How soccer is giving hope to former footballers condemned behind bars

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BY DAVID ONJILI

As Kiarie Mwangi, a volunteer trying to reform prisoners using soccer around the country, and I drove into the compound of GK Kamiti Maximum Prison, I had mixed emotions. I trained myself not to expect anything but allow the experience be my guide. I blocked my mind from any pre-conceived bias. Suddenly, reality dawned. Kiarie instructed me to leave my cell phone, wallet and any money that was on me in the car and only carry my national identification card. Still, I was not sure of what to expect. All I knew was the realization that I was losing my freedom.

Suddenly, an officer peeped through a hole and ushered us past a three-meter long wooden door and into the reception where I could only peep outside from a steel window. Freedom was all gone; I exchanged my national identification card with a gate pass number 56 with strict instructions not to lose it. That’s when I actually realized that I was walking into a maximum prison. An area that hosted hard criminals segregated from society.

Immediately we went to a screening room and I had to remove my shoes and belts for screening after which another prisons officer came with a cell phone and took my image. Later our host, the man in charge of football at the correctional facility and a prison warden came and alongside Kiarie, the first gate was opened and we walked inside.

Most inmates wore their traditional black striped uniform. A few others were in navy blue trouser and top. I was introduced to one who I was told was a trustee. Having served fifteen years so far, and on the recommendation of the warders, he was viewed as a reformed prisoner. As we walked, there were prisoners in a carpentry workshop who stopped to stare at us. I was shown a building block where controversial cleric Gilbert Deya was and opposite it was another block where I was informed that terrorist suspects were locked up.

Finally, we reached our destination, the football pitch. 10am. Here hundreds of prisoners were already round the pitch awaiting a game between ‘Portugal’ and ‘Morocco’, two sides composed of inmates that were going to compete in the ongoing GoTv Prisons World Cup matches. An initiative by Kiarie Mwangi and other well-wishers to give back to prisoners who were former players a chance to remember the life they once had.

The excitement of being on a football pitch full of spectators was enthralling until I soliloquized and came to the realization that I was surrounded by a group condemned as hard criminals. For a moment I was afraid, I scanned around and saw warders, but what if it went wrong. I trusted my hosts, yet, the joy of football was far greater than any fear. The ball being tossed in the air, players warming up and the GK Kamiti Maximum Prisons football coach, Moses Opula beaming ear to ear when he saw us arrive erased all this fear and there I was lost in the mood.

Football is a universal game, its purpose is to unite, whether rich or poor, young or old, we all speak one language and that’s football. It makes strangers hug when goals are scored, and others cry when their teams lose or irresponsible wagers bet their wealth during games. It’s football. The initiative to get inmates playing football is a welcome distraction to them. Isolation in cells and stigma that they face is easily forgotten once the referee blows the whistle.

Football is guided by laws, on the pitch you have a captain and on the touchline your coach and the substitutes. The game instills order, since you must use the feet to play, you have to remember that no matter how good you are, it is a team sport and the success of your team is collective. The referee is there to instill order and whether you love the call they make or not you are bound by the rules of the game to obey him. There is punishment for rough play or disobeying any other rule of the game. and the referee will penalize you by issuing you a yellow or red card at times it costs your team who may concede a goal due to your indiscipline. Either way, they are rules of the game; the discipline the game requires is what life in the real world is all about.

While a natural observer may just view the game as kicking after some round object, it is much deeper than that. At the end of each game, we have a winner and loser but we all shake hands and embrace knowing that the battle ended with the final whistle and we remain family.

Instilling these life lessons that the game offers has been the reason behind the formation of this Prisons World Cup by Kiarie Mwangi. The prison warders keep in a good word for the boys, while I try not to be carried away, cognizant of the fact that these individuals are here for crimes they committed, ranging from murder, robbery with violence to rape. I know that people do reform and they can offer lessons to those who have not made the mistakes they themselves have.

Former Harambee Stars team coach and current Mathare United coach, Francis Kimanzi, Tottenham’s and Harambee Stars captain Victor Wanyama and Kenya Premier League chairman Jack Oguda are just a few of the high profile football names that have spent their time here to remind them the prisoners that there is hope and that they can turn their lives around and be better people.

Three footballers stand out, Edwin Shilebwa, a former Jericho All Stars player born and raised in both Eastleigh and Mathare North. He is in for life for robbery with violence. Tedium Rogers, a former Mathare United and Utalii FC player who has been in Kamiti since 2000 for robbery with violence, and Moses Opula who featured for Mathare United in 2001 and AFC Leopards in 2014. Currently Opula is the football coach and is a proud father to a 14-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter. Opula was convicted to life imprisonment for robbery with violence.

