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Soccer-Playing Youths Clean Up

Nairobi program combines sports and community service to help low-income children

GEOFFREY KAIRU might be living on the streets of Nairobi, like several thousand other teenage and younger boys here from the slums, except for his mother's love, and soccer. And garbage.

Geoffrey is one of more than 5,000 boys from local slums who play on soccer teams organized by the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA). Some 300 girls also play - soccer or netball (a basketball variation). Part of the deal for being on a team is that players agree to help clean up the slums where they live.

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It's the largest sports program of its kind in Africa, according to the United Nations Environmental Program, which gave the organization a Global 500 award earlier this year for the slum cleanups. Mathare is a long valley in Nairobi, full of mostly one-room shacks of scrap wood and tin, with a few solid cement-block homes mixed in. Most homes have no plumbing, no electricity, no heat.

"I've been all over the world, and the people of Mathare are the poorest of the poorest you'd find anywhere," says Canadian Bob Munro, who helped start MYSA in 1987 with Kenyan Calvin Mbuga to give youths something fun and positive to do. Each weekend, dozens of the 300 teams - with names like Black Power, Ghetto Spiritual, and Hotspurs - play disciplined, well-practiced soccer, while other teams plunge into the cleanups.

On the Saturday of this reporter's visit, a group of boys - some pushing wheelbarrows, some riding in them - were laughing, showing off for a photographer, and generally enjoying themselves.

With no regular city trash pickups in the mostly-streetless slum, the youths make only a dent. Every little dent helps, though, and residents appreciate the teams' efforts. Shoveling garbage and unclogging sewage ditches is dirty work.

The boys showed pride in their yellow MYSA T-shirts and in having a job to do. Each team does at least one cleanup every six months, earning points in their soccer league.

One aim behind MYSA is to help keep kids from leaving home for a life on the streets. Some youths leave home for adventure. More commonly they are kicked out by stepfathers who don't want them, or sent to beg for the family. They eat out of trash cans, sniff glue, and sleep where they can.

"I stay home instead of running away because I go to school, and my mother treats me very well," says Geoffrey. And, he says, "I just like to enjoy playing soccer." His team is the Red Beavers. His brother, David, 11, plays on the Red Beaver Mini team.

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"I encouraged them to join MYSA because I saw they love football very much," says their mother, Jacinta Wambui. Like many single mothers in Mathare unable to find employment, she makes a meager living brewing and selling illicit beer.

The best MYSA senior teams have done well at international meets in Norway and at June's Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro. Enroute to Rio, at a stopover in Johannesburg, the boys stayed up most the night watching TV and taking endless hot showers - luxuries few of them ever had enjoyed.

MYSA builds confidence among the youths, making them realize they can "do something," says Kenyan Samuel Karanja, a volunteer team manager and member of the MYSA Executive Council.

And, says Munro, MYSA gives kids "a chance to give, as coaches, referees, as organizers. They are kids who are just poor, but they are bright."

* Mathare Youth Sports Association, P.O. Box 69038, Nairobi, Kenya.

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