Exclusive interview with Veronica Osogo: Tennis champ and gamechanger

By Meredith Walker, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls November 06, 2015

When Veronica Osogo’s friend introduced her to tennis while she was in college, she had no idea that tennis would change her life — as well as the lives of many children in Kenya. After mastering the tennis court in tournaments throughout Africa, she has gone on to create the Zion Zone Tennis Foundation, which was created so that Osogo could share her love of tennis through teaching… but with one important requirement: if you participate in the foundation, youmust attend school as well.

Veronica is a real life Smart Girl, sharing her passion with her community and making the world a much, much better place.  Smart Girls co-founder Meredith Walker (pictured above with Veronica) had a chance to chat with her about her passion for tennis, the Zion Zone Tennis Foundation, and her passion for unity.

Smart Girls: How were you first introduced to tennis?

Veronica Osogo: I didn’t even know that tennis had rules or that it was a sport that people played. I was introduced to it by a friend during my second year at a university in India. At that time, I had never played tennis in my life. I played hockey and soccer, but never tennis.

After he introduced me to tennis, I began watching it on TV. I immediately became attracted to the game when I saw the dress code. I thought the clothes were so unique. I also loved how the players grunted after hitting the ball. I didn’t know why they were doing it, but I found it fun.

I continued playing tennis after university. I played in several tournaments all over Africa, but the best was when I played for my country in the All-Africa Games in Mozambique and the Federation Cup in Egypt.

Learning the game was not easy. It was expensive and this makes most people shy away from playing it. My family members and many people discouraged me from it, saying its a waste of time because they wanted me to get an office job. They didn’t understand the game, but most of all, they didn’t understand my love for the game.


Smart Girls: What was it about tennis that made you feel comfortable in your own skin?

VO: After I realized that I loved the game, I began watching it on TV. The ones that I watched the most were the Williams sisters who were coming up at that time. Watching them helped me a lot. I could feel the challenges they were going through and seeing them encouraged me to feel like I should be more comfortable with my color and prove to the world that tennis is not limited to color or financial status. Anyone can play it.

Smart Girls: Why did you create the Zion Zone Tennis Foundation? What is it and how is it changing the world?

VO: I created Zion Zone Tennis Foundation after visiting 28 children at a daycare center called Bamako Children Project in the Kibera slums in 2006. I was very shocked at the living conditions of the people, especially the children. It was my first time in the slum and I felt that was not right. I began to think of what I could do to make the lives of these kids better.

So, I decided to teach them the thing that I knew and loved best, the game that changed my life. I took a handful of rackets and balls and went into the slum everyday teaching the children tennis. They had never seen or played tennis before. In fact, they called it golf! It was something new to them and they enjoyed it.

As time went on, I started noticing that most of the children were very talented, so I decided to nurture that talent, not just keep them busy.

Most people go to the slum to give food but my desire was to give a long-term solution using the racket. I wanted to be a part of the solution to make the world a better place for children.

Zion started with 28 children and has grown to 500 children from ages 4 and up. The top ranked children playing tennis in the country are from the foundation. They have been chosen to represent Kenya in various tournaments.

Zion has helped not only in tennis, but has helped the kids progress in all areas of life. When I first started the foundation, there was no life, no future for kids in those areas. Most didn’t go to school, and those who did would go some days and not the rest. Their parents felt little hope, so the kids were practically raising themselves. It’s like they were on their own.

So I decided to make one condition: if you came to the foundation, you must go to school. Nine years later, we have our first girl entering the university.

Zion Zone Tennis Foundation, Facebook

Smart Girls: Why did you want to a part of the U.S. Department of State and ESPNw Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP)?

VO: When I read about GSMP everything they had was inline with what I had in the foundation. They were concerned about the underprivileged, disabled and refugees which was what I was already involved in. It was also going to give me a platform to learn and be mentored so that I could serve my people in a better way, and move the foundation forward. I knew I would have the opportunity to meet like-minded, strong influential women. They wanted to change the world and I was also hungering for that.  This program came in at the right time, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

Smart Girls: Tell us about your head dress and the beading on your garments please.

VO: The head gear made of feathers is a traditional wear from my community, the Luhya tribe, used during traditional dance. The dress was from the Kikuyu tribe and the beads are from the Maasai tribe, which is the richest community in culture.

Unfortunately, my country is being pulled apart by tribalism, and to show that I am against it, I decided to wear traditional dress from some of the different tribes to promote unity. I am for unity. I do not mind representing their culture even though I am not there tribes’ person.

I love it because it’s beautiful and I wanted to look beautiful and represent the culture of my African people.

Smart Girls: What is your favorite part about Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls?

VO: Smart Girls allows young women to express themselves in their original self. Us girls have so much to offer, but not every place allows young girls to thrive and follow their passion. Smart girls encourages that and I sincerely appreciate them for it.

Smart Girls: What do you do for fun – to feel playful and carefree?

VO: Funny to say, but I would still play tennis! I love the game. Next is playing with the kids, running around with them just like a small child and forgetting the adult me.

Smart Girls: What is a skill you know and would like to share? 

VO: The skill I like and want to share is serving. When I am in a place, I prefer to help in any way I can.

Smart Girls: What is one of your favorite Kenyan recipes?

VO: I love a traditional Kenyan dish called Chapati (its like thick tortilla) and chicken stew.

Interview conducted by Smart Girls co-founder, Meredith Walker (featured image with Veronica Osogo at the 2015 ESPNw Summit)

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