In A Nairobi Slum, A Youth League About Soccer And Sanitation

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"MYSA just started multiplying, and then 10 years later it was 1,000 teams, 1,200 teams, and today we’re 1,800 teams."(Dick Gordon/Only A Game)
"MYSA just started multiplying, and then 10 years later it was 1,000 teams, 1,200 teams, and today we’re 1,800 teams," Bob Munro says. (Dick Gordon/Only A Game)

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When you stand at the edge of the Mathare Valley and look down, all you see are waves of rusted tin.

Once you’re down in the slum, you realize each square of that metal is the roof for a home or a shop. The pathways between them are ditches filled with trash and human waste.

They say that half a million people live here, but it could be as many as 700,000. Kenya is a country where kids can’t go to school unless their parents pay fees. No education means no job, no chance at a future, and people get trapped in these slums.

Maqulate Onyango was the only girl in a family of brothers. She grew up in the Mathare slum.

"I come from a family where we only survived on one meal a day," Maqulate says. "And it’s not just a meal that you can count on. It was a very small meal that you can rely on. I was very tiny then. I was very small, simply because we didn't have enough to eat then. We did not have clothes. I remember I only had two clothes that time. So I could wear one and wash the other one. Wait for the other one to dry and wash the other one."

The only way Maqulate could earn any money was to search for rusty nails and other scraps of metal.

"We used to go to a ditch where there is running sewage and water, and we put our hands inside. We try to look for the nails," Maqulate says. "We would get the nails and the metals. There is place where you go sell them. They are weighed, and you sell them and get some money out of it."

On a good day, she’d earn 20 shillings. That’s equal to about two cents.

"And once I get the 20 shillings," Maqulate explains, "before my mum is back, 'cause she also went to wash for other people's clothes so that she can get some money, then I — when she comes home she finds that I have already prepared dinner."

"And you were how old at that time?" I ask.

"I was very young, I was 9 years," she says. "I was 9 years."

A 'Tough Love Deal' For Soccer

Bob Munro. (Dick Gordon/Only A Game)
Bob Munro. (Dick Gordon/Only A Game)

Thirty years ago, Bob Munro was also in that Mathare slum. Bob had already spent years working around the world on housing and development and environmental issues.

In that summer of 1987, he spent his days in long meetings at the U.N. offices in Nairobi. When he got bored, he’d wander into the slum. One day Bob was watching little kids, 4, 5 years old, kicking a lumpy ball made of paper and string.

"So I’m standing there, and one of the kids kicked another kid, and the other kid was gonna punch him or kick him back," Bob recalls. "But then he saw this white guy standing there who was watching — I gave him a look, you know. And he didn't, but he found a way of sort of accidentally missing the ball and kicking him back a few minutes later.

"So, I tweeted and said, 'That's a foul, and we have to have a penalty kick.' Now the kids got so excited that all of a sudden their game was official, with a referee. And they were just so excited that they were gonna have a penalty kick."

At that moment, Bob had an idea. He turned to a Kenyan friend and suggested setting up a small soccer league. Bob told the kids, “If you do something to support this league, I’ll do something.” He called it a "tough love deal."

"That was to protect me, huh? But it didn’t," Bob says. "It turned out to be a big mistake. Because I’ve been spending the last 30 years trying to hold up my end of the bargain, 'Cause they just kept doing things, expecting me — 'OK, we’ve done something — you do something.'"

Bob raised a bit of money and arranged to clear some land. Then he and a few of the kids went to a metalworker in the slum to get some goal posts.

"So, we agreed on the dimensions, and we've used two-inch pipes," Bob recalls, "and then we’re about to move on and then one of the kids said, 'Oh, don’t forget, Bob. We have to drill a hole in the goal posts every foot or so, around the goal post. Right? Doesn’t that make sense? Bob, you don’t understand. If we don’t do that, people in the slums will steal them to use as water pipes.' That’s when I understood that they’re the experts and they should be making the decisions."

1,800 Teams, 25,000 Players

Once the league began to grow, FIFA got interested, and money started to come in from other donors. Much of it was used to help kids with their school fees.

"At that time, the benefit my parents wanted is money. So if you want to go do sports and sports is not giving you money, what's the point of doing sports?"

Maqulate Onyango

Maqulate Onyango was still spending her time in the slum, helping feed her brothers. When she was 10 years old, she wandered down to the field, where kids were playing soccer, and she met a young coach.

"And then he asked me — he asked me, 'Where do you stay?'" Maqulate recalls. "I said, 'Just down here.' He also asked me, 'Do you play football?' I said, 'No.' 'Do you want to join football teams?' I said, 'Yes.' 'Can you play football?' I said, 'No.' And then he asked me if I can come for the daily trainings in the evening."

At that point Maqulate had to say "no" because she was still caring for her baby brother.

"And I knew my mom was going to beat me if I bring the baby to the field," she says. "So the coach was very nice and he told me, 'I will be passing by your home' — because our home was just along the road to the field — 'I'll be passing by your home, and I'll be taking care of your baby while you train.' But I had to make sure that I get home before my mom gets home."

"She never knew that you were playing football?" I ask.

"She never knew that I was playing football," Maqulate says. "So, at first, I hid it from her, because the culture I come from is that we are not supposed to play football."

