Lens on life | Mathare Valley football offers entrée to squatters’ struggle

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Copyright © 2005 John Barrett Reed. Link to photo essay.Nairobi | Photographer John Barrett Reed traveled in 2005 to the Mathare Valley slums on the eastern edge of Kenya’s capital, hoping to provide new images of Africa for Western audiences who may have become desensitized. He concentrates his lens and writing on a slice of Mathare, home to 600,000 squatters, and uncovers the organic quality of football as the game filters through the daily ordering of life: including births, new business ventures and death.

The Valley, Reed writes as part of a photo essay in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Mar 1, “is a sprawling chaos of corrugated metal shanties on Nairobi’s eastern outskirts. Homes lack running water, tenants pirate electricity, human feces clog open sewers, and roads are nonexistent. The clattering of rats across metal roofs is Mathare’s nightly lullaby.”

Reed ventured to Kenya as a Fulbright fellow and spends much of his time with the Maji Mazuri Youth Group, 35 children who practice the “culture of democracy” to improve their lives through community service and education. Football has a role to play, too. Reed publishes several photos of Austin, a former professional goalkeeper who volunteers to coach kids daily on a vacant neighborhood lot. One picture shows Austin lovingly holding an umbrella over substitutes on the sideline; another illustrates the local passion for the game, with more than 100 squished into a room receiving a satellite transmission of England’s FA Cup. 

Passion for soccer is instilled in Mathare children at a young age. When Kenyans’ two most beloved English soccer clubs, Manchester United and Arsenal, locked horns in the 2005 FA Cup Final, Mathare Valley youth packed Wembley Video Hall to the rafters. Such elite matches are shown on pirated satellite television and patrons are told as they enter on which side of the shanty their fans are seated, making for a raucous atmosphere.

Austin himself stopped playing after seeing his older brother die as the result of a collision on the pitch. Even though he deals in illegal trade—he acknowledges the work is “contradicting,” given his volunteer pursuits—Austin’s dedication is such that the field on which he coaches is called “kwa Austin,” “of Austin.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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