Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My Kibera Girls Soccer Academy Story

My Kibera Girls Soccer Academy Story
By Jeremy Levinger

When I first arrived at the D.C. grounds entrance to Kibera to be escorted to the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy by the first student I would officially meet and connect with, Lynn Seru, I had no idea what to expect. What I was shown during the next six months was by far the most compassionate and connected community I have ever seen. I was given the amazing privilege of assisting with the poetry and theatre club, which was putting on their own play under the supervision of the wonderfully talented and enthusiastic Anne Moraa, Michael Onsando, Olly, Aguta Okwena, Naddya Adhiambo Oluoch-Olunya, Checkmate Mido, Kennet B, and more. I was soon blown away by all the raw emotion, vivid imagery, and pure emotional honesty portrayed in the poems and skits that the girls had created. Most of them revolved around gender roles in Kibera relating to education, as well as how Kenyan society views those who live in informal settlements such as Kibera and Mathare. For example, here are some lines from Lynn Seru’s poem I Represent: “Falling down does not make you a failure, but staying down makes you a failure, and you only live once, but if you live right, once is enough.”  Some poems addressed Kenya’s leadership, such as Irene Awinja’s If I Had Powers: “If I am a leader, I will always work – not only for my family…I will not choose who to help.” After months of rehearsal, the girls showcased their play at the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi and proved just how talented the young women in Kibera are! There were other times when individual students performed their poetry in other venues, such as for the Slam Africa monthly poetry competition at Dass Ethiopian Restaurant in Westlands. The girls were always determined to learn more, write more, read more, and spread a positive message for other Kibera residents.

            Outside of poetry and theatre club, I loved how intellectually curious the students were. For example, before travelling I was completely unaware how popular Mexican soap operas are in Kenya. I typically would have to rush back home to my host mom so we could watch Soy Tu DueƱa together, despite the not so great voiceovers. Once my students found out that I spoke Spanish, they would constantly ask me how to say phrases in Spanish, in hopes to understand full telenovelas on their own one day. I would try to translate everything I could, under the condition that they would teach me that word or phrase in Swahili or sheng (local slang).

            When I speak with some of the former students online, I am not shocked to hear they have went onto college and are securing influential job positions, such as in the local Kibera radio station Pamoja FM, and in local churches, start-up businesses for the community, and even back at Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. The warm welcomes that KGSA and the surrounding residents of Kibera showed me have yet to be matched in another internship or job position since. I strongly urge everyone reading to visit and volunteer with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy if you ever get the chance. I am also thrilled that the foundation is working on securing on-campus housing for students at KGSA! I encourage everyone to donate for this very worthy cause, since it can be hard to find tranquil and safe places to study in Kibera.  I will leave everyone with a quote that represents Kibera well, which one of the students told me during my first days with KGSA: “Be greatful or be a great fool.”

Below is a poem by Jeremy Levinger written during his time in Kenya.

If I were a Tree  (Ningelikuwa Mti)
If I were a tree, I would grow in the depths of Kibera; down there, like Lindi, or in the holes, like Mashimoni. I would grow where people respect my roots, because they know the beauty of what's hidden. My branches would gota (fist pound) every passerby and my bark would be stapled with flyers of Ohangla (traditional Luo music) and Reggae concerts. Mothers would carry unga (maize flour) under me and my leaves would protect them from the rain. I'd bear fruits for the local crazies, who need food for thought to reveal how clever they really are. I'd build seats where my ways split, so students could climb me to study and reach even greater heights. I'd have loose limbs that children could hang on to cross sewage water and my leaves would blow away smoke from burning trash. I would be a monument, so people could say "I live near the big tree". People would know where I come from and  would understand my roots, because underground is just a concept. If you look close enough, you would see my roots, drinking tears of abandoned mothers and drunkards, inspiring me to stand tall. You'd see green, deep in the heart of the chocolate city, and you'd hear the same birds that wake you up every morning. You'd see pain, gripping to the same beaten soil as usual, but I'm still smiling, still focusing on what I'm carrying; the nature of the community. If I were a tree, only the poor would hug me.