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The games we played. 14. Kennetjie. (Pronounced “kennekee”)

THE GAMES WE PLAYED. Kennetjie – kennekee.

It’s been a while since I wrote about the games we played. I’ve been asked to write again about kennetjie so, I decided to rejig the original draft to disperse it to a wider audience than I had before. I also needed some light relief from my more recent heavy topics of my time in a Kwazulu mission hospital and a break from the release of my Book 1, Fury and Revenge in Cape Town, and putting in the final touches of Book 2, Toyi-toyi, Cape Town’s War Dance. Whew!

There’s no translation that I know of for the name of this game. It was the ultimate street game, so it takes pride of place as the best game I ever played when I was young. No doubt, the same applies to many of you out there too. No, I’m not referring to the outoppies, but then we used to be younger, of course.

As usual, there were several versions of the game around the country, especially with rules that varied from street to street, let alone from one suburb to the next or one part of the country to the next, as well as across our artificial and enforced colour bar or should that be razor-wired fencing?

Kennetjie was one of the most popular street games in Cape Town townships in my time. Is it still the case? I suspect the increased traffic these days would make it unsuitable and unsafe, except in a cul-de-sac.

What are its origins? Maybe lost in the mists of time, but a colleague, still living in India, said, that he played the game in the streets of his hometown. They called it gilli-danda. (Gilli or gooli = shorter piece of wood; danda = a stick). India, like our passion for Indian curries, may well be the game’s origin. I always thought it came from Asia. Is this how the Sachin Tendulkars started their cricketing life? Many Afrikaners in S Africa claim it as “their game”, so do Capies; that’s us folks on the Cape Flats. I’ll bet that’s where the game took off – amongst the slaves and indentured workers of more than 300 years ago; many of them came from India.

Part of its popularity was its cheapness. The first photo shows our street battle ground, the bat (striking stick) and the short tapered kennetjie (ken) which actually means “little chin”. It can also be played on grass or sand using a different striking technique.

The “bat” was a stick about half a metre long. It was a bit thinner than a broomstick. The “ken” or kennetjie was a short stick 10-15cm long. The ubiquitous Port Jackson wattle bush branches were often used to fashion the equipment using mom’s sharpest kitchen knife. The bark had to be stripped off and the bat handle smoothed down with the knife to protect the hand grip. The ken, often taken from the same branch as the stick, had to be tapered at each end with a point of about 2.5cms long. My picture is a fancy version fashioned from pine timber from the local hardware store – not affordable in those days.

The second photograph has the ken balanced across the gap between two bricks; one could also place the ken across a furrow scraped in the ground before flipping it up to strike it as far as possible. In other versions the kennetjie could be hit after tossing it up with the left hand or dropped from the lips or from behind the ear or even a reverse flip from between the legs.

As was the case with cricket, the wicket was a street manhole cover in front of 44 Dale Street, Lansdowne where I grew up. The photo shows our asbestos-roofed family house. (Yes, I survived seventeen years under that roof, now 60 years old. I see the original asbestos roof still exists. I had to brush the roof with a wire brush before painting it as a teenager. I prefer not to think about how I inhaled those toxic fibres without a mask or a hazchem suit. Getting out from under this potentially toxic roof was the only benefit I can cite for our enforced Group Areas displacement in the early 1970s).

The round street manhole cover (presently much-weathered and partly covered with tar) served us well for kennetjie and, of course, for cricket. The gutter drain was where I sometimes sat waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive for a game. Part of one’s street cred was whether one could lift the heavy grate to retrieve an errant kennetjie or cricket ball.

Standing alongside the kennetjie, the objective was to strike the short stick on its tapered end. This allowed the pointy stick to hop up in the air and the batsman had to hit at the spinning target which often spun sideways rather than straight up. The ideal was a hit down the length of the road and to avoid landing on the sandy, weedy sides of the road which made it impossible to get a good second or third shot.

