Dr. Elizabeth Odera began working with children from Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, nearly two decades ago. “We were inundated with many young men and women from Southern Sudan who had run away from wars in East Africa,” Odera explained. “They had nothing to do. They would just roam around.”
Odera knew firsthand about the power of sport and achievement to build self-esteem. A former international competitive tennis player, she had gone on to become one of the first women to earn a PhD in immunology in Kenya. She decided to start a basketball league that would also engage the children in service related activities like tree planting and fund raising for improving their communities.
But even basketball had its risks in Kibera. For Odera’s children, playing on the dirt courts meant braving threats from the gangs that laid territorial claim to nearly every inch of the slum. “In Kibera, there is no place to call your own. We got chased from one point to another,” Odera said. “A number of times we were attacked. The men in the area ran away, but of course, I couldn’t leave the kids. I was left with hundreds of children cowering and wondering what to do.”
Despite these dangers, Odera persisted. The tournament grew to become one of the largest events in East Africa, and many of the children moved on to receive scholarships to universities. “It was just an amazing passage for them,” she said. “And I realized that it was possible to make real life changes for these children through sports.”
For children growing up in Africa’s largest slum, life is a daily struggle to survive. Bordering Nairobi, Kibera houses nearly 1 million people in only 1.5 square miles. The slum’s labyrinth of mud shanties and alleyways has poor security and little access to clean water or public sanitation. Living amidst violence, drug abuse, and high rates of HIV infection, children here are particularly vulnerable. There are few schools in Kibera and even fewer opportunities to break free from poverty.
After the success of the basketball tournaments, Odera continued her mission to transform the lives of youth from Kibera and other parts of Nairobi and founded a recreation center called Sadili Oval. But soon after starting Sadili Oval, Odera noticed a significant problem—getting the girls to participate. “More often than not, they were on the sidelines watching the boys. Even if you got them to train in a separate session, the minute any boys came they would just walk away,” said Odera.
Odera views the girls’ extreme shyness as a product of fear and cultural upbringing—challenges that have proven to be obstacles to the girls’ ability to achieve academically. Pervasive attitudes dictating that girls belong within the home are contributing to a low rate of school attendance by girls in Kibera, especially for those raised in traditional families that expect them to take on the duties of housework and to care for their siblings rather than study.
Sexism has also affected the kinds of subjects girls excel in. “Science was my biggest strength in school,” Odera said. “But girls in our schools—and not just those from Kibera—tend to run away from math, chemistry, and physics, because they believe that those subjects are not for girls. And teachers have contributed to that belief.”
Odera wanted to get girls to challenge these attitudes, and Sadili Oval’s Girl Power Club program was born. Combining tennis training with leadership activities, a network of Girl Power Clubs are now reaching girls from sixty-seven schools around Nairobi. By using sport as a messaging tool to discuss self-esteem and gender issues, the program gives girls the opportunity to speak their minds and become agents of change for themselves and their communities.
Girls are assigned leadership projects, and as they have progressed in the program, many girls have begun creating social change projects on their own initiative. For instance, one club has helped victims of sexual violence acquire counseling and care. Another Girl Power Club was able to get its school to agree to issue an official code of conduct governing how girls should be treated in class by teachers, who have often been the perpetrators of discrimination and inappropriate contact.
Gradually, the girls are building important skills for their futures and changing their lives in large and small ways. One of Odera’s pupils came from a particularly difficult background. Her family had been uprooted from war-torn Burundi, and her father was abusive and struggled to support seven other wives, despite being very poor. Working with a Girl Power Club, Odera’s student became a regional champion in tennis and has since earned an athletic scholarship to a US university. Now studying business management, she is the first girl from her village to complete high school and go to college.
Earlier this year, a group of girls from the Girl Power Clubs were thrilled to meet Serena Williams, who visited Sadili Oval to host a tennis clinic and speak with the children about her experiences. “They are just an amazing group,” Odera said. “And they have made a huge difference to their communities.”
Odera’s newest initiative, Sisterhood World Cup, was recently recognized with a grant awarded by Nike (Red) and the King Boudouin Foundation. Sisterhood World Cup incorporates a girls’ soccer tournament with talks on gender issues and HIV and lessons on how girls can assert themselves in social relationships—something key, Odera believes, for both increasing self-esteem and for HIV prevention. “There is a lot going wrong with relationships and the way that people view girls,” Odera said. “And it’s time that people understood the problems girls go through and provide support for them.”
To help raise this awareness, Sisterhood World Cup has partnered with a popular television station in Kenya. The girls themselves will be speaking to Kenyans around the nation through a weekly program where callers will dial in to ask the girls questions on issues that affect them.
Other social entrepreneurs like Odera are also harnessing the power of sport to create change. Earlier this year, Odera served as a judge for the Changing Lives through Sport competition, hosted by Nike and Ashoka’s Changemakers, which received nearly 300 entries from innovators around the world who are using soccer to empower youth and strengthen communities. One entry that was named a finalist, Goals for Girls (Goles y Metas), organizes soccer practices and matches for girls in poor communities and was an eye opener for Odera.
“I had no idea that soccer for girls was taboo in Argentina. I come from a country where everybody runs—even women. Football is so big in Argentina, so I was surprised,” she said. Odera commended Goals for Girls on their work breaking gender stereotypes and embracing other organizations to deepen their impact. Goals for Girls is currently in talks to collaborate with one of the winners of the Nike Changemakers competition, love.futbol, which helps communities build safe soccer fields for at-risk youth.
“The fact that there is now a movement where people are using sport in such creative ways is wonderful,” Odera said. “Seeing other people out there committed to making a difference has given me even more reason to continue.”
By Kristie Wang for Ashoka’s Changemakers