Friday, November 1, 2013

Playing for their lives: MYSA gives Kenyan youth opportunities on and off the pitch

By: Bradley Parks
Produced & Edited by: Daniel Medlock
The rusted metal roofs of the ramshackle structures of Nairobi, Kenya's slums do not exactly scream soccer haven. 

The trash-lined alleys weaving between the worn-down huts could tell graphic stories of gang violence, slum fires, and other parades of horribles if only they could talk.

The Mathare region is home to many folks moving closer to the city center in search of work. Despite the dangerous and unsanitary conditions, the city center has been a place where Kenyan youths have created new realities for themselves since the late 1980's.
A League is Born
The Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in the Mathare slum outside Nairobi, Kenya inspires social change through competition. 
A slum in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo via Help International)
It started when a United Nations adviser, Bob Munro, offered to referee a football match for a group of Kenyan children playing in the slum if they helped him pick up litter. Out of this, the MYSA program was born, using league points incentives to drive social change.

Mirroring the structure of many professional leagues, teams are required to secure more points in order to stay atop the league table and avoid relegation to a lower league. Unlike professional teams however, MYSA teams can earn points off the field by getting involved in the community, whether it be HIV/AIDS peer education sessions, trash clean-up or something else.

Aggrey Otieno grew up in one of Kenya’s slums and played for MYSA’s Under-14 squad when he was younger. He now works as the team leader for Pambazuko Mashinani, an organization developing health interventions to support Nairobi’s urban poor. Otieno attributes a lot of MYSA’s success to the areas and audiences it serves.

“They target different ages of youth and children,” said Otieno, “so that one is very good because now they can reach to so many people.

“Then at the same time they target communities of low income – the slums in Nairobi. It is in those communities that you find a lot of challenges people face, especially children.”

MYSA has found a way to engage the community’s youth by using sport as an instrument for social change. Football is something upon which most people can agree and keeps participating children involved in a positive activity when so many other deviancies are at their disposal.

“[MYSA] has helped a lot in reforming youth from crime, drugs, and keeping them busy,” said MYSA volunteer Zablon Onguko, “because in the slums, people don’t go to school so much.”

A System of Mentorship

What makes MYSA such an attractive organization to youth is that it serves as an academy-like atmosphere for young soccer talent. Where Kenya’s football program lacks is in its youth development system in that it is extremely small. Most top-flight clubs in Europe have youth programs grooming players from young ages to excel as professionals.

MYSA differs in that it prepares young people for futures beyond the pitch. The program model provides a venue for youth to learn the values of upstanding citizenry, things they would not necessarily learn outside of MYSA’s structured environment.

“Children and youth need a lot of mentorship,” said Otieno, “so that is one thing that they are getting from Mathare Youth Sports Association. And again, Kenyans really love soccer, so soccer is a very good entry point to get all these people together. That’s one concept and model that is very good, according to me, in terms of bringing change.”

Kenyan Soccer on the World Stage

On the football-rich continent of Africa, securing one of five available World Cup bids equates to finding the fabled Fountain of Youth. Kenya have been members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) for more than 50 years, but despite many ripe opportunities, have fallen short of the World Cup in every attempt to qualify for football’s grandest stage.

Still, Kenya is as soccer-hungry as any other African nation, with the competitive Kenyan Premier League (KPL) serving as its primary venue for professional competition. Kenyan players, however, still strive for almost any young footballer’s dream: to play in Europe in one of its many prestigious leagues.

Victor Wanyama, a star midfielder and centre back with Celtic FC in the Scottish league became the first Kenyan born player to be signed to a Barclays Premier League team - inking a £12.5 million deal to play for Southampton FC in the summer of 2013.

MYSA has done its part to produce top-flight players, Wanyama among them. Kenyan star Dennis Oliech also got his start as a member of MYSA and has enjoyed a long career in France Ligue 1.

Victor Wanyama. (Photo via the SNS Group)
“Every young child wants to play for MYSA, wants to play in the MYSA league, wants to be like Oliech, wants to be like Wanyama,” said Onguko. “Young people know that those players started their football at MYSA, so everyone wants to be a part, every young child or youth wants to be identified with MYSA.”

If stars like Wanyama and Oliech can drive the game’s popularity even higher, the benefits are endless for the organization. Domestic and international success of Kenyan players helps to promote the game and get children involved.

“I believe when you have people who are graduates of MYSA and they are playing in top clubs like Victor Wanyama, then, for one, it brings recognition to the organization,” said Otieno, “because people will always be referring back to MYSA. MYSA is the one that made Victor Wanyama to be who he is today.”

The folks at Mathare have found the system works - or at least it has to this point. Started as a local project in the late 1980s, MYSA now has multiple projects across the continent including operations in Botswana, Tanzania, Sudan and Uganda, providing opportunities to both boys and girls from all walks of life.

MYSA is much more than a football talent factory. Football is being used to help shape a culture of upstanding citizenry among Kenya’s youth who are escaping the troubles of the streets where they live. 

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