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Kenyan Simba of The Safari Passes Away:
Joginder Singh





JOGINDER SINGH    1932 - 2013

The legend is no more. He passed away on Sunday, October 20, 2013 - on Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day) - at the age of 81. He truly lived his life as a hero; he flew the flag of Kenya high in the world of motorsport. Breathing his last peacefully due to heart failure in London, United Kingdom, Joginder Singh has left behind a legacy that has charmed millions across continents and his powerful persona and escapades as a daredevil rally driver will probably never find an equal, for none came even remotely close for decades even after he hung his gloves. The Rally world has lost a gem but one that will be treasured for generations to come.

The following article from our archives is being republished as a trubute to his memory: 



If you want to understand the greatness of Joginder Singh, do not look at the 22 times that he entered the East African Safari Rally and failed to finish only three. Do not analyse his three wins, which were the first by any competitor. Do not even go to his retirement home in Surrey, England and marvel at the trophies, certificates, books, newspapers, magazines and documentaries that chronicle his victories in motor rallies around the world.

Instead, go back to 1971.

There you’ll find his second worst placing in the Safari besides the three retirements in 1972, 1975 and 1978. He finished 16th overall in his works prepared Ford Escort Twin-Cam. But that is where to start. It is there that you’ll find the confluence between the myth and the reality which, in Joginder’s case, are one and the same thing.

By this time, he was already lionized as The Flying Sikh and Simba wa Kenya. He had attained a superhuman status in the psyche of one generation of Kenyans and they need not necessarily have been motor sport fans.

Little boys curved cars out of cartons and affixed wheels of soda and beer bottle tops and trailed them around in an imaginary Safari route shouting ‘Joginder! Joginder! Joginder!’ Only the winners qualified to claim that title because Joginder could never be second best.

Maybe one of these boys was Patrick Njiru, probably Kenya’s most talented African rally driver who years later as an ace in his own right, spoke about his earliest inspiration. He said: “Joginder Singh.”

Joginder was a rare breed whose appeal lay in a sublime neutrality so that the millions who loved him – people who lived in mental ethnic and racial cocoons - didn’t see a Sikh or an Asian; just a motoring superman. The profundity of this quality was such that it needed no words to propagate and few of the multitudes who were enamoured of The Flying Sikh have ever heard him speak.

Who, really, was Joginder Singh?

The 1971 Safari Rally was just a few hours underway when a nylon bush in the gearbox of Joginder’s Ford Escort melted at the foot of the Taita Hills, leaving only the reverse gear functioning. Joginder decided to return to where his service crew was and drove the car backwards for four and a half kilometres with a screw driver in place of the gear lever.

He explained: “At Ndi, in the very early stages of the Safari, we met the service team before the turn-off to the Taita Hills. After we took the turn four and half kilometres later, I found I had no gear in a corner. I stopped the car and tried all the gears. I discovered I had only the reverse gear left. So I reversed all the way, back to the service crew. All this time, about 70 more Safari cars were coming flat out towards me as I was reversing.

“On reaching the service point, we found the Ford crew had gone. Only two mechanics remained. We just opened up the gearbox and stripped it to bits. The gear selector had broken. There were no spare parts, not even at Mombasa or Dar es Salaam. We bent the levers in the gears so as to stick them in and put it all back into place. It took a lot of hammering to bend the steel rods to make them work. This took a lot of precious time.

Overtaking tail-enders

“As soon as we got back on the road, we let go at full speed. We started overtaking the tail-enders. We were right at the end. I remember overtaking Car No. 115 and we carried on overtaking them in the Taita Hills and on the stretch to Mombasa. We were the 100th car at one stage and we just kept overtaking them.”

In fact, just as Joginder had linked up with his two mechanics after the epic reverse drive, Stuart Turner, the Ford Team Chief, circled overhead in his plane and Joginder frantically waved his useless gear lever at him.

But Turner had already decided that Joginder’s case was hopeless and radioed the service crew to pursue Finland’s Hanu Mikkola, the other driver upon whom all Ford’s hopes now lay as far as Turner was concerned. Mikkola would, the following year, become the first overseas driver to win the East African Safari – but that is a story for another day. Turner left Joginder to his own devices.

