, fair and unbiased. A visiting Russian football team were so delighted with his match reports that they presented him with an honorary Order of Lenin, a Lenin badge. Polycarp called it as he saw it, that was his job, nothing else but the facts. There used to be a banner on Nation newspapers that said, “the truth shall make you free.” A lot of Nation pioneers made it their mantra.

On October 1, 1969, Kenya met Tanzania, and against all odds, lost 3-0. Worse, it meant that Uganda, Kenya’s eternal rivals would keep the trophy on goal difference even if they failed to beat Kenya. Uganda had already scored 10 goals and conceded none.

Here is how the Uganda Argus reporter saw events unfold: “Kenya’s centre-forward William “Chege” Ouma was sent off the field two minutes before the end by referee Kizito-Mubanda after he was hit with the ball. The same player had earlier been booked by the Kizito-Mubanda for a similar foul.

“Police were forced to use dogs to disperse a large crowd which invaded the field. Ouma refused to leave the field.”

It was a hard-fought match but Tanzania stood tall and defended brilliantly.

The Sunday Post in Nairobi said: “No official statement has been given but Fernandes’ match report contained a reference to about “10 Ugandan policemen rushing to a Kenyan player after a row with the referee. Sections of the crowd also joined in the melee.  

“One of the other reasons for his (Poly’s) deportation was that the anti-Kenya feelings displayed by the Police and the crowd might have embarrassed the Ugandan Government which has close relations Kenya as partners of the East African Community which also includes Tanzania.”

On behalf of Polly, the British High Commissioners in Kampala and Nairobi made representations to the Ugandan authorities.

The relations between Kenya and Uganda have always been dicey. Like two country cousins, this relationship had conflicts and co-operation as the key components. Professional envy was part of the reason the seeds of which sown by the colonial government by the uneven development of the two countries, Kenya, of course, was the apple of the British eyes.

Hence, there was no love lost between the two countries. Even with the East African Community which was supposed to unite Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, it was a matter of choosing the lesser of to evils, remain united under protest or disband (which happened in 1977, only for the EAC to be born again much later).

So, what did Polly write to get him deported (probably was the first time ever that a sports journalist was deported for writing the truth).  Norman da Costa, Nation Sports Editor said, “The match between Kenya and Uganda for the championship turned into a wild, rough encounter in which the referee appeared to lose control of the game. A full-scale riot ensued with police using tear gas and charging onto the field and into the stands.’’


“Polly, of course, captured this drama in his report.  The following day we got a call that Polly was being deported -not to Kenya - but the United Kingdom since he was a British subject.  The case was dealt with by the higher-ups at the Kenya Embassy and the British High Commission while the Nation tried to get him returned home.  In the meantime, I had to console his Dad Darmel and Mum Carlota and keep them posted on a near-daily basis as we were neighbours behind Mlango Kubwa (the big gate) in Pangani.


It was a traumatic time for the whole family, as his brother James recalls: “I got home that evening (can’t remember the date or month) and that there was a lot of commotion in the house. My family were all distressed and devasted by the news that Polly had been deported. We did not know what to think and we feared the worst. In the next day or two we heard that Polly was being put on a flight to London.


“My brother Jacinto contacted our sister Sarita in London and asked to meet Polly on arrival. He stayed with Sarita and her family until his return to Nairobi six months later.”


The Nation carried a brief report about Polly’s deportation: “His deportation follows two reports he made in connection with the Kenya-Uganda match which contained allegations about the conduct of the Uganda Police.


“Mr. Fernandes was interviewed by police several times on Friday morning and afternoon but was allowed to return to his hotel.” He thought the whole matter was over but he was detained in the evening and told he would be deported. He was put on a flight to London which did not stop over in Nairobi.


Here is what Polly reported:



In one of soccer’s most disgraceful scenes, Kenya reserve Peter Ouma was pounced on and manhandled by about 10 policemen when he went on to the field in the 58th minute after the game was interrupted following a scene when a section of the crowd ran on to the field because Kenyan players argued with the Ugandan referee Kizito Mubuganda. Referee Mubuganda had just ordered off Kenya centre-forward William “Chege” Ouma after the Kenyan had deliberately hit (sic) the ball to the referee in this Challenge Cup match.


The trouble started at the Nakivubo Stadium when Kenya were awarded a corner kick. Outside-left John Nyawanga gave a short pass to Ouma but the referee ordered it to be retaken because he had signalled for the kick to be taken.


After Ouma was sent off, Kenya players crowded around Mubuganda protesting. Police ran onto the field after the crowd joined the altercation, but for reason best known to themselves, Peter Ouma was singled out and manhandled till Kenya football officials ran in and rescued him.


Polly Fernandes was temporarily sacrificed by the Uganda authorities on the altar of political expediency.


True, and Polly was not to know this, it happened at a time when there was consternation in the political cabinets of the three East African countries about the future of the East African Community. Kenya feared the growing shift towards Communism or socialism by Uganda and its partnership with the Socialist Tanzania. I chased the story until the three heads of state met in Nairobi in an attempt to thrash out their differences and concerns. I also got a chance to ask Presidents Milton Obote, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta a few questions at an Embakasi Airport press conference. The last question was to President Kenyatta: “Mzee, will the East African Community survive.” His answer was: “Everything is good.” But he did not look happy at all. Angry, really.

