Solar power brings night-time soccer to Kenya slum

Aileen Kimutai
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Youths take part in a training session illuminated by solar-powered LED floodlighting near Nairobi's Mathare slum

At eight in the evening two amateur teams of youngsters from one of Nairobi's toughest slums take part in a soccer match when normally they would be long gone home to avoid the insecurity of the streets of Mathare after dark. But since the local football stadium became the first in Kenya to be equiped with solar powered floodlighting all that has changed

It is eight in the evening and amateur teams of youngsters drawn from one of Nairobi's toughest slums are locked in a five-a-side soccer match.

Normally they would have gone home long before dark to avoid the unsafe night-time streets of Mathare. But that was before the stadium became the first in Kenya to get solar-powered floodlighting, an incentive to stay on.

"We have already begun to see the changes. There is a big turn-out of teams who want to use the pitch for training in the evenings," said Stephen Muchoki, manager of the Mathare Football for Hope Centre.

The development is a direct legacy of the first football World Cup in Africa held in South Africa last year: governing body FIFA afterwards chose 20 African groups to house a Football for Hope Centre to promote the sport, as well as health and education.

One was the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) to which the new solar lighting system was donated by China's Yingli Green Energy Holding Company, quoted on the New York Stock Exchange.

On top of the extra four hours of light a night provided by the new system, football players welcome the chance to practise away from the glare of the powerful equatorial sun.

"During the day, the sun is too direct but at night it is (now) easy to see the ball without straining," said 16-year-old Edwin Ivusa, a Kenya under-17 international who aims to enter the national team in five years.

"Training at night is good for our fitness," added striker Kevin Irungu, a former ball boy. "We run a lot -- always on the ball -- and we don't get tired."

"I didn't think I would ever have a chance to play in a field like this. But the centre has made us believe in ourselves and think we can do even better and that good things will come," he said.

Muchoki expects the newly flood-lit pitch to attract more players, and also to be rented out for events to raise funds for the association.

"We are targeting kids between the ages of eight to 18 and also the retired former players who are too busy in the offices during the day and want to train at night," he said.

MYSA was founded in 1987 and prides itself on having transformed the lives of more than 20,000 Kenyan youths living in the slums through training drills and courses ranging from football coaching to life-saving.

"These drills are very educative because they touch on every aspect of the daily life in the slum areas. They require a lot of concentration and skills from the participants," said games coordinator Robert Chege.

Programmes are based on those of Streetfootballworld, a non-profit Berlin-based organisation which uses the sport to promote development and gender and social equality in disadvantaged areas.

The Mathare association has a strong showing in ranks of street football -- a low-budget version of the game that can be played barefoot in the street without referees -- and dominated the previous two street football World Cup competitions in Germany in 2006 and South Africa in 2010.

Alongside its sport training, it runs programmes on HIV/AIDS education and organises clean-up groups to help prevent the spread of disease in Mathare, which is a collection of mud and corrugated iron shacks without sanitation or infrastructure.

Its pick as one of FIFA's "20 Centres for 2010" was a boost for its years of work. This centre as well as ones in South Africa, Mali and Namibia have progressed well and are already hosting young sportspeople.

The Mathare stadium is the only sports facility in Kenya with a floodlighting system outside the two stadia in Nairobi -- Nyayo National Stadium and the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani -- which are powered by the national grid.