My name is Johanna Omolo; I am 28 years old. I am a professional football player for Club Cercle Brugge in Belgium and the Kenyan National Football team Harambee Stars. Today, I want to share my story with you – the story of a boy from Dandora.
I was born and raised in Dandora until I moved to Belgium to become a professional football player. To paint a picture of where I grew up, Dandora is the biggest garbage dumpsite in East Africa and one of the largest in all Africa. It is home to all of the garbage collected from Nairobi’s 6.4 million people and businesses. Everything that no one wants gets dumped in Dandora.
When I go back, I know I am close to home whenever I start to smell and to be welcomed by the famous stink of Dandora garbage dump. It is unbearable. When I’m accompanied by guests, they all reach out to close car windows. It is often hard for folks to believe that I grew up here; it is even harder to believe that close to 1 million people still live around this smell every day from a dumpsite that reached its maximum capacity in 2001 where it was also declared a health hazard.
The trash here burns daily, forming and producing constant garbage smoke; filling the air that everyone breaths with toxic chemicals and garbage. Health wise, it was not the best environment to grow up in. We were exposed to all sorts of diseases as children. Around 6,000 people scavenge the garbage each day and some families even live inside and at the center of this garbage, foraging to find something to eat and to earn a living. Young kids and women are the most vulnerable, exposed to all kinds of illnesses.
Beside the garbage dump, what made growing up in Dandora tough were the gangs. D (as Dandora is affectionately called in Nairobi) is home to Nairobi’s toughest gangs. Growing up, gangs were everywhere – fighting and trying to take over the entire place. There were also cults used by politicians to force their agenda on people. These groups brought curfew on us; we couldn’t do anything without reporting to them. The gangs run the show. They collected funds for the dumping and for transportation. Often, people would be killed whenever a transition from one gang to another occurred. Looking back now, we literally lived in a war zone.
“When everyone sees a community in despair, I saw hope. When they saw drug addicts and criminals, I saw young boys and girls with potential.”
At the time, we were really young and it was scary for all of us. We were living around constant gun shots, police & gangs fights, these scenes would even find us in classrooms. It was unbelievable growing up in that environment. Many youngsters didn’t make it, they’d be recruited and they’d later be murdered by rival gangs or their own cults. Even if you weren’t a gang member but you were deemed to have done something wrong in their view; they would ‘gang up’ on you and beat you up … once, a friend of mine got his ankle chopped off.
Football saved my life.
People always ask how I managed to escape the violence and social ills that I grew up around. I point to two things. First, I survived because of my Mother. Growing up, my mother was quite tough on my siblings and me. She wanted the best out of us so she really gave us lots of tough love! She instilled in us a sense of discipline which prevented us from making the same bad choices that our friends were making. With poverty, not many of us managed to get 2 meals a day. So it was easy for us to get influenced to go into crimes or illegal activities to earn a bit. The temptation was there, but she never allowed us to even think about or entertain that idea.
Just because we were living under a dollar a day, it didn’t give us approval to misbehave or to engage in wrong doings.
Second, football; football has been everything for me since I was a child. As much as I benefitted from my mother’s tough love and discipline, there were also other good mothers who lost their sons to crime and drugs. But because I had football, every time I was tempted to join friends in illegal activities or into gangs, my love for football and the time I was putting into training became a blocking barrier. At some point, “even gang leaders would say we don’t want you to join us, you go play football for Dandora”.
When you’re from Dandora, no one believes a child from Dandora can get on a plane and fly away to Europe. No one thinks anyone wants anything to do with a kid from here. Even my own mother was skeptical about anyone seeing anything from me – after all, I was from here – I was from Dandora.
You see, in Dandora we have a culture of enjoying and celebrating football. Kids in Dandora are very talented. I started playing at a young age and by 12 years old; I thought I could really play football. All my focus was on football. I had many friends who turned the other way, because of the struggles of life. But I stayed focused on football and it saved my life.
From Dandora to Brugges
I had the opportunity to go to Norway through an organization called Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA). It was the biggest here; every kids dream was to play for MYSA and to make their annual Norway trip. The selection was done all around Kenya and you would be considered an elite player if you went to Norway with the Elites. Arnold Origi and Dennis Oliech are other known Kenyan footballers who have gone through the program.
As fate would have it, I got selected on my first round of trying but my mother refused for me to go. You see, when you’re from Dandora, no one believes a child from Dandora can get on a plane and fly away to Europe. No one thinks anyone wants anything to do with a kid from here. Even my own mother was skeptical about anyone seeing anything from me – after all, I was from Dandora. She didn’t like this whole idea. So she completely refused for me to go. I was bitterly disappointed and so was everybody else. It was a big deal.
