When three Salmon Arm women travelled to a village in Kenya to teach soccer to girls and produce a documentary, the learning went both ways and well beyond sports.
Lizzy Mair, Libby Olson and Kairo Mair spent just over a week in Akonjo, a village of about 2,000 people in east Africa, in February of this year.
Unexpectedly, washing clothes turned out to be one of those learning experiences.
The Akonjo women would go down to the river to scrub their clothes, so the Canadians asked to join them. Their host and contact for the trip, Jimmy Ouma Okello, escorted them.
“They look at you daggers – they thought we were really suspect,” said Lizzy of the women. “Jimmy would show us how to do it and they started laughing.”
Rather than lock their knees and scrub hard like the Akonjo women, the Salmon Arm women would lapse into a more familiar squat – which prompted the hilarity.
“Then they came closer. We asked them to help us and then they just melted,” Lizzy smiles. “It’s so great how that could be the ice breaker, washing our laundry with them.”
Jimmy Ouma told them the word quickly spread throughout the village.
“They were so shocked all these white women were down washing clothes,” recalled Libby. “I think that’s when they realized we wanted to learn from them.”
The trip had its roots in a visit from Jimmy Ouma to Salmon Arm in 2010. He came as part of a cultural exchange that grew out of a collaboration with Cathy Stubington of Runaway Moon Theatre. Liz has been a soccer instructor for many years and thought it would be great to offer a girls camp in Akonjo. Kairo met Jimmy Ouma at Shuswap Middle School, which was doing a fundraiser to improve water quality in the village’s stream.
The idea of a camp in Akonjo fit well with both Libby and Kairo, as both have had a passion for soccer and all it offers since they were little. Also, Kairo has been taking development studies at the University of Calgary, while Libby has been working on her motion picture arts degree at Capilano University in North Vancouver.
The documentary is nearing completion and Libby said she is excited to show it when it’s complete.
Another one of many memorable experiences in Akonjo was when the three women asked Jimmy Ouma to take them for a hike. Again, the news spread quickly through the village.
“He said, I don’t think they know white people can walk,” recounted Libby, explaining white people usually come through on safaris in big vehicles and wave to ‘the poor people’ as they drive away.
All the women comment on how generous and welcoming their hosts were.
As for soccer, teaching the girls was both a challenge and a joy.
The Canadians expected 20 girls and about 35 showed up. That was a challenge for just three coaches, one of whom was also filming.
Kairo recounted how overwhelmed she felt the first day or so, wondering if they would have enough time with the girls. But special moments made the difference. Seeing the girls’ amazement when they saw 20 soccer balls in one place. Playing volleyball over the laundry lines.
“Those little moments made everything else and the stress worth it,” she said.
The Akonjo girls were also extremely enthusiastic, determined and talented. They learned quickly. Their laughing was deep and joyful.
But commands like ‘spread out’ or ‘line up’ were tricky.
Lizzy says she realized after a while that in a place where resources are scarce, lining up means, if you’re at the end of the line, you could go without.
It also became obvious how pampered Canadians can be. In Akonjo, the girls were fine playing for three hours without water bottles and snacks. When the women of the village played netball, they didn’t have jerseys but would always know who was on their team.
Boys would come to watch the girls practise but were initially a little hostile. It was there that the skills of Jimmy Ouma would come in, always a strong supporter of girls while appeasing other members of the village. The boys were given a ball. They were involved in creating a net. When the girls played their wrap-up game at the end of the camp, the boys were asked to play an opener.
The Salmon Arm women marvelled at what a feminist Jimmy Ouma is, without ever being raised with that term.
He runs netball for young mothers. He asked that the gifts the girls were given at the end of the camp be sanitary pads, so they could continue their schooling and participation in village life. He continues to push for girls’ education.
“Jimmy told us of the 35 or 36 girls we had, only 10 of them will be available to go to secondary school,” said Kairo.
Once girls are 14 and finish Grade 7, they often are married and become pregnant.
During the cultural exchange spearheaded by Cathy Stubington and supported by Shuswap residents, 16 girls were funded so they could finish their education. The Salmon Arm women hope to continue that work.
Thanks to support from Salmon Arm and elsewhere, the women were able to leave sanitary pads, soccer balls, two nets and two sets of jerseys in Akonjo. Most of the goods were purchased in Kenya.
They want soccer to be sustainable in the village, rather than just a one-week camp. So far they’ve heard from Jimmy Ouma that the girls have been practising and he was hoping to hold a tournament.
Kairo says Jimmy Ouma is a kind of father figure in the village. She was pleased to see that his nephews “are morphing into little Jimmy’s.”
Read more: Group reaches out to Africa
Lizzy said the people in Akonjo came to understand what she and the two young women were doing as the days went by. At the end, the males relaxed and began cheering for the girls. More residents would join the Canadian women as they walked to the field.
One interaction in particular stood out for her. Lizzy said every day at the camp, they would get all the girls together to do a chant and a cheer that ended with, “Girl power!”
On the last day, she had to run back to the house for something. On the way back to the field, an “old, very wrinkly” woman, who would not have been exposed to women and sport, came up to her. At first, Lizzy thought she was going to say something mean. Instead, she did something that brought tears to Lizzy’s eyes.
“She grabbed my arm, and said, ‘Girl power!’”
If you would like more information or would like to help an Akonjo girl through secondary school, email Kairo at: firstname.lastname@example.org.