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MARIAM MELL'OSIIME MPAATA - KENYA
“I used to think personal achievements were moments that made me really proud, but with time I have realized that seeing other people achieve their dreams or goals because of my support ranks as the most proud moments in my life especially when those people come back and say thank you. I get a priceless feeling when I encounter someone I have made stronger or helped in a way. ~ Mariam Mell’Osiime Mpaata”
Did you want to play football as a child? What was the opinion then, of girls/women playing football, traditionally a man's sport?
I never really wanted to play football as a child or as an adult. I have always thought sports or football is really a male thing. I found it tedious and confusing. I often wondered how silly 22 men looked like while chasing after a ball. It was hilarious until I started a football programme. That changed every attitude I ever had about football.
Any challenges with travel, attitudes from others, or other trouble with your female teams?
I am one of those lucky people who have a positive and adaptive attitude which means that wherever I go I try my best to fit in. I moved from Uganda to Kenya some 16 years ago and I have blended in over the years. Sometimes I feel more Kenyan than Ugandan. I could go anywhere in this world and blend in with any community. But that does not mean it’s not challenging. Languages can be challenging at times. When it comes to female teams, one of the challenging things about working with women is that sometimes few women understand the value of uplifting another woman. Even in football games, I see women taking the competition way too deep into their heads. It’s just a game let us uplift each other on and off the pitch. I don’t know about other people, but I believe uplifting another woman is one of the most beautiful things I often experience.
When did you start your organization and why?
On 7th April 2008, Junior Stars opened its doors to 15 boys including my son. We had five balls, a coach, a manager, and me as a cheerleader. Today we are heading towards celebrating ten years of using football and mentorship as a tool to change lives. It has been great watching the various ideas grow into something beautiful. We run several outfits, like Watoto Africa Soccer Awards, Junior Stars Football Academy, Soccer Divas, Youth Mentorship Summits, and so forth, through which we have reached over 70,000 youth and women.
However, it was not always the plan. It all started after I relocated from Uganda with my 3 year old son and husband in 2001. I had just completed university, and I was eager to be employed. I remember applying for jobs in vain. I ended up a housewife by default for seven good years. I followed my son to all his school activities, and soon I discovered that he loved football. His father bought him footballs all the time. One day, he kicked the ball way too high and the ball hit the wind screen of the neighbor’s Mercedes Benz. We had to pay for the damage.
That was the turning point. I made up my mind to enroll him into a football program. We could not find one so I decided to begin a football club. But when Kenya underwent post-election violence, I shelved the idea and revisited it when the reconciliation process begun. Then one day I gathered the courage and opened Junior Stars on 7th April 2008.
I remember that first day, it was very hot and I kept thinking I cannot do this for long. I felt lonely and idle just being there doing nothing. It was however a humbling experience, because I found myself doing things like calming down those who had lost a match, the next minute I would be offering first aid, other times I would be washing team jerseys and other days I would be cheering from the touch lines and driving the players home. It was a roll coaster. Ten years later the football programme has grown into a dynamic organization with awesome people. I also look back at my son feel proud, football changed his life. He is turned out to be an amazing footballer and now at eighteen he is joining university to pursue sports management and still play football. In a way, this has been our destiny from the word go.
Are many of the women you have had in your program, still working in football as coach, ref, trainer, administrator?
Because Junior Stars is not just about football, we have had several women working with us as volunteers in our mentorship programmes. However, since we began Soccer Divas, we have come to meet several other women who are very passionate in football as well as possess other vital skills needed in different departments. Apart from having players, we now have recruited a programmes director, who is in charge of executing our programmes. She is a God send. Martha Oguna is also a player with Soccer Divas. She brings a lot of experience and skills on board.
What are your future goals for your organization?
The organization is heading to ten years of existence, it is imperative that we move closer to our vision. Our vision and dream has always been to set up a cosmopolitan sports facility for youth. The talent center will be a place where a child passionate about football will realize their full potential.
Besides this we want some of our ideas spread across the East African Region, so that millions of other children in the grass root levels can enjoy the spirit of football. For instance, we want to take Watoto Africa Soccer Awards(WASA) to various communities within East Africa. We see that youth enjoy the games so much and this would be a brilliant opportunity to advocate for the sustainable development goals. Currently we are in Kenya and Uganda. We have held the WASA programme for six editions now meaning that over 30,000 community and school children have taken part of it.
What do you think of the youth players coming up right now? More skilled or less? More knowledge of the game? Good fitness or more interested in phone and computer?
I think it’s a bit of all. Players in this era are both lucky and disadvantaged. Lucky is because they have so many role models, technology, and support at their disposal, this gives them opportunity to take advantage of everything. Players today could be considered more skilled, fit, and more knowledgeable on the game. However, younger players have so many distractions especially with the phones and computer. They will spend a lot of their precious time on these gadgets. That is why it might be important to go back to the basics, encourage outdoor and grassroots football.
What age did you start playing and why did you?
