The way this story ends is I end up in Barcelona, wondering how I can learn Spanish in 10 days, looking around this sunny seaside city in awe that somehow, my little unassuming feet are the ones that brought me here.
The way this story starts is with my primary school neighbour, Scola.
Scola is my best friend. She’s very popular – I am not. I am shy. I am the weird friend, always following her, always quiet. I am not completely sure why she is my friend, but I think it is because we both really, really, really like playing.
We play a lot. We play in the schoolyard. We play when we get home. We play with the other children. We outrun and outplay and outshoot and outclimb everyone in the estate.
Not that there are a lot of places to play. We play where we can on small strips of grass, few and far between from where we grow up. The school’s ‘field’ is really nothing more than a dusty patch next to the makeshift bathrooms, too small to build a classroom on, but too big to give up to something or someone else. So, the kids get it, so that the principal can say there is space for the children on the campus to ‘entertain themselves’. Yeah, right.
Scola and I are always looking for a new game to play, which is how we end up on the boys’ soccer field, about a five-minute walk from where we both live. That’s where her brother goes to play soccer, when he finishes homework, even though he usually doesn’t finish his homework, or makes us do the easy parts for him. We follow him one day. He yells at us to go away. He says we’re too small. We shrug and follow him anyway because we know he can’t beat us both at the same time, and we are bored with our usual.
We get to the field and watch the boys a little. Because we like games, we quickly pick up the rules. We start shouting tips from the side of the field. We have favourites. Scola’s brother, of course, and others. After a few weeks, someone gets tired of us stealing the ball and shouting so much and asks us if we want to play, since we know so much about it. We’re in!
Scola and I play and watch as old players leave and new players come in. We’re still there. We even graduate – sometimes, we’re goalkeepers. Sometimes, we get to choose the players on the field, to form teams, and play against each other. Sometimes, the new boys don’t take us seriously. But they soon learn from the others not to mess with us, because we beat them, all the time. Sometimes, we get beaten too. But not often.
High school looms large before us, and this is where Scola and I are separated. I go to Kwale Girls. Scola goes to Waa Girls. We both promise to write to each other all the time.
The new school is hard, and scary, and there are people from everywhere who are much cooler than me. I retreat into a shell. My shell is football. I immediately join the football team so that I don’t have to talk with anything but my legs. The field is where school and exams and homesickness melt away.
Our coach is a guy you wouldn’t ever think would be a coach for a girls’ team. He used to play himself, he tells us. He even went to a training school to become a coach. Training school? I echo. That’s a thing? I had no idea. I start feeling like maybe that’s something I can do, when I’m done with school. I start feeling hope for a future. I’ve never really thought about what I want to be.
Coach Mukasa is really into football – which I guess coaches should be if you’re in charge of a team. He tells us things like, the women’s national team in Kenya actually performs better than the men’s team. I laugh, familiar with this phenomenon – Scola and I were much better than most of the boys on the field back home. He says all we need is a little exposure, and a little funding, and better equipment. He’s a great coach – and he’s also the English Literature teacher, so sometimes in class I forget and call him Coach. He smiles and brushes it off – he’s used to that.
Coach is the one who talks to my parents and convinces them to let me continue to play. They think it’s a waste of time. They think I should be doing housework. But when they hear I can get a scholarship through my football, they gradually accept it. Very, very gradually. Coach is also the one who decides to join the Kwale Girls team with the Waa Girls team to form Kwale Queens, and then, Coach registers us for the Chapa Dimba na Safaricom competition. He says it’ll bring us the exposure we need, because lots of media will be interested in our playing, especially if we do well in the tournaments. The competition is supposed to be for young people like me, aged 16-20, showcasing their talent and passion for the game, and trying to win money too! The winning team can win 1 million shillings, which is a number I can’t even think of, but it’s when Coach tells us about the other prizes that I really get excited. You can win thousands of shillings for even being the best player. I know I am good, but am I the best?
Either way, I get to play with Scola again, and we pick up our friendship like it never stopped. Eventually, Coach tells us that some girls may be picked to go to Spain – the only thing I know about Spain is from television shows – to go train in Barcelona. Barcelona, like Lionel Messi’s Barcelona! I get even more excited.
You know how this story ends. I am in Barcelona. I am picked to be on the Chapa Dimba na Safaricom national team, to go and represent my county and my country. I can’t be more excited. I went from climbing mango trees to going abroad to play football – just because me and my best friend used to like playing games. And the first word I learn is how the Spanish people pronounce my name, Catherine – Catarina, which I am told is also the name of a city in Mexico.
Maybe one day, I’ll go there too.
this story is a fictionalization of varied multi-person facts as told to Abigail Arunga by Mukasa Amboko, one of the coaches for Kwale Queens, about the Chapa Dimba na Safaricom competition and the winners. Yes, there was a girl called Catherine who went to Barcelona from Kwale Queens, but this is not her real story. Yes, there are money prizes, and yes, the women’s football team does do better than the men’s team, and with less funding. And yes, often parents stop their girls from playing football because they don’t see the point. But clearly, there is a point. That’s the point that Chapa Dimba is trying to make.