Transforming children’s lives through football

Zuri Awards 2020 sports category winner Mary Mbaka at Ruiru Prison during a football practising session. PHOTOS | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Filled with the desire to help deter children from getting into drugs and crime, Mary, 34, has been guiding the two boys.
  • According to Mary, most children from the area come from families with single, alcoholic or absent parents.
  • Despite challenges of juggling what she does with her work, she believes that a strong will power is what has been driving her.

Mary Mbaka was coming from a police parade when something caught her eyes — the sight of two boys being questioned by the area OCPD.

She had seen them playing football earlier at a nearby school. And so she went to find out why they were being questioned only to discover that they had been arrested for truancy.

One of the boys was among those she had been coaching to play football at Mukuyu Primary School, in Ruiru, Nairobi. It is then that she learnt the boy did not perform well in Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination and had therefore been asked by his mother to repeat Standard Eight.

But the 13-year-old boy could not come to terms with the fact that he would sit in the same class with those he considered his juniors.

So every morning he would wear his uniform and leave home, but not for school. For a whole term, he never set foot in school yet his mother knew he was learning.

He would roam around the area while checking himself into various video and gaming bases till late in the day then go back home in the evening.

That’s how the boy and his friend found themselves in the hands of authorities.

But Mary, a prison officer, intervened, and the two were set free. This is when it dawned on her how children get themselves into crime, drugs and roaming to pass time.

This particular incident opened up her eyes and pushed her into action to fill a gap in children that no one cared for.

For some, they find themselves born into poor families but for others, peer influence eventually shapes their behaviour.

Filled with the desire to help deter children from getting into drugs and crime, Mary, 34, has been guiding the two boys.

The two are among the children she has come across or interacted with in her line of duty as a prison officer or while doing what she loves most — playing football.

While she has loved playing football since primary school, the mother of one and founder of Hearts of Ruiru sports Centre is now using her passion to mentor children into becoming better versions of themselves.

The centre, which was founded in 2012, seeks to inspire and mentor youth through football. The players in the centre are drawn from the Ruiru Prison camp and its environs.

Born in Kitui in a family of 11 among them four girls and seven boys, the Moi University graduate is the eighth born. She was posted to Ruiru Prison in 2010.

According to Mary, most children from the area come from families with single, alcoholic or absent parents.

Combined with poverty, she notes that these are some of the factors that greatly contribute to children getting into crime. She points out that one of the core objectives in prisons is rehabilitation.

Right from the gate at Ruiru Prison to the police training camp, Mukuyu Primary School and beyond, Mary is famously known as Coach.

Her focus is on children mainly between the age of 9-18.

“Since I am a sportsperson, I use this as a platform to make children open up and get help on personal issues troubling them. When they play together, it’s easy to talk about the issues they are going through,” Mary says.


She has organised leagues, where children who have been convicted of various crimes in nearby juvenile centres, play with those from the area.

The convicts share their personal stories on how they got themselves behind bars. “It is such stories that help those at Mukuyu Primary learn about crime and circumstances that drive one into it,” she observes.

The convicticts at Ruiru Prisons, who are above years, also share their stories with schoolgoing children, inspiring them to keep away from crime.

“I can say that sports is a universal language just like music. If you watch a match from anywhere in the world, you get interested just the way you can enjoy music that you don’t understand. Locally, football would be more relevant because there are role models even from slums who have excelled in sports,” Mary says.

However, she notes that playing football, sharing personal stories, encouraging one another, counselling and mentoring is not JUST enough for the primary schoolgoing children.

She points out that after primary school, there are those who fail to join high school and become more susceptible to drugs and crime because they are idle.

Together with a local church, she organises leagues and training sessions for such children so they can have a place to fit in, just like the case of the two boys, who are now in Form Three. Those who join secondary schools have opportunities to pursue other interests besides sports.

While she has a full time job, she holds her football training sessions for one hour daily and is grateful that her colleagues and bosses are supportive.

Mary has also found herself knocking on the door of area MP’s office to get help so that some of these children can join secondary schools.

But Mary’s life has not been a straight line. Her mother battled breast cancer since she was in Standard Eight.


Some of her siblings never went to school since all the family’s resources had been channelled into saving her mother’s life.

Her brother-in-law paid her school fees. For this reason, she believes that education is the best investment for any child, and she’s thus always looking out for sponsorship opportunities to offer the children she meets.

“We cannot ignore the fact that peer pressure out there is rife, and thus sports prevents the children from being vulnerable to drugs and crime. There must be a process of guiding and moulding children into better people,” she says.

Mary narrates that her passion for sports runs deep. She says while her mother saw sports as a male dominated field, it is her father who encouraged her to start playing football. He has supported her interests in sports all through.

From left Zuri Awards 2020 winners Jacklyne Namadi (innovations), Jackline Odhiambo (public service), Mary Mbaka (sports), Eunice Njoki (education) and Lilian Kaivilu (media) during at Villa Rosa Kempinski on March 6. The awards celebrates women bringing change to their communities. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Mary was a soccer captain at Moi University, where she studied Technology. She has since played for three clubs in Nairobi.

Since there was no team to play with when she was posted to Ruiru Prisons, she trained as a coach with the International Sports Coach Coalition to enable her embark on coaching.

During the interview, she gets interrupted by a phone call. The caller is a well-wisher seeking to provide training uniforms for her team.

Mary works with five of her colleagues in the project.

While being honoured or rewarded for doing what she does had never crossed her mind, a suggestion by a friend on Facebook to join Zuri Awards saw her win in the sports category on March 6.

Zuri Awards focuses on recognising individuals and institutions that have attained high gender equality standards and practices.

The government intends to make it a platform to honour exemplary women. It is celebrated annually to coincide with the International Women’s Day, with this year’s theme being An equal world is an enabled world.

Even though she applied for the awards, Mary says she forgot about it and only remembered when she was contacted to go for an interview the next day. However, she was planning to attend her uncle’s burial.

She told the caller she would try her luck next year because she could not postpone her travel. But the caller suggested that she does the interview on that day, and she agreed.

However, she still wasn’t hoping to win the coveted award.

And when all nominees were put in one WhatsApp group and their profiles and projects posted, she got discouraged because she thought they had done better things for the society than her.

It took an interview with a radio station for her to realise that people appreciated her efforts greatly.

Then the D-Day arrived. And when she was called out to get her certificate and trophy, she majestically walked to the stage to pick them while holding her seven-year-old daughter’s hand.

“The award has since changed my perspective. It made me think of making this project more organised as well as expanding to benefit more people. I have been working with the slogan of changing one life at a time by volunteering,” she says.

Despite challenges of juggling what she does with her work, she believes that a strong will power is what has been driving her.

Besides getting scholarships to join secondary schools, she encourages those she has coached to take up courses in coaching, refereeing and counselling so that the cycle continues in the community.

She urges the youth not to give up in spite of life’s challenges. Her next move? We ask. Mary hopes to channel her efforts to helping more girls. “I believe in helping others,” she concludes.