Moving the goalposts


At the age of six, I was learning to use the words uncle and aunty loosely. They didn’t necessarily have to mean a blood relative, but rather someone who spent their time a lot around your parents. In this case, it was someone who was around my old man during weekends. He told a lot of stories and my parents would in-turn laugh about. The day we got acquainted, this ankal had a subtle grey, burnt wood smell of cigarettes and beer about him. And when he said, “You’re David. Like David Beckham-you know him?” I said no. “Manchester United-(Sir) Alex Ferguson?” I didn’t. “I’ll call you Beckham from today,” he said. “And you should tell your dad you want to watch David Beckham.” I said sawa.

Weeks later, I recall watching a sea of red on the TV. It was a hectic match, all the great ones are. I remember a foul outside the penalty area. David Beckham stepped up to take the free-kick. There fell a patient silence around the stadium. The silence found its way into our sitting room as well. We were waiting for the ref’s whistle. 

The ball balloons out of the man’s kick, above the defensive wall of four, a trajectory which beats the purpose of a defensive wall to begin with. At six years you think God answers every one of your prayers, so I’m thinking Beckham has to score. The ball hits off the bar, in it went. A goal beautiful as anything can be. Pandemonium of the exciting kind swamps Old Trafford. And much like the silence before, it found its way into our sitting room.

The joy wormed itself into the hearts of plenty of first-time viewers like me. We went on to win the match 3-2. There would be more of these moments of nicely worked football. To this day, I go back for my regular fix. Like a workaholic and his coffee. Cheering, identifying with and supporting Manchester United with the same urgency. After the day I met Beckham, there followed a period in my boyhood where I’d patch chewing gum stickers of his. They would fade slowly off my skin. Newspaper cut-outs would also get glued to my bedroom walls.

There would later be a film, Bend It Like Beckham. About a Sikh immigrant family whose younger daughter has taken an interest in football since her pre-pubescent years. They let her kick about at the park until she turns eighteen and it begins to bother her parents. Her mother gripes to her father about her “exposing bare legs to strangers” and their daughter gripes to posters of Beckham in her bedroom…her dream, she tells his clean-shaven portrait, is to play for England one day. Her family would rather she polish her cooking, find a nice Indian boy and wear saris for him-not training gear. 

 

I read somewhere that no story sits by itself. That sometimes stories meet at corners and sometimes they cover one another completely, like stones beneath a river. I thought about it while talking to Dorcas Amakobe of Moving The Goalposts for #RealPeopleRealStories by Facebook. The premise of Bend It Like Beckham intersects with activities of Moving the Goalposts in the sense that they encourage the playing football as an alternative medium of expression, growth and identity for girls and young women alike. 

Dorcas will be the first to tell you of the different ways she connects with these young girls. The girls have grown up in a rural setting, so too, has Dorcas. If they have had to be bold in pursuit of their dreams, so did a young Dorcas. There wasn’t a shortage of strong women in Dorcas’ life, so today she finds herself as the same strong woman for budding young girls. What Dorcas’ grandmother did was instil values not contained in textbooks. The young Dorcas would remember to do her best, however mundane the chores in their homestead or in her studies. Dorcas would befriend courage, begin her long journey away from home in Western Kenya, invent and reinvent herself through social work, Feminist Leadership and a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies (Community Development). 

Today, as the Executive Director, you could call her devotion to these young women healthy and foundational for their future. Through the mere act of kicking a ball, the community norms surrounding these girls have also undergone a rehabilitation of sorts. 

Before this rehabilitation, there was a lot of concern about the intentions of MTG. Away from lesos, deras and cheap polyester dresses; they were dressing their girls in shorts. They were cushioning their otherwise bare feet with sports shoes. They were encouraging them to run around, kick about, get sweaty, sometimes bruised.  Like boys do. And if they kept at this, the fear that festered among the community is that their girls would start to grow muscles in their legs like boys. Yaani, if the family was expecting ten, or twenty cows as bride price, they would no longer receive as much compensation. Not when their daughter wants to play the games of boys. And if no one wanted them, then, overnight they would magically turn into lesbians. Anyone who narrates all this will find reason to chuckle for a bit. Because see how grand and silly the echoes of misogyny are. 

When you challenge some long-standing community norms, the way Dorcas Amakobe has, there is bound to be pushback. Some of the education they imparted on the girls was about their developing bodies. Families either talked about this in private or not at all and the girls would be left to wade their way through adolescence. No matter the gains Dorcas thought she was making, some parents still shut their doors and minds to MTG, the way one would shut the door to religious zealots.

Dorcas organised a match between the parents and the girls. In between breaks- and once the parents had worked up some sweat; it became easier to spark the conversation about children’s rights. Girls born into poor families along the Coastal region aren’t held in high esteem. If you add little to no schooling and the fact that they don’t have much sway at home or don’t get a share of the family property, you realise it’s no different to the fouls we witness during sports. It was wise for the parents to reconsider their positions. To begin playing fair. Or in the very least, let their daughters play ball.

