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

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.”

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