“Who’s brilliant idea was it to set up a football match at 2 pm, the hottest time of day?” Josh whines, prompting laughs and blame to be passed on to Dan and Pete for the sweaty, exhausting afternoon ahead of us. Our two sports volunteers have been working on football skills with Standard 6 students of both Nyota and Olives leading up to todays match at a nearby field. The winners of that match will face the teacher’s team where we hope to win, allowing us to brag about it for an undetermined, but most likely long, amount of time.
We arrived at Olives school sweaty and tired but seeing the Nyota students lined up outside the school with excited faces gave us some new found energy. I walked into the Olives courtyard to find the entire Olives school standing outside. A bit concerned as to what they were all doing there instead of in their classrooms, I went straight to the headmasters office to see about the match. They claim they’ll be two minutes, but in ‘Kenyan Standard Time’ I had suspected they be at least 10-15 minutes or longer. As I walk back to the courtyard I find it emptying – all the students heading to the field. Our intention was for only Standard 6 to play, not the whole school! I laugh at how typical this situation seems and chase after the group.
Our walk to the playing field has us going through the local rubbish grounds. I’ve walked through here before but this time, after overhearing Volunteers remarking of the conditions, I begin to notice them again and I’m struck by how normal it all seemed moments before. It’s unfortunate that this is in the way to and what surrounds the playing field but the children make their way through it anyways, chatting and buzzing about the upcoming matches.
When we get there we notice something else we hadn’t accounted for – there were at least three other schools on the field, all running around and playing haphazardly. I ran over to take away an electrical cord some Standard 2 and 3’s were throwing around and helped them think of a new game. Then I started to survey the field. How on earth are we to play this game? We not only have our intended two school’s Standard 6 classes, we have 2 Standard 6’s, an entire school wanting to watch, and three others wanting to play on the field. The volunteers sprint around and we talk to the other local teachers and work out having one of their schools face one of our teams and enter the competition. They’re happy to do so, and after corralling of schools in different zones we had a semblance of a playing field.
Then the match begins! Olives versus Nyota to start. After a long 0-0 match, Olives prevails in an impressive shootout. Olives then got ready to face the neighbouring school of Victoria – the only one of the three with enough Standard 6 players to form a team. While the schools were playing I spent a lot of my other time making sure the other schools were ok; we did, after all, take over the field they were playing on. A group of young ones fully appreciated being twirled and speaking Kiswahili with mzungu me. Others were content on the space that they had to play, while a few enjoyed watching the game.
Sadly for Victoria, Olives were the reigning victors after one of the most intense shoot outs I will ever see. Shoes were taken off for better control of the ball, the crowd was wild and you could not contain the excitement if you tried. The spectacular cheering from the Olives school was one I will never forget. The chanting, the singing, the dancing, the broken flip flops pierced onto a large stick as a flag, the strips of old fabric being waved, and the victory lap the entire school ran after the win – are all things I will think of when ‘spirit awards’ are handed out. You cannot top the spirit of Olives, that’s for sure.
Because of the Olives victory, they were getting ready to face the teachers team. Which of course, I was on. Although it wasn’t until I was standing in my ‘Right Defense’ position that I realized what I was actually supposed to do – play a game of football. Now, when I volunteered to help out I thought it was a no brainer. You need players? Of course I’ll play! I’m happy to help! But then that actually meant running at the ball and even kicking it. This may seem simple but when you’ve been afraid of football all your life in fears of being kicked in the shins or doing what you did in high school PE (which was miss the ball entirely and land flat on your back) it can be rather daunting. Especially when there are kids much taller, faster, and more experienced in football running at you in high speed on the hazardous coral mined dirt field.
Within five minutes of the game I heard a “Come on Monika, What was that?” from a person whom I called a friend, named Josh! Then later I had students from Nyota shouting at me from the sidelines, “Oh Madam, you look tired, let me play for you!” In which I replied, “You know I don’t look tired, because I have hardly done anything! You’re just trying to nicely say that I need to be replaced!” After yet another charge of students and teachers that both frightened and intimidated me I managed to touch the ball! But, it didn’t help much as it was immediately taken by an Olives student in half a second. I made my way to the sidelines and gave my jersey to one of those nice heckling students.
While standing on the sidelines (shame free as another very fit volunteer who plays football weekly was taking a break as well) I was told that a student whispered to him, “Sir, she looks petrified.” Which sums up my footballer career. I cheered on the teachers as we tied up the game and I made my way around the field to the opposite end. Eventually I got a jersey back and was in the game – this time managing to kick the ball in the direction it needed to go and got in a few pictures that made it look like I knew what I was doing until before I knew it – we scored another goal in over time and won the match! This moment was glorious mostly because I had no idea how it happened as it was a total surprise, but also because we were high fiving teachers of other schools we hadn’t met before and congratulating each other on a job well done; bonding over sport and victory and then posing for a winners photo that will be a memento for all of us for a very long time.
Our walk back home was long, but satisfying. The sun had started to set and we all felt we had done well. We didn’t disappoint our students who had a blast playing football (although sadly there was a controversy over Olives having their older students play making it unfair, which I agreed but what’s sport without it’s controversies?) or those cheering for their schools in a way that had me thinking I was at the World Cup. There were bonds made between the teachers of our schools, of those who were strangers to us just hours before and a deeper bond with our students who were taken out for a day of organized chaos – I mean sport!I have never liked Football, or Soccer in my Canadian terms, mostly because it reminded me of the endless days spent on the sidelines of a field watching my brothers play in the rain and not even benefiting from the perk of half time oranges (I despise the things). But here on this field, as I looked around from the cheering Olives section, the new schools I just met with the young ones coming up to grab my hand for a twirl, and to the two schools I’ve called home playing against each other I couldn’t help but feel wonderful. Then there are the teachers – the ones I’ve known and those I’ve just been acquainted all wanting to give their students an afternoon of football fun. It’s hard not to feel the spirit and community this sport has brought not only these schools, but this country – as you can’t meet more than five Kenyans without them asking if you’re a Chelsea or Arsenal fan. In taking all of this in, I started to change my mind. I can’t deny how spectacular it was to stand on that field as a part of a team of teachers and volunteers going the extra mile for their students. It felt so good to cheer on and watch both schools compete with such pride and determination. Football has a fond place in my heart now, but I must admit, I’m still afraid of getting kicked in the shins.
*Photo Credits: Peter Brunt & Emma Wertnz