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June Oluoch prepares chapati at her Kiosk in Umoja, Nairobi. Photo/RAYMOND MAKHAYA

Basketball

All-rounder who blazed new grounds as Kenya’s top female basketball referee

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 31 – You’re probably one of the millions of ladies who do sport. And you’ve probably dreamed about being the best or the most recognized in a male dominated world.

Well, June Oluoch grew up to become just that.

Not only did she become Kenya’s top woman basketball referee, but may have also earned herself a reputation for the many hats she wears.

June, who is the only active female referee in the National League, followed the footsteps of her predecessors the late Phoebe Orimba who was an international referee and Sarah Mutisya who was a national referee. 

KBF referee June Oluoch attending to her customers at her Umoja Kiosk. Photo/RAYMOND MAKHAYA

For one, June savors the onerous task as head of the games department at Matungulu Boys School in Tala. Yet in her busy schedule, she also finds time to connect with a group of teachers who set KCSE examinations.

At school, she teaches English and Literature but never shirks from mentoring kids for free at her Umoja neighborhood in Nairobi during this tough COVID-19 pandemic period.

As if to prove she has her hands full, June operates a small kiosk in Umoja where she offers her customers chapati and bean stew- better known as chapo- madondo in sheng colloquialism. This has turned out to be her new side hustle in the new normal.

And being a single mother, June also spares quality time to attend to her children.

She has four children three boys and one girl; Brian Ondari (26-years), who studies at KCA University, Ashley Apiyo and Alvin Odongo who are twins (13-years) and Ainsley Ochieng (9-years)

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-So how has the novel virus changed her life?-

Eastleigh High School students Alex Wambua and Bramwell Karano Form 2 and 3 Respectively getting free lessons from June Oluoch.

“COVID-19 has been quite a challenge. It’s not easy taking care of the children when they are not going to school. We can’t go to work and children also can’t go to play. So you know financially, psychologically and emotionally, the kids have to be taken care of,” June narrated to Capital Sport.

She added… “But on the other hand it’s interesting. It’s a time now when we bond with our children. At their age you know they leave so early for school and come back so late. But with COVID-19, I have learnt new characters that I didn’t know and also learnt to do things differently. So it’s a blessing in disguise.”

-Basketball life-

June Oluoch officiating in a past during a KBF League match. Photo/RAYMOND MAKHAYA

June is a Kenya Basketball Federation (KBF) certified national referee. She began refereeing in 2000 with School Games where she was spotted by the KBF Fixtures Secretary Joseph Amoko.

In 2009, she started refereeing in the league games at Nyayo National Stadium.

Besides refereeing, she also coaches basketball in school as part of her demanding games schedule. She is steadfast and levelheaded on the whistle, and proud of her technical contribution thus far.

“I’m a certified KBF National Referee. But it’s sad we can’t talk about balling, which is another effect of this invisible enemy. Now I can’t train my boys in school and can’t go to the court to officiate matches either. The best I can do is play with my kids around the compound,” June explained.

 “At home, my kids are my friends, apart from being a mother. I have always created that good rapport between us and I don’t have a problem in ascertaining a problem because I see it on their face.”

As a teacher, June is also a coach of his boys in school so she gets to train a lot for purposes of refereeing at the weekend.

“I get to enjoy 3 hours of training in school during weekdays because the boys leave class at 4pm.”

As a mother and teacher June tends to listen more to teenagers.

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“In this pandemic period, I do the morning run with my kids between 6am-7am before embarking on our other routine of cooking chapati and beans. COVID-19 has come with some financial challenges and this has affected all and sundry,” She revealed.

 “I wouldn’t say it’s that bad because TSC (Teachers Service Commission) is still paying my salary. Because we are not going to work, I decided to come up with a small kibanda (kiosk) outside my house. So I kind of save on my salary through this small business that I do. It’s very interesting.

“As much as I’m not a professional cook, I believe I can do good food, a mannerism I have taken from my mum who was a nurse. People who get to eat my food never fail to come back. So COVID-19 has also taught me that apart from teaching I can also cook good food.”

June rues the fact that she was unable to advance her refereeing career to international level.

“It’s unfortunate I couldn’t get to international level which is the one thing I really craved for. But this was the period when the female world had been totally pushed aside.”

-So when did June’s refereeing begin?-

 “I began in Kisumu where I was refereeing basketball at the sports ground having been an old girl of Ogade High School and doing it at Moi  University under the tutelage of Jack Arum who is now in the US.”

But her calm and assured charge to national status wasn’t ‘a walk in the park’ as she would put it.

“It was not that easy to coordinate ourselves from Kisumu to Nairobi to become a referee. Believe you me; I only began to be a major referee when I forced myself into working around and about Nairobi. Once you get to Nyayo or Strathmore do a game it becomes easier,” she stated.