Anyway, Polly got back to Kenya six months later and carried on where he left off. Just got on with the job. There was nothing on his conscience. He was an innocent man.

NORMAN DA COSTA: AN early morning telephone call on Thursday, November 12, 2020, sent a chill down my spine. At the other end of the phone was Joan do Rosario asking me to find a chair and take a seat as she had terrible news to share. There was no need for that as I was still in bed. Then, between sobs, Joan floored me with what felt like an uppercut to the jaw by Mike Tyson. My longtime buddy Polycarp Fernandes was no longer with us. My dear and close friend, a classmate, hockey teammate, workmate at East Africa’s premier newspaper, the Daily Nation, and best man at my wedding to Delphine, had unexpectedly died of a massive heartache.  He leaves behind his wife Vanessa and son Malcolm, his brothers Jacinto and James, sisters Sarita and Tina, their spouses and families. 

During this pandemic that is sweeping the world, this sad news compounded matters and comes on a string of recent losses. Polly was the third close classmate of our class of 1963 to die in the last two years. Alfred de Araujo left us in 2018 and Eugene Pereira in 2019. 

Many knew Polly as a thorough gentleman, a first-class field hockey goalkeeper and a top-notch sports reporter who made world headlines of his own in 1999. No obituary would be complete without mention of his love for food.

He sported a perpetual smile and was never easily flustered despite being the brunt of so many jokes. Like nearly every student at Dr Ribeiro Goan School in Nairobi, Polly had his share of nicknames. He was called Darmel as he bore a strong resemblance to his father; Marabu since he had a curly mop of hair and Corned Beef because of his love for corned beef sandwiches. The man credited for christening him Marabu was our late teacher Michael Britto.

During one vacation to Malindi, a whole bunch of friends sought refuge from a fierce rainstorm in a dark empty hut and Britto had no idea who he was in the room. So, he went around touching each one’s head until he got to this curly head. “This must be Polly,” he said.

Then there was Corned Beef. On a Hornets hockey team visit to Mombasa, Polly and his teammates Steve Fernandes and Hygino Vaz leapt off the slowing train as it was inching its way to a dead stop in Voi.

On the journey to Mombasa, finger food provided by the various mothers was stored away in one of the carriages. There was music, card games and various other activities to keep everyone occupied. However, when they stopped for dinner, there was none to be found in the carriage where the food had been stored. Laughing from ear to ear, the trio admitted their crime. On the way back, Fernandes arranged for a kind lady to pack a box of finger foods and it was stored on the train with a guard of four to keep the three food robbers at bay. When dinner came, they asked for some food. No! No food for the trio because they had eaten all the food the last time. So, as we approached a train station, they wanted to be first in line for their sandwiches. Jumping off a moving train is forbidden and as luck would have it, they were nabbed by the local police. As there were no available cells, the two had to crouch under a police officer’s desk. It must have been pure agony for Polly dreaming of that sandwich.

Another teammate Hilary Fernandes went to the police station to enquire about their whereabouts. “I could not see them but heard a faint cry for help. They were under the desk,’’ Hilary laughed.

“Our manager Cyprian Fernandes rushed to see the station master who turned out to be Menino Viegas, a fellow Goan but he was not paying any attention to Fernandes’ pleadings. “They have broken the law”.

Fernandes asked Hilary to see if he could convince Viegas and get him to release the “starving” prisoners.

 “After pleading with Menino Viegas (a hockey player himself) for what seemed like an eternity, they were allowed out. We will never forget that day,” said Hygino, who now lives in Mississauga. “We can all laugh about it now but it wasn’t funny then.’’ Polly’s love for food was legendary.

Once at an Indian restaurant in Pangani, Polly, Octavio (Pereira) and I were handed four gulab jamuns (Indian sweets) following our meal. We tossed a coin to see who would win the extra gulab jamun. Polly was the winner but before Polly could get his hands on it, Octavio quickly stuffed it into his mouth. The next minute we saw the confectionery fly out of Octavio’s mouth and on to the floor. A furious Polly had punched him in the face.

Polly was a superb hockey goalkeeper in school and went on to play for the Railway Goan Institute.  He was a member of the RGI team that won the M.R. de Souza Gold Cup and several other local trophies. He also represented Nairobi in the Tata Cup and went on to play against the touring Pakistan national team led by incomparable Gen. Mansoor Atif. 

Also, on the RGI team was his younger brother James, who was an excellent left-back.  Polly’s older brother Jacinto was Kenya’s badminton champion and represented the country at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970.


At the Daily Nation Polly assumed the soccer and field hockey beats from me after I became sports editor.  He was a dedicated reporter who knew his sports well.  After earning his stripes, his first overseas assignment was covering the world field hockey championships in Barcelona followed by the East African Challenge Cup soccer tournament in Kampala in October 1969.



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