She is better known as Kenya’s first professional female football star and the first woman to play in an international league. Lately, she has been busy doing something she does very well – being a football ambassador.
Since April this year, Doreen Nabwire has been the guest of DJK Sportverband, a youth sports association in Cologne, assisting the organization to prepare one of the largest German youth football tournaments. This engagement is a clear indication of the impact that this young Kenyan has made on the German soccer scene.
Triumphs at home and abroad
Nabwire came to international fame long before she started playing in Germany. As a member of the Mathare Youth Sports Association team between the ages of ten and 21, she represented Kenya in numerous international tournaments. The most memorable event was when she led her U-14 team to victory at the Norway Cup in 2001 and was awarded the Golden Boot for best player of the tournament. She was only 14 then. More success was to follow. At 15, she got an early call up to Kenya’s national women’s team, which she eventually captained. She is also a winner of the 2006 Street Football World Cup and the FIFA ambassador of “Football for Hope.”
Her debut in Germany was at Werder Bremen, a team in Bremen, where she played in 2009/2010 season. “After playing for Werder Bremen, I got invited to go to the Netherlands to do the UEFA C training, which is the third highest coaching license. During this time, I also played for Zwolle, which is a premier league team.”
Whereas she cannot yet claim to be a football legend, Nabwire acknowledges that she is here because of her talent, and because European sports managers recognize and work with potential sports role models. “Here, it is believed that everybody has a special gift that if discovered, can be used to change lives,” she says.
Her gift obviously goes beyond football; she is able to motivate people. Nabwire has a book to her name, which she intends to translate to English so that Kenyans can also read her inspiring story.
A dream for Kenya’s women football
Success has come on the international scene, but Nabwire seems to be restless, her gaze directed homeward, where she feels her actual success lies. She confirms that she is still an active player and will be playing competitively for the next two seasons. At the same time, she is implementing various initiatives to promote girls football in Kenya – a feat that seems unachievable under the prevailing conditions.
“Kenyans have welcomed the idea of women playing football. They have nothing against it. But the government is not making an effort to save the game,” she complains bitterly.
The first women’s football team was established in 1985 and the Kenya Women’s Football Federation in 1993, but it was incorporated into the Kenya Football Federation in 1996. However, unlike the men’s premier league which is much more organized and structured, the 2013 national women’s league has been postponed repeatedly due to lack of sponsorship.
Today, Kenya’s average position on FIFA rankings currently is a dismal 122. To illustrate just how poorly Kenya’s women are doing on the international scene, Nabwire speaks almost laughingly of Kenya’s game with Ethiopia. “Although Ethiopia’s team has not been existence as long as Kenya’s when we played them last October, they beat us 5-0. They were the professionals in the field while we looked like beginners.” She blames this humiliating defeat on poor management and lack of consistency.
Having played in both worlds, Nabwire, more than other female players, can appreciate the natural talent that is getting lost by the wayside because of dithering sports managers. “In Europe, football lessons on dribbling and doing tricks with the ball are a part of the school curriculum. In Africa, football runs in the blood. If you throw a ball at some children who have been taught nothing, they will do wonders with it. It is pure talent just waiting to be developed.”
A good foundation on which to build women football it would seem, but only with commitment to consistent training and nurturing of talent.
“I feel like the generation before me that had such good players and my generation have been wasted, but we have great potential in the generation coming after us, and it is saddening that they will get wasted if things do not change.”
It is this thought that is driving Nabwire back home with the hope that she can use the lessons she has learnt during her European stints. After her training in the Netherlands, Nabwire and likeminded footballers founded Girls Unlimited, a community based organization to promote women’s football and life skills among girls from humble economic backgrounds in Nairobi and its environs. Nabwire has also been working as a coach at the Ministry of Youth Affairs National Talent Academy, whose Matuu FC team clinched the 2012 Women Premier League.
Other initiatives that are promoting women football talent include Mathare Youth Sports Association, where many of today’s players started as youngsters, other community organized clubs, secondary schools and the Safaricom Sakata Ball.
When the DJK Sports association, the organizers of the largest ever German youth tournament that was held on 30 June 2013 learnt of Nabwire’s engagement with sports for social change and development, they invited her to be the Ambassador of Hope. She visited clubs in Cologne and neighboring cities, held training sessions and mobilized more girls teams to participate in the event. On the final day, there were a total of 150 teams. According to Nabwire, that in itself is a lesson on how to identify and support youth talent. “It is challenging to see the high level of organization in those amateur teams; I keep asking myself why we cannot do the same in Kenya.”
The lessons she is learning seem to evoke bittersweet yearnings that are shared by many young and upcoming female sports stars in Kenya. “I feel the pain of being wasted. I know a fourteen year old girl who sees herself as a star and wants to follow in my footsteps. My wish is to work with such players so that they can make it where I did not. Whereas I have inspired many people here in Germany, I believe the young starts at home need me more,” says Nabwire.
As her current task draws to a close, the international football ambassador’s mission is to bring ideas and lessons back to Kenya that if implemented, could make women’s football something to capture the nation’s attention.