“By the time you do all that remember age is catching up. So by the time of thinking about going International I was in my mid-30s. So age cut me off. When I got into teaching I started coaching in school at Bishop Njenga in Western and the first shrill of my whistle was at Kakamega Canteen during school games with Donald Liru.”

It is that school platform that handed June the exposure to advance her career. When she was coaching in High School in Kisumu and Kakamega, it happened that there were no ladies in basketball.

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“I was encouraged by Liru who was then the basketball coach at Kaimosi Girls. I gave it my best shot. So one day in Kisumu, a KBF senior official saw me officiate games in Kisumu and suggested I be given a chance to come and officiate a league fixture but not until I attended six clinics.

“The second clinic was quite inspirational as I was the only lady. I had done it in school and now I wanted to try out my skills at a higher level. People think holding a whistle is a joke, and running with it and then making the right decision as well as giving the right signals.”

– Edge as a whistler –

Ariel Okal when he was playing for KPA in action against Coop Bank’s Mark Mayen Arena. Photo/FILE RAYMOND MAKHAYA

Asked if she has found herself in panic mode while dealing with swashbuckling national players; she reveals that one of the facet that has given her an edge as a whistler is that some of the players she meets currently were her students like the Kenya shooting guard Eric Mutoro who turns out for Ulinzi.

“I know many players so well by virtue of meeting them in college and High School games and I believe they can’t do anything new. So their size will not intimidate me. Apparently, my body size isn’t my personal size. I know I’m capable of moving my body around the field with ease.

“When fans see me, I know their first impression will be- I can’t move, which is a misconstruction.”

June reveals that being a good referee is all about confidence. “My personality is laden with confidence which has helped me officiate well. And of course being a teacher has given me a social way to cope with situations.”

Like in her teaching profession, it’s common for basketball players to call you nicknames. But June has no hard feelings about it…“It’s part of the game to be called names by fans because not all will appreciate what you do and the fact that they all want to win. So you are bound to get names even when you’re making the most perfect decisions.”

But June notes that as long as one is conversant with the rule book and match situations then life becomes a lot easier.

-Inspiring young women-

June keeps telling young girls to always aim higher if they harbor hope to make it big in the game of basketball.

“I keep telling them that to achieve your dreams in the demanding refereeing world they need immense focus and sacrifice. Remember as ladies we have so many things we want to do- like being a mother, a wife or taking care of many other issues, so commitment is key. You really have to plan your time well, otherwise you’ll just lose it.”

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June wasn’t among the local referees picked for the recent Zone Five Championship at Nyayo National Stadium but she believes she has come of age and is able to handle matches of international nature.

‘I’m not an international referee. But I believe I’m capable of doing anything, anytime, anywhere! Given the number of games I have done, I believe I have what it takes. Old is gold. There are things senior referees can do which their junior counterparts can’t. All of us can have a valid input, yet age is the preference. If we push away old referees we may miss out on some key issues.”

-Hobbies-

June loves reading novels and being a mother of kids even when she’s not their biological mum. She also loves travelling when not officiating in the court.

-Worst Moments-

Like many sportsmen and women, she has her worst and good moments on the basketball courts.

She reveals that goofing up is one thing a referee would want to forget in a hurry. Also ‘going off the deep end’ is one thing she has never encouraged in refereeing.

The worst moment of her life was when she officiated in a decisive ladies match involving the KPA ladies team. She describes it as her scariest moment of her basketball career.

 “The worst moment was when I made a call and a coach stormed into the court. I gave signals then went back to the other side only to find a coach behind me out to punch me.

“The man was none other than Anthony Ojukwu of KPA. I thank God I didn’t see him come to me. In fact the crowd at Nyayo gymnasium started shouting wondering what the problem was. Hilda Indasi went on to the basket and pushed aside an opponent before she went to do the basket-and for me that was an offensive foul,” she remembered.

“And of course the basket was good but then cancelled it in (laughs). That was the third quarter of the game. I went back into the court and finished the game. That was abnormal confidence which flabbergasted the men. When I decide to do my work, I will do it. And after that we became great friends with Ojukwu yet I have never reminded him of that scenario (laughs); I think I should.”

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-Best moments-

June explains: “There is no sweet moment in a match when the loser comes to shake your hand after the shrill of the last whistle conceding defeat and telling you that you have done a good job. That’s the best moment for a referee.”

June is happy to see more ladies following in her footsteps. And asked who the best woman referee is at the moment, maintains in finality:

“They are all my colleagues. I don’t want to call them best. We work together as a unit and have the Women’s Commission chaired by Nelly Odera. It’s a very interesting body because all the ladies have been initiated into it. They are very active and doing a good job. Last time round they contributed for Diana Mayaka to go for a clinic. She is now an international referee, same as Mary of Siaya. The ladies have really tried to support one another.”

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