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

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.

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