The first thing you notice is the smell. Imagine that you’ve fallen down a sewer. Or that you haven’t taken out the trash for a week, and now the stench has spread to the whole house and refuses to go away. That’s kind of what Dandora smells like, especially when it rains. But when you’re driving into Dandora, you notice more than just the smell.
You can see the toxic smoke that can smother the entire suburb. And then, finally, there’s the garbage heap. An ocean of trash, as far as the eye can see, with locals sifting through the rubbish. You see thieves. You see mothers and children. You see scavengers.
You see dogs, rats, vultures.
By this point any friends I might have brought along with me to my hometown have rolled up their car windows, turned to me and asked me the same thing:
“Johanna … how did you manage to live here?”
Yeah … it’s a good question.
Professional footballers are not supposed to come from Dandora. Nobody is supposed to come from Dandora. People in Kenya associate the place with poverty, drugs, crime, prostitution and trash. For the last 40 years, the six million people who live in the nearby capital of Nairobi have dumped their garbage here. The dump is one of the largest in Africa.
It reached max capacity around two decades ago.
But the trucks keep coming, bursting with filth and rotten food.
Ben Curtis/AP Images
If you grow up within a short walk of the dump, like I did, the stench drifts into your home. So does the smoke, which comes from people burning trash. I once saw a report from the U.N. saying that kids living close to the site had unusual amounts of lead and other metals in their blood, plus skin diseases and breathing problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. That’s the smoke.
But the saddest part about Dandora is the lack of opportunity. Nearly a million people live in Dandora and the surrounding slums, and so many of them are talented kids. But nobody ever comes to see them, because nobody wants anything to do with that place.
Nobody thinks that anything good can come from Dandora.
And so the kids give up. They begin to steal, often because they have to. Many people there live on less than a dollar a day. Some are homeless. Some families live inside the garbage heap because they need shelter. These people actually depend on the garbage. When a truck arrives, they will fight for the best positions for when the trash is released. They are all looking for the new stuff. The good stuff.
How did I manage to get out of this place? In short, I got lucky. I’m now a footballer in Belgium, where I live with my wife and two children. I’m healthy, I’m safe, I have fresh air.
I should be happy — and I am.
But … and I haven’t told this to anyone before … after I moved to Belgium, something kept haunting me for years, like a ghost. Whenever I’d go to sleep I’d remember what I’d seen in Dandora, what I’d left behind — and who I’d left behind. A voice would enter my head and refuse to go away. I have to do something. I have to do something.
I soon realised that this ghost was going to keep haunting me unless I did something about it.
So three years ago, I did.
But first, let me tell you my story.
Dandora has been a tough place for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t always dangerous. When I was growing up we could play football without worrying about our safety. It was just for fun, a distraction from our troubles. We’d play barefoot on gravel, with balls made out of plastic bags. When we got an actual football, it was like Christmas! On weekends we’d play organised games against other neighbourhoods, and the whole community would be there cheering. Sometimes the prize would be free milk. You knew then that it was going to be a tough game. Haha!
All of that was good. Really, really good.
But then the gangs began to fight.
When I was a kid, Dandora was controlled by one gang. They tried to run the community, telling people what to do. They were real bullies. But then at some point another gang challenged the established one. And this new gang … whoa. It was so big and organised. It was more of a tribe, you know?
So this war broke out between the two gangs. Man … it was vicious. No rules. So many fights.So many fights. So many deaths. And so much fear.
So many deaths.
And so much fear. The gangs controlled everything, and they wanted to demonstrate their dominance. They would even beat people up over tiny misunderstandings. One friend and teammate of mine had an argument with a 12-year-old kid. The kid looked harmless, but he was part of one of the gangs, so he told his bosses what had happened. One morning the gang turned up at my friend’s house, dragged him to their offices and beat him up. They took a machete and swung it at his ankle. His foot was left hanging like a piece of meat. I remember we looked at his leg afterwards, and, you know … it was … you just … you just don’t understand how somebody could do that.
The gangs affected every part of our lives. Once in school we saw a huge fight through our classroom window, and the teacher told us to take cover beneath our desks. The gangs were so feared that, if somebody screamed out one of their names, the streets would clear. This one time I was hanging out with a few football buds when a gang began chasing people because of some argument that had happened earlier. I was the youngest and the slowest, so I looked for a place to hide. But — and I remember this very clearly — people were shutting their doors as I was running. They didn’t want to let trouble into their homes. So, I was alone in the street, and I just remember thinking, My time is now. I’m gonna die. I’m really gonna die.
