A Battle Against Cancer, Driven By Rugby – The Story of Harold Bolton Tende
I first met Harold ‘Roldie’ around 2016, as a young energetic man, with an infectious laugh and signature grin, right in the middle of a battle against head and neck cancer, he was 19 back then.
Apart from the tube running from his nose, there was no way of telling the battle he was going through at that moment.
Fast forward to 2020, Roldie is now knocking on the ‘upper 20s’ door, he captained the Catulus (Strathmore Leos second side) at the Nationwide this season, a few weeks to being declared cancer free with the world at his feet.
I had a chat with Harold on his journey so far and his plans for the future.
“I was born in 1996 in Mombasa where I was also raised, mimi si dabu hivyo..” If only he knew how fast life moves, “In terms of sport, I actually started with basketball as a point guard, before being swept away by rugby.”
“I got into rugby back in Form three at Ribe Boys, I started it as a means of getting an edge over my basketball team mates, in terms of fitness, as it turned out I got hooked and here we are, I have never turned back.” He says with that wide grin on his face.
Roldie started off as a fly half, a position he still plays to this day, though he is open to a change if it benefits his team.
I then enquired about his rugby life post high school, “After picking up the sport in 2013, I joined a local club known as Shepherds RFC, which I continued with after high school, I later joined a local club in my hometown, Miritini, Sailors rugby.”
Shepherds RFC currently play in the Nationwide league, coast region, they finished in fourth place in the just concluded regular season. Sailors is continuously working to finally join the Nationwide league, it is a club that Roldie holds close to his heart, so I decide to find out more about it.
“Sailors Rugby was founded by Curtis Chola and Slyvester Ngeti, I joined them in 2016, as I was in the middle of my battle against cancer, since I couldn’t play actively, I decided to teach and train rugby in my hometown. This was also a way of getting young boys from the streets where they indulged in drug and substance abuse.”
He mentions the people who joined him in the program, with a lot of pride, “Among the guys who joined me at Sailors rugby include, the late Victor Wayodi and Jimmy Richard who is a recovered drug addict.”
So how is the project fairing on, seeing as you are now based in Nairobi? “Jimmy is still running the program, when I get the chance, I head home to help out, we have so far managed to start rugby in two schools, Miritini and St. Elizabeth High Schools, generally we are progressing well.”
You mentioned that you joined Sailors while you were battling cancer, tell us more on your battle with the disease.
“I started getting persistent headaches during my final year in high school, at first I was afraid of telling my parents as I thought the headaches were rugby related.”
“The headaches were not going away, to a point that I stopped playing, it also affected my education, but I managed to sit for my KCSE exams. Through the next six months the situation went from bad to worse, I was nose bleeding regularly, suffered impaired eye sight and struggled hearing on one side.”
“Despite this, I came to Nairobi to pursue my tertiary education, and hopefully get a chance to play for my favourite team, the Starthmore Leos. Those ambitions had to be put on hold, as three months after coming to Nairobi the pain became too much and I was taken to hospital, where they ran a couple of tests and found a tumor around my neck. I was later diagnosed with Head and Neck cancer in April 2015.”
Head and neck cancer is a group of cancers that starts in the mouth, nose, throat, larynx, sinuses, or salivary glands. In Harold’s case, his was located behind the neck and after several chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, he lost the ability to taste, talk and even eat.
“After several sessions of chemo and radiotherapy, it was inevitable for me to lose my ability to taste, talk and even eat, thus they had to us a NG (Nasogastric) which runs through my nose to my stomach, for feeding.”
Harold continued with his treatment for most of 2016, as he shuttled between Nairobi and Mombasa, remember this was when he started out with Sailors rugby. In early 2017, he was finally back to his fit self. And what was the first thing he did? He went on to join his favourite club, the Strathmore Leos.
“Immediately after I got cleared to play, I went to try out at my favourite club, the Strathmore Leos, it was like a dream come true.”
Before we get into his career at the Leos, I wanted to find out what kept him going through what must have been a tough year or so of treatment.
“First, God, and secondly, I had my whole life ahead of me, I was only 18 when I arrived in Nairobi, I had so many ambitions, especially in rugby and there was no way I was going to let anything get in my way.” He says without flinching.
Harold went on to make his debut for the Strathmore Leos in 2018, in the ESS league against Kabras, it remains one of his most cherished moments on a rugby pitch.
“Some of my highlights so far include, winning my first trophy with the Sailors as captain, at a tournament played in my hometown Miritini, in 2016.”
“I made my Strathmore Leos debut in the ESS, against Kabras in 2018, I was also lucky to make my sevens debut in Mombasa at the 2019 Driftwood sevens. These are moments that have been really special for me.”
“Meeting with rugby hall of famer Waisile Serevi at the 2019 Tusker Safari sevens was also special, as was recently being named captain of the Strathmore second team.” He adds with a smile.
His Nationwide side did not make it to the play offs, but he promises that the boys will be back stronger in the Mwamba Cup. “Ngoja uone Mwamba Cup, tunakuja na ubaya!”
Harold is now a little over a month away from being declared cancer free, in April 2020. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), if someone remains in complete remission—meaning all signs and symptoms of cancer are gone—for five or more years, he is declared cancer free.
As we look back on his journey, I ask him what role the sport played in his battle and now imminent recovery.
“Rugby played a major role in my battle and especially my recovery from cancer, at times it was the love of the sport that kept me going. The support from my friends and team mates was immense, as was that from my family.”
“Rugby was my driver, the will to get back into playing active sport kept me going.”
Are there any specific people you would like to thank for helping you get this far?
“First I would like to thank God and my family, it has not been easy, it took a lot of praying and I am thankful that He has kept me to this point.”
“In my rugby journey, I would like to thank Jimmy Richard, Mike Mwanja, Dan Othieno, Julius Shaban, Malik Ndemi, Brian Nyikuli and Micheal Gitau, for supporting and motivating me through the tough times, the list is quite long, a big thank you to all, especially the Leos family.”
“I would also like to thank the Kenya sevens for the support they showed me, led by Humphrey Kayange, asanteni sana.”
So, what does Roldie want to achieve, especially in rugby?
“I want to grow both as an individual and as a team, I hope to one day represent the country, now that would be something, wouldn’t it?”
Indeed, it would be something special for us to see Roldie in the Kenyan colours.
Finally, Roldie has three words for anybody out there going through any battle, whether in rugby or in life, “NEVER GIVE UP! Regardless of how you look, where you come from, keep pushing and believing that anything is possible and that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
We leave Harold wishing him the best in the future, that he goes on to fulfill all his ambitions in rugby and beyond, that we will one day see him representing his country on a rugby field.
We leave with the knowledge that whatever life throws at him, he will take it within his stride, without losing his bubble and enthusiasm, just like he has done, this far.