Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand. –Nelson Mandela, 25 May 2000
Oyugis is a town of about 10,000 in a rural part of western Kenya. The vast majority (72%) live in poverty. Only 5.6% of the households have piped water; 3.3% have electricity. HIV/AIDS is rampant: 25.7% of the county (Homa Bay) population is infected (the highest rate in Kenya) and 61,000 households include an orphan. This has a profound impact on the community – 48% of the population is under 15.
The conditions are especially difficult for women and girls. 12% of girls have a live birth before age 15. Most primary schools (K-8) in the region do not have toilets, so when girls reach puberty, most stop attending school. Sanitary products are not available. As the statistics indicate, many of these girls end up pregnant and with HIV/AIDS. What might one hope to do in such circumstances? How is change even conceivable? Soccer.
I met Festus Juma in 2010. He deeply understands the power of sport for community development. Having family in the Oyugis region, he also understands the power of soccer to motivate local youth. Festus directs the Society Empowerment Project (SEP), based in Oyugis, which leverages soccer/football to teach life skills in areas such as HIV/AIDS prevention; health and sanitation; agriculture & nutrition; reproductive health; peace building; and substance abuse. Girls, in particular, gain opportunities to become fit and strong, to build friendships, and have contact with adult role models. The program also prepares them for youth leadership through training in coaching, refereeing and tournament management.
A current goal of the SEP is to register a girls team in the Kenya Premier League. Doing so will enhance their status in the region. Stronger and better educated girls and women will reduce domestic violence, improve reproductive health and well-being, and decrease HIV/AIDS infections. This is a proven strategy for community development and it changes lives.
Together with my son Isaac, I have been working with the SEP since 2011. Isaac played soccer through high school. Seeing a photo of children in Oyugis playing soccer barefoot on dirt patches, he was shocked by the comparison with his teammates who had several pairs of cleats and fancy uniforms. We began to collect used cleats, uniforms, and other equipment to send to Kenya. (The team featured on the SEP facebook page is wearing Boston Blast jerseys!) It is not cheap to send equipment to Kenya. It is not easy to build a sustainable program that empowers girls in a region where not even food and water is easily available. But sport motivates and strengthens those who participate. And it awakens hope.
You can reach Festus at: firstname.lastname@example.org and he can provide information about how you can send used (or new!) equipment to the SEP, and about other ways to help. Donations can be made on the SEP website.
Sally Haslanger is Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s & Gender Studies at MIT. She works on feminist and critical race theory. She is an adoptive mother, a social activist, and recently was client of the month at her gym!