“Hey, watch it son!” It was a little too late when Mariam warned her then eight-year-old son who was playing with his ball outside their home. The damage had been done. Now there was no telling what she was going to do to tame the chap. It was up to Mariam and her husband to face the music. They had to approach their neighbour, apologise and explain to them that their son didn’t mean to break their car’s windscreen.
Growing up in Uganda, Mariam Mell’Osiime Mpaata knew what she wanted to become, a renowned writer, a path she is still pursuing. But that little incident of her son breaking their neighbour’s car windscreen, was her detour. Instead of taming her son, Mariam embarked on a journey that has since shaped the woman she is today. She went out looking for a safe space where her son could still keep chasing after the ball with his feet. After she got her son a playing ground, she found herself drawn to the game. It was not long before she started the Junior Stars Football Academy in Mombasa 13 years ago, to help nurture young talents like her son.
“Do men think you are crazy for wanting a share of their pie?” I engage with Mariam over a phone call.
She chuckles. “In the beginning, there were those that perceived me as inexperienced with nothing to bring to the table. They viewed my love for football as a waste of time and that it would be short-lived. Years later, I have proved a majority of them wrong, gone on to pursue a Masters in Sports Management which has allowed me to speak from an informed background. Football is such a big pie and everyone has their share and contribution to make the sport better.”
Mariam moved to Kenya, following her husband’s new posting in Mombasa city. She is a mother of four and together with her family, they have lived in Mombasa for the last 19 years. It was here that she started the Junior Stars Football Academy and also started playing football herself.
Mariam plays for the Soccer Divas Club. She ensures her head is continually covered as this is customary for a Muslim woman. She is the goalkeeper of her team. Whenever she dons her football jersey; a pair of black pants, a luminous green long-sleeved top, and a pair of those big gloves that goalkeepers put on, heads turn as she graces the pitch.
“Has your religion ever been an impeding factor to your love for football because you are a woman who must cover her body?”
“There are many conservative religions and cultures that I believe are still not comfortable with their girls playing sports, yet sports is a beautiful thing and the benefits outweigh its challenges. Sports in this era has become flexible that anyone can take part in. We have sports for the physically challenged persons who play at professional levels like the Olympics. We have seen many Muslim women and girls playing different sports in their hijab. Sports companies like Adidas started making a special hijab for Muslim women. This just shows that there is nothing impossible to workaround. I intentionally keep my hijab on during training and matches to remind young Muslim girls that the hijab can never limit them from achieving their dreams.”
When Mariam is not mentoring young girls and boys through her Junior Stars Football Academy and other initiatives, she is a sports columnist with New Vision Uganda. She uses this platform to create awareness on sports issues like management, gender equality among others. She is also authoring her sports memoir.
As a way of giving back to her community back in Uganda, Mariam started Afrika Sports Foundation Center. As the Founder and CEO of the company, she envisions that the institution will advocate and lead the revolution on sports education within the sports industry within East Africa and the rest of Africa.
“Through the Afrika Sports Foundation Centre, I hope to set up the first sports institution that will offer sports courses that can narrow the wide gap between passion and knowledge. As a woman who represents sports personalities who have endured to empower themselves, I know how costly yet relevant knowledge is. I am playing my part to have those who need access to quality, yet affordable knowledge acquire it. This is a vision I hold dearly.”
They say mothers have a special bond with their sons. Mariam attests to this. But more than having this special bond with her son who might I remind you, inspired her to get into this field, is now his mother’s biggest fan. He is no longer the eight-year-old who broke windscreens and windows. Now at 21 years, mother and son sit to discuss football like mates. The son gives his mother tips on how to be a great goalkeeper. Why not, after all, he plays at a more professional level than his mother, and he is also pursuing football studies. These two make the perfect duo.
“So, given you are Ugandan who works and lives in Kenya, which of the two countries would you say has more football fanatics?”
“Hahaha… This question is like shooting myself in the foot. But seriously, both Kenya and Uganda have the potential to have more fans, which also means more revenue for clubs. Maybe Uganda could be slightly better in this area, especially in supporting their national team. I have seen how the Ugandan National jersey is worn easily by local fans, even deep down in the villages people wear them freely. It shows some level of patriotism and love for the team. But that is not to say that Kenyan fans don’t or support their own. I think that Kenya being a bigger economy, there is a lot of potential in strengthening its football industry. This can of course be done through improved leadership and corruption-free systems. East African governments are trying but there are always gaps to be filled. In fact, the lack of collaborations and coordination between governments and federations could be a hindering block. Heavy and strategic investments in the industry will eventually result in major transformation, performances and revenue generation. There is still hope.”
As I listen to Mariam, I think to myself, there is no one who claims to love football and not be a fan of an international football club. So out of curiosity, I ask her which club she cheers for then I cross my fingers and hope she doesn’t say, Chelsea.
“Over the years I have had to settle down on a few teams, I don’t have a favourite but my heart belongs to teams for sentimental reasons. I am such an emotional supporter. If a team is losing I find myself on that side. But my heart belongs to the following teams: Chelsea is my International go-to-team (my heart sinks upon hearing this. Chelsea reminds me of a guy… I will tell you about him some other time). I am not a fanatic per se but I came to love the team because of Drogba. He is my old-time favourite player, I followed his team. I took more interest in the team before he moved. I still follow their updates from time to time. Locally, I am a fan of Bandari FC because I reside at the coast, and we have worked together in many ways to uplift coastal youth in football. In Uganda, my favourite team is KCCA FC. Somehow it is because when I dated my husband 23 years ago, he was a fanatic of this team, he took me to watch a heated match between KCCA FC and Express Villa. Somehow, I followed them because he did. But my love for the team grew to leaps after they agreed to host the first Ugandan edition of the Global Goals World Cup in 2020, a tournament for women to advocate for Sustainable development goals. Since then I have been a true fan. I also love the young players of Junior Stars Football Academy. They are my favourite little champs.”
I try to dazzle Mariam with my knowledge of football because I am also a fan of the game and also because I know a few English football clubs like Man-U (haters go on and hate). Even though my love for football doesn’t match hers, I give it up to Mariam for taking her love to the next level and inspire so many young people in the field of sports. A field she is turning heads every time she walks into a pitch either as a player or a mentor. A field she uses to give young girls and boys hope that once you have a dream, you become unstoppable. A field that allows her to bring her seat at the table and have men listen to her because she has something to contribute.
As we celebrate Women’s Day, Mariam is a reminder that the world needs more women who dare to shift the narrative and chase after unthinkable dreams.
“The world is yours to take, go on and win that golden boot someday”, I say to Mariam.
Have you ever thought of how the world would be without women? Incomplete, right? Why don’t you take time today if you forgot to do so yesterday, and celebrate the women in your life.
Happy Women’s Day!