An independent soccer league transforming lives in a slum in Kenya

In Kenya’s Kibera slum, an independently led and funded soccer league is credited with a remarkable reduction in criminality and substance abuse.

Shadows dance together on the dry red earth as the cool afternoon breeze sways the leaves overhead. In the distance, the sound of a whistle echoes, followed by the raucous cheering of a crowd. It is Sunday afternoon in Kibera, but it is not the English Premier League that has these fans on the edge of their seats, rather, they are cheering on the local Inter Base League (IBL).

As the soccer match resumes, Erick Oduor, 32, dives back into his story. He is explaining his deeply personal attachment to the IBL — the community soccer league he founded, in 2019. Affectionately known as Totti — after the great Italian forward Francesco Totti — Erick is softly spoken, but resolute in his words.

“You know, we were brought up here, and we have learned a lot of things here,” he says of Kibera, his native community. “But so many young guys were being killed. A lot of friends of mine were killed, [before the league’s creation].”

Born and raised in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, Erick first feels the need to explain the violence and despair that affects Kibera’s youth, before speaking about the IBL’s creation. One story, in particular, weighs heavy on his mind.

Erick Juma, the Inter Base League’s founder, poses for a photo as weekend matches are ongoing at Olympic Primary School in Kibera. Photo Credit: Gordwin Odhiambo

Back in 2014, Erick’s good friend, Austin, was brutally killed in the dead of night while taking part in a carjacking; the pair had been teammates on a local soccer team. On the day of Austin’s death, the team was scheduled to play a semifinal match.

“I had borrowed some gloves for Austin, who was our goalkeeper. I told him to come and pick up the gloves before the match so that we could go together. Unfortunately, he never came — he was killed,” remembers Erick, before somberly listing the names of other friends he has lost to violence.

As Erick grew wearier and wearier of watching the people around him fade away, so too did his determination to find a solution: “I thought, what could unite us as Kibera youths? All of these guys love football and if all of these guys could play together, we could reform them.”

While Erick speaks, the incessant sound of passenger planes packed with tourists resonates in the sky above. They flock to this country in search of luxurious beach holidays and safari park adventures.

Although Kenya is a regional trade and tourism hub, its economic success is balanced on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of people who struggle to make ends meet. Scattered across Nairobi are slums that offer these unemployed and underpaid masses cheap alternatives to the city’s ballooning cost of living.

Perhaps the most well-known among these informal settlements is Kibera — Africa’s largest urban slum. For many who live in the city around it, Kibera is synonymous with fear and crime. For the slums’ residents, it is home, and a community much like any other — albeit plagued by unemployment and marginalization.

And yet, in the last few years, something remarkable has taken shape — an independent football league, founded by a young mechanic, with the help of his friend Benard Ochieng, is credited with transforming life in the slum.

An ongoing match between Sakayonsa F.C and Kisumu Ndogo F.C at the interbase League in Kibera. Photo Credit: Gordwin Odhiambo

The Inter Base League

Erick had never intended to spend his life working in a garage. “I was planning to be a teacher when I was a kid,” he says, his face lighting up. “It was my passion.” Nevertheless, as the eldest of four children, Erick had to drop out of school in grade 10 to support his family — the passion for helping others never faded, however.

When the IBL was founded, Erick did not imagine that his initiative would one day encompass two men’s divisions, a women’s division and a children’s division. Today, around 1,000 young people play in the IBL, and many thousands more make up the loyal fanbase.

The teams comprise at least 16 players but can go up to 50 players, though the average is 25. In addition, each player must have a team jersey — paid for by the players and their supporters — and must contribute to paying the referees who officiate the matches, as the league is entirely self-funded. Teams often find it difficult to scrounge up the few dollars it takes to pay a referee.

Although it has been harder to get the women’s division up and running, owing to gender norms in the community, Erick is determined for them to play. Playing soccer, he says, will reduce the number of young mothers in Kibera. Currently, they play once a month.

Regardless of age or gender, one rule applies to all: it is forbidden to play under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Some players from the Kicker’s team having a conversation in their base in Kibera – the ten rules that guide their team inscribed on the nylon behind them. Photo Credit: Gordwin Odhiambo

Soccer is a uniting factor in Kenya

In Kibera, the term base is a reference to a neighborhood or “hangout spot” that youths belong to. Erick’s vision for a more harmonious community has rested upon coercing these various bases to form teams that will train, play and win together.

Playing in the league’s second division is the Kickers, a base made up of friends who are more like family. Many of the players have left behind a life of crime and drugs to focus on the game.

Speaking to FanSided, Kickers player Joseph Odhiambo beams with pride when explaining the league’s success. “Inter Base has reformed so many youths in Kibera, by making us play together. Nowadays, you can walk around with your phone in your hands [without it getting stolen],” he says, as a mark of how things have changed.

Flanked by his teammates, in the team’s dimly lit “clubhouse”, the Kickers all chip in to agree — the league has changed life in the slum. When asked what life was like for them before, they erupt into laughter: “We were different people,” says Joseph, who speaks with a philosopher’s air.