What made the paranoia so bad was that the gangs could harm anyone. I will never forget this one Sunday afternoon — it was 4 p.m. — when I was coaching a team of nine-year-olds. I was only 15 myself, but I felt a lot of responsibility because their parents had entrusted me to look after them. So, while we were training, three men entered the pitch to cross to the other side. A big crowd was chasing them, probably because of something they had stolen. One of the three guys was carrying a bag. We didn’t know it, but there was a gun inside. Like, a big gun. We had all stopped to watch them. When they reached the middle of the pitch, he suddenly fired it.
He just fired it! The gun was still in the bag. He wasn’t even aiming it at anything. And my kids were right there. Man, it was horrible … I think the guy was trying to scare the crowd, but imagine if he had hit one of the kids? They were just standing there, shaking, yeah? That moment … I really don’t understand it. Why? Why would you do that?
There was no way we could keep training after that. I just told the kids to go home.
Imagine what it was like for those nine-year-olds to grow up in that environment. So many of the kids in Dandora have dreams. So many of them have talent: in football, music, gymnastics. But you cannot tell them to be disciplined and work hard. You cannot, because they don’t have the platform to make anything out of it. They’d work hard … and for what?
Try to put yourself in their shoes. Say you play football for another six years. Now you’re 15. You want to become someone, but you don’t believe you will, because nobody from Dandora ever does. Of course, people have told you to stay away from crime.
But maybe you are the only son in the family. Maybe your little sister goes to sleep every night hungry. Maybe you feel you should do something for your parents.
Then one of your friends decides to join a gang. He goes out to steal. Suddenly he turns up in these nice clothes. He looks happy. His family is eating well.
And you? You’re playing football, sure. But is your family happy?
Are you taking care of your responsibilities?
That’s why crime is the biggest temptation for the kids. When I was that age, the kids who joined the gangs had to take a secret oath. And once you were in, you could not come back out. Man, it was like the mafia. If you tried to get out, they would probably try to kill you. And the kids who did join thought they were untouchable, like Superman. Even some of my teammates changed. One of them suddenly wanted to take my cap, like a bully. He was a friend of mine, we had been playing together for a long time … but all of a sudden we were enemies.
I was fortunate that I stuck to football. It helped that I had some inspiration. There was this guy from our area who had made the Kenyan national team. Pascal Ochieng. Man, this guy was everything to us. When I was 12, some friends and I would walk five kilometres to the stadium, in Kasarani, to see Kenya play. Jumping the fences and seeing him run out on the pitch … wow! That was a big motivation for me. One time I said, “Man, one day I will play there.” The others didn’t say it, but I knew that all of us were thinking the same. Yeah, I want to be there. I want to be there.
Kristof Van Accom/Belga via ZUMA Pres
By the time I was 13, the community knew that I was a good player. I was trying to make the selection of MYSA, which is short for the Mathare Youth Sports Association. They pick teams from Kenya to go to these training camps to Norway. But then something stopped me.
It wasn’t bad luck. It wasn’t the gangs.
It was my mother.
She didn’t want me to go. To this day I’m not sure why, but I think she was skeptical about a boy from Dandora going there. She was like, “Who do you think is going to let you go to Norway? They’re just gonna use you. You’re from Dandora! They’ll probably pick a kid from another area.”
Remember: Nothing good ever comes from Dandora.
The coach who had invited me to the trials tried to convince my mother. My friends tried. I tried. I told her that, if I went, I could bring back some money for the family.
She said, “No, no, no, no, no. We don’t need money.”
We don’t need money? Right….
It was clearly not true, but she was stubborn like that. And yeah … I was so angry. So angry. But she was my mother, you know? So what can you do?
Two years later, when I was 15, I was invited to the trials again. By this time some things had changed. My father was about to retire from his work in the fire brigade, and my mother, a hairdresser, knew we were struggling financially. I don’t know if that was what motivated her, but this time she said, “O.K., you can go.”
I was like, “Are you sure? Really?”
She was. She only said one more thing before I left: “Work hard.”
I knew I had to. We would train for a month in Kenya, where the MYSA coaches would eliminate players until they had the three teams that would then go to Norway. There were many players who were faster, stronger and more skilful than me. But I did what my mother had asked of me — I worked hard.
And I was selected. I went to Norway and the Netherlands to train and play in tournaments. When I got there, I understood why everyone had been fighting so hard to make the teams. The fresh air, the buildings … it was just another world, man.
For a child from Dandora to go there … it blew my mind.
