Playing to win

Attorney Frederik Eijkman gave up a comfortable life in the Netherlands to help the poor in Kenya. The results surprised everyone

Marco Visscher | November 2006 issue
The story of Frederik Eijkman isn’t about Frederik Eijkman—not according to Frederik Eijkman anyway. He figures the story should be about Joshua Owiti, Michael Anemba and Jairo Ochango, with whom the Dutchman set up Real Kisumu, a soccer team in a shantytown neighbourhood of Kisumu, Kenya, in 2001. The team has inspired a league, in which 80 teams now compete, offering a measure of hope and fun for hundreds of street children.
The story about Owiti, Anemba and Ochango started back in 1998 when Eijkman gave up his job as an attorney in Rotterdam to “do his part,” as he puts it, for the world. He settled in Kisumu, a city on Lake Victoria with a population of 330,000. Every Wednesday evening, Eijkman took to the streets to talk with the young people hanging out there. The conditions were miserable, Eijkman remembers, “but sometimes things were even worse at home.” He told the kids about Pandipieri, a youth centre where Eijkman was working and where they could learn a trade.
Owiti, Anemba and Ochango were glue-sniffing, criminally inclined adolescents when Eijkman invited them to Pandipieri, where their glue jars were confiscated, their rags replaced with second-hand clothes. Owiti and Ochango trained to become bricklayers, Anemba a tailor. When they had a free moment, they’d fashion a soccer ball of plastic bags and a piece of rope, which they would kick around. Later, they were guided by an experienced sports instructor who taught them to do more than dribble.
At the age of 20, Owiti, Anemba and Ochango were too old to make a serious attempt at professional careers, but they recognized the talent of some of the neighbourhood kids. That gave them the idea to train other kids to play in a soccer club: Real Kisumu.
The trio did their jobs well, with encouragement from Eijkman. The younger kids turned in their glue jars and began to learn things like team co-operation and ball control. Real Kisumu became an example to all. The kids raised money for jerseys, real soccer balls, goal posts and a summer camp where young people could talk about tricky issues like AIDS and puberty in addition to sports. Increasing numbers of street teams sprang up—including in the wealthier neighbourhoods of town—and the Kisumu Champions League was formed to give a few boys direct access to a sports scholarship to a local private school.
Says Eijkman: “I don’t believe economic growth is the only way to achieve progress and wealth. Manners and the social culture are also very important. Thanks to soccer, young people are developing self confidence, a feeling of pride and their own identity.”
The former attorney—who continues to work with the kids as an adviser—has since set up a commercial bank in Kisumu, PEP Intermedius, which issues loans to companies that are too profitable for microcredit and too small to be of interest to conventional banks… But that’s another story.
 

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