NAIROBI - In the year 2000, a football team was founded in a slum of Nairobi plagued by crime. The football team would later be named Kariobangi Sharks, Kariobangi being the name of the informal settlement the team members hailed from.
The team became a source of hope, an escape for talented youth with an interest in football, some who might otherwise be involved in criminal activities. In the last two decades, the team has risen to the top of Kenya’s football league, nurturing talent and giving hope to a new generation of players.
When Eric Juma was 11 years old, he spotted a group of young boys training at a football pitch near his house in one of Nairobi’s many poor informal settlements: Kariobangi.
This particular team stood out for Juma because it seemed organized.
He would join the team soon after.
Juma was then 11 years old. Now he's 25 and captain of the team.
“Football has really helped me as an individual,” Juma said. “First it kept me busy. We never had enough money for my further education, so I had to join football. Football has made me who I am today because it kept me busy and maybe I stayed away from other things that I could have done like other people in Kariobangi that ended up maybe in jail or dying.”
Right side of the law
Kariobangi is plagued by unemployment and crime, and Juma said many of his childhood friends ended up in gangs. Most of those friends, he said, are now dead, killed by police.
The Sharks kept Juma on the right side the law, but being a team from a poor settlement brought its own challenges, he said.
“We never had money way back. We used to go to Mombasa, Kisumu all those times. We didn't even have enough money to buy mineral water, so we used to carry water from Nairobi to Mombasa," Juma said. “Those are some of the challenges we faced as a team and as a player individually, sometimes you don’t have football shoes, you have to borrow from another player when they are not playing.”
In 2019, Juma had one of his greatest days, as the Sharks defeated British football team Everton, winning the game 4-3 on post-match penalties.
It is not clear who organized the young boys who founded the Kariobangi Sharks.
Residents says the group of young players organized themselves, then received donations and began competing in tournaments.
Such donations they say came from well-wishers,who included the current Kenya football federation chairman Nick Mwendwa, who is credited as the founder of the club.
In any case, the Kariobangi Sharks have gained a huge fan base in Kenya, competing in the Kenya’s Premier League with more than two dozen other teams.
The football club has a youth team for boys below the age of 20, and teams for younger ages.
Benard Kawinzi trains the Kariobangi under-20 team. He says he has seen his players' lives transformed.
“As a club, we are an influence to them, but in the right way,” Kawinzi said. “Basically whenever the society sees a Kariobangi Sharks football player or an official, it acts as a security to the society, how? Because he provides more virtues than vices.”
Juma’s dream is to lead his team to play in the Africa Cup. He hopes that the youth in Kariobangi will find some hope when they look up to the players, and that the club will continue churning out hope out of despair.