TIMOTHY OLOBULU /AIPS in NAIROBI: She would have been straining her back with a kid on her back, probably four or five more crying behind her while she ploughs through some dry land were it not for her decision to kick some ball.
Instead, 29-year old Lydia Kasiwa is going through a myriad of files on her desk at the MTG-Kilifi offices, scribbling out notes to help other girls around Kilifi follow the same route she followed.
Until she joined ‘Moving The Goalposts’ (MTG), an NGO in Kilifi using football to empower the girl child in the poverty stricken Coastal town, Kasiwa who is an orphan had lost hope of ever growing in life and the next thing on her mind was getting married to escape from the waves of her own problems.
Her smile and demeanour hugely hides the struggles she has had to face before MTG made her life worth living.
“I struggled to finish high school because of lack of fees. My parents separated when I was a kid then dad died when I was still in lower primary. After finishing Primary School, I started selling farm products in order to take myself to high school but that was never enough. I struggled to survive and had to heavily rely on my school mates to help me with basic commodities like lotion and soap. It was tough completing school. After I was done, graduating with a C despite all the circumstances, I knew my life in education would be over,” Kasiwa narrates.
“The next thing on my mind was getting married. To many girls, that is the easiest way of escaping all these problems because then, a man would be charged with taking care of you. But I thought this wasn’t where I wanted to go next. I had heard of MTG during my days at St John’s Kaloleni Secondary School, but for me, I had never kicked a ball before; I didn’t know how to play football. However, I just decided to travel from Mombasa to Kilifi and give it a try. Luckily for me, they accepted me in and I started training in football while also receiving education about life and everything,” she adds.
Kasiwa went on to graduate from just a simple girl kicking the ball round the MTG field and is now the head of the health coordination team at MTG.
It is the story told not by one, two, three or four girls around Kilifi, but tens of thousands whose lives have been changed since MTG began its journey close to 14 years ago. Sarah Forde, a former BBC Sports Journalist started the organisation in 2002 when she visited Kilifi and realized that the girl child had been neglected and hugely mostly boys used to do sports.
Early marriages, early pregnancy, school drop outs and largely disregard of their existence were the problems Forde realized Kilifi girls face. She also noticed, the sport she loved, football, was hugely played by the male folk while the girls, just heard of it but were never quite a part of it, actively.
“I came and found out that many girls were not going to school due to early marriages and pregnancy. It was a concern that I had and I thought to myself, what can I do to help the situation? I sat with a group and we came up with an idea that if we could get girls playing football, we can bring them together and teach them about life skills and values and though this we can help avert all those problems they are facing. That is how MTG started,” Forde told People Sport in an interview in Kilifi.
“We started in a very small way and I used to coach football in four primary schools going round on my bicycle. We had to look for funding and we could only get Sh300,000 for a start. It was hard getting funding for something that had not started and that is why I decided to leave my job at the BBC, come back and settle here to devout my time for this,” Forde who is now the chairperson of the organisation’s board says.
The single step of the journey of a thousand miles started with 200 girls and by now they have already engaged with over 5,500 girls around Kilifi and sure the success has been visible.
Rachel Muthoga, the MTG Chief Executive Officer says it has not been an easy task convincing communities to release the girls to play football or even engage in talks about sexual education which is basically the organisation’s main goal.
“They say a woman’s place in the society is in the kitchen. Sadly despite this myth hugely fading away, it is not the case in Kilifi where the society is still strangled in old traditions. Women and girls are like a work horse; they fetch firewood, go to the river to fetch water, cook, clean the house… everything. Convincing a parent to let go of such a girl to play football sounded ridiculous to them and it was very difficult getting most of them to our programs. Sometimes, we have had some even being recalled,” Muthoga says.
How did MTG manage to carry out their activities and why football?
“Sport is a big unifying factor and one sport that easily brings people together is football. Sarah (Forde) was a sports journalist with the BBC and definitely had a huge passion for football. We thought if we could get these girls playing football, then we can have their attention and talk to them about all these ills that were hampering their growth as girls,” Muthoga says.
“We have an under10, 13 and open age teams and how we do it is we find specific fields around different locations in Kilifi which the girls use as their training grounds. It is very difficult bringing all of them to our headquarters here and we try use school fields in local areas easily accessible to all of them.”
“We have a leadership scheme where the girls elect their own coach, captain and vice captain. This we do to teach the girls democracy and leadership skills at an early age. In our African communities, girls and women do not have a voice and they don’t find a place in leadership. Doing this will change this notion slowly and we have found that when these girls go back home, they become better decision makers and slowly, they are getting a voice in their homesteads,” Muthoga explains.
“The responsibility of training the elected leaders now falls with us and we have programs twice a year where we have leadership training camps at our headquarters and from here the girls go and implement them in their areas. This is on top of the monthly training we do to our trainers,” she adds.
“We have field co-ordinators in all our centres who monitor what is going on and ensure everything runs in place,” Muthoga continues.
Through its departments, MTG has managed to educate the girls on their rights, saying no to early marriages and sex education to prevent early pregnancies.
“Whenever they train at their local football pitches, the girls are always given various lectures including use of contraceptives and the need to take education seriously. We have also developed football talent in the region and there are a couple of girls who have been called to some premier league teams from MTG. We also participated in the league sometimes back but we pulled out due to a bit of disorganization as well as difficulty in getting funding,” Muthoga explains.
MTG organizes several football tournaments throughout the year, a secondary school tournament in March, primary school tournament in May, a girls with special needs tournament in September and the MTG champions League which is a culmination of all the events at the end of the year.
Apart from football and health education, MTG has also been involved in economically empowering the girls by giving them skills to make them financially stable, goal setting, preparation for the job market, CV writing and interview skills as well as empowering those with business minds with skills that can help them start off.
Have they had success in achieving their targets?
As the CEO Muthoga narrates, it has been a successful journey definitely not withstanding the challenges they have faced in their quest to use football to deliver the girl child from the fangs of tradition. Muthoga says they have seen the local girls whom they started off with having their lives improve, some already running their own enterprises. Also, MTG developed a policy of employing graduates from their programs in their secretariat and this has also been a success box ticked 14 years on.
“Slowly, the community has accepted what we do and with that the girls are now more empowered. We have more girls going to school through the intervention of MTG, early marriage as well as early pregnancy rates have greatly reduced and we are slowly raising a girl child aware of her rights and empowered for future leadership,” Muthoga says.
Kasiwa, a product of the program says;
“I have seen a lot of lives changed through MTG who have made a very big impact in the community. The girls are not the way they were ten years back they behave differently. There were very many cases in Kilifi of girls having sex with Bodaboda (motorcycle) guys to get money to buy sanitary towels because of harsh economic conditions. Now the same has dropped to a bare minimum,”
Forde who started the organization can now sit back and smile as she sees her brainchild grow in leaps and bounds;
“There is so much progress and I am proud of it. More girls are playing football, there is a huge reduction in early pregnancies and early marriages and we now have a more empowered girl child,” she notes.
“At first I used to be very shy. I felt stigmatized when I first got pregnant at an early age and I was not willing to discuss it with anyone. MTG helped me to believe that I could make it. I joined as a player and was trained as a coach, peer educator, field leader and youth peer provider. The trainings have changed my life,” Zawadi Katana, one of the thousands of beneficiaries attests.
What are the future plans for MTG?
“We are currently drafting a new strategic plan because our current one ends at the end of this year. We are brainstorming and see how we can grow because growth is a must. Among the areas we are looking at is expanding to other towns not only in the Coastal region but the whole country as well,” Muthoga notes.