When I came back to Dandora, my family, my friends and my neighbours were all congratulating me. I told my mother, “Mom, this is every dollar that I was given, and I’m giving it to you.” It must have been about 100 euros, but I’ve never seen her so happy and proud. That smile … wow. It was like she was a little bit lighter, like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. For a few weeks she would have something nice to eat.
That smile made me realise that I could do this, you know? That I could help my family with this football thing.
The trip to Norway also gave me confidence, because I knew that I was among the elite now. Soon I made the under-20 national team. Then one day I was contacted by a former Belgian footballer who had married a Kenyan. He was setting up an academy in Nairobi to take young players to Europe. I think some people in the community had told him about me, because he came to Dandora, organised a training session and asked me if I wanted to train at his academy. If I did well, he said, I’d have the chance to go to Belgium.
Wow. O.K., why not?
I trained so hard at that academy. I had seen Norway, I had seen my mother’s smile. I wanted more of it. After two months, I think, this guy brought me to Belgium, where I got a contract with a third-division team in Liège. And that was it.
I had made it. I was out of Dandora.
The first thought I had was to settle down, make some good money, help my family. But slowly I began to feel this weight. I realised that I was now Pascal Ochieng, the one who I and all the other kids in Dandora had looked up to. I felt pressure to succeed, to give them hope.
Maybe if I did well, some of the kids would follow me.
I began to play for my community back home. I wanted to be an inspiration, and I thought that would be enough. But something kept haunting me. Then one day I checked this Facebook group that people used to post updates about Dandora. I remember I saw a post about a 16-year-old boy from my area. When I saw the picture, I recognised him: Seven years earlier he had been one of the kids on the pitch with me when that man fired the gun. I was like, Hey, I know him. He was my player.
Then I read the article. The boy had been shot dead by the police.
Seeing that one of my players had been killed like that was too much for me. I couldn’t take it anymore. The gangs are not as violent now as when I was growing up because the government has done more to drive them out, but I know how many people are still in trouble in Dandora. Some are my friends. Some are my former players. Deep down I know there’s only one major difference between me and them: opportunity.A voice inside me kept telling me that I had to act. That I had to contribute. That I had to do … something.
I’ve been lucky. They haven’t.
A voice inside me kept telling me that I had to act. That I had to contribute. That I had to do … something.
So in the end, I did two things.
First, in 2016, I set up a foundation. We have about 20 volunteers in Dandora now who are helping young people through sports and education. We provide schools with scholarships, uniforms, shoes, transport, sanitary towels, stuff like that. Through a football academy, which we set up two years ago, we also try to provide a place for all youngsters, boys as well as girls, to train in the right way and show off their skills. If any of them are good enough, we use my contacts to try to get them into a team in Europe.
And then in July this year, I decided to join Common Goal. The idea is that professional players and coaches invest 1% of their wages to help football NGOs around the world. I think more than 130 players have signed up so far, which is really good. The money has helped youth football programmes in places like Zimbabwe, India and Colombia.
Common Goal have the same values that we have at our foundation. We have a motto at the academy: Keep the dream alive! If we can give the kids in Dandora a platform, they can do that. But without a platform, the dream dies. And dreaming is a powerful thing. Watching your hero play for Kenya, getting a smile from your mother … it can ignite something in your soul. That’s what happened with me.
Omar Zoheiry/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Of course, Common Goal might not benefit the kids in Dandora directly, although that could happen in the future. In any case, there are so many other places in the world with similar problems. They matter just as much as Dandora does.
All kids, no matter where they are growing up, deserve a chance to show the world what they can do.
So to all professionals who want to help: Take a look at Common Goal, who they are and what they stand for. It’s a really good thing. And 1 % … it won’t ruin you. I promise.
Also, when you join Common Goal, they do all the work for you — you just have to donate. That is a luxury I do not yet have with my foundation.
So far, the work has been a struggle. We don’t have sponsors yet. There are a lot of kids who, unfortunately, we are unable to help.All kids, no matter where they are growing up, deserve a chance to show the world what they can do.
But we have big dreams. Our aim is to build an agency that can take young players from Dandora to Europe. We want clubs and agents to go to Dandora, because whatever talent they need, they can find it there. And if we can make that happen, I know it will open a lot of doors for young people in Dandora. I really believe we can do it.
Until we get to that point, though, at least we are giving the youngsters in Dandora something: a platform, an opportunity to become someone. That way we can finally give them the advice they need to hear, knowing that their dedication can actually lead to something.
So what do we tell them? We tell them to focus, work hard, be disciplined.
Believe that something good can come from Dandora.
For more about Johanna’s foundation, visit johannaomolofoundation.org
For more about Common Goal, visit common-goal.org