Getting the ball rolling
A young boy watches a pick-up game of soccer in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo by Anjali Nayar)
NAIROBI, KENYA - This week I went down to the soccer field at Olympic primary school in Nairobi's Kibera slum to get the ball rolling, so to speak. As soon as I jumped out of the car, a mass of children swarmed the soccer ball in my arms.
"Can I play?"
"Give it to me!"
It's amazing how disarming a soccer ball is. Bring a camera into a crowd and you are bound to have objections. Bring a camera and a soccer ball into a crowd, and everyone wants to play.
Within a couple minutes, there were enough players for a good game of keep away.
A picturesque spot
The field at Olympic primary school is in a picturesque spot - the uneven hardened mud pitch overlooks a crowd of shanty houses and is flanked by the railroad tracks made famous in the movie The Constant Gardener. A train had slipped the tracks earlier in the week (the trains are often derailed by looters), and the toppled empty containers had been transformed into a perfect jungle gym for the neighbourhood children. Only twice in the hours I spent there did a child get his fingers jammed between the steel sliding doors. Ouch...
I hadn't been to Olympic since the morning of December 27, 2007 - the day of Kenya's last election. When I arrived that day (over two years ago) at dawn, the line of people waiting to vote at the school stretched around several blocks. Many people had slept outside the polling station in an attempt to prevent vote rigging.
The country's dominant Kikuyu ethnic group had been in power for the majority of the last 45 years since independence, and there was an ethnically diverse party called the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), under the leadership of Raila Odinga (a Luo), in the running. Kibera, which has a large population of Luos, Kenya's second largest ethnic group, was alive with optimism and hope for change.
Several hours later, after delays and questionable vote tallying, a large chunk of Kibera was on fire. The vast secondhand Toi market was obliterated, and people were protesting in the streets, looting shops and setting up flaming road stops. I remember walking through the smoke in disbelief, assaulted by the sounds of political chants (no Raila, No Peace), and the smell of burning tires.
Soon the police came in, but it just made things worse. The streets were a haze of tear gas, water bombs, flying rocks and bullets. Soon, the violence spread around the country. I met women who had been beaten bloody for trying to salvage a few items from their shops. I ran into troops of dozens of young men armed with bows and arrows seeking out other ethnic groups. People who had been neighbours for decades, whose children played together, turned on one another, all for the sake of greedy politicians. The cool and calm Kenya I had known for years disappeared before my eyes.
Anjali's trip across Africa
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In the end it's estimated more than 1,000 died, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
Two years later there are still vast refugee camps in Kenya's Rift Valley, but in parliament there has been a positive turn of events. Last week Kenya's parliament passed a draft constitution, part of reforms agreed to by politicians in 2008 to stop the post-election violence. Also last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) agreed to start an independent investigation into the politicians and business leaders accused of orchestrating the violence.
On the ground, things are looking better as well. Toi market, on the outskirts of Kibera, is brimming with new stock of old things for sale (I was looking for a pair of decent secondhand soccer shoes). And Olympic primary school is bustling with raw energy. Granted some of the children there were too young to remember what happened a couple years ago, but it's nice to see that life and sport carry on.
A few games of keep away (I got schooled, as usual) and a walk down to the train tracks with a hoard of new friends, was enough to give me my first sunburn. I'm sure there will be more of those to come.
Saturday April the 10th is when the real adventure begins. First stop is Ivory Coast - the home of cocoa, coffee and Didier Drogba. See you there.
For more frequent updates, you can also follow me on Twitterand check out my photo gallery from Kenya.
Canadian journalist Anjali Nayar will travel across Africa by train, bus and foot (and when necessary by plane), and will arrive in South Africa just before the World Cup. Along the way, Anjali will tell the continent's stories through its favourite sport: soccer.
For the trip, Anjali will bring only the essentials on her back (camera, flip video, computer) and in her hand - a soccer ball. Every day, Anjali will play soccer, whether she's on the beaches of Accra or stuck in one of Lagos' impenetrable traffic jams. Sometimes she'll play with children in the sprawling slums and refugee camps, other times she'll play with adults in the rich diplomatic quarters of major cities.
Through her Destination: South Africa blog, Anjali hopes CBCSports.ca readers will discover Africa and what the World Cup and the game of soccer means to the continent.
About the Author
Anjali Nayar is a Canadian journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She's reported from the back-alleys of the African continent for the last four years for the CBC, Reuters and the BBC, covering everything from politics to the politics of sport. From training with Kenya's elite runners to cheering on Burundi's footballing president, Anjali uses sport to learn a little more about the world.