Surprising, most people assumed that because I run a football programme, I must have played or loved football as a child. Well guess what, I started playing football at the age of 38!! That is precisely one and half years ago. I never took interest even when I was running Junior Stars. I really started playing because I was getting tired watching the men have all the fun. The only time men hugged and cried without reservations was during football matches. I wanted that too. Besides, through the programme I had experienced the power of football and how it transformed the lives of young people and men. I wanted it for the women in my community. So now I am the captain and goalkeeper of Soccer Divas Club in Mombasa Kenya. We play for fun, networking, exercise, charity and advocate for issues like breast cancer, peace and education. Surprisingly most of the players we recruit have no skills or experience in football.
Have you had other jobs? What were they?
The only two near-job experiences I have had were part time jobs when I was much younger. I worked in a relative’s shop while I was 16 and it was depressing sitting in one place every day. I quit after one month, and I was not paid because I did not sell anything. Then when I was 21, my sister and I worked as waitresses at a popular restaurant in town for a month. It was more fun because I interacted with different people. I am a people person, and because of my social skills we attracted more customers, who left us many tips. However, the manager decided since we had received way too many tips, he was not paying us that month, so we left. The customers left, the manager tried to call us back but we had moved on. I have never been employed after that. I believe in volunteerism as it is not always about money. Many young people can learn so much through volunteering and being part of organisations where they see their passions grow. Without this it is hard to get experience as a young person.
What do you do for fun or hobby?
Oh I love getting lost in writing. I wish could go on and on. Oh my God, I also love taking pictures it is not yet an addiction but it is fun. Lastly I love playing football and hanging out with loved ones.
Do you have a mentor, and what are your thoughts on using mentors for professional women?
I have several mentors, some I meet physically for guidance and others I emulate their exemplary lives. I totally believe in mentorship, but it is known that mentorship is two way. It can only work if you are willing to be mentored. Women should be willing and ready to be mentored for them to receive the benefits of mentorship. One of the hindrances to mentorship is the mentee blocking their growth pattern when they fail to recognize that failure is part of the process. Once you have an open mind then mentorship works.
Do you serve on any Boards? Thoughts on the need for more women to serve on boards?
I have sat on one or two boards, and I think that is a great place for women to be. Women they say we have sixth sense on most issues. I want to believe that having more representation of women in board rooms creates the perfect balance when policies are made.
What is one moment in your life you'll never forget?
There are so many moments that relate to different stages of my life, but let me zero in on a football moment.
It was during the time as Soccer Divas were taking part in the global goals world cup in Nairobi. We had to wake up before the tournament to go for a jog, the coach called it acclimatization. It was really tough because it was very cold and besides jogging is not my thing because of my painful knees. But as a captain those excuses don’t count, you have to be brave. So off we went. I found myself running with one of our players who has one arm. Dorcas Akero, lost her arm in an accident some years ago.
When I almost gave up, she was my strength. She kept nudging me on and what blew my mind off is when she reached out to me with her only hand. She held me all through until we finished the run. It was a priceless moment. There are so many lessons in there for me and the rest of us women.
Can you share a time you were proud of yourself?
I used to think personal achievements were moments that made me really proud, but with time I have realized that seeing other people achieve their dreams or goals because of my support ranks as the most proud moments in my life. Most especially when those people come back and say thank you. I get a priceless feeling when I encounter someone I have made stronger or helped in a way.
What is one of life's challenges you've been through?
Life is full of challenges; I have had my fair share of challenges. However, I think that losing a father at the age of 13 can be ranked as the biggest challenge I have overcome. I say this because as an adult, the challenges I face are lessons, they make me stronger. A child cannot find strength or lessons in losing a parent. It is a horrible place for any child to be in. My family moved from a high end life to a slum life because of losing a father, it was traumatizing. There were many nights we slept on empty stomachs. As an adult I have learnt to draw my drive and passion through that phase of my life. This is the very reason I am inclined to reach out to the less privileged children and mothers. I have been in that place and I know a caring hand makes all the difference.
What is the state of women's football in Kenya? Uganda? Africa?
I think women’s football in general has come a long way. Honestly, I would not be having this conversation if this was not the case. But here we are focusing on women’s football. However, we still have major milestones to overcome as a continent of East Africa. The slow progress can be attributed to less funding and lack of support from those responsible. There are no top leagues for example for women to compete in, and even if the female clubs were willing, the issue of funding would be a problem. I want to believe that if we had more funding to support grass root structures we could yield better players and more interest.
What advice can you give to youth girls who want to play for a club but can't find one? Of course if they are in Mombasa and they cannot find a professional club, they can come join Soccer Divas. But never the less, there is so much information on clubs on the internet, find a club and if possible volunteer to be part of their structures if need be. Or just start your own community club and see the magic unfold.
You have run the organization for ten years, what’s next for you?
Currently, I want to go into motivational speaking, I have discovered that I have a gift to inspire. I am also currently finishing my life memoir about my football experience, which I will use to inspire many. I want to take the story around the world. I believe it will inspire thousands of people especially youth into getting out of their comfort zone to be awesome and also get into community work. My book is called Boots Don’t Lie. It is a story of a young Muslim woman who finds herself in a foreign country with her young family. After seven years of being a housewife, she sets up a football programme, which grows from just 15 boys to 70,000 youth and women not just in Kenya but in Uganda. Some years back when I began to receive local and international recognition for what I am doing, I begun to believe that destiny and hard work is real. I believe that no matter how small your idea is at the time, once you give it big wings, it can take you far and as you fly spread some hope as well. I want to use my space to motivate the world.