At a massive youth soccer tournament last weekend in Nairobi, the competition was peaceful, and the hope in Kenya is that the election season also will be peaceful.
Kenyans want to avoid the kind of violence that occurred after the 2007 elections. In Nairobi's Mathare slum, one of Africa's poorest and largest and a hotspot of violence in 2007, more than 20 people have died as a result of inter-ethnic fighting in recent months. Bob Munro, who created the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in 1987, thought that a big tournament might be a good way to ease tensions.
Munro has an impressive track record. MYSA was designed, in part, to employ sports to help youngsters gain self-confidence and leadership skills. Besides offering athletics, the nonprofit supports activities that fight child labor, creates libraries and study halls, and helps kids with disabilities and those in prison. Entirely owned and operated by young people, MYSA is the largest self-help youth sport-for-development organization in Africa, with more than 25,000 members, including 4,000 girls. The model has been copied elsewhere in Kenya and in numerous other countries.
The two-day Football4Peace tournament, supported by the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), aimed to increase awareness of the importance of free, fair, and peaceful elections among Mathare residents, particularly youths. Over 3,000 kids, from 11 to 16, took part on ethnically diverse teams.
The potential impact of such activities has been documented. An MYSA report concluded that "...no other social activity has the same potential and power as ethnically-diverse team sports for kids in reducing ethnic prejudices and tensions, promoting reconciliation and maintaining peace. After playing with your neighbours on the field, it simply becomes harder for kids to develop or sustain ethnic and other prejudices off the field. It also becomes harder for their parents to sustain their ethnic and other prejudices after cheering their own kids and their ethnically diverse teammates and friends on the field."
At the Mathare tournament, MYSA volunteers passed out voter education materials, and spectators and players were encouraged to sign banners pledging peace during the election. The voting will take place Monday, March 4, with a possible run-off in April.
One of the fans there was U.S. Ambassador Robert F. Godec. He spoke to players and other community members about the importance of free, fair, and peaceful elections, reiterating major points from President Obama's recent video message. While chatting with some of the younger players, the Ambassador asked some of them what they wanted to be when they grew up. "An ambassador!" one exclaimed.
The tournament is just one sign that Kenyans are seeking creative ways to make the elections a success. The State Department, USAID, several other countries, and a variety of NGOs are working alongside citizens and the Kenyan government in pursuit of that same goal.