Anyone but Joginder would have called it quits – and that is what Turner had expected him to do. But the manager was staggered when Joginder showed up at the finish line at number three on the road. He had started off as Car No. 30 and fallen right at the back of the field. He had stripped his gearbox and reassembled it and then had it replaced altogether. He had overtaken more than one hundred cars and if the rally was a few kilometres longer, he would have wound up first on the road.

But the enormous loss of time had consigned him to a 16th place finish on points.

That drive is etched in the memory of Kenya. KBC radio, the only live media available to the nation, had periodic progress reports of the Safari and Kenyans followed the broadcasts with probably as much interest as Americans had showed with their first trip to the moon.

At the ramp at KICC, commentators and ordinary fans searched for words to describe Joginder. All questions by journalists basically amounted to only one: how had he done it? One journalist reported that many people “just wanted to touch the car that had done so well.”

Joginder, of course, had a critical advantage over many other drivers and he used it to the fullest.

In his 1966 book, The Shell History of the East African Safari Rally, Charles Disney had this observation to make: “The Kenya-born Sikh brothers, Joginder and Jaswant Singh ... had driven together since 1960 and had never failed to finish, never being lower in the ratings than fifth in their class.

“They had gained a class win and three class seconds and, in 1963, had been one of the seven crews to complete the Safari, finishing fourth. Both are good drivers and excellent mechanics, able to assemble, tune and prepare their cars themselves as well as being able to effect any necessary repairs en route without recourse to outside assistance.”

That is what Stuart Turner had not reckoned with. In 1971, Joginder’s co-driver was Jaswant Singh. He was another gift. Ashok Bhalla, now Manager at the East African Safari Rally Ltd, which runs the Safari Classic, navigated Joginder in a series of local rallies. He noticed something early on.

“Joginder never forgot a bend,” says Ashok. “He drove around it once and memorized its details – sharpness of angle, gradient of terrain, type of surface and all that. Next time we went there, he took it at the maximum speed possible. He combined the roles of driver and navigator.”

Navigated many drivers

This is collaborated by a Joginder fan, John Kagagi, better known as a rugby referee and game authority than a motor sportsman. “As small boys growing up at Itiati on the slopes of Mt Kenya, we eagerly awaited the Safari cars every Easter. Ours was a place marked by a series of hairpin bends. Joginder knew them like the back of his hand. He negotiated them at a speed nobody else could to our great thrill.”

But it is Surinder Thathi, a vice-president of the FIA, the International Automobile Federation, who paints the most poignant, most nostalgic and probably the most complete picture of the legendary driver.

He remembers: “As a little boy, I used to go to the entrance of Joginder Motors on Koinange Street and just stand there, watching my hero work. I stood and stood until Joginder came over and ordered me ‘Go home now. Go and do something else.”

“I could never have enough. Many years later, after I had become a motor sportsman, I went to Joginder and said to him: ‘Joginder, I have navigated many great drivers. I have navigated Mike Kirkland; I have navigated Vic Preston Junior, Rauno Aaltonen, Avin Weber, Patrick Njiru, Ian Duncan and many others. You are the greatest driver that I’ve never had a chance to navigate. Please give me a chance.’ Joginder shook his head and said to me: ‘Sorry, my rallying days are over.’ And indeed they were. That was in 1996.”

Surinder says he missed and marvelled at the way Joginder took sharp corners.

“He approached them at high speed and then twisted the car so that it fully faced the bank on its side before pulling off. This was completely contrary to how Shekhar Mehta did it. Shekhar turned his corners ‘clean’. Vic Preston Jr was somewhere in between Joginder and Mehta.” Shekhar Mehta won the Safari a record five times – another story for another day.

Joginder Singh Bachu was born on February 9, 1932 in Kericho, the eldest of eight sons and two daughters born to Batan Singh Bachu and his wife Swaran Kaur. His father had sailed into Kenya in the 1920s in a small dhow from the Punjab region of India. By his own reckoning, he and his brothers Jaswant and Davinder took much after their father who worked as an engineer in the Kimungu factory of the Kenya Tea Company, a subsidiary of Brook Bond Kenya Ltd.

First class mechanic

Engineer the elder Bachu was but not from anybody’s university. He was self taught. In an account of his early life given to Roger Barnard and Peter Moll for their 1975 book, The Flying Sikh, illustrated by Mohammed Amin, Joginder said: “My father came from a village called Kandola near Jullunder in the Punjab. He was a big man – over six feet and weighing perhaps 220 lbs. He may have lacked education, but like so many of our people, he was very good with his hands.

