Why diplomats fall over one another to fund a Kenyan slum sports association
hat is it that attracts Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) to the diplomatic world? The chemistry between diplomats and a youth organisation based in one of the biggest poverty-stricken slums in Africa is amazing.
From former UK First Lady Cherie Blair to iconic sports personalities like former England international Sir Bobby Charlton, former France captain Marcel Desailly, American double Olympic 400m hurdles champion Ed Moses, multiple Olympic and world 400m and 200m champion Michael Johnson, tennis Goddess Martin Navratilova to a host of envoys representing their countries in Nairobi, MYSA is the destination of choice for Western diplomats eager to donate their countries’ taxpayers’ money to community service.
MYSA has, for good measure, tapped from diplomatic circles a massive war chest, which it uses to run its programmes, among them Kenyan Premier League (KPL) giants Mathare United FC.
The management good health pass mark by the diplomats has had a trickle-down effect on the Association and its affiliated clubs. It is the only club to have bought a piece of land and built a sports complex, which has a playground, library and well-equipped gymnasium, among other infrastructure.
Only recently, Mathare United FC landed a Sh20 million sponsorship with Kenya Data Networks (KDN) and were to get a kit sponsorship with a leading British sports apparel manufacturer, Umbro.
That places Mathare United FC on the top of the pecking order of Kenya’s richest clubs. The club has completed a 10-year negotiation with Goan Institute to lease its playground in Pangani to host all its home KPL matches.
With the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, closed for renovation, the Pangani ground will help bring the people’s game even closer to them, with the location the ground in Nairobi’s Eastlands, an area with the highest concentration of football lovers in the capital city.
“We have a zero tolerance policy to age cheating in our junior sides who are invited for international tournaments. We use the donors’ money strictly for the purpose for which it is intended and we subject all our financial transactions to audit,” said Bob Munro, chairman of the MYSA Board of Trustees and Mathare United FC.
Munro, a former Canadian civil servant and diplomat as well as a senior policy adviser on environment and sustainable development to the United Nations and many African countries, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs, founded MYSA in 1987.
He started MYSA so the kids in the Mathare slums could have the same chance to learn and benefit from sports as he and his friends had in the small Canadian town of St Catharine’s, where volunteer fathers had organised and coached the youth ice hockey and baseball leagues for him and his friends in the 1950s.
MYSA was an instant hit in the diplomatic world, mainly due to its many noble and innovative ideas, which makes its stand out as a pioneer in linking sport with community service and development activities.
“From the outset, MYSA has been an innovative development project which uses sport as a starting point for a wide range of community development activities such as clearing accumulated garbage and blocked drains, preventing the spread of Aids, stopping drug and alcohol abuse, feeding and freeing jailed kids, training and educating local youth leaders, establishing new slum libraries and study halls, and, in addition to sports, providing training in photography, gymnastics, music, dance, drama and puppetry,” says Munro.
“The most distinctive feature of MYSA, and the main reason for its success, is that the organisation is owned and managed by the youth themselves. Today, over 20,000 youth and over 1,600 teams in 16 zones participate in MYSA’s self-help youth sports and community service programmes,” he says.
“The largest of the 16 MYSA zones is Kayole, with over 2,000 youth on 127 teams. The elected chair of the Kayole Executive Committee is Charity Muthoni, who celebrated her 12th birthday on January 18 2010. Even Fifa acknowledges that she is the youngest elected football official in the world,” said Munro.
Behind the youth are well-connected and powerful individuals in the private and public sector and professionals who ensure things run smoothly in MYSA. Former anti-corruption czar John Githongo was at one time a member of the Board of Trustees.
MYSA leaders and trainers also advise and assist youth in other poor communities in and outside Kenya. For instance, MYSA has assisted the Moving the Goalposts Project for girls in Kilifi District and initiated the Kakuma refugee camp project for youth from eight neighbouring countries.
MYSA leaders also helped set up similar youth sports and community service projects in Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda and southern Sudan. With the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) Academy, MYSA instructors have led KNVB/MYSA courses in Botswana, Cape Verde, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, southern Sudan, Vietnam and Zambia.
Over the last two decades, MYSA has benefited from the advice and assistance of many experts, diplomats and sports ambassadors from different countries and international organizations.
