Photos: Anne Ackermann
Text: Kirsten Milhahn
For generations, women in Kenya have been treated as second-class citizens. The Laureus project “Moving the Goalposts” wants to change this. However, general manager Rachel Muthoga does not think it is enough to turn the disadvantaged girls of today into the self-assured women of tomorrow. She also wants to change the mindset of the opposite sex.
The equatorial sun is burning down on the dusty football pitch on this hot afternoon. Around one hundred girls and young women are sitting at the edge of the pitch in the shade of gnarled mango trees. Voices and laughter can be heard on the pitch, where the first players in a friendly match between two teams of girls are warming up prior to the game. Some are wearing tracksuits, but most of them will play in skirts, some even wearing a head-cloth and a long kanga – the traditional African robe wound around their slim hips. This is far from comfortable, but tradition and the perceived role of women do not allow more in this coastal region of Kenya. There are a number of boys sitting a little way away by the edge of the pitch, watching the girls and repeatedly making loud comments about their skills.
A woman wearing a white polo shirt and black slacks is standing in the middle of the crowd. She is wearing exceptionally large earrings and make-up. A pair of sunglasses is perched on her cropped hair. With arms folded, she watches the girls on the pitch as they warm up. Now and again a smile crosses her face. Then she gives some of the young women under the mango trees a hand signal. Time to start.
Rachel Muthoga has managed the sports project “Moving the Goalposts” in Kilifi and Kwale on the Kenyan coast for almost three years. At the age of 35 she moved from the capital Nairobi to this coastal province to turn girls into self-assured women in one of the country’s poorest regions: women who will insist on free speech, take on responsibilities and perhaps even rise to leading positions one day. Football is a means to this end.
Last year, for her commitment to “Moving the Goalposts”, Rachel Muthoga was voted Kenya’s “Top 40 Under 40 Women” from almost 400 candidates by “Business Daily”, one of the country’s major newspapers. The award goes to women who achieve outstanding things for society. The project she manages is just as unusual as Muthoga. To understand the idea behind “Moving the Goalposts”, one needs to look more closely at the traditions and contradictions in the region, Muthoga explains. Whereas a new middle class of well-educated young people with lucrative jobs is growing in many large African cities like Nairobi, the rural regions are left behind, and especially on the coast. Many people here are so poor that they have neither money nor property.
“I know no other district in the whole of Kenya where the contrast between rich and poor is as pronounced as in Kilifi,” says Rachel Muthoga. “It is literally only the coast road that separates the multi-million dollar villas of foreign investors and the luxury hotels for tourists from the mud huts of the general population.” Along the coast road, women and girls carry bundles of firewood weighing up to 50 kilograms to their homes. Their place is in the home and at the hearth. They have children and look after their husbands. “At public meetings the women sit on the floor while their husbands sit on chairs,” Muthoga explains. Women have scarcely any rights, and very few receive any education. While families invest in sons, daughters are often left out. In fact, many are married off as teenagers, and have their first child at the age of 15 or 16.
“Moving the Goalposts” is pounding on the walls of this seemingly impregnable edifice. “We want girls to learn that they have the same rights and opportunities in daily lives that are dominated by men,” is how Muthoga describes the objective. So how do you teach the men this? “By breaking into their world. And preferably where they feel it most.” In Kenya this means with football. Kenyans love English clubs like Manchester United or Arsenal. Bayern Munich also has a good following. “Football for girls was the last thing that people in Kilifi could imagine,” Rachel Muthoga remembers. “In the villages they first became angry, then they talked about us, and finally they started to take part. We would have failed with netball or volleyball. But with football we encroached on the world of men.” Football is symbolic of the patriarchy in this society, and the football pitch is its bastion. “A few years ago, no woman would dare to come to a village football match of her own accord. Nowadays they are on the pitch themselves.”
More than 5,000 girls in hundreds of teams actively play football in the region around Kilifi and Kwale. The project is co-financed by the Laureus Foundation, which supports children and adolescents through sport in over 40 countries of the world. Yet “Moving the Goalposts” is not just about kicking a ball. There are training and educational programmes teaching girls how to organise themselves. Former players have meanwhile become coaches who teach the younger girls. Moreover, the programme before every match is not just a warm-up. The coaches organise the girls into small play groups, though with a serious purpose. While at play, the aim is for them to learn things that nobody else will teach them: for example, what will happen to their bodies when they grow up, how to avoid becoming pregnant, and also what it means to be a member of a team, or speak in public.
“We have women in the project who had previously never spoken in front of others. Now they manage entire teams,” says Rachel Muthoga. One of these women is Purity Kiponda. She heard about “Moving the Goalposts” from school friends. “I really just wanted to play football,” says the 22 year-old. “I never imagined that it would bring me this far.” She has played actively for six years, now studies art education at the University of Kilifi and coaches the younger girls in her spare time.
When asked what the boys in Kilifi think of having to share their football pitch with girls, and whether young men in this part of Kenya will ever accept women as equal partners, Rachel Muthoga answers: “Whether in skirts or gym shorts – they play. And this is nothing short of a wonder in itself.” Then she points at the groups of girls in the shade of the old mango trees, the last of whom are now starting their warm-up programme for the friendly match. The boys lounging on the edge of the pitch have now joined them: some of the girls have brought their younger brothers. While the coaches line up their teams, a team of men is warming up at the far end of the field. Rachel Muthoga laughs: “A pretty good start, don’t you think?”