“He was a first class mechanic, mason, carpenter ... anything. For instance, after the last war, tools were very difficult to obtain. My father made his own. We still use some of them today in the garage. Throughout his life, he was a man of principle, a very honest man. For him, there was no cheating, no lies. But he was very quick-tempered. He often used to beat me. That’s how I learnt. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know half as much.”

Joginder went to Highland Indian School in Kericho until 1946 before being enrolled at Indian High School in Nairobi, later called Duke of Gloucester School, and today Jamhuri High School.

He described himself as a village boy who was always homesick while in school in Nairobi. He longed for Kericho, where his father already had a name for kicking up tremendous clouds of dust in his wake as he drove fast to and from work on the dirt roads. Unknown to him, the teenaged Joginder was watching, and itching to do the same.

Lost left thumb

But he had a friend whose father ran a saw mill in what is now Baricho Road in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. “In 1947,” recalled Joginder, “on a visit to the saw mill, I lost my left thumb. I was lucky not to lose my life. I was looking at the machines and noticed a belt hanging loose. I pulled at it and caught my hand in a pulley. I was thrown 20 ft away.

“Where my thumb should have been there was just a bloody pulp. When my father heard about it, he drove to Nairobi in four and a half hours. In those days, it was a great time for over 200 miles of marrum road. I think that feat almost made the loss of my thumb worthwhile.”

This thrill with speed became an all-consuming passion, as his later career proved. Once, in 1966 during the Swedish Rally, he arrived at a control point ahead of time. Sikhs with their distinctive turbans were a rarity in the country. A woman saw Joginder and was almost hysterical with concern seeing the heavy ‘bandage’ he was wearing on his head.

“He’s hurt  ...!” she exclaimed. “Get a doctor!” Because Joginder had arrived early, he had sufficient time to explain to the woman that he was alright and further enlightened her on the significance of his turban.

Embodiment of driving discipline

About 10 years ago, Joginder developed problems with his heart. He underwent by-pass surgery that apparently didn’t solve the problem. Today, life in his Surrey home with his wife is about going and coming back from hospital. He will be 81 next month. It is very difficult, just coming to terms with Kenya’s lion in winter – in the late afternoon of his life.

The superman of speed has always been the embodiment of driving discipline away from the rally tracks. “Often,” he said of some of his compatriots during his competition days, “drivers recognise me when I am on the road, perhaps just going to work or picking up my son from school. They have to prove that they are faster than me. It can be hair-raising at times. In town, I drive cautiously and obey the traffic regulations. It pays.”

Just the mention of his name, and the ears itch to hear the crank of a motor starter and to listen to the roaring response of a rally car’s engine. His place as one of the most imminent Kenyans of the last 50 years is assured. And to take in his fading away from the rallying scene – it is haunting.

Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is a writer with The Content House.


[Courtesy: Nation]

Re-published on October 21, 2013




Conversation about this article

1: Manjit Kaur (Frederick, Maryland, USA), January 12, 2013, 9:48 AM.

What a beautiful recollection of my past. I was one of those kids who would build a race track with hair pins, muddy roads, and narrow bridges and drive my orange Ford Dragster match box car through the trail. Easter break was the best break because we would get to see bits of the race waiting by the sidelines of the track, the screaming and shouting when the Singh brothers would zip by us ... it was magnificent. The celebrations when they won was like WE had won! Joginder and Jaswant Singh did us proud. Simba wa Kenya!

2: Roger Lister (London, United Kingdom), January 12, 2013, 10:20 AM.

My father was posted in Kenya those days, and our family had moved to Nairobi. I was a pre-teen boy then. My first ... and the greatest, still! ... hero of my life was Joginder Singh! Thank you for this beautiful recap!

3: Irvinderpal Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), January 12, 2013, 11:26 AM.

Jambo from Canada, Roy Gachuhi, for the excellent piece on Bhai Sahib Joginder Singh ji and his brother Jaswant Singh. Only you could have done it with all your sports reporting and expertise, thank you so much. I know each one you mentioned in your master piece article! You have brought me and many in the West back to Kenya with your writing on the great Sikh legend. Safari today is not what it used to be. Jaswant is in Vancouver now. I am glad you are around, Roy. Heartiest congratulations, and remember the piece you wrote on me - Kasarani Stadium. Thanks, again.