“Before Inter Base, I was not that good. I would come into your house at night without you knowing and steal whatever I could sell,” he explains uneasily. One by one, his teammates begin to open up about their own past: robbery, violence, drugs and alcohol were a part of daily life.

People waiting to see the local police chief at his offices in Kibera. The chief’s office acts as a place for young people to look for government opportunities such as jobs, training opportunities and licenses to do some work. The chief is also responsible for discipline among young men in the community. Photo Credit: Gordwin Odhiambo

The league has offered young people, like Kickers player Mbingula Francis, an opportunity to steer away from a life of crime and towards the promise of a future: “it isn’t just about football, it is about giving us a place to connect and to show our talents,” says the 28-year-old.

But the IBL cannot afford to pay its players and so they are left to eke out a living in whatever way possible. Many, like Mbingula, spend their days looking for odd jobs, such as unloading trucks or delivering goods. A hard day’s work can earn him about 500 Kenyan Shillings ($4.15).

Sitting on a wooden bench inside of his base’s makeshift clubhouse, just meters away from the railway that cuts through Kibera, Mbingula speaks in metaphors: “the ghetto is all about survival. It’s like being a lion in the bush — you have to struggle to survive.”

On the manila nylon walls of the clubhouse, written in marker, are 10 rules that the Kickers must adhere to. One rule stands out: “Don’t be a zombie” — a reference to the men and women who walk the streets intoxicated, as if in a trance.

Dennis Ochieng, alias Gattuso, plays for Kibera Blackstars – one of the teams that plays in the Kenyan National Super League as his main team. Gattuso plays for Sakayonsa in the Interbase League. Photo Credit: Gordwin Odhiambo

How soccer is driving change in Kibera

Beyond the 10 commandments that guide the Kickers, it is the police who must enforce the law in Kibera, and they, too, have witnessed the transformational effect. In an interview with FanSided, Edwin Otwori, a Senior Chief of police in Kibera, explains that he is “happy with the league” and what it is achieving.

Sitting at a sturdy wooden desk, the seasoned chief explains that the youth need role models if they are to succeed, and that in the IBL they find those role models. Many players who started here have even gone on to achieve professional careers — enough to make a young person believe in a brighter tomorrow.

The densely populated nature of Kibera, however, means that there are few places to play soccer. The only pitch available to the league is the local Olympic Primary School’s dirt pitch.

On a sunny-Sunday afternoon, we meet Owino Kotieno seated at the school grounds, keenly following a ball as it crisscrosses the pitch, clouds of dust billowing into the air. Owino is the former Member of County Assembly (MCA) for one of Kibera’s districts, and the league’s current Public Relations Officer.

Being an MCA is an important role in a community where politics holds much sway — the estimated 200,000 Kibera residents are a major part of the electorate, and, as a poor population, are vulnerable to vote buying.

This year, however, during hotly contested national elections, the IBL management decided to keep matches free of politics — a move widely credited with the peaceful election outcome in Kibera. Past election years have seen the slum engulfed in deadly violence.

Rio Kisu having a moment with his daughter after his team’s soccer match with Chapo FC at Olympic Primary School in Kibera. Photo Credit: Gordwin Odhiambo

Looking to the future

Like the police chief, Owino firmly believes that sports are a tool for transformation. With his eyes fixed on the match he explains why, before addressing his frustration that the IBL has not been able to secure sponsorships that could sustain and grow the league.

“There is a negative perception about people living in the slums,” he says. “We are victims of marginalization from corporations who do not wish to invest their surpluses in activities that can change the lives of the people.”

Erick and Owino have repeatedly tried, and failed, to source sponsorships, a reality that they attribute to the poor perception of Kibera among the business elite. Yet, guaranteeing the league’s success in future could rest upon securing funds from investors.

The irony of this reality is particularly poignant when considering Kenyan football’s current predicament. The Football Kenya Federation, which oversees all professional football in the country, is currently banned by FIFA from operating due to mismanagement. As a result, neither the national team nor leagues are playing.

Meanwhile, an independent league from the slums is in full force. In fact, several players who would typically play in Kenya’s professional soccer spheres are currently playing in the IBL, as they have nowhere else to play.

Regardless of the outside world’s perception, the organizers and the players of the IBL push on, determined to nurture the change they wish to see in their community. Joseph, a father of three young children, is adamant that this is not just about soccer.

“When you play in Inter Base, you are not just playing football, you are there knowing that you have young people who will take your place one day and so you have to work to create opportunities for them. The future is not all about us, it is about the people who are behind us.”

Why We Play features stories about the power of sports to bring us together, overcome obstacles, make positive change and reach everyone. Read more here.

Photos for this story were taken by Gordwin Odhiambo, an award-winning photojournalist and regular AFP contributor. Gordwin was born and raised in Kibera and much of his work is focused on changing the negative perception of his community. 

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