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

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

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.


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.”

The impetus behind our trip was a photograph of Keffa taking a penalty kick with hundreds of people watching. When we saw it, we knew we wanted to find Austin’s Field. The Saturday format is tournament-style—everyone puts in 20 shillings, the winner taking home the loser’s money. This amounts to 35 cents per person, so there is some stake in the outcome. Many of the men make changaa, a homemade alcohol brewed in the slum that earns them about six dollars a day. But if a team manages to win the tournament, each player stands to make up what they lost by playing instead of brewing.

“Brewing isn’t work you do because you want to,” James, a brewer, says in Sheng as we interview him at the base of the river. We thought we would be able to communicate in Africa, but you learn quickly that English-as-an-official-language does not mean that it is the language people actually speak. Sheng is a mixture of English, Swahili and of the tribal languages spoken by more than a dozen tribes living in Mathare. Bonfas translates as he stands with us at the base of the river, our faces warm from the fire pits heating barrels of alcohol.

“I do it because it’s the only thing I can do to make money for my wife and son.” James is a water-hauler—filling buckets from the faucet at the top of the slum and then hauling them through the narrow garbage-paved alleys back to the riverbank. He wears Copa replicas, the sides blown out, his feet appearing through the soles, the cleats digging into the mud and sewage water as he hikes all day back and forth. “Most people drink a little to get some steam, it’s the only way you can do it,” he says. “But Saturdays is the chance to show people I’m not just another drunkard … I am proud because I can play football.”

On this Saturday his team is all brewers—they play hard and well and every game is close. The sideline is full—women with babies propped on hips, kids in Salvation Army cast-offs and men in ball caps. When the brewers score, everyone roars, men and children darting onto the clay field. James stands out, his short dreadlocks flying as he races forward.

His sister Vinique plays with another group of men. She stands with them, her hands in the pockets of her black warm-up jacket, talking with them as though it’s nothing that she’s surrounded by men … although she does admit, “Sometimes, later on, guys will come up to me while I’m working or just out walking and say, ‘I saw you! You were that girl playing football! Let me shake your hand.’ They want to buy me a soda just because I can play. It’s embarrassing …” When she’s not playing football, she braids hair in her sister’s beauty shop. There are four sisters in their family. When the violence broke out after the Dec 07 presidential elections, they stayed in a displaced-persons camp outside the police station for three weeks. “Too many people knew how many girls were in our family,” she says, playing with her braids.

Kenyans never thought it would happen in their country, and Mathare Valley never thought it would happen in their slum—not when members of different tribes have lived next to each other in corrugated-tin homes for the past 40 years. But when President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was announced the winner of the election despite strong evidence to suggest that Raila Odinga, a Luo, should have won, riots broke out all over the country. Vinique’s Luo neighbors stormed her family’s Kikuyu home and told Vinique and sisters that they were traitors. This happened in slums across Kenya: neighbors turning on neighbors, dragging members of certain tribes from their houses and clubbing them to death. Riots between Luo and Kikuyu gangs raged in the street; more than 100 homes in Mathare were burned.

Luke Boughen

Luke Boughen on Austin’s Field

Now Kenya is once again calm. In Mathare, Kikuyus and Luos play with and against each other on Austin’s Field at the base of the slum, the same field where many of them voted just six months ago, standing hopefully in long lines in the dirt. The election prompted the largest turnout in Kenyan history.

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) »

About the Author

At 16, Gwendolyn Oxenham was the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the NCAA. She captained the Duke soccer team, led the team in assists, was an All-ACC selection and was named Most Inspirational Player. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing at Notre Dame and earned the Nicholas Sparks Prize, a $20,000 post-graduate grant to finish a first book. Oxenham graduated from Duke in 2004 with a degree in English and a Certificate in Documentary Studies.

Comments (2)

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  1. Chui says:

    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. 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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