A youth club is paving the way for peaceful elections in Kenya through the beautiful game.
By Zeddy Kosgei
At 5 P.M., young men start to arrive at the grounds of a local primary school in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. They’re ready to play soccer. The ground is arid, dusty and doesn’t have the proper markings of an official field. That doesn’t matter. In a few minutes, the referee will blow the whistle, and pounding bare feet will vibrate the ground, billowing dust into the skies.
But before the teams face off on the field, team captains Stanley Cheruiyot and Alfred Salau want to make one thing clear: this is no ordinary soccer match.
“It’s important to know about the hostile relationship between our people, in order to understand the significance of this football [soccer] game and why it’s a friendly one,” says Cheruiyot.
Cheruiyot and Salau come from two rival communities—the Kipsigis and Maasai—who both live in the rural region of the Maasai Mara. While they enjoy a peaceful and harmonious coexistence, in the past, the two communities fought over natural resources and political allegiances. And now, it’s election season in Kenya.
In the lead-up to previous elections, politicians used the youth to bolster ethnic divisions and exploit tensions between communities. Memories of the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya are vivid. Then, these youth witnessed senseless violence as a result of tribal clashes. They do not want a repeat of this.
Each team is made up of members from the self-help youth groups from the villages of Irkaat and Esinoni. The groups, formed with the support of WE, help young people find solutions to unemployment, learn about saving, become self-reliant and improve their standards of living. It was after a training on conflict resolution that the groups decided to hold the soccer matches.
As Salau explains, “the spirit of the game makes it very easy for people to overcome ethnic, cultural, economic and even religious differences.”
The groups have been playing football every week for almost a year now. Their weekly matches are like any other: competitive, aggressive and exciting. On the field these young men are rivals, working hard to get the upper hand. But it is what happens after the match that sets these games apart.
When the final whistle is blown, the teams sit together to talk about peace building and development in their communities. Lately, their talks have centered on the election.
The players discuss their roles in promoting a peaceful election before and after the polls. They discuss why resorting to violence is not an option, and encourage each other to take a lead for peace in their communities.
“Our friends and families have been affected directly and indirectly by conflicts between our communities. So we sat down and thought of a way to promote peace, tolerance and respect regardless of tribal differences,” says Salau. While soccer has been the unifying tool, Salau is also quick to point out that “it also happens to be a lot of fun!” (His team won the game having scored one goal against Irkaat. “They got lucky,” Cheruiyot jokes.)
The groups say they will continue to play long after the election season is over, according to Cheruiyot. “We had been playing before the elections started and no matter the outcome, we will continue to play.”
Their initiative has inspired other youth groups from different communities to form soccer teams of their own. The two groups are now part of a local league and participate in matches every few weeks. Those games, much like the one they just participated in, draw a large crowd of spectators from different communities in the area. Salau feels empowered, “we bring people together, and we are very proud of that.”