Many take it for granted that when children everywhere want to play, they at the very least usually have the space to do so. Balls and shoes and other accessories to play might be harder to come by because they have to be bought, but once they are available, there must be somewhere for the little ones to take them to.
But for many children growing up in Mukuru, an informal settlement in the Eastlands area of Nairobi, getting enough space to play even a decent game of football is often a more engrossing endeavour than the game itself. The settlement is the largest of its kind in Nairobi, and is home to, according to some estimates, over half a million people.
With iron-sheet-walled houses crammed next to one another and every non-built-up space occupied by someone selling something, a mound of trash or other paraphernalia, the neighbourhood does not easily lend itself to the nurturance of talent in any game that needs an uninterrupted field. The only open space is next to the railway that runs through the settlement, but this area is fraught with danger.
For the many kids keen on indulging their desire to play the game (or any other game, for that matter), this situation has historically meant an acquiescence to the poor conditions of the place or long treks to neighbouring estates, where they do not always get the chance to play. Moreover, the strain this means for these other estates has not always been welcome.
Enter Eastlands College of Technology. Launched in 2015, the vocational training institution rests on a relatively large piece of land just across the road from Mukuru, in an area that was once considered barren. Though not yet fully developed, it has two football fields, a rugby field and space for other sports. It also numbers avid sportsmen among its members of staff and students.
More than that though, a club for young boys has been set up at the college. Equipped with several balls and some child-sized second-hand boots, all donated by friends of the college, it provides a decent getaway for some of the children of Mukuru. Here, nine- to thirteen-year-old boys play for hours on end on weekends.
It is not an uncommon sight to see the boys skipping across the field on weekends, dribbling balls around obstacles or playing matches against one another in ad-hoc teams. Every now and then, one of them darts from the field to quench his thirst at the water-points around and inside the college’s workshop building, rushing to re-join the game.
Typically, they only leave when they have no choice, when darkness dictates that the college must be closed. Over the holidays, they go to the college even during the week. Some of the students of the college tutor them in primary school subjects in the morning, then they spend the rest of the day playing football.
Every now and then, they camp over at the college, sleeping six or seven to a tent in a lot next to the workshop building. They cook their meals on open fires under the stars and do the dishes with a hearty song. A movie is often on the books as well. In the morning, they trek to one of Nairobi’s landmarks, like the airport several kilometres away.
According Ralph Wechuli, a teacher at the college and the head of the club, the club has had a profound impact on the boys. They love it there so much that whenever the club organises events for their parents, like parenting seminars during the holidays, nearly all the parents show up, pressured by their sons. The hundred-shilling monthly token fee the club charges, no easy reach for the parents, is also more often paid on time than delayed.
No stretch of the imagination is needed to see that the lives of the little boys who have found a second home in the college have changed in a tangible and easily quantifiable way. After all, the only obstruction to the balls they kick now are their opponents, not mounds of garbage, a wall or a chugging train.
But it is the unquantifiable improvements that are perhaps more important. Having a regimen and a community of friends to do things with teaches them much more. It is giving them an appreciation for the virtues of friendship and hard work. Slowly, as they kick balls around the grassy fields of Eastlands College of Technology, one can see the future of Mukuru brightening up.
What a difference a field can make.