MYSA youth and teams have also served as sports ambassadors for Kenya and in the mid-1990s even helped in restoration of diplomatic ties with Norway. MYSA also helped inspire the new StreetFootballWorld global network of sport and development NGOs and the new FIFA Football for Hope initiative, one of only a handful multi-million-shilling projects that was to inspire hope among Africa’s youth in the lead-up to this year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
The envoys’ role in MYSA has particularly been instrumental in its development and tapping of donor funding.
It all started with the former Canadian Ambassador, David Miller, and his wife, Chantal, who in 1987 made a personal donation of Sh10,000 to MYSA. In 1988, UNEP adviser Robert Lamb, an avid football fan, often went to MYSA youth matches and was surprised to fund a team playing in the MYSA Dandora Zone named after his favourite team, Aston Villa. On his return to England, he arranged with Aston Villa Chairman Doug Ellis for a donation to MYSA of a set of Aston Villa shirts.
The MYSA Under-18 boys’ team proudly wore them in their first big tournament, the Kenya Under-18 Youth Tournament in Nakuru in December 1988. They were by far the best-dressed team and also won the tournament. That was the first trophy ever won by a MYSA team.
In 1989, Denmark/DANIDA became MYSA’s first official aid donor with financial support for the MYSA garbage, drainage ditch and environmental clean-ups plus donating the MYSA Community Service Cup, which is still awarded annually to the MYSA team with the best record on cleanup projects. The key Denmark/DANIDA officer in Kenya was Bo Jensen, who is now the Danish Ambassador to Kenya.
In April of the same year, former Canadian High Commissioner David Miller and Brigadier Jonathan Shigoli, then of the Nairobi City Council, helped MYSA youth clear accumulated garbage and blocked drainage ditches in Mathare Village 1.
In 1989 and 1990, Danish Ambassador Erik Fill had a good pastime every Saturday. He often drove the two kilometres from his official ambassadorial residence in the nearby Muthaiga suburb to referee MYSA youth matches at the PCEA field in Eastleigh. Around the same time, the Norwegian Minister for the Environment, Sissel Ronbeck, donated funds for MYSA to buy over 100 wheelbarrows plus rakes and shovels for use in the MYSA clean-up projects.
Their international debut came in May 1990, when Ronbeck donated the air tickets for the first MYSA team, the Under-18 boys, to participate in the Norway Cup, the world’s oldest and largest international youth football tournament.
MYSA is today ranked only second to Brazilian club Pequininos, in the number of gold medals won since the Norway Cup started in 1972.
In July 1990, the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, Niels Dahl, invited the MYSA leaders and Norway Cup (U-18) team to his official residence for a reception. That was the first time any MYSA youth attended a diplomatic reception (and the first time any MYSA youth had been outside Kenya as the property of embassies and ambassadorial residences are extra-territorial).
On July 18, 1990, then Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi received the MYSA Under-18 team at State House, Nairobi. He presented the team with a Kenyan flag and designated them “young sports ambassadors for Kenya” when they travelled later that month to participate in the Norway Cup in Oslo.
After the breaking of diplomatic relations between Kenya and Norway in 1990, Norway appointed diplomat Arman Aardal as its chargé d’affaires and UN Representative in Kenya.
As his bilateral diplomatic duties and activities in Kenya were limited, he spent a lot of time at MYSA and became an active and informal “MYSA ambassador to Norway”. For example, he helped secure continued Norwegian financial support for MYSA teams for the 1992 and subsequent Norway Cups plus special funding to start the first MYSA girls’ football leagues and activities.
In 1991-1992, vigilante groups and police in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo in Brazil were murdering street kids. UN Under-Secretary-General Maurice Strong, the UN head of the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio in June appointed Brazilian football legend Pele as a special representative for the conference and asked him to appeal to the government to stop the murders.
He also told Pele about what the street kids and youth in the Mathare slums were doing to help themselves and their community through their innovative self-help sports and environmental clean-up projects. Pele invited and personally promised to pay for the accommodation, food and local transportation for a MYSA Under-16 boys’ team to participate in a special Eco-92 youth tournament against different Brazilian youth teams during the UN Earth Summit
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