It is one of the most pleasant climates in the world - East Africa, possibly the cradle of civilization, and at 5,300 feet above sea level, Nairobi, the largest city in the region, was a plum place to be sent in the colonial British Empire. Pleasant suburbs, lots a cheap servants and a nice social life for partying.
Well, Mathare in a valley in one of the capital's suburbs is nothing like that. It's not even the biggest slum, but slum it is, with overcrowding, stench, traffic,crime, unemployment, AIDS, lack of running water, bribery and corruption by the authorities, and very little policing and security.
It was not all peaches and cream for the colonialists and the white farmers. in the '1950's the Mau-Mau, a native Kikuyu uprising fueled by drugs and what you might call witchcraft, created mayham- and resulted in 'over the top' response from the British rulers. About 30 white settlers were murdered, and many more local natives, accused of not joining the terrorists or of being informers. This week the British Goverment is being sued by survivors after a recently published book alleges lies and a cover-up. 1998 a half century later when Kenya had long been independent, the Embassy Bombings in East Africa, organized by Al Queida, brought death and destruction to the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi.
In 1987 one of the great successes in Africa, and in world soccer began. MYSA (Mathare Youth Sports Association).
Headed by Bob Munro, Canadian born environmentalist and with support originally from football friends in Norway. One is former Norwegian F.A. general secretary Helge Sovdnes, who was responsible for getting Norway into the World Cup and who is now retired and living in Nairobi, and returns for Norway Cup week each July. The idea was to offer some hope for the native children of this slum by organizing soccer leagues, crafts, music and other arts, and citizenship, to keep them off the streets, in a place where 80% of families were single parent led.
Leadership courses, and AIDS education have resulted in over 15,000 boys and girls annually going through the programs, and over 1,000 sports teams. The kids have to give back, and stay away from drugs and alcohol, coach and referee younger teams, and set examples. Its easily the biggest sports organization on the continent, and has world wide support. In the northern Kenyan refugee camp of Kakuma 3,500 children from 7 nearby African countries receive similar help.
In 1992 the great PELE found sponsors to bring a Mathere United youth team to play a series of matches in Brazil, during the United Nations Earth Summit, and the visitors outscored their Brazil hosts 26-11, winning 3 out of 5 matches.
That summer they sent teams to the Dana Cup, Gothia Cup and Norway Cup in Scandinavia, and have returned every year since then and won a few of those prestigious tournaments.
In Norway in particular the teams come about 10 days early to stay with families of a local club to find out more about each other, before playing soccer.
Obviously the kids grew up and found that when they joined clubs in the Kenyan Premier Football League they didn't get much coaching or supervision and were badly managed and not paid as agreed.
In 1993 they appealed to Bob Munro the chairman of the board of governors at MYSA to form a professional team to enter the Premier League.
Sponsors would not normally agree to such a diversion of funds, so Bob set up a new organization called EXCEL AFRICA LTD. One of my friends from near Oslo, who was directing Norsk Hydro in Kenya at the time agreed that his company would be the first sponsor for the next 5 years, and a new club was born. They started in a lower league and eventually made it to the Premier League. I remember seeing a piece about their progress on TV's Futbol Mundial about that time. "To become a top team in Kenya and Africa in 5 years" was the goal. Four years later Mathare United became the first club outside the Premier League to win the prestigious Moi Golden Cup, named after Kenyan President Daniel Moi.1978-2002, when he stepped down.
The next year they won the Premier League, with players who all lived in Mathare's slum and as part of their contracts have to be leaders in the community, and coach and referee lots of matches.They reached the finals of the African Cup Winners tournament. In the last decade the team has won 81% of their matches and outscored opponents 2.5 goals to one per match,winning 2 League titles and 6 Cups.
When traveling outside Nairobi, such as to Mombasa on the India Ocean, or to the Western Provinces near the Ugandan border, they go to local slums to give out Anti Aids information, organize skills competitions and give out prizes, wearing uniforms provided by sponsors.
For their efforts they have won many admirers and awards, such as the STROMME Foundation 'help for Self-help' award at Oslo's City Hall: LAUREUS Sport for Good Award in Monaco: Named East and Central Africa's MODEL CLUB Award by the area Football Association:
Norsk Hydro, Safarcom Mobil phones, K.D. Wire(barbed wire), Kapa Oils and others still sponsor the club.
In 1997 they founded a Jailed Kids Project which has now been copied in other African cities. Lots of children were picked up by the police and taken to court where there were no toilets, washing facilities or food. They took their projects and concerns and know how to schools of correction, organizing sports and taught the kids citizenship.
When I was in Oslo recently I was told that the Kenya Football Federation had been totally corrupt for decades and sponsors were not to give them money. In fact a few years ago the Kenyan Goverment tried to take over the bankrupt Federation and FIFA promptly stepped in and suspended Kenya from international competition for a time.
The 20 team Premier League was badly run, as was the Federation. The national team, the Harambee Stars, had failed to qualify for an African national team tournament for 16 years until 2004. That year a rebel league was formed, and so fed up with their so called football leaders that attendances of 100 or less per match were common. The year before the Minister of Sport Najib Balala disbanded the Kenyan U-17 team after they fielded over age players-as old as 22. In 1996 the KFF was awarded the African Nations Cup, but broke their promise, backed out of the agreement with CAF, the African Continental Confederation, and Kenya was banned from international competition for 2 years. In 2000 the treasury of the KFF was looted by officials.
Eight years after the embassy bombings, the new USA Embassy is in a safer location, and there is a building boom downtown with lots of luxury hotels and skyscrapers.
Girls soccer is now important for Mathare United,with the well organized youth girls team representing Kenyan in African competition.
As a school boy I followed the tours of English professional teams to East and Central Africa many years ago: Southern Rhodesia(Zimbabwe) ; Northern ,Rhodesia(Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi), Kenya and Uganda. It seemed at the time that one of those countries would be the first African country to qualify for the World Cup after newly elected FIFA President Joao Havalenge promised expansion after his election as President at the Congress of 1974. Well, mostly due to corruption and lack of good governance, it is the North African, West African and Southern African countries that have made progress to the FIFA World Cup.
Hopefully, the boys and girl graduates of the Mathare Valley will help bring good governance to the recently reformed KFF and finally the cradle of civilization will take its place in the World Cup when it comes to Africa in 2010.