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Former Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly once famously said “Football’s not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that”. An organisation in Kenya are using football as a matter of life and death, and vitally, keeping young children alive. 

Keeping spirits, and the ball, up. Photo: Andrew McConnell

 The Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) was founded in 1987, and started off as a small self help project. Before the MYSA was started, Nairobi (the capital of Kenya), was a dangerous place for young people to live. With high rates of prostitution, fighting and the world of illegal drugs, a change was needed to help keep children in a safe place. 

A League of Their Own

MYSA combined creating a football league for 12 year olds with teaching about personal and environmental issues, and by doing so, has vastly improved young people’s lives. Within a year of the league being created, 120 teams had entered. Now, over 25,000 children have benefited. 

Children sporting the MYSA shirt. Photo: Andrew McConnell

 MYSA’s aims were to help young people develop personally and physically, primarily by using sport. It’s one of sports oldest clichés, but football is a universal language, and leaders use the world of football to teach life lessons, by using metaphors on how to look after themselves, from diseases such as HIV and cholera. 

 Other key parts of MYSA’s work were to promote responsibility in environmental issues. A scholar award system has been created, and along with keeping young people in school, scholars will do over 60 hours of community work a month, making the world they live in a much cleaner and healthier place. 

Students Become Teachers

The key to MYSA’s success is that it is run by young people elected by local communities, who are usually 16 year olds who have come through the system themselves. Whilst children are playing football regularly, they are also being taught how to coach and referee, so that they can pass their skills on to others. Part of this is knowing about fitness, training, diet and performance, but there are also key life skills, such as leadership, organisation. Personal health is also covered, such as adolescent changes, which before they would have to cope with on their own. 

There have been some real success stories from MYSA’s work. Mathare United, the local team, have won the national cup twice, known as the Kenyan Cup. And one of the products of the system, Dennis Oliech, has moved from Mathare to French Ligue 1 club, Auxerre. Oliech has also scored 22 goals in 37 appearances for his country. 

Mathare United: Kenya Cup winners 1998 and 2000

 Football, however, is not the only activity children enjoy from their work with MYSA. Photography, drama, music and dance are all taught, yet children enjoy something unexpected the most: cleaning up the slums, and “stopping the spread of cholera”, so that they can be healthy. 

Raising the Profile

MYSA are not the only organisation who are helping Kenya’s youth. Sport Relief is an event that takes place in the UK every two years, and raises money for vulnerable people in the UK, as well as some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Kenya. The key theme for Sport Relief is for people to be sponsored for attempting sporting challenges, and since it started in 2002, Sport Relief has raised over £68 million. Celebrities getting involved have raised the profile of the event, and there have been some truly incredible feats, such as Eddie Izzard completing 43 marathons (over 1,160 miles) in just 51 days

Eddie Izzard received a special award for his hard work at the BBC Sports Personality Awards 2009, and Eddie Izzard: Marathon Man, a series tracking Eddie’s progress around the country, is currently available on BBC iPlayer, until Thursday evening. 

Eddie Izzard during his 43 marathons in 51 days challenge. Photo: PA

 Sport Relief is this Friday on BBC One, and promises to be a spectacular event, and one that can transform the lives of the poor, all over the world.


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