My Kindred Country: Creating Safe Spaces through Basketball


By the end of my first week in Kenya, I have truly settled in. I am no longer waking up at 3 am. My sense of time has synced with the rest of the country. I”ve learned the currency exchange and a few key words in Swahili. When in Siaya, my skin color attracted attention; in Nairobi I blend in a bit more. After years of reading up on Africa, my hosts are impressed with my knowledge of their country. The concierge confuses me for an American tour guide. I feel at home.

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Nairobi is an incredibly diverse city. Nearly three million people call it home and they come from all over the world. Nairobi, like the rest of Kenya, is also full of contradictions. The park across from the hotel I am staying in is one of the most beautiful I”ve seen, green and lush and full of various types of plants and foliage. People picnic there in the day, taking in the incredible panorama of the city skyline. At night, however, it is a place of violence and danger. It”s almost as if Nairobi is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde. At night, the entire city is transformed into a different entity altogether.

After a debriefing at the CARE office on the days ahead, I am chomping at the bit to see our Sports for Social Change (SSCN) programs. Led by technical advisor Dr. Auma Obama, CARE”s SSCN uses the convening power of sports to engage impoverished youth with each other and their communities. It”s a pretty simple concept with some pretty powerful results.

Through sports, CARE is teaching important life skills in a structured setting. Similar to the Village Savings and Loan model, the camaraderie formed through sports teams makes sharing and discussing often difficult and private issues with others easier. And as anyone that can remember their growing years can attest, having a support network is critical. At the same time, physical activity is proven to build self-esteem and confidence. Girls in sports learn how to effectively communicate, negotiate, the list goes on and on. CARE has seen firsthand that the positive change that happens in a girl participating in sports is often passed on to her family, her neighborhood and her larger community. The ripple effect at its best.

The SSCN Network, formed in 2007, is a coalition of CARE partner organizations that all take this same approach to girls” empowerment. The partner organization on today”s agenda was Safe Spaces. At the core, it means an equation that roughly translates to “Basketball Team Environment + CARE Empowerment Approach = Strong Girls.’ But Safe Spaces has other factors playing into it, which makes its success even more incredible.

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Take Mamu for example. Mamu is a typical 17 year old girl. She”s feisty and talkative and is constantly laughing and gossiping with her friends. She wants to be a broadcast journalist which means she”s fascinated with the cameraman”s equipment and constantly asking him questions. (I”m here escorting a media crew to see CARE programs). But Mamu was engaged to be married at 13; with six kids at home, her father couldn”t afford to turn down a nice dowry. She grew up, and still lives, in the slum. In fact, I am shocked when I hear one of the girls refer to the area where the basketball court is as “where the middle class live.’ They all live deep in the slum and come in to the Eastlands area to play basketball. To my naïve eyes, it looks like we”re in a slum now. I”ll later see how worse it can get.

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Mamu”s past is a tough subject for her still. She cries when she talks about it. All she wanted was an education so she had to leave home to avoid getting married. That didn”t happen and she joined Safe Spaces. Now”s she”s a senior leader, coaching and mentoring younger girls both on and off the court. It”s through Safe Spaces that she realized she's powerful as a girl; that she can be more than just "the kitchen or the mother."

I met girl after girl like Mamu. Florence, who wanted to be a mechanic so as to follow in her father”s footsteps (She”s now doing it!). Dorcas, who escaped from domestic violence. Girls that were trapped, had no path for the future but who are now going after their goals.

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One of the most remarkable girls I met was the girl, now woman, who started Safe Spaces, Peninah Nthenya. Peninah is quiet and fades in the background, preferring for her girls to run their own program. She grew up in the slums of Nairobi, but like many of CARE”s partners and staff, once she got out, she turned right back around to help the community she had left behind. Since founding Safe Spaces in early 2008, Peninah has mentored hundred of young girls using basketball, yoga, and dance as a means to talk about various issues that affect young females in the slum. Although I had the great honor of meeting her during our debrief at CARE”s offices, she was not there the day NBC visited her program. Her funding was in jeopardy and she had to take a last minute flight to Canada to convince donors the program was worth investing in.

After playing some hoops and facilitating a life skills session on the court, Mamu and the senior leaders headed to Safe Dishes. Since a career as a professional athlete may not be a sustainable dream for many of the girls, they formed a small café where they could supplement their income and learn skills they could apply in the service industry in Nairobi when they”re older. It”s a very simple building, lacking the décor of Western cafes. But the food is good, the service is great and the sense of community is really strong once you walk through the doors.

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Cooling off with a Fanta, I got a chance to talk with a number of Safe Spaces participants. They all love basketball and light up when you ask about it. And oddly enough, the majority of the girls are Boston Celtics fans. I”m still trying to figure out the connection. But what they really get from it, one girl tells me, is a self of self worth. Sometimes just having one person believe in you is all you need to believe in yourself. And there”s definitely more than one.

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As we wrap up our day and head back to the hotel, I think how lucky I am. Lucky to have been able to meet such incredibly strong and smart women. Lucky to work for an organization that believes so much in the power of a girl. Lucky to have the opportunities that I have had and to be able to see CARE”s programming on the ground. But most of all lucky, and humbled, to have the great responsibility to carry these girls” stories back home. I hope I don”t let them down.