The following year, we had financial problems at home. My father was on the verge of retiring. His job also didn’t pay much. We had lots of struggles and problems in the family. Thus, my mother thought about it, and finally gave her approval for me to head to Norway. I could perhaps bring something small on the table, since we were paid to go. I went for trials/selection, and fortunately I was selected again.
I then headed to Norway for 3 weeks. It was one of the best experiences in my life. Seeing kids my age, how passionate and professional they were about football. It really boosted the fire in me. At this time, I was 15 years old.
Two years later and after a couple of appearances for Kenya under20, I and three other boys (Iddi, Bwami, Sebastian) would soon get a chance to go to Belgium for trials with a number of teams. I was ecstatic and I was training as hard as I could. They took us to a club in Liege and fortunately we got admitted to the team and this was one of the best days of my life. It meant a lot, not just for me but for my family. For my community; I’d realized a dream. A boy from Dandora was now fulfilling his potential.
Many young kids who move to Europe in their early years struggle and face numerous challenges. Being away from home & family, learning a new language and even adjusting to a new playing style and expectations of being a professional football player can be daunting and many fail to pass the tests.
I knew that if I succeeded, it would be the success of the community. I simply could not entertain the idea of failure. I really wanted to make them proud. I felt like I had the entire Dandora on my back.
For me, when things got tough in those early days, I would think of what I left behind, and I didn’t want to go back to that. At least not empty handed! When you come from a poor family like I did, I knew that this was the chance for me to give a better life to my family. I needed to do this for them. As much as it was going to help me personally, it was also for them.
I had left hundreds, thousands of kids back home and I couldn’t let them down. From my family, my old team mates, the community, etc. I knew that if I succeeded, it would be the success of the community. I simply could not entertain the idea of failure. I really wanted to make them proud. I felt like I had the entire Dandora on my back.
Not a day goes by without me realizing how blessed I am. I was blessed with an opportunity that a lot of kids want to have but never get; I am living every kid dream. I am a professional footballer. From a dumpsite, I now live in one of the most beautiful city and region in Belgium. My two kids never have to grow up in a smoke and disease infested garbage dumpsite. I want to make sure that those kids growing up in Dandora today also have more opportunities that I did. This is why I play with all my heart.
Johanna Omolo Foundation –
One day, I thought to myself, how lucky I was to have been given this opportunity to play internationally. Growing up, I was not the most talented player on the field; my teammates were stronger than me. They were faster than me. Many of them were more skilled than I was. But somehow, I am the one who made it.
The more I meditated on this, the more I saw that I made it and they didn’t because of the small opportunity I got that they didn’t get. I needed to pay it forward, to give other children the opportunity to nurture their talent and create opportunities for themselves and their families. This is how the idea of the foundation was born.
At Johanna Omolo Foundation, we also put an emphasis on combining Football with education. Like Nelson Mandela, we believe that “Education is a weapon to transform lives”
I also knew the challenges we face as players in Dandora and Kenya. In Kenya, football wise, kids are not nurtured from the beginning to scout out those who are naturally talented. It is only when you’ve become talented and well known that they call you up to play for the national team. If I was able to reach this far, with the little training I had early on; how much more can a talented child achieve with proper training and the right opportunities? This is another thing I had in mind while thinking of the Johanna Omolo Foundation.
In Europe, between ages 12-16; this is where a players’ transformation happens. They are taught all aspects of modern football (Nutrition, game situations, game systems, defensive/offensive play) and grow up with a particular football system already instilled in them. This is why this kids are able to join 1st team football early on.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Belgium that I realized the lack in quality training back home and I thought: How can I solve this problem? If we have a chance to train these kids with the right values, structures, mindset… how many Ballon d’Or winners can we bring out of Dandora, out of Kenya, out of Africa?
At Johanna Omolo Foundation, we also put an emphasis on combining Football with education. Like Nelson Mandela, we believe that “Education is a weapon to transform lives”. We need our kids to get traditional education but also informal ones: we impress in our kids values of caring and giving back to the community. Our programs include – Mentorship, Community work, HIV AIDS/Drug awareness and Entrepreneurship among others. We are nurturing our children to be talented, educated and socially aware.
When you talk about Dandora, someone immediately thinks of the dumpsite. We want to change that narrative by showing the world that greatness can come out of the slums. We want to demystify this narrative. My life is proof that something can come out of Dandora, out of the slums, out of Africa…..
Today, outside of football, this vision is what keeps me awake at night. I often spend nights thinking about what more we can do for these children; what strategize do we employ, what new approaches do we take, whom do we build partnerships with etc. Thus far, we have 1147 children (male/female) registered in our programs at JOF. If we are lucky, 5-10 will make a career in football. How we’re going to make sure the rest succeed in other fields is something that never leaves my mind.
If you’d be interested in volunteering or supporting the Johanna Omolo Foundation, please send me an email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Johanna Omolo – Contributor – TAP Magazine