NEIGHBOURHOODS: Austin’s playing field in Kenya

An inspiring story from kenya, africa. the story of baba yao: 'the father of all'.

The ball is rolling on the soil and pebble surface. the match format is seven against seven and the first half is played. not everyone has shoes, some of the children even play in sandals, but it doesn’t matter, they are happy just to have dungarees or coloured waistcoats to distinguish the teams and something to kick. cheers in between, a couple of instructions to each other and onto the pitch! the sun feels strong on the back. something happens. shouts are heard, “baba yao, baba yao!”. the ball stops and so does the stopwatch. everyone wants to hug him. some wait five minutes to tell him what grade they got in school last week, while others are content just by looking at him. after 20 minutes of affection, the game continues. time is so precious at austin’s playing field.

a few minutes ago he went to the corner store and bought a piece of red meat, vegetables and ugali ─typical local maize─ to cook at home. he eats alone. before going to bed, he decides to go out. he has to keep an eye on the field and takes the opportunity to talk to the homeless people who look after it. he doesn’t pay them, but in exchange he lets them sleep there, with the commitment that first thing in the morning they will have the pitch free of rubbish and unoccupied. children are the priority and that is their space. there are no other rules. after the tour, he goes home and tunes in to national geographic to watch a documentary about animals. but he finds it hard to concentrate, because the next day he has to continue with the training and education of the fútbol más foundation’s sports instructors on the pitch. he thinks of something motivating that can move them with this project. in his bed and lying down, baba yao’s head is still working.

the feeling of nostalgia is particularly strong some days. as a teenager he was left alone. his mother, father and three siblings left for good in 1998. but life had a rematch for him. that’s what this is all about. he stood up and faced it. and that match, he had to win. the adversity was immense, but something protected him. maybe during that minute he felt the care of those looking down on him. he has never felt alone, because he knows that they are with him, somewhere. he remembers them fondly.

more than half a million people live in mathare – the largest informal settlement in nairobi, kenya’s capital. a friend from the neighbourhood saw him on the street and told him that there was a space in his house for him to move in with his mattress and his football bag. they had to share the bathroom with 20 other houses, but he didn’t hesitate for a second. he played as a goalkeeper and was a starter in the country’s second division. he still has that sturdy look of a goalkeeper: good height and big hands. he almost made it to the kenyan national team, but a knee injury prevented him from playing in goal. the club could not afford to pay for the operation, so he finally had to hang up his gloves.

nevertheless, baba yao did not give up. he still had the energy to go on. a motivation made him wake up every day. he started little by little: he asked the club to give him the damaged footballs, so he could take them to the children in his community so they could play. he then asked some friends to help him move and clean the two-metre high pile of rubbish that was blocking the view of the other side of the street. with a couple of shovels and no machine to help, it was a difficult mission, but not impossible. after a year ─you heard right, one whole year─ the rubbish dump was transformed into a small earth court. it was great news in the neighbourhood: they finally had a pitch!

this is how the football workshop for children under 12 became a reality. it competed at the local level. it even managed to turn around and lifted the cup twice with the girls’ category in the women’s league. however, he didn’t just want them to have fun, he wanted them to be able to educate themselves. if you know how to play football, you can qualify for a scholarship to study at secondary school. to date, more than 1,200 boys and girls who played at austin’s playing field have completed their schooling. others have gone on to earn university degrees. they cannot forget him. neither will baba yao.

six o’clock in the morning and the alarm clock goes off. he has to go to the fútbol más foundation office in kenya. he knows that sugar is not good for his health, but austin likes his coffee very sweet. he looks into the cupboard to get a piece of bread. he doesn’t put anything in it. he ties his dreadlocks and goes out into the street. dozens of children hang around his neck. the same scene every day. at 44, austin ajowi is still doing what he loves and is passionate about. something that revolutionised a village, that could inspire a movie script. it makes him connect with these children, who are part of his family. he sees himself reflected in them and is ready for anything. people notice him. people love him. that’s why everyone wants to wake up and go to the place that makes them happy. to the place that teaches them values and life skills. that’s why everyone calls him baba yao, which means “the father of all”. that’s why everyone wants to be in that magical place. everyone yearns and dreams of being there. everyone wants to play on austin’s playing field.


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