Backstory: Soccer dreams on a field of reality

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

An errant pass lands at the feet of towering defender Charles Omondi. Neighborhood kids chant "Tosh!" comparing him to reggae icon Peter Tosh of Bob Marley's Wailers. Charles abandons his defensive position to attack, delighting fans and maddening teammates. Shorter legs rush to challenge him, but Charles lopes the length of the field, unleashing a missile into the net.

Charles grew up dreaming of playing for Kenya's national soccer team – an echo of a dream shared by kids around the globe who hang on each bit of news from the World Cup soccer championships. But, raised in Nairobi's Mathare Valley slums, a sprawl of scrap-metal shanties housing 600,000 squatters, Charles had to quit school early so his sister could afford to continue her education. Because job opportunities in Kenya's formal economy are rare these days, Charles focused on improving the slum's living conditions.

His development work is already paying dividends. Charles recently raised $4,000 from the Australian High Commission for a failing slum school.

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"We work hard to move out of here, but we also work hard to make here a better place," he says.

Back at the field, Charles sits exhausted after the referee's final whistle. As he loosens dusty laces, he speaks of his future: "Our team is a stepping stone. We are looking forward to play for the best team ... not [just] in Kenya, but all over the world."

Despite his lofty goals, he's pragmatic about both development and soccer: "But first of all we have to start with home."

More photos can be seen at www.jbreed.com.

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