Sunday, September 13, 2009

Community Transformers United (Part 1)

As I took my first step on to our bright brown-colored pitch in the Mathare slum, I realized that I was stepping into a completely different world of soccer.

Different not because the field was decorated with whistle-sized rocks and skin staining dirt instead of invisible rubber beads and artificial turf, or lined with hundreds of standing fans instead of scores of empty bleacher seats, or populated with or populated with oddly shaped and sized plastic-bag bundles instead of untouched $50 FIFA certified balls. Not even because the game is affectionately referred to as football instead of complacently labelled soccer.

This world was different because it was streaming with significance.

Here in the slums, as in many places throughout the world, football is much more than a pastime. It's much more than a game. More than a source of entertainment. Rather, it is purpose, meaning, pride, identity. As in the case with the team I was recently invited to join (at a youth rally in Mathare… read Aug. 24th post), many of our players have entered into the chalk protected safe haven with a burdened past. One of drugs, violence, gangs, broken homes and extreme poverty.

When the founder of Community Transformers (Nick Omondi), decided to start the football team with Steve Sacher, they had a vision. A vision to use the three balls they had been donated to restore community and hope and purpose into the broken lives of the Mathare youth. A vision to use football to encourage young men to live the lives they were created to live.

William is one of these young men. As one of Community Transformers United's (CTU) leading strikers, he wears a halogen-light bulb smile but takes his role as forward very seriously. He also participates in the homes visits that CT makes to women with HIV and helps share with kids the message about prevention. Prior to joining the squad, however, he was literally on his death bed, with little chance of survival.

As early as 13 years of age, William was involved in a notorious gang in the slums. He had become a victim to the illusion of drugs and violence and was eventually put in prison for 'gang activity.' After his short time in jail, however, he paid a much larger price, and was shot several times in the stomach/chest. He was taken to the local hospital, where the doctors gave him little to no chance of surviving. Even his family had written him off, and left him to become another addition to the startling statistic of youth who are dying preventable deaths (the World Health Organization conducted a study showing that 2.6 million young people are dying each year, 97% from preventable deaths in low or middle income countries).

Fortunately, Nick and the CT team were not willing to give up so easy. When they discovered William's story, they began visiting him daily in the hospital. Miraculously, he slowly began to recover, and became stable enough that the hospital could discharge him. He came to live at CT -- because his family didn't want to deal with him -- and slowly began to gain strength and overcome his addictions. It seemed as if he was finally on the road to restoration, physically and spiritually.

But was it sustainable? Or would he eventually be pulled back into his past lifestyle? How could CT continue to make William feel as if he belonged and was a lasting part of their community?

The answer came through football. Like so many other young men on the squad, William was once a devote footballer, but had lost sight of his passion through the blinding lenses of the gang life. CTU provided that opportunity to rediscover his passion, while becoming a part of something that was bigger than him. Football became not only an escape, but William's shot to redefine and re-establish himself.

Several years later, a liberated and recreated William joined me and the other 18+ boys of CTU, as we stepped on to the pitch for a local tournament. Without even completely knowing the stories of William or others like him, I sensed that this tournament had a much more profound significance than just acquiring more goals than our opponent. Whether we won the trophy or were eliminated in our first game*, there was something being created. Something bigger than myself or any one of the individual players on the team. Something that was truly transforming lives and the community of which we had become an integral part.

*Unfortunately we lost both matches over the weekend (one in PKs), but are looking forward to anouther tournament at the end of the month. 

Fans, doin' work, PKs, disappointment and unity (photos taken by Haley, a visiting team member)


  1. Can't wait for part two! Thanks for the update and photos!!! Your face is looking a little scruffy - I gues due to lack of water to shave?