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close this bookThe Courier N 185 - March - April 2001 - Dossier: Cinema - Country Reports: Angola (EC Courier, 2001, 76 p.)
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Kenya’s shanty-towns celebrate their football stars

by Claude Adrien de Mun

Young footballers in a Nairobi shanty-town

Thanks to football, a sports association set up in one of Nairobi’s largest shanty-towns has managed to transform deprived children into confident young adults able to face the future.

In Nairobi, a world ruled by the law of each man for himself, shanty-towns grow like mushrooms. They spring up in the smallest possible spaces: at the edges of residential areas, in backyards, next to building sites...

The shanty-town of Mathare is one of the biggest and poorest in Africa. Situated ten minutes away from the town centre where the Indian community keeps a watchful eye over their shops, it stretches across hills of mud on the edge of a dirty river. The moment you enter, you are overcome by the powerful odour of rubbish and urine. This stench gets worse as you go down towards the river, where more and more shacks are crowded ever closer together. Built from a mixture of metal sheets, wood, plastic bags and cardboard, they house whole families in an average space of 4 m22. The average income of a family of eight is rarely more than six francs a day. Dozens of small traders set out vegetables individually for sale on wooden tables. This is one of the principal means of survival in Mathare, along with minor work carried out from day to day, prostitution and illegal distilling. Men lie around, blind drunk, on mountains of waste.

Sitting on the bare ground, covered in dirt, children sniff glue. “It’s what gives me the courage to go and beg,” explains one of them. Others play football barefoot, using plastic bags tied into a ball with pieces of string. “Children like these were already here the first time I ever visited the Mathare shanty-town. They love football. It reminds me of when I was a child growing up in a small town in Canada,” says Bob Munro, the founder of the Mathare Youth Sports Association (Mysa).

Established in 1987, at a time when Kenya was already in a period of economic decline, this sports association aims to help the children of Mathare integrate into society through football. It started out as a modest enterprise. With a small number of balls, a few pairs of trainers and a great deal of enthusiasm, the association set up football teams. Interest spread from shack to shack like wildfire, with almost every youngster in Mathare getting involved. At the start there were a few dozen. Now there are over 12,000, divided into more than 400 teams, all playing football thanks to Mysa.

Competitions, at first confined to the shanty-town of Mathare, have spread right across Kenya and then the whole world. Invited by Pele to Rio de Janiero for the Eco Games in 1992, the children of Mathare wrested victory from Brazil by 26 goals to 11 over five matches.

This was the beginning of an irresistible rise. Two years later, Mysa formed a professional team, Mathare United, which was promoted to the first division in 1998. Four children from the Mathare shanty-town now play for the Stars, Kenya’s national team. And one of them, Evan Nyambaro, belongs to a first division club in Norway.

The secret of such success?

“We have grown up, eaten and worked together,” explains Mathare United’s coach, Gabriel Njoroge. Born in this shanty-town like all the players in his team, this man, now aged about thirty, was living in a Catholic orphanage when Mysa was founded.

“My mother used to sell vegetables in the shanty-town and didn’t have enough money to look after me and my four brothers and sisters,” he recalls. “I left home and lived on the streets.”

The youngsters of Mysa do not want just to play football. Above all, they want to improve the living conditions in their shanty-town.

“We formed this professional team to earn money so that we no longer had to rely on donations,” emphasises Bob Munro.

The professional players at the club are all volunteers. As they are now comfortably off, they donate some of their fees to the association and each continues to give about 80 hours of unpaid work every month. With the other members of Mysa, they remove rubbish from the shanty-town, train junior teams, take part in campaigns for the prevention of AIDS or help children in prison. Football is therefore still a means rather than an end.

Football gives people confidence in themselves.

Bob Munro is certain of one thing: “The players who make a constructive contribution to their community are better on the pitch.” Now, the youngsters of Mathare talk proudly about their shanty-town and have faith in their future. They do not all intend to be professional footballers. Most want to be doctors, lawyers, journalists or photographers.

“The thing I like about myself is that I couldn’t care less what people say or think about me because, in the end, I know who I am,” confides Maureen Mak’Opiyoko, a young 15 year-old girl who plays in a football team at Mysa. She hopes one day to become President of the Republic of Kenya, and why shouldn’t she!