Slumdogs dream big league

Henry Eshiboko considers himself privileged. The 20-year-old lives with his wife and child in a single, windowless, 9m2 room. The tin roof and walls are held up by wooden beams and there are no leaks when it rains. There is a power socket and, a little way down the alley, a shared water tap.

“This is all thanks to football!” said the local club left-winger and resident of Kibera, a huge slum in the heart of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

“With the 300 shillings [R40] I get for training four times a week, I can feed my family and pay a part of the rent,” he said.

Win bonuses are worth 10 times more. “With the match bonus, we can buy clothes, kitchen stuff and a few extra things. Right now, my wife is at the hairdresser,” he said, his face lighting up as it does whenever he speaks of football or family.

In Kibera, a labyrinth of uneven paths crisscrossed by rivers of sewage, Eshiboko’s life is akin to luxury: 80% of the population does not have access to electricity, and many survive on less than a dollar a day.

Three back-to-back low league titles made the Black Stars — Eshiboko’s team, not the Ghanaian national side of the same name — into ghetto superstars and this year they play in Kenya’s national second division for the first time.

“Some of our matches are even on television,” Eshiboko said.

Before their rapid rise, the team languished in lower divisions for years but the club was restructured and began to pay bonuses, said coach Godfrey Otieno, a former professional player who opted to remain in his native Kibera “to be able to give back to young people”.

“Before, it was common to have only six or seven players for training,” the 42-year-old said, pointing out that asking for four mornings a week as well as weekends without financial compensation was difficult. “Now, everyone is here, and on time,” Otieno said.

For the players, football is a way to defy destiny. “It’s not because we come from Kibera that we can’t do anything, or that we cannot have ambitions,” Eshiboko said.

“When people talk about Kibera, they generally talk about crime, drugs, poverty. We have our issues, we’re not denying this, but, with football, we prove that Kibera is more than that.”

For its fans, the team is a source of pride. “We love the spirit of this team, it is people who come from Kibera who play and represent us,” said Bildad Ilondounga, an ardent Black Stars supporter.

“When we look at the field, we see our neighbours playing, and when the players look at the edge of the field, they see their neighbours.”

Adding to the club’s local popularity is the players’ willingness to donate food and clothes to families in need when they are able to, and part of the club’s meagre budget goes to fund a slum kids’ team and buy them an after-training meal.

There are occasional perks for the players, too.

“There are times when I take the bus I don’t have to pay the fare because people say, ‘He is a Black Star!’,” Eddy Odhiambo, a 21-year-old striker, said, laughing.

But success brings its own challenges. Operating in the national second division the club now has to pay for long cross-country trips to away matches as well as renting a decent-quality home pitch.

For years, the club has been almost exclusively financed by a French teacher living in Nairobi, but even with new sponsors there is not enough to cover this season’s budget, estimated at R1-million.

“The level is going up, and we would like to give contracts to players, like other National Super League teams do, but it’s not possible,” said Otieno.

Under these difficult conditions, adapting to the second division has been tough and, despite their improvements, the Black Stars have lost four of five matches so far this season.

“That means less money. It is hard,” said Eshiboko.

They are also struggling without their hard-core group of about 4 000 fans who would gather when they played in the heart of Kibera. The new pitch is a R26 bus ride away — out of reach for most of Kibera’s football-loving residents.

Like small-time players everywhere, the teammates dream of the European leagues. Eshiboko is learning French and has his eye on Ligue  1 team Monaco, whereas Odhiambo is less picky: he would settle for “any club, in France, or in England”.

Their coach shares this seemingly impossible dream. “If one or two players in the team can go to Europe to play football, we have achieved our goal,” Otieno said. — AFP

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Nicolas Delaunay
Nicolas Delaunay
AFP journalist covering East Africa, based in Nairobi.

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