The Current

'Kids are going to school because of football': How a Canadian gave Kenyan youth a future

Canadian civil servant Bob Munro had an idea that has changed everything — a soccer program run by youth in the slums of Nairobi.

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Thirty years ago, Bob Munro, a Canadian public servant, started the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) — a small soccer league for youth in the slums of Nairobi.  In addition to practising and playing soccer, the youth-led organization required participants to do community service.

"We said that every team had to do at least two garbage cleanups per year because the garbage is a killer." says Munro.
When civil servant Bob Munro walked through the slums of Kenya, he had an idea to start an organized soccer league that would eventually change the lives of youth in Nairobi. (Dick Gordon)

"Rain washes through garbage and waste and kids get sick with cholera, and typhoid and they die. So the garbage cleanup was to save lives."

Munro says that MYSA is the only soccer league he knows that tracks wins, losses, draws and garbage.

Three decades ago when it launched, MYSA had 21 teams. Today, it has 1,800 teams and hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have come through the program.

Unlike many other development projects, MYSA is run by the community it serves.

There are now 1,800 soccer teams in Nairobi made possible through MYSA - an organization that helps pay school fees. (Dick Gordon)

"MYSA is an organization that does not hire from outside," says Maqulate Onyango, who joined the soccer league when she was nine-years-old and now works for the organization.

"We employ our people from the slums because they have the passion to do the job."
Maqulate Onyango who works for the MYSA organization says they never hire from the outside, 'we employ our people ... they have the passion to do the job.' (Dick Gordon)

Onyango says MYSA has transformed the life of her entire family.

"I remember when I first got employed in 2000, I moved my parents from  Mathare. They're still in the slums, but they're not in Mathare slums.  They are in a better place now. We used to live in a mud house, now we are in a stone house."

Onyango uses part of her salary from MYSA to to send her younger brothers to school. 

"When we sit with my family at a round table to talk, they can't believe that they are eating football and sleeping football and their kids are going to school because of football.  Up to today for us, it's still a dream and my dad even today asks me this football thing I didn't know that it can change somebody's life," she says.

While Bob Munro gets credit for starting MYSA, and designing the league, he did something unusual with this mix of sports and development. He left the youth in charge. (Dick Gordon)
As MYSA marks its 30th anniversary, it has a growing list of successful alumnae. Some players have gone on to professional teams in Europe. MYSA has its own professional team in Kenya. Others have gone on to careers in business and education. 
Bob Munro always told former participant George Ndiritu, 'one day MYSA will produce leaders for this country.' (Dick Gordon)

George Ndiritu is one of Nairobi's notable young activists. He's also a musician and a writer. He says he learned invaluable lessons as a little kid on a soccer team with MYSA

"When I was a young kid, you know, meeting Bob, in the 90's he always kept telling us that, you know, one day MYSA will produce leaders for this country," says Ndiritu.

"I think that's what many of us are becoming."

Listen to the full documentary at the top of this web post.

This documentary was produced by freelance journalist Dick Gordon and The Current's documentary editor Josh Bloch.