The Zen of Mathare: brew changaa, carry water, play soccer

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Editor’s note

Below is the final installment from Gwendolyn Oxenham‘s diaries supporting an in-process documentary film, The Soccer Project, about four recent college graduates and their pursuit of improvisational soccer matches around the world.

The following appeared originally on the Soccer Project blog on 7 Aug and 8 Oct 08.

Austin’s Field served as a dumping ground before the eponymous local coach and Mathare Valley neighbors cleaned it up. (All images © The Soccer Project. Used by permission.)

Nairobi | I am in the backseat of a taxi with camera and pillow on my lap when I see my first matatu. It is a fuchsia minibus with a giant picture of Mariah Carey above the taillights. It is thumping loud music and appears to display some kind of strobe light. A man is hanging outside the door—he periodically jumps off the moving vehicle, thrusting out a hand to those trying to leap on board, then shoves them safely down the aisle. He thumps the side of the bus and the driver takes off.

In the next seven days, under the gray, muggy skies of a Kenyan winter, we stand in the dust clouds and wait on matatus. Most have a name. We see Fàbregas, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Jordin Sparks, Sir Alex, Messi and Luke [Boughen]’s favorite: WESYDE written in huge letters across the front, AM THE FATHER OF THIS GANGSTA SH** written in huge letters across the back.

Some take on a collage format—pictures slapped haphazardly across the back. We see Jesus alongside 50 Cent. Wayne Rooney is inexplicably pasted over an American flag. The matatu emblazoned “Pirates of the Caribbean” has a plastic skull and crossbones attached to the front grill. We watch with wonder and appreciation until we see a number 32 or 41, and then we make a run for it.

matatus Matatu crossing

Once we are packed inside, we pass our 15 shillings forward and stare out the window as our insides vibrate to sounds of Rihanna. We are being dropped in Mathare Valley, the oldest slum in Africa. It is similar to Brazil’s favelas and Argentina’s villas but poorer; fewer people are able to jerry-rig electricity, and the only place you can get water is at the top of the slum, at a faucet next to the soccer field. Women line up in the mud to wash clothes, babies and fruit, then they fill jugs to haul down to their homes on the other side.

We are coming for the Saturday football. Our friends are George, Tito, Bonfas and Keffa. They grew up here as friends and are now making their way out. George grew up in Mathare and, although he has just left, he is working toward a degree in social development while working with Mathare kids. “People think Mathare is all drunks and drug addicts,” George says. “But that’s not all of us.”

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