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Coaching Kenya's young women

Kenya, July 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Geri Manzano/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Beatrice Chelimo (left) is the coach of the Cheptuget Women's Football Club. Pamela Mayende is one of her players. Her teammates call her “Van Persie” after Robin van Persie, the Netherlands striker who'll be playing in Sunday's World Cup final. Photo: Geri Manzano/Mercy Corps

Beatrice Chelimo noticed the slender woman on the sidelines, matching the movements of her footballers. She looked like she had all the right moves. Like any good coach, Beatrice asked her if she wanted to play.

Beatrice, who’s now 43, started coaching soccer in her native Kenya when she noticed so many girls had dropped out of school and had nothing productive to do.

In April 2007 she organized her own team, but things fell apart when post-election violence chilled relations between tribes in the Eldoret region. Still, Beatrice had a desire to tap into the talents of girls and help them do more for themselves. That’s when she learned about Mercy Corps and our post-election reconciliation efforts.

Our initiatives included a program to reconnect youth through sports. We outfitted Beatrice’s team – Cheptuget, which means “dove” in the local dialect — with football gear and provided training classes in conflict resolution, leadership training, entrepreneurship training and fundraising.

The women range in age between 18 and 35. About half have children themselves; most have had few opportunities to play organized sports since leaving school. Beatrice is trained as a tailor, and one of the things she does under Mercy Corps’ program is teach her charges how to sew. Many sew until 3 p.m. each day, then hit the football pitch.

That’s where they were the day Beatrice spotted her new player. Her name was Pamela Mayende. And she turned out to be so good that her teammates now call her “Van Persie” after Robin van Persie, the Netherlands striker who'll be playing in Sunday's World Cup final.

I asked Beatrice and Pamela to explain to me the importance of the skills training and camaraderie that Mercy Corps’ program offered. They said that many women often make marriage decisions based on economic concerns. That is, they end up marrying much older men purely for financial security. I said, "That doesn't sound like much fun," and they both laughed.

Beatrice and Pamela showed me how Mercy Corps is giving women real choices in their lives – sometimes for the first time. Beatrice is changing the lives of young women. And as for Pamela, she gets to do what most young women her age have had to give up: play football!