Pioneering soccer referee helps Kenyan girls find a way

By Sara Brady, espnW September 12, 2014

The first time Maqulate Onyango left her hometown — Mathare, a sprawling slum only a few square miles in area that houses more than half a million people in Nairobi, Kenya — she was 16 years old and had learned to read just three years earlier. She played soccer, and was sent as a delegate of the sports association that organizes leagues for the children of the slum to present at a conference on women’s participation in sports in Zambia. She was awed by the opportunities to play that women had there.

“I was very young, and I was so scared,” the 32-year-old says. “I had not had a platform before where I could talk to so many people. I gained confidence because I was saying something I had experienced — that sport is a language everybody can understand. It is a language that has no barriers, a language that does not know race or gender.”

Sport, in fact, is what pulled Onyango out of her life in Mathare — where poverty, hunger and AIDS are epidemic and many young people turn to drugs, alcohol or prostitution in the absence of better options. She turned to soccer, and it set her on a path to literacy, employment and a position as a respected mentor for other girls. Now Onyango wants to help the girls she works with use sports as a lever to a better life, and she’s starting at the top.

But first, the bottom. Onyango’s first glimpse of a life better than staying home and helping care for her six younger brothers came when she was 8 years old. When she could get away from her duties at home, she began spending her free time playing defense on a soccer team organized by the Mathare Youth Sports Association. “I started earning points by doing voluntary cleanup activities and participating in a team,” Onyango says. “In return, MYSA gave me a scholarship of 10,000 shillings [now about $112 U.S.] that was paid directly to the school.”

With her fees, uniforms and books paid for by MYSA, Onyango began attending school at age 13. She’d grown up speaking only Luo, the native tongue of the ethnic group she belongs to, and had picked up some Swahili — which, along with English, is the official language of Kenya — from the other kids while playing soccer, but now she began learning to speak English and to read and write.

Even at 13, Onyango had a keen sense of unfairness, especially when it came to the soccer field. “When I started playing, we had very few girls’ teams,” she says — in the early 1990s MYSA had more than 200 boys’ soccer teams but just a handful of teams for the girls. “I noticed that all the people officiating the girls’ matches were only older men. They were so unfair. They would undermine the girls; they would treat us like we were not supposed to be playing football.”

So Onyango, still a teenager, gathered some of her friends and began learning how to be a referee. “We continued playing with our team,” she says, “but when our team didn’t have a match, we officiated other teams’ matches.”

Within four years, Onyango graduated from secondary school and took a job with MYSA. Her parents, with whom Onyango lived until last year, were initially suspicious that she was earning a living. “When I got my first salary, I did not take it home with me because I was afraid I would be beaten,” she says. “So my first salary was handed over to my mother just for her to confirm that I was really working for the youth and not getting the money from boyfriends or any illegal dealings. After she confirmed that I was working for the youth program, she became very OK with it and became very supportive.”

Over the years Onyango continued refereeing, coached MYSA teams, trained other women to be referees and became a match commissioner — the official who serves as the governing body’s representative, inspecting the field, verifying the players’ identities, and basically making sure both teams and the host follow the official rules for a sanctioned match. David Thiru, the executive director of MYSA and himself a Mathare native, says, “Maqulate’s work as a match commissioner means a lot to MYSA. One of our key objectives is to develop role models and leaders for the upcoming youth in Mathare, and her work is such an example.”

Now 32, Onyango is the director of MYSA’s youth programs, as well as a match commissioner in the Kenyan Premier League. In 2010 she was the first Kenyan woman to serve as match commissioner for the Confederation of African Football, in a Cup of Nations qualifier between the women’s teams from Ethiopia and Ghana. The tournament was an eye-opening experience for Onyango, not least because Kenya’s women’s national team has suffered from lack of support by the national federation (which itself has been plagued by scandal and corruption — FIFA banned Kenya from international play in 2004 and 2006).

“In Ethiopia they have a national team for women that they treat more or less equal, like the men’s team,” she says. “Those girls who were playing on that national team were being paid, they were professionals. And they didn’t look at us like girls, they looked at us as officers who were being mandated to supervise the match.”

The girls Onyango works with at MYSA still have little future in soccer to look forward to — Kenya has no professional league for women, and the national team, the Harambee Starlets, was hamstrung for a March qualifier for the African Women’s Championship (which also serves as the qualification tournament for next year’s World Cup in Canada) when seven players couldn’t leave the country because they lacked passports. The Kenyans lost to Rwanda and were eliminated.

“My girls don’t have a structured national team,” Onyango says. “They ask me now, what do we have to look up to? Nothing. And it comes down to the national federation. The people who are working at the national federation are the people who have the money to get there. But they don’t have the skills to mobilize and bring the girls into that structure. So they keep on recycling leaders who have never done anything for the girls, but because they have money they stay there.”

Still, she’s hopeful that soccer can do for other girls what it did for her — pull them out of the hopelessness that is often a hallmark of life in Mathare. She looks to the successful women’s soccer teams in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zambia as role models for what the Harambee Starlets can be one day, and she’s hoping her participation in the Global Sports Mentoring Program can help further her work with MYSA, and spur greater investment in women’s sports in Kenya.

“Sport, for the girls I work with, is hope,” she says. “They believe that through participation in sports, they can change their future.”

Milton Nyakundi, a Nairobi-based journalist who nominated Onyango for the exchange program, says he did so because he admired her skills on the field and “because I know her passion for sports, which is something we share.”

“I also believe that the program will further sharpen not just her managerial skills but help to include the American model of sports management to enrich her experience,” he says.

Onyango wants to help as many girls as she can to transcend their origins, as she did.

“Sports, it’s my life,” she says. “Without sports I could not have gone to school. Without sports I would not be in a position to encourage girls to stand up for their own dreams and rights. I want to continue mobilizing as many women as possible, because if you’re alone, you cannot make it, but if we are so many, then people can hear you.

“If women cannot speak for other women, who will?”

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