Football for life
Bethwell Mysanga Mjiru Cantona is full of life.
Talking about his passion, the sport of soccer, the emotion and importance of the sport in his life is clear in his voice. The sport is what’s on his mind when he rests his head in the evening and it’s what motivates him first thing in the morning. It’s his job, his hobby, his motivation and his saviour.
“Soccer saved me,” says Bethwell, with no hint of exaggeration in his tone. “If it wasn’t for sport, I would be dead today. I’ve buried most of my friends who didn’t get involved in sports.”
Bethwell, or Cantona, as he’s known to many at the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), started his football in the same way as many others around the world. “It all started in my community with a ‘Juala’,” he says, describing the makeshift footballs he used to make out of scrunched up paper and kick among friends in the slum in which he lived. Bethwell was looked after by his older brother and he would regularly follow him to training at MYSA, watching on from the side of the pitch.
The lucky ones
He considers himself to be one of the lucky ones. “When I was going to training, my friends who weren’t playing football were maybe doing drugs or other bad things. A lot of my friends who engaged in unprotected sex ended up getting HIV / AIDS, some of those have already died. Even criminality, some people were busy snatching other people’s bags and they ended up being stoned to death.”
At the age of seven, he was approached by a coach and offered a position in one of MYSA’s teams. He pulled on the MYSA jersey and still, at the age of 32, he wears it today.
Football was for him a chance to express himself, stay out of trouble and to emulate his heroes on the field of play. “When I was 12 or 13, people told me I played like Cantona as a midfielder. It became my nickname and I recently had my name changed legally. Today, I follow everything he does, he’s an icon of my sport.”
Today soccer is something different, a chance to give local youngsters a path to a better life. Bethwell manages MYSA’s ‘Football for Hope’ centre in Mathare which focuses on health and education. “We use sport as a tool to bring the youths together and we link them with voluntary counselling and testing services as well as other family planning initiatives and we have the library, too.”
From balls to books
The library. At the centre of the MYSA sporting organisation lies a building which has become a hub of activity for the youngsters of MYSA. In many surrounding schools, classes of up to 50 pupils crammed into classrooms, share 5 or 6 books between them. Striving for a chance to learn, the youngsters flock to the libraries in the evenings, at weekends and during school holidays.
George Wambugu is the Library Manager at MYSA. A product of the project, like Bethwell, George played for the club as a youngster and now mentors the players, assisting with their education.
“Most of the kids are drawn to football as it’s the most popular sport here,” says George. “Through football, kids learn about the libraries and many of them want to join us to escape challenges at home like family issues or community challenges.”
Once they’re in the door, many youngsters build a desire to read, learn and expand their horizons. Many of the youngsters, living in the slums, have little to no access to learning resources. Marvin Nderitu, 20, explains further. Marvin lives in a two bedroomed home with seven brothers and sisters, mother and father. Space to study is unavailable, so the library at MYSA has become his second home.
“I got the chance to use the library and I’ve not looked back” says Marvin, gratefully. “I’ve gained a lot, in 2011 I was still a student in school and during the holidays I was getting the chance to come to the library to do my assignments and prepare for exams.”
A mixture of access to the library and access to regular sporting activity has kept Marvin on track in life. “Sport is an instrument that brings people together,” he says. “We can forget about our troubles, win and lose together. I can give all my thanks to MYSA for the fact that they have taken me and given me a chance.”
“When they come to the library they work on the life skills as well as their education and we’re seeing these kids receiving scholarships following on from the work they do at the library. We have quite a number of youth who get a chance to teach their peers, when these students come, they’re giving back to the library and giving back to the community.”
A visit from two legends
Laureus World Sports Academy Members and sporting legends Michael Johnson and Marcel Desailly spent time with the youngsters at MYSA, learning about the environment and the work the project undertakes. Both were overwhelmed by what they saw.
French world cup winner Marcel Desailly was emotional when reflecting on his time at MYSA. "As a footballer myself, I have been overwhelmed by what I have seen,” he said. “It gave me so much pleasure to be able to kick a ball around with some of the kids from the project. This is a classic example of how sport can make a big difference to the lives of so many young people.”
World and Olympic athletics star Michael Johnson described his time at MYSA as a day he would never forget. “Just the sheer severity of the disadvantaged position that young people who grow up in that area are faced with is pretty incredible,” he said.
“When I walked into the HQ of MYSA, the hope that they were able to instil in these young people who take part in the project was really amazing. I walked around the place and felt a real sadness given the conditions, but then walking into the facility where they had books and all sorts of resources for young people to learn and engage with one another and study, I was immediately transformed into a great sense of hope just like those young people had.”