Granted, they may not have been aware of the Beckhams, the Ronaldos and the Marta’s of the world. They may not have known any forms of entertainment, education or leisure. Still, the girls hit the ground running. To kick a ball was easy. A girl can kick a ball the same way a boy can kick a ball. And when they were made to understand this simple fact, it became easier to convince them that they were also capable of having dreams. Like boys do. They deserved basic and higher learning, like boys did. They could own businesses in future, buildings and vehicles, like boys did.

You catch the drift, most importantly, the girls did too. As these changes happened, Dorcas too experienced her own awakening. She belonged to an initiative which provided young women the opportunity to develop assertiveness, diligence and discipline through a simple team game. Things that put more emphasis on the girls and their individual stories. Values not contained in textbooks.

Since the girls were being groomed to think differently, they would outgrow timidity, begin to express themselves freely. Where some parents found this empowering, to the point of their daughters becoming prefects in school, others would mistake it for rudeness. In many ways, this desire to stand up for themselves became a positive consequence. The girls would begin to out their abusers. Anyone at school or in places of worship who would touch them funny, or had done something funny got caught. Moving The Goalposts drew attention to some of the darker practices within the community and like cockroaches to the white of light, some culprits would flee.

Dorcas has overseen the recruitment of girls from as early as nine up until they turn 25. She has seen them ‘graduate’ into resourceful members within their communities. Dorcas recalls, with the warmness of an aunty, the day one of the beneficiaries signed to play in the Israeli top division. The way kids grow is similar to watching a ramped up video of larvae turning into butterflies. In no time, they outgrow their cocoons, they fly- they travel, and be beautiful elsewhere. Others play locally for the Moving The Goalposts girls team which finished second last year in the National Premier League. Others delve into affiliated careers of radio broadcasting; some gain employment and further integrate MTG’s ethos onto younger minds.

She also speaks fondly of the year she turned 25. It’s when she gave birth to her firstborn daughter. It was one of her very important blessings during the ascent of her career. When her daughter turned nine, she enrolled her into Moving The Goalposts. Not only because she was leading by example but also because of how the initiative makes a strong, honest woman out of every young girl. She goes on to say that she derives her confidence-and attributes part of her success- to her husband. “I travel a lot. I am mostly not at home. Or when I stay in the office till late, he reassures me that he has a handle on things. I can rest easy.” 

As an initiative, Moving The Goalposts is aptly named. You’ve seen it’s an open secret, if a girl is born into a poor family, the goalposts in her life are of uneven dimensions. She ends up a part of a disadvantaged team, who try as they may end up with nothing to show for their lives at the end. MTG belongs to a category of folks in a society dedicated to using sports as a catalyst for change, to achieve gender equality and empower young girls for the benefit of society. Besides being celebrated during Facebook Africa’s RealPeopleRealStories campaign, they have been feted severally.

Owing to the success of Moving The Goalposts, benefiting over 10,000 girls to date, there are plans to expand the MTG’s initiative beyond the borders of the Coastal region. At the beginning of 2020, they had begun the process of registering as an NGO. To open more outreach centres across the country, the region and who’s to say they couldn’t go global? But for now, some of MTG’s plans have had to be scaled down. Dorcas Amakobe joins the long list of us who consider this pandemic to be a great spoiler of things. She is not proud to admit that there are already instances where the old ideas she has been fighting to kick out are winning. The girls’ options have shrunk once more, early marriages, abusers and the likes have come back in play. As if COVID-19 has subbed them back in the game. Where some of our girls come from, there are no roads, no smartphones, and obviously no internet. You find the only modes of communication are the mulika mwizi phones. Some families can’t afford them still. Dorcas and her team have tried keeping tabs on all their girls. A few successes here and there but a lot could still go wrong. “You don’t even know what to be fearful of when everything is upside down,” she says.

On a lighter note, here is something Dorcas Amakobe knows. On her list of the things she’s sure about, is what books to read. She reads a lot about how to relate with people- books the likes of which help to cultivate one’s social intelligence. She had most recently finished reading Who Moved My Cheese by Dr Spencer Johnson. Cheese being the metaphor for the things we’ve grown accustomed to and love. The book is a timely lesson on how quickly to adapt to change given what has been on the cards in 2020. Currently, she is reading The Subtle Art of not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson. Good luck trying to get her to say the title out loud. Ha-ha. She will send you a photo of the book instead. “It’s amazing. It teaches you so much resilience and how to pick yourself up and just value you.”  If you’re looking to end your year on an assertive note, Dorcas has just plugged you. 

Besides the MTG girls team, she casts a keen eye on Tottenham Hotspurs, currently top of the English Premier League. 

3000 years ago along the Nile, the ball was made out of rock, and round like the sun. They’d kick and punch it about and the captain of the losing side would be sacrificed to the gods. In 3rd century BC China, they played a game called Cuju, much similar. In ancient Europe, the ball was made of shreds of leather and hairs and the wisdom of that time dictated that girls were never to play such games. The wisdom of today is much more accommodating. You could say it’s a stubborn kind of wisdom since watching girls kick about may take some getting used to for some. But it’s good all the same. The change is happening with or without the skeptics.

Moving the goalposts via @theMagunga

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