"Girls are not supposed to?" I ask.

"Girls are not supposed to play," she says. "They think it has no use to participate in sports. There is no benefit. Because at that time, the benefit my parents wanted is money. So if you want to go do sports and sports is not giving you money, what's the point of doing sports?"

(Dick Gordon/Only A Game)
(Dick Gordon/Only A Game)

The soccer league was known as "MYSA," the initials standing for the Mathare Youth Sports Association. In the league’s second year, Bob had 21 soccer teams.

"And in December, we had a championship with real trophies," Bob says, laughing. "And real referees out there, you know. And there’s a picture of the commissioner of sport in the slum, presenting a trophy — a good trophy, a good-sized, healthy trophy — to a kid from the slum called Kinge, whose team had won.

"And that was in the newspaper the next day. That was stunning. There’d never been good news or positive news. It was always about drugs and prostitution and mob killings. And, so, three weeks later, when we opened up registration, instead of 21 teams we had 122 teams show up. And that’s part of the secret of MYSA, is, we can never say 'no.' If a bunch of kids showed up, you know, barefoot, ripped shirt, torn pants, and said, 'We’re a football team. Can we join MYSA?' How can you say no? And so, MYSA just started multiplying, and then 10 years later it was 1,000 teams, 1,200 teams, and today we’re 1,800 teams."

"1,800 teams?" I ask.

"25,000 players," Bob says.

"Just in Nairobi?"

"Just in the Mathare slums, in the neighboring slums."

"We’re probably the only sports league in the world where the columns are 'Games,' 'Won,' 'Draw,' 'Lost' -- 'Garbage' -- 'Total Points.'"

Bob Munro

MYSA's Other Secret

Eighteen-hundred teams — and that’s this year alone.

You heard Bob say that part of the secret to MYSA is never saying "no," but there’s another secret.

Remember I told you Bob worked for years on environmental issues. Like so many others trying to persuade politicians to do something, he kept coming up short.

But Bob knew something the politicians didn’t. He knew that the cleanliness and safety of the slums mattered to the people living there.

So, he said to the soccer players and their parents, if the kids want to play, they’ll have to do some community service — some clean-up work.

"The garbage is a killer, OK?" Bob begins explaining. "They live on slopes in Mathare Valley, and when the rains come twice a year, the rains are going through all that waste garbage that’s not collected, and the kids get sick. You know, typhoid, cholera, stuff we think of as from the Middle Ages. And they die.

"So, we set that every team had to do at least two garbage clean-ups a year. And we got wheelbarrows and rakes and shovels for them. They did it because for every football match they got three points. For every garbage clean-up they did they got six. We’re probably the only sports league in the world where the columns are 'Games,' 'Won,' 'Draw,' 'Lost' — 'Garbage' — 'Total Points.'"

I went to see some of the youngest players practicing. The rule on that day was this – if your team scores a goal, the other team has to do what they call "the hand-washing chant":

You wash your hand
You take the soap
You wash your wrists
The other wrist
You wash your thumb
The other thumb
You wash between your fingers
The other fingers
You scrub your palm

Bob Munro also insisted from the outset that it had to be the young people in charge: choosing the places in the slum to be cleaned, organizing practices and games.

Think how different that is from most other countries where organized sports are all run by grown-ups — coaches, refs, hockey dads, soccer moms.

Take Maqulate Onyango, for example. She was a good soccer player. Then she became the first Kenyan woman to referee. Then she was reffing professional matches. Now she’s a match commissioner. On the day we talked, we sat beside the field where the senior girls were practicing.

"So we are here to work for the young people," Maqulate says. "Because you find that MYSA is an organization that does not hire from outside. We don’t employ because you have degrees. We don’t employ because you are the son of a minister. We employ the people from the slums because they have the passion to do the job.

"It’s giving back to their community. They — somebody gave back to them, so it's their time now to give back. And they have a responsibility, each, to form a girls’ team. Specifically, a girls' team."

"Each one of these players has to form a girls team?" I ask.

"Each one of the players," she says. "Because by giving back to your community, it's making sure that you do what was done to you. And also, our conscience will not be clean if we don’t mentor the young girls, because that has been the tradition of — the culture and tradition of this organization."

Maqulate Onyango. (Dick Gordon/Only A Game)
Maqulate Onyango. (Dick Gordon/Only A Game)

Not too long ago, Maqulate Onyango was happy to earn 20 shillings scavenging for scraps of metal. Now that’s all changed.

"I moved my parents from Mathare," she says. "They’re still in the slums, but they’re not in Mathare slums. They're in a better place now. And we used to live in a mud house. They now live in a stone house, and life has really changed. And even today, when we sit with my family on a round table to talk, they can’t believe that they are eating football, sleeping football and their kids are going to school because of football. Up to today for us, it’s still a dream, and my dad even today asks me, 'This football thing, I didn’t know that it could change somebody’s life.'"

Some of these kids from the slums now play for professional teams in Europe. Others have become activists, musicians. One of them went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. And now it's these graduates — the alumni of MYSA — who are helping support the organization financially.

And everyone I talked to, they all said the same thing. They quote Bob Munro. He’s been telling them for years that one day, the President of Kenya will be a kid from the Mathare slum. A kid who started out playing soccer with MYSA.

This segment aired on May 13, 2017.



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