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

The field, once the site of tin homes burned to the ground in a land dispute, has its own history. After the homes disappeared, the land became a dump. People hauled their garbage here from all over Mathare. After that, residents cleared it into a field. The goalposts kept disappearing—the potential building material posed too strong a temptation—until permanent goalposts could be erected. When we ask why it is called Austin’s Field, George says, “Because he’s always there.”

Austin has long, thick dreadlocks he keeps packed beneath a beige knit cap. If you played football in Mathare and are under the age of 25, he’s the one who coached you. He brought the field into being and now spends all day there, coaching one team and then the next. He coaches for free—he makes no money on football whatsoever—and he seems to us like the type of guy who should win a hero-of-the-universe award.

“I came to Mathare when I lost my family—I had nothing and nowhere else to go,” he says. “Coaching was what kept me going.” We watch him coach 14-year-old girls—when he calls them together in the center of the field, they hang onto every word. Two of them wear beige knit caps, just like him.

Postscript | A World Cup preview, with hard hats for goals

Cape Town | Playing pickup has always felt to me like an adult form of pretend, reenacting the big games, imagining that you are playing in a stadium with thousands of people watching. Nowhere did this feel more true than when we found workers at Green Point Stadium, scheduled to host nine matches at the 2010 World Cup, playing pickup during their lunch break. They eat their sandwiches on tea breaks so that, at lunch, they have time to play. In the shadow of the stadium, they use their helmets as goals and play in yellow jumpsuits and heavy work boots.

One worker watching from the side tells us, “If I couldn’t play inside the stadium, at least one day I’ll be able to tell my son, ‘Your father built this stadium.’ ” Twenty minutes after it starts, the lunchtime game ends. When I say, “Already?” the man shrugs, “It’s better than nothing.” Then they put their helmets and suspenders on and walk back to work.

We have been to three continents and 17 countries now—enough to see that fondness for the game spreads across the world, no matter how old you are, what your job is, what language you speak or what God you pray to.

In Cape Town, Ryan’s camera locks on the face of a worker swept up in the game. While some of the men were skilled—they were players—you got the sense that this round-cheeked, round-bellied man had not thought of himself as a player in a long time but today, for some reason, he decided to take part. His face was lit with the best smile I had seen anywhere. There was joy in his face … surprised, innocent happiness—that is a feeling we come across in many places we visit.

You cannot help but feel hope, great hope, looking at smiles like that.

© 2008 Gwendolyn Oxenham. All rights reserved.

Go to part 1 (Bolivia) » | part 2 (Israel) » | part 3 (France) »

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2 comments on this post.
  1. Chui:

    Soccer is a much-needed diversion for the children in these communities. Coming from Pumwani, Kenya, I grew up playing soccer on the vacant spaces in the slums of Pumwani. Soccer was all I did when I was not in school. It gave us the exercise we needed and a lifelong passion. Now, sprawling and expanding businesses have taken away the last remaining spaces in Pumwani, and children have nowhere to go and play. What is important is that soccer here is not just a game, it is also a catalyst for change from the many problems facing children from underprivileged neighborhoods. This project is a wonderful effort to reintroduce the joys of a game that requires nothing more than a ball and your friends!

  2. James McNally:

    Looks like this is premiering at SXSW in March 2010 under the finished title Pelada. Can’t wait to see it, looks really good from the trailer. Site is here:

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