NBM’s David Onjili, fourth from left and Tedium Rogers, formerly of Mathere United FC on his left

The prisons league is comprised of 75 players and keeps them busy during the day as they hone their skills with some reminiscing their footballing years. The story of Kenyan football and crime and gangs is not a new one

“Na kama dingo ndio role model mtaani, si vijanaa watataka kuwa kama yeye?” (If a thug is the role model in the neighbourhood, wouldn’t we want to be like him?), said Byron Otieno, a former Kariobangi Sharks player here for robbery with violence. It depicts just how many youth in informal settlements look up to wrong role models. The desire to fit in and have the finer things of life like the latest clothes, jewellery and a Smartphone is what drove and continues to drive many of these players into crime.

Let’s face it, unless you are playing for top Kenyan football clubs like Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, Tusker FC, Mathare United, Bandari just to mention a few, most Kenyan footballers live on the breadline. Salaries delay for months and even contracts signed by players are not respected. It is a tough life for the players especially in these harsh economic times the country is facing. Factor in the fact that they have dependents and you see the pressure to make ends meet.

Players are very young people who fall victim to trends of fashion and the insatiable appetite to fit in. Without proper guidance and a desire to fit in, a number of them seek ways to supplement their income and this often times includes a life of crime and drugs.

Osborne Monday is an example of a player who was once on the watch list of the Anti Terrorism Police; it took intervention of then Football Kenya Federation president Sam Nyamweya and a sustained online battle by the local soccer fraternity to have him off the watch list and not eliminated. Whether innocent or guilty it showed just how entrenched football was an avenue for such acts.

Known footballers have been gunned down several times when they were in the company of gangs and the story of Daniel Nicodemus Arudhi, a professional footballer who lived a double life that included crime has been told and debated in the Kenyan Parliament. His bullet riddled body was found on the cold concrete floor of City Mortuary on the June, 1981 amid suspicion and speculation that then famous and feared police reservist Patrick Shaw was the one who had done the job of eliminating him.

The players I spoke to at GK Kamiti Maximum Prison admitted that it was during such times when they either had an injury or were out of contract or just mere pressure and with a lack of a father figure did they join this life of crime. While there can never be an excuse to breaking the law, we can ensure that the upcoming generation is made aware that a life of crime does indeed have no positive reward. That eventually, the long arm of the law does catch up with you. Similarly, those convicted must never be segregated; they have a story to tell, a testimony to give that young and upcoming footballers can always learn from. Not all young boys and girls with a dream of playing football will make it as professional footballers but the values of football, those of teamwork, obedience to the rules of the game, respect to match officials and coaches should be used in real life to ensure they remain responsible.

Mathare United FC, a community based club has over the years tried to bridge this gap. Their player contracts stipulate that salary is earned as follows; 70% coming from their duties as players on the pitch and 30% from community service. The club encourages them to impart their football knowledge by coaching a junior team of choice in their neighbourhood. This is also supported by the fact that the team visits schools, children’s homes, and hospitals whenever they are travelling the country for league games where they mentor upcoming players, cook and share meals. A number of their players are trained counselors on drugs, HIV/AIDS and nutrition. They impart this knowledge to society and this is tabulated by the club to make up for their salaries at the end of each month.

Half an hour later, 20:30am, the game between ‘Portugal’ and ‘Morocco’ ends with the former emerging victorious by four goals to one. Immediately, the bell chimes and the other prisoners leave for their cells for a head count and lunch as we remain with the football team. One of the prisoners tells me that there exists another life behind the cell steel doors, one of survival, where you must be both a fox and a lion, or either to survive. One that he wishes no young man would be exposed to. He reminds me that at times in prison you may never know what day it is because of the routine. That the freedom we enjoy and take for granted may mean less when we have it but the day it is taken away from you is when you know how important it is.

I relate to this, it’s almost half day; I have not had my cell phone, have not had the freedom to move as I wish because I am here with them. While mine is temporary, theirs behind bars is a lifetime. As we leave with my friend Kiarie Mwangi, I am left reflecting just how we take things we have for granted.

While efforts by successive governments to reform prisons are appreciated, it is this account of using football that draws my affection and respect. While the world is fixated on the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia, Kenyan prisoners too at GK Kamiti Maximum Prison have their own version that runs parallel and are looking forward to seeing the winners emerge.