4: Ari Singh (Rostov, Russia), January 12, 2013, 11:56 AM.

Thank you, Mr Gachuhi, for this exciting article. The Easters in East Africa were the most exciting holidays for us because we would travel to wilder parts of the real Africa to follow our hero, Joginder Singh. He is is one of my best friends. He is also my hero. I wrote an article on him for The Illustrated Weekly of India with the help of the legendary Khushwant Singh. I think the article was published in the Diwali issue in 1980. It was written under my pen-name, Dooly Singh. Actually, I could write a book on this lion. He is a living legend. I have traveled with him in his car. All I can say is that he drives with a unique sixth sense! I have waited near hair pins to photograph him. But he drives so fast that there is no time to compose the shot and press the button! One is disappointed not to get a good shot. But the roar he leaves behind is a hair-raising thrill. Well worth the effort to spend sleepless nights waiting in the African bush. On one occasion, the helicopter which was relaying safari rally reports had to let the lion Joginder go free as the reporter commented, "He is driving too fast for us to keep up with him."

5: H. Kaur (Canada), January 12, 2013, 12:15 PM.

Ha ha, that is so funny about the Swedish woman mistaking his turban for a heavy bandage.

6: Tarsem Singh Ubhi (Milton Keynes, United Kingdom), January 12, 2013, 6:23 PM.

This takes me straight back to my school days in Nairobi when Easter holidays were synonymous with the Safari Rally. On the first day of the rally all my friends and I used to make a beeline to the City Hall to see the cars being flagged off and then remained glued to the radio listening out for Joginder's name. On the last day it was just sheer good luck if amongst the huge crowds, if we managed to get just a glimpse of the great man himself. Such was the excitement in the air that the whole country used to come to a standstill. One year when Joginder came first in the rally, as soon as he had been officially acknowledged the winner and the customary bottles of champagne had been cracked open in celebration, he headed straight to Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara on Racecourse Road, where Sikhs had gathered to welcome him with sounds of dholki and chhenney, singing shabads. I was in that mini-procession from the outside gates to the Darbar Hall to do ardaas and mathha tekna in shukrana. In those days every Sikh was Joginder Singh and every Sikh was a rally driver, they commanded a great deal of respect due to one man's passion.

7: Ari Singh (Rostov, Russia), January 13, 2013, 4:04 PM.

Turbaned Sikhs command huge respect from the locals in East Africa. Not only did the turbaned Sikhs serve as police superintendents in many towns of East Africa but also as Deputy Mayors, prominent builders, sportsmen and businessmen. Just like New Delhi was built by the big five Sikh builders, Nairobi, the capital, too was built mainly by the Naranjan Singh brothers, M.S.Sian and two other Sikh builders whom I can't recall. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania sent hockey teams, comprising mostly of Sikhs, to the Olympics. And Zambia has also produced a famous Sikh rally driver.

8: Jagdeep (Punjab), January 17, 2013, 1:40 AM.

Sikhs, wherever they go, whatever they do ... they are the best. Rab Raakha. Sikhz will be always be in Chardi kalaa.

9: Surendra Bhandari (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), January 18, 2013, 10:16 PM.

This is fantastic to read about Joginder Singh.

10: Sukh Singh (Hounslow, Middlesex, United Kingdom), August 23, 2013, 3:31 AM.

I remember Joginder Singh. I was too born in Uganda and if I had stayed in Africa, I would have been a racing driver and maybe even the next Flying Sikh! I'd like to meet him ... I know he lives in Surrey. God bless him.

11: Linda Gore nee Lucas (Cyprus), September 20, 2013, 9:37 AM.

I remember Joginder and Jaswant so well from our time in Nairobi. Joginder was friends with my parents and would often call round to see us. He used to terrify my brothers by waggling his thumb stub at them. A truly marvelous man.

12: Daxa Ghai (Nairobi, Kenya), October 20, 2013, 4:09 PM.

He passed away today, guys. Perfect timing as usual: It's Mashujaa (heroes') Day. RIP and Thanks for every childhood Easter. Condolences to family. Anybody knows their contact, esp.Jaswant?

13: Edwin Kegode (United Kingdom), October 21, 2013, 2:55 AM.

