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Naomi Siombua, 15, builds confidence playing football in a Kenyan slum

Fifteen-year-old Naomi Siombua relaxes on the sideline between matches at a football tournament in Nairobi, Kenya.

As the 2006 FIFA World Cup kicks off, UNICEF and FIFA are campaigning to ensure a more peaceful world for children. This is a profile of one of Team UNICEF's star players.

NAIROBI, Kenya – Children growing up in the slums outside Nairobi face danger at every turn.

Rape, burglary and disease are common in a place where almost nobody has running water or electricity. In the worst areas, children are more likely to become addicted to sniffing glue than graduate from secondary school.

Naomi Siombua, 15, grew up in the slums, often doing her homework by candlelight. Her favorite team is Chelsea and she credits football with helping her avoid the violence that has ravaged many of her friends' lives.  

“I have friends who have been attacked by people and been raped,” she says between games at a local tournament. “Others are in bad company – they are taking drugs. But me, when I play football, I'm busy.”

Sports association helps out

Naomi says football provides the structure and healthy friendships that are difficult to find when you are surrounded by the violence of the slums. A natural leader, she plays striker on Mathare United, a team sponsored by MYSA, the Mathare Youth Sports Association.

Through a unique program that requires athletes to perform at least 60 hours of community service each month, Naomi receives enough money to pay her school fees and provide her mother and siblings with food – which is a big help, since her mother is currently unable to find work.

© UNICEF/Kenya/Nybo
Naomi is part of a programme that takes children from the slums and gives them a chance to escape a life of violence by playing football.

After a grueling tournament that her team won, Naomi returns to the slum. Hundreds of thousands of Africa's poorest citizens are crammed into the Mathare Valley. When you look across the congested terrain, all you see is a patchwork of metal roofs. Inside the shanties, as many as 15 people share a single room. Tonight, the sun is already beginning to set, and soon the entire slum will be swallowed in darkness. 

“This is where I live with my brother, my sister and my mother,” Naomi says, as she holds a candle inside the tiny room she calls home. “We sleep in this room and right now, we don't have electricity.”

Outside her room, a boy addicted to sniffing glue has passed out face-down in the dirt. He's not wearing any shoes, and his feet are caked with dirt and crawling with flies. Naomi realizes that football has helped her escape such a fate. It also keeps her at arm's length from the violent thugs who often patrol the area. She hasn't been attacked, but many of her personal belongings have been stolen while she was away at school.

“In our house, they have taken many things,” she says. “They have stolen my money and my clothes. When I come home, every day I find one thing missing.”

Unshakeable confidence

One of Naomi’s mentors at MYSA is Edwin Wasonga, 24, who grew up in one of the toughest parts of the Mathare slum. Like Naomi, he has used football to give his life direction and hope, two elements that are in short supply here.

“In Mathare, there's a lot of poverty, crime and violence,” he says. “Young kids, especially girls, are at a very high risk of being raped.”  In addition to instructing the girls on how to play football, Mr. Wasonga hosts educational sessions at the MYSA clubhouse in Mathare. Here, boys and girls learn the facts about HIV/AIDS before they find themselves in dangerous situations.

It is in this environment that Naomi has really flourished. She developed her unshakeable confidence on the playing field, but she carries it with her everywhere. Naomi says that more than anything, she wants to become a professional football player, like her hero, Ronaldinho.

But if she doesn’t make it to the professional ranks, she knows she can always fall back on her education.

“When I play football, I feel like I can do anything,” she says with a smile.


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UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports from Kenya on 15-year-old Naomi Siombua, who plays football in one of Africa’s most dangerous slums.
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