The first batsman took guard over the wicket while a ring of fielders was positioned around the area. A bowler took aim from several paces away (number of steps not known! Maybe my age is showing; remember, I used to be younger.) With an underarm throw, the kennetjie was aimed at the wicket. If the ken landed and stayed on the cover, then the batsman was out.

The batsman had the option of hitting at the ken while it was still in the air. By doing this, it was the only shot that was allowed so most batsmen chose not to hit the ken for fear of missing it. If the ken did not end on the wicket, then the batsman was allowed three strikes at the kennetjie.

In an Afrikaner version of the game, with a totally different scoring system, they placed the kennetjie across a groove in the sand, then flicked it up with the stick in order to hit the tumbling object in the air. I also heard of “voetjie” (little foot) in whch the kennetjie was placed on the left foot, then flicked up and struck with the bat as far as possible with fielders waiting to catch the flying missile.

If a fielder caught the kennetjie before it hit the ground, then the batsman was out.

A fielder was allowed to kick or flick a moving ken back towards the wicket. The main source of conflict and shouting were related to whether the kennetjie was still moving when tossed back towards the wicket or not. So what’s a good kids’ street game without an argument or two or more? If the ken ended up on the drain cover, then, again, the batsman was out. If not, then he was allowed to finish his three shots.

Wherever the ken ended up, it was up to the batsman to decide how many jumps were needed to reach the drain cover from the kennetjie. If they played as a team then the captain took the decision. The batsman would call out the number of jumps. The captain of the opposing team had to decide if they could cover the distance in the number of jumps from individual fielders.

This was not an easy task for barefooted competitors on a hard road. A single foot landing was not as painful as landing on two feet. The main squabble resulted from claiming a longer jump then where one actually landed.

The preferred, two-footed landing style for longer jumps was impossible on the road so one could detour down a sandy or flat-grassed part on the sides of the road. If the jumpers managed to clear the distance within the prescribed call, then the batsman was out, and the fielding team added the points to their total. If the fielders did not make the distance, the batsman added the number to his score, or the team’s total and he was allowed to continue batting.

This was the ultimate game of hand-eye co-ordination and the finest player in our street group was Rashid, despite the fact that he had one damaged eye. Whether he hit out at the bowled kennetjie or hit it off the ground, the little stick flew tens of metres with his clean strikes. He was always the first kid chosen for a team and fielders always stood well back whenever he batted. He was amazing to watch.

There were several sources of merriment in this game which could last for hours as individuals or teams sought to master the variables of a wobbly kennetjie which may have an imperfect taper. The worst kens were made from a rectangular piece of wood with a poor bounce when the stick lay on its wider side which compromised the height of the bounce. Round ones had a more uniform tip, but they rolled too far so that the fielding team had more time to flick it back to the wicket. Many players brought along their kennetjies which had to pass scrutiny by all before the best one was chosen for the game. Some players also brought along their favoured hitting stick.

Even with my poor hand-eye co-ordination skills, kennetjie was by far my favourite street game. I still have fond memories of those moments when I made my own kennetjie and stick and then stepped out to bat for my moment of street gang glory. The click (or is that “clack”?) of the bat hitting a kennetjie was as good as the sound of a clean golfing tee shot these days, especially down the middle of a fairway.

Of course, the emblematic mountains of the Mother City were everywhere. This was our view of Table Mountain and Devil's Peak from Lansdowne. I'll bet that this is one of the best backdrops to a game of kennetjie anywhere in the world.

PS Interesting aside: when researching manhole covers, I came across a 2012 report from New York where there was a spate of manhole cover thefts, apparently for “recycling” – anyone know of any such thefts in Cape Town? The street kids of yesteryear would have been devastated to hear of the loss of their street wicket.

1 Comment

Sep 13, 2023

Hi Shadley I have fond memories of playing this on the streets of Bellville South. We probably used an old broom handle cut down to size. Said broom handle was also used for rolling that car tyre filled with water down the road. It is true that there is a high rate of theft of manhole covers in South Africa leading to many injuries and deaths. Natachia

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