Joginder Singh was a legend. We'd wait patiently into the wee hours of the Easter Nights to see him fly past. He was terrestrial pilot. This is a fabulous recollection.

14: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), October 21, 2013, 5:25 AM.

Rest in peace. He was a born engineer.

15: Amarjit Singh Chandan (London, United Kingdom), October 21, 2013, 10:47 AM.

Joginder Singh epitomised man's love affair with machine and speed and the road. The engine horsepower is counted by the hundreds of horses. I always imagined him riding all of them at the same time, sitting on his driving seat while racing on the rugged landscape.

16: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), October 21, 2013, 10:47 AM.

The East African Safari used to pass right by our farm. It used to be so exciting as a child watching the rally cars go by. To think that one of our own was considered a world class champion driver was a matter of pride for my family and all Sikh-Kenyans. Rest in peace, S. Joginder Singh.

17: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), October 21, 2013, 4:35 PM.

Children shouted his name, seeing any Sikh drive pass in the countryside. Thousands lined up the Safari route to get a glimpse of their hero. What a legend!

18: Dhanwant Singh Mundae (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), October 21, 2013, 9:27 PM.

Thank you, Roy Gachuhi, for the excellent piece on Joginder Singh's life. I remember Joginder Singh so well from my time in Kenya and Uganda. I have fond memories of those good old days. My condolences to his family living in Calgary and elsewhere. May Akal Purakh bless his soul and provide comfort to the family.

19: Jaswant Singh Lota (Slough, United Kingdom), October 22, 2013, 3:13 PM.

I remember when he made me a popular school boy all those years ago when he won the safari with Jaswant Singh, his younger brother. Gurbani tells us: "sabna soreh wanjana sab muklawan har." Sadly, his station arrived. May God rest his soul in peace.

20: Pyara Singh (Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada), October 24, 2013, 1:50 AM.

I had the distinct pleasure of attending Technical High School with Jaswant Singh as my classmate. Bha ji (brother), we called Jognider Singh with respect. And he was so instrumental in earning respect not only for himself but for all Sikhs and all Kenyans. I think money had not been so important in those days, but outstanding achievement was considered so much to go for. Our love and respect, as always, Bha ji Joginder.

21: Tarlochan Singh (Marbella, Spain), October 24, 2013, 8:28 AM.

Joginder Singh, may Waheguru bless your soul. You were an inspiration to the whole of East Africa. I recall the safari in 1965 and tell my children and friends how he achieved all this because he put his heart and soul into the Safari. The whole of East Africa rose on the day to welcome their son. He was just one of us. There will always be a Joginder Singh in Africa.

22: Tarsem Singh (Milton Keynes, United Kingdom), October 24, 2013, 4:03 PM.

My condolences to Joginder Singh ji's family. Some people come to this world with 'karams' that do not allow them to even look after themselves, some make good of themselves and their families, but rare are those who elevate and inspire their family, their community, and the whole country irrespective of their race or creed! Joginder Singh was that blessed person in whose daring personality I saw the 'Nirbhau' and 'Nirvair' teachings from our Great Gurus. May Waheguru provide you 'nivaas' at his feet! @ Pyara Singh (Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada): Jambo bwana kubwa, from your school mate from the great Technical High School, Nairobi ('67 - '70)!

23: Jagjit Singh Ubhi (Derby, United Kingdom), October 27, 2013, 4:14 PM.

What a man! what a great legend! His status, legendary driving heroics, his humility as a human being, seemed to transcend all races in East Africa. Young or old, all knew of him. If there is a Hall of Fame in the heavens, then Joginder Singh, Simba ya Kenya is truly sitting at the helm. A hero to all who lived in Kenya, he elevated the status of Sikhs in East Africa like no other. East African Safari was elevated in status by the presence of the great man, beating multi-million pound works teams with guts, determination, skill and ingenuity. Shekhar Mehta once commented, "How does he do it as a privateer, I am truly amazed". His achievements are too numerous to mention here. With a heavy heart, I pray to Waheguru to bless his soul and may he rest in peace. I send my deepest condolences to his family, hoping they will find strength in these most difficult times. Once again, kwaheri bwana Joginder Singh. You will always live on in our hearts.

24: Raminder Singh Kohli (Delhi, india), December 13, 2017, 1:31 AM.

Can recall Doordarshan TV in India proudly showing his achievements in its Samachar segment while I was growing up. Salutes to the great one.

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