Active Citizens football programme in Kenya
In the second and final blog from his week with the Active Citizens programme in Kenya, Tim Hartley explains how community football schemes in Wales are helping to inspire young volunteers in Kenya, to start similar cross-community teams and tournaments and how the aim of ‘football for all’ is being achieved.
The British Council has been working with so called ‘Active Citizens’ in Kenya to help them build social cohesion. The idea is that by promoting football, environmental and social projects, anything in fact which can improve people’s lives, we can improve relations between communities and even bring in some much needed money.
A group of Kenyans came to Britain in 2009 to visit social and community projects. They were impressed with the way football is used to build confidence and improve the prospects of young people.
They saw Cardiff City’s Football in the Community team developing young players and coaches at schools and through the club itself. Many of these boys and girls had been written off by the system, but by using something they are all interested in, football, they are growing educationally and are now taking an active part in their communities.
Following that visit, the Cardiff team was invited back to Kenya to continue the development of the young volunteers. There were visits to the ministries of Justice and Sport as well as the Kenyan Football Federation so that everyone from the top down understood what we were trying to do. 25 Active Citizens from all over Kenya made their way to Nairobi to be put through their paces both on and off the pitch.
Upper Hill High School sits about half a mile up the potholed road from the British High Commission overlooking downtown Nairobi. It’s a ramshackle collection of single story buildings, all painted a dull yellow.
It prides itself on its academic and footballing excellence and the walls of the cramped library, where the British Council project took place, were crammed with well thumbed textbooks. African short stories backed onto the English and Maths books with a smaller section for Kiswahili. ‘Ants Observed’ lay back to back rather bizarrely with ‘The story of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland.’
The Active Citizens at Upper Hill were given a week of practical coaching sessions and were shown how to organise clubs and arrange tournaments. Football is an international language and together we discussed how we can use it to bridge religious and ethnic divisions in our society. Every one there had a story to tell.
‘Call me Scaar. Yes, that’s my nickname. Scaar,’ says Oscar Omondi Onyango, ‘it’s what they call me back home in the Nyanza Province.’ Softly spoken, with thin rimmed glasses and sporting a smart pink shirt he looks every inch a rising academic or IT consultant.
But Scaar is a community mobiliser who has witnessed for years how the families of Nyakach District in Nyanza have suffered from cattle rustling. Young men from the Kalenjin tribe cross the river Miriu and make off with the cattle of the Luo people. Tit for tat raids have left many dead and the homes of suspects have been torched. It had to stop.
So Scaar helped organise a cross community football festival to ‘sensitise’ young men as he puts it to the consequences of their actions. ‘Of course the politicians care,’ he says with a smile. ‘They sponsor football trophies and competitions and even buy kits for the winning team. But it is their name on the trophy and it’s all organised by their families. The day after polling, they are gone and are hardly heard of again. It’s the same all over Kenya.’
Scaar is looking for a longer lasting fix and he listened attentively to Mizan Rahman from the Welsh Football Trust talk about the multicultural league he had set up. Religious observance, driving taxis or working late nights in restaurants means most young men from ethnic backgrounds simply cannot play football on Fridays or Saturday afternoons. So Miz arranged for Pakistani, Somali and other teams to play in a league not bound by traditional kick-off times.
It has proved a big success and rather than ghettoising these players, Cardiff’s Hamadryad FC team, which is made up of Yemenis, and the Swansea All Stars, which comes from the Bangladeshi community, both now play in the regular Sunday League.
The violence in Kenya escalates at election time and farmers on both sides of the river Miriu are dreading the elections. But Scaar is convinced he can emulate the success of the South Wales multicultural league. ‘If we can get the village elders to support this and speak to the young men during the tournament,’ he says, ‘we can try to get a real dialogue going between these two tribes.’
The day’s training over, we flew south to Mombasa and drove for forty five minutes to Diani. This is where most tourists visiting Kenya hit the beach in 5 star luxury. The brilliant white Indian Ocean beaches are studded with tasteful holiday complexes, complete with landscaped coconut tree groves and water features – all are gated communities of course.
We went to Coast where we sat in the spartan Diani community centre set back a little from the dusty main road. We met with Mary, Jean and Bakari, all Active Citizens who had visited Wales in 2009 and who were now putting into practise what they had learnt to try to strengthen their communities.
Mary was encouraging Muslim women who had never worked to seek some form of employment. Part-time work making jewellery at home from beads and polished coconut shells to sell to tourists was particularly popular. It brought in much needed cash and posed no threat to their husbands’ standing.
Jane was recruiting young men to collect leaves in paper bags, store them for a year and then sell the compost locally. These micro businesses are both environmentally friendly and offer some hope to the young men of Diani.
Bakari meanwhile had organised a cross community football tournament ahead of last year’s referendum on Kenya’s new constitution. The Digo tribe is in the majority here, but being a cosmopolitan area there are many conflicting traditions and communities, each vying for influence and power.
Bakari had managed to get twenty teams from different areas along the coastal strip to play on the threadbare local ground. Speeches between the games were made by local elders and politicians urging youths not to fight. It may have been coincidence, but the referendum passed without any serious incident.
The commitment of the young Kenyans was demonstrated by Daniel from Rongo in western Kenya. He has been coaching football for many years but disaster struck in a junior game. His neighbour’s son broke his leg in a heavy tackle. It was bad break and required the bones to be reset. Daniel took the boy to hospital and looked after him but his mother then demanded 750,000 Kenyan shillings (about £5,000) to pay the hospital bills. With no insurance things were looking bleak and Daniel had to sell part of his family’s land in order to pay the bill. ‘I thought of giving up the football, really I did, but what else would I do?’ he says.
Back in Nairobi, the Active Citizens were busy drawing up their individual action plans. Daniel had frowned a little at Caroline refereeing of our friendly international match. But he thought about it for a day or two and realised he had neglected the girls’ side of things. His plan was going to include setting up a women’s team in Rongo when he got home. Other participants were gearing up to work regionally, across tribal boundaries rather than solely in their own communities. They also appointed a national co-ordinator to support the programme across the whole of Kenya.
There are a number of forthcoming elections in Kenya – parliamentary as well as the big one: the presidential election. There will be little to choose between the candidates and the election is not fought on ideological grounds. But individual politicians can wield influence in different regions with promises of new roads and bridges or targeted investment. And that has the potential to set one area against another as allegations of favouritism to one community or tribe are thrown around.
The arguments have started already with the government itself demanding the election be put back until the end of the year. This time voters will have to produce biometric identity cards before casting their votes, in an attempt to ensure a free and fair election.
Will the Kenyan Active Citizens and their belief in the power of ‘Football for All’ be able to influence anything on the ground and ensure some semblance of normality, whatever the final result? Who knows? But if the election were fought on the basis of commitment and goodwill, then Stabua, Scaar, Daniel or indeed any one of the team of Active Citizens would get my vote.
Tim Hartley is Chair of the Cardiff City Supporters Trust and led the British Council ‘Football for All’ project in Kenya.