A training session is mid-way when we arrive at the Aga Khan High School grounds in Mombasa for this interview.
Mariam Mpaata is standing in for one of the coaches of her soccer team, Junior Stars. She kicks a stray ball and when she stops the practice game to make some points to her players she oozes expertise and possessiveness. It hasn’t always been like this.
“Seven years ago I had zero interest in soccer. In fact, I could barely tell the difference between a midfielder and the goal keeper,” she begins.
In fact, seven years ago Mariam was a housewife having just relocated to Kenya with her family from her home country, Uganda, after her husband landed a good job with an international firm.
She had a degree in development studies from Makerere University, Uganda, but her focus at the time was on settling in her young family.
Like most seven-year-olds, her eldest son, Imran, loved the outdoors and his choice of toy was a ball.
Within no time, Mariam was paying for neighbours’ windows which her son had broken when kicking his ball around. She decided to look for another place for her son to expend his energy without leaving a trail of broken glass.
“He had a lot of energy and I couldn’t contain him in the house. At first it was just about getting him out of the house to a place where he could play freely,” she recalls.
She had seen many soccer centres back home but she couldn’t find any in Mombasa even after weeks of searching.
Her son’s passion for the game kept growing and she knew she had to find a way for him. She toyed with the idea of creating a football programme for him for weeks and even floated the idea to a few friends but with minimal knowledge on the sport, she needed guidance.
For this, she approached a few friends who were coaches. When the family came back to Mombasa in January 2008 after spending their Christmas break in Uganda, the insecurity, anxiety and fear that hung in the air following the post-election skirmishes strengthened her resolve to set up the football team, this time not only as an avenue to get her son out of the house but as a way to ease the tension and also get other children out of their houses.
She got to work soon after looking for a football field and hiring a coach to work with. Luckily, her husband understood where she was coming from and financed the programme.
“It wasn’t easy rounding up the first set of youngsters as parents were still apprehensive about letting them out of the houses but we did it,” she says.
On April 7th 2008, with five balls, Junior Stars Football Academy was born. To her pleasant surprise, 15 boys turned up for training that day. It wasn’t even the number of children that tugged at her heartstrings but the diversity they represented.
Looking at the children from both financial worlds and different tribes and races playing alongside each other on the field that day, it occurred to her that the academy was a perfect way to break these societal bounds. By the end of that year, the team had grown to 30.
GIRLS CAN PLAY
Seven years in, Junior Stars has grown from being just a football club into a youth development programme employing 10 coaches, a secretary and a driver and reaching out to girls too.
While the average football lover looks at the competitive side of the sport, Mariam has factored in the social side too.
With the drug menace in Mombasa and, more recently, the radicalism at the top of her mind, she has worked to bring children together using exciting mentorship programmes where they get talks about HIV, early pregnancy, drugs and other social issues.
Alongside football practice every weekend, tournaments and mentorship programmess, the academy also created the Watoto Soccer Awards, a yearly sports awards event. When the programme took off, she pursued a higher diploma in counselling to be able to effectively handle the youngsters.
As much as she would want to, it isn’t possible to take on all the children for free and as it stands now, those from well-to-do families pay a fee to keep the club going.
When there isn’t enough money to go round, Mariam, now a mother of four including a set of twins, also has had to make some personal sacrifices like buying the team a van instead of buying herself a luxury car.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed; in June; she was named by the Business Daily as one of the top 40 under 40 remarkable women in Kenya, an experience she says is “amazing and humbling.”
The icing on the cake came at the beginning of this year when her son, Imran, now 14, was selected to join the under-17 Uganda national team.
Aside from touching lives the academy has also helped her bond with her family as they all accompany her for training sessions on Saturdays. Her dream is to build a well-equipped sports centre in Mombasa where children and youth can go and be empowered.
HOW SHE DID IT:
Mariam was not afraid to take the first step into the unknown.
The fact that she was no expert in her field of choice didn’t stop her. To work around this, she sought experts to work with.
She lets her vision of the possibilities fan her passion.