By Fredrick Nzwili
Friday, January 31, 2003
Once a sport restricted to men, soccer is slowly picking up among young women in Kenya. When the country's soccer federation launched a women's league, it quickly attracted a dozen teams.
NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--It's a weekend afternoon, and the mood is ecstatic in a soccer pitch in Pangani, a middle-class estate in Nairobi. A women's tournament is on and, every time Mary Adhiambo touches the ball, the crowd goes silent in anticipation. Known by her nickname "Busu," the Kiswahili word for kiss, Adhiambo is the crowd's star.
Against the silence, Adhiambo's coach, Habil Nanjero, is screaming. "Cool it and go! Mbusu! Make it a goal!"
The lanky Adhiambo, 27, carefully eases off her opponents and sends a powerful low shot that hits the net. The crowd wildly celebrates the goal. This is a scene Adhiambo has grown familiar with in her 15-year soccer career
Adhiambo, who says she is inspired by Rivaldo, the Brazilian striker for the men's team FC Barcelona, and her peers are cutting a niche in Kenya, where soccer is followed closely but has been largely a male preserve. Against huge cultural prejudice, these women tie their boots everyday and converge on soccer grounds to practice their sport. Having learned to play on the dusty paths and roads of low-income estates in Nairobi, until recently they had no outlet in which to play professionally as adults.
"I looked like a boy in my childhood," says Adhiambo, a player for the leading women's club Makolanders. "My mother dressed me like one and I found myself taking up boys' roles. That is how I started playing soccer."
As she grew up, Adhiambo began nursing a strong wish to play professionally, yet there was no serious women's team she could sign up with then. Spontaneous matches with neighborhood children accounted for much of her training, as private clubs for girls disappeared nearly as soon as they materialized.
"Teams came up alongside men's clubs, but went down quickly. We learnt that they collapsed since the financiers did not see a chance of making gains in women's soccer. But we felt that this had to do with cultural biases. Many people don't take women's football seriously," says Adhiambo.
For rising star Doreen Nabwire, 15, the first challenge was to convince her parents that soccer would not distract her from studying. "My mother, who at first objected to my playing, has come to accept that there is nothing wrong with girls playing soccer," she says. "I am glad that she has turned out to be my No. 1 fan."
Nabwire, a midfielder and striker for the local Mathare Youth Sports Association, has already played several international friendly matches in Norway, the United States and Ethiopia. Female students like her also have the opportunity to play on school teams, which have blossomed over the last several years.
Nabwire says her parents only allowed her to play after coming up with a formula that balanced schoolwork and soccer. "I concentrate fully on my work when I am in class and on soccer when I am in the field," she says.
For many years, women's soccer in Kenya remained a small affair, with many ordinary people expressing reservations that female players would not be able to bear children. But a sport mainly associated with men has picked up among women.
In November, the Kenya Football Federation-Nairobi Branch launched a women's football league that has attracted 12 teams. While admission to games is free, the federation plans to start charging a fee soon. One recent game attracted 1,000 fans. "We are attempting to break the cultural barriers that have dogged sports for years. This is one way of empowering of women," says Michael Esakwa, secretary general of KFF-Nairobi.
The sports administrator says the federation is trying to structure women's soccer in Kenya to attract club sponsors, whose funds will ensure that players receive ongoing training. "Even though KFF knew women were playing soccer in small clubs across the country, this was only in ad hoc manner. There needed to be structure," Esakwa says. "That's why we began the league."
According to Esakwa, most women in Kenya have been have been exposed to soccer through the national men's clubs. "After watching the screening of the World Cup [last] year, women have inquired why we could not build strong women's team in the country," Esakwa says.
He adds that if Kenyan soccer officials can sustain the novelty factor of soccer for girls, the sport could one day rival men's league soccer in popularity. The sport has also picked up among women and girls in neighboring Uganda, as well as in West Africa, where Nigeria and Ghana boast strong women's teams. "Women's soccer is thought to be a mystery. This is what is pulling the players and their fans into playgrounds," Esakwa says.
Habil Nanjero has shaped his charges into dependable players. As coach of Makolanders, Nanjero says he opens the gates to all women, but they have to be talented and committed. "I have sometimes signed players who are extremely talented, but have no commitment and dropped out," he says. But he concedes that the majority face stiff opposition from their parents and well as their peers. There are no restrictions on how early a girl can begin playing on a league team.
"Parents ask them whether soccer can put bread on the table. Sometimes, I have had to visit some parents and convince them that playing soccer was good for the children. It is not easy but I finally I get players to the field," he says.
Asked how he feels about a coaching women's team, Nanjero laughs. "Football is football and I see no difference between sexes," he says. "I was actually inspired into coaching football by a lady player."
Hotel investor Patrick Wanjohi is equally enthusiastic. As a sponsor of women's soccer in Kenya, Wanjohi has donated trophies and cash awards for the league's best players as a way of ending discrimination against female athletes.
"Women in our society are disadvantaged. Their talents are recognized mainly as roles associated with women," he says. "If more women can enter into men's activities, we are likely to have a more balanced society. When these women play together, they also share their problems and ideas."
Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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