There is a story and shared freedom on the sports field even for women

Mariam Mpaata

Mariam Mpaata who mentors the youth in Mombasa. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Mariam Mpaata, the soccer mum who inspires girls to love football.
  • How did Mariam Mpaata end up on the soccer field and in the soccer industry?

There are some book titles that easily seduce the reader into the story. Boots Don’t Lie (Afrika Sports Foundation Centre, 2022) is one of them. Without the standard subtitle of ‘memoir’, the addition ‘From a Housewife to a Sports Activist’, and the photo of the author posing with a ball, Boots Don’t Lie would be any genre: a play, a novel, a war story – especially right now – or a book about adventure in Africa. But this is Mariam Mellony Osiime Mpaata’s autobiography, just off the press this month.

Sure enough, it is a book about the evidence that one can see or read from soccer boots. Mariam Mpaata is a soccer mom. She is not just a player in a team of women, she is a big time player in a team or teams of women who seek to make sports, especially soccer, a major activity for women.

And not activity in the sense of a hobby. But in the form of soccer as an amateur and professional undertaking. Men’s soccer is a multibillion global industry. Women’s soccer is almost just a pastime in many parts of the world. Even where it is taken seriously and there are professional soccer leagues, it hardly gets the attention that men’s soccer commands; women players are paid peanuts in comparison to professional male players; women’s soccer is still largely an amateur and leisure activity, whilst men’s soccer is increasingly professional and a global cultural industry in its own right.

Yet, how did Mariam Mpaata end up on the soccer field and in the soccer industry, if we allow the phrase? How did a Muslim woman, living in Mombasa, hundreds of miles away from her first home, in Uganda, end up as one of the leading lights in women’s soccer in East Africa? How did this housewife and mother marshal the energy and resources to put together a soccer team, start a soccer foundation, run tens of soccer tournaments, go back to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Sports Management from the Real Madrid Graduate School, among other achievements?

To read the story of Mariam Mpaata is to understand how a combination of factors in one’s life, mixed with a personal conviction in one’s abilities can indeed lead to success. Her success in pursuing her dreams can be traced to a loving and supportive father, even though he passed on before Mariam could be independent.

Sustain soccer team

But her mother supplemented the father’s tenderness with care and firmness. Without doubt, the extended family played its role in moulding Mariam into what she would become as an adult. It therefore follows naturally that when she was faced with a difficult situation of finding space where her children could play, Mariam eventually founded a sports organization.

So, faced with the common situation of urban life in many Kenyan/African towns where there are little or no playing grounds for children, Mariam decided to address the issue head on. Thus, in Boots Don’t Lie you will meet a mother eager to make her son happy by finding him space to play. She does exactly that and in the process ends up addressing the needs of tens, later hundreds/thousands, of children, young men and young women, mothers and professionals etc.

In this memoir, you will meet a young mother agonizing at how to create and sustain a soccer team that at first simply plays for fun. How does one fund such a group – boots, socks, shorts, jerseys, drinks, food, transport, medical care etc? At what point does such an activity transit from a mere hobby into a full time engagement? How much money would one have to budget for such activity?

Boots Don’t Lie

The cover of the book Boots Don’t Lie by Mariam Mellony Osiime Mpaata.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

How does one approach and sustain the support and interest of donors and supporters? What does one gain from such an activity? Is the satisfaction of having a happy child enough? Does the distraction from house chores count for much? Will one’s partner at home support such an activity; and for how long? Yet, Mariam Mpaata defied the odds to establish the ‘Junior Stars Football Academy’ in Mombasa.

Boots Don’t Lie is really a collection of personal and family mini-stories, all tied together by the soccer fields, boots, teammates, coaches, dreams of winning, reality of losing some matches etc, through the voice of Mariam Mpaata. The death of a father in his mid-years, in a country struggling to find its democratic feet; the struggles of a single mother raising children in hard economic times; death of a loving grandpa; marriage; childbearing and childrearing; relocation from the comfort of living near relatives to a distant place with a new language and culture; all these factors, among others, contribute in one way or the other to make Mariam quicker at adapting to challenges.

Which is why even when her great plans to start a soccer team flounder, she keeps her faith. She is determined to make her son happy but also keep the husband, her lead financial and social supporter, interested in the project. It is her tenacious faith in her abilities that keeps her going in difficult moments, juggling between the home, the field and the office; and even school. She even finds time to write a soccer column in between all these activities.

Solution for mothers

Well, one would say that women have always multitasked. But that is easier said than done. Actually, many women would never be able to say exactly how they manage to take care of the home – children, partners, relatives etc – work at an office or the market or in an industry, attend to other socio-cultural needs and still be normal.

There is a sense in which women have to call on extra energy from their reserves. Mariam Mpaata’s story suggests that without the additional energy, the world around them would collapse. "Being a housewife is a 24/7 job." To raise a child is a fulltime job. To manage a soccer academy – even if it is for fun – is a demanding job, even if one were doing it for only a few hours a day. To study for a graduate degree whilst raising children and running a soccer team for young people and being involved in soccer tournaments, among other activities, is mind boggling. But, Mariam Mpaata did all these and even found time to write her story. How and why?

Because she wanted to create something for herself. She is convinced that individuals should dream big all the time till the dream becomes reality. In the process of creating space and a pastime for her son and herself, she invited others to dream along with her.

Soccer became a tool to sketch the lives and dreams of other housewives; solution for mothers with young and teenage children who need to expend the energies; a means to create communities of fellow dreamers; a forum to promote sports and education for young people; the thread for connecting individuals and communities in Kenya, East Africa, Africa and the rest of the world.

In a sense, Mariam Mpaata has used and continues to use sports as an ambassadorial tool for bringing people together in the hope of creating a better world. Boots Don’t Lie is a story worth sharing in this month of Women’s History.

The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]


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