On the edge of Nairobi's teeming Mathare slum, while most residents are settling down for another night beneath a blanket of darkness, James Nduati stands beneath the glare of floodlights, gazing intently at the ball before him. The penalty shootout is locked at 1-1 and the 18-year-old goalkeeper must convert the decisive last spot kick to hand Starlight, a team of schoolboys and schoolgirls from nearby Dandora, victory in the inaugural Yingli Power Your Life Football Tournament.
The slight youth makes no mistake, and before the net has even stopped rippling, dozens of screaming and dancing Kenyan schoolchildren have invaded the artificial turf at Mathare's Football for Hope Centre to celebrate wildly with the players in scenes that would grace a FIFA World Cup™ final.
The five-a-side school team tournament is the first time the centre, opened at the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) grounds last year as part of 20 Centres for 2010 - the official FIFA World Cup campaign, which will leave a lasting legacy of 20 centres for education, public health and football in many disadvantaged African communities - has been able to host such an evening event.
Former South Africa captain and Football for Hope Ambassador Lucas Radebe, who as a boy was forced to stop playing on the dusty Soweto streets when the sun went down, has no doubt the solar lighting system donated by FIFA World Cup Sponsor Yingli Green Energy will improve the lives of the children. “I think with the lights coming on, it was such a great atmosphere; you could see the excitement, waiting for the kick-off,” he says. “I think the lights are going to pull a bigger crowd in, and ... make a big impact in this society.”
A beaming Moses Otieno Abondo, a key player from the team that consigned Mathare's Bridgeway to second place, was delighted to have the chance to play at night. “I'm really happy under the floodlights, it's as if I'm playing outside Kenya, in Stamford Bridge,” says the 17-year-old, who was the top scorer in MYSA's under-16 league in 2010.
MYSA, founded in 1987, has 25,000 members, and uses its facilities to provide not only football training and leagues, but peer education for youths facing crime, poverty, HIV/AIDS and grim living conditions in Mathare and surrounding informal settlements. Inter Milan's McDonald Mariga and Auxerre's Dennis Oliech cut their teeth at MYSA, while many members used the education they gained to further careers elsewhere.
The lights will allow the centre to stay open for an extra three hours – running for up to eight years with no maintenance – and hopefully bring further success stories. It is expected the facilities, which include computers and study rooms, will be accessed by up to 50,000 people in 2011.
MYSA's Football for Hope Centre manager, Stephen Muchoki, says the floodlit pitch will also be used to generate much-needed income by renting it out for corporate events. “The money that will be generated from the turf in the evening will go a long way in assisting MYSA and Football for Hope activities,” he says.
The story of young Moses illustrates how this extra income could be used. Moses lives in a shack in Dandora with his father, a casual labourer, while his mother and eight siblings still live in their hometown of Kisumu, western Kenya. Poverty kept him out of school for two years, until he won a football scholarship, but he is still so poor he had to borrow a pair of tattered old boots to play in the tournament. “I think renting out the pitch will help,” he says. “I will be pleased if we have boots, balls and strips.”
For Stuart Brannigan, Managing Director of Yingli Green Energy's European arm, the positive effect of the investment only became apparent when the lights snapped on automatically in the deepening dusk. "Until you're standing in the middle of the illuminated pitch with everybody all around, you don't really understand the impact it's going to have,” he says.
Earlier, Brannigan joined MYSA officials and dignitaries, including the Nairobi Mayor and the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, at a colourful opening ceremony full of dancing and singing. He told the boisterous young crowd Yingli's efforts were dwarfed by the passion and commitment of all involved in MYSA. “Our small streetlights are just some lights, but maybe they will help you in the battles you have ahead,” he said. “If we can help in some small way, that makes me really happy and proud.”
Bob Munro, Chairman of MYSA's Board of Trustees and founder of the association, told Brannigan the investment, which is to be repeated at the rest of the Football for Hope Centres, would bring its own reward for Yingli. "One of the things I've learned in all these years is if you bring some light into the lives of the youth of Mathare, then I promise you they will bring some light into your life,” he said at the opening ceremony.