Unsung heroine’s quest to replace bullet with football

Fatuma Abdulkadir with the Kenyan flag in Lyon, France, where HODI represented the country. PHOTO | COURTESY OF HODI

What you need to know:

  • In North-Eastern Kenya, where girls as young as 12 are easily lured from school for female genital mutilation, beading and eventually marriage, this was another frontier from which to stimulate change.
  • Ms Adan has been recognised repeatedly for her role in strengthening community cohesion and has been honoured as an unsung Kenyan heroine. She has won the Stuttgart Peace Award for her work in conflict resolution, as well as the Hope Through Education Award.

Early in the morning of July 12, 2005, hundreds of armed raiders from the Borana community attacked the Gabbra people living in Turbi area, north-west of Marsabit.

About 60 people were killed in the tribal clash. The fighting was blamed on competition over scarce water and pasture in the arid region, as well as persistent political divisions along ethnic lines.

Some pointed fingers at the long-standing enmity over cattle rustling, a rather common practice in the region.  It has been suggested that the massacre might have begun as a cattle raid, with the Gabbra people — the main victims of the massacre — accused of stealing hundreds of cattle and goats from the Borana in June that year.

It was not clear which had tipped the scales. But for one woman from one of the warring communities, it did not matter. All that mattered was that something needed to be done to avert future bloodbaths. So nothing could stop Ms Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan from pursuing peace in the volatile region, not even her career in law. She left her job in Nairobi and went back to Marsabit, determined to end the inter-clan warfare.

“That is what drove me. The hunger for a solution,” says Ms Adan. “Many were busy complaining about the situation in Marsabit. That always happens in northern Kenya. But personally, I felt I could do something about it.”

Then, Ms Adan was running HODI (Horn of Africa Development Initiative), a community-based legal aid desk offering out-of-court settlements, which she had started at her parents’ home in 2003.

The scene of carnage turned everything on its head.

Dima Sheke, a player from Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI), in action during a match in Lyon, France. PHOTO | COURTESY OF HODI


“With the massacre, it struck me that our tribal differences were ran deep and there was need to engage the women and youth,” says Ms Adan, the director of HODI and a celebrated peace activist in Marsabit. She registered a non-governmental organisation in 2007 with the intention of advocating for peace.

At the time, the only people around the conflict resolution table were elders. Not a single woman, not a single youth. Even though the most affected were women and children. The youths, apparently, were still armed with AK-47 rifles and ready to go to war.

“I was concerned that the children and women had no voice. But I felt things could not be done routinely….you know, pay for the bloodbath with some cows or camels while the culture of revenge and counter- revenge continued,” says the 38-year-old mother of two. “That is when I brought together 50 women affected by the conflict in Marsabit to share their pain and sorrow.”

But still, there was the other missing link for her – children. “How were they going to be involved in this?” I pondered. “I loved football, as did the young boys in Marsabit, the ones who would naturally get drafted into this tradition of slaughter. In North-Eastern Kenya, even small boys carry guns.”

“Until recently, boys came to the pitch with their guns. Once, during a tournament in 2009, a spectator cocked his gun due to a contested goal,” says Ms Adan.

“It’s been hard trying to uproot the deep-rooted culture from these communities. But we are slowly changing their mindsets. The ball is yet to replace the bullet fully but we are getting there. And we shall win,” she says.

“One of the things that was certain is that in spite of the sound of gunfire being a familiar one in these parts of the country, whenever we had the Premier League and FIFA football competitions, the gunfire quietened down. This pointed to the love our young men had for football.”

HODI girls in action during a local match. PHOTO | COURTESY OF HODI


Ms Adan had stayed awake many nights thinking of ways to engage the boys from these communities to tone down the hostilities and persistent tribal warfare.

What if she organised tournaments bringing together the warring tribes? Noting that the divisions had been there for generations, she decided to challenge the status quo through the universal language of sport.

That is how the idea of using football under the maxim, “Shoot to Score, not to kill”, was conceived, the fact that she cannot play football following complications during childbirth notwithstanding.

Using the HODI United clubs-Football4Good programme, she would engage youths in the advocacy for peace with the aim of reinforcing and promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts.

“The matches focus on the youth (warrior age) and stresses a peaceful, cooperative approach that benefits both communities,” she says.

“Shoot to score, not to kill” offers a chance to engage the youths in a different way, disarming their minds and making them take charge of their own lives. In HODI, it has enabled us to have more tolerant young people who accept their differences and seek to foster understanding,” she says. 

The programme has since been signed up for the Street football world (SFW), a network of more than 104 organisations using football for good in the world.

And between July 1-7, Kula Dida (16), Omar Ali (14), Hilda Wanjiku (16) and Dima Sheke (16), players from HODI, took part in the SFW football tournaments under the patronage of the European Parliament and the UEFA Foundation for Children, in Lyon, France. They reached the quarter finals.

There, at a high-level meeting with UEFA, UNHCR and the EU, the children drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds, mostly imposed by war, had a rare chance to interact with real professional footballers and listen to their stories.

HODI was elected for a second term to the Board of SFW.

Ms Adan only incorporated a girls’ football team in 2008 amid resistance from families and the community.

In North-Eastern Kenya, where girls as young as 12 are easily lured from school for female genital mutilation, beading and eventually marriage, this was another frontier from which to stimulate change.

The drive has created a safe space for girls to share and dialogue on issues that affect them, in a community where a girl playing football was inconceivable. Ms Adan says this has broken many barriers already. The girls are taught personal hygiene, reproductive health and how to be assertive to attain what is good for them, among other things.

With the initiative, more than 1,000 girls who had dropped out of school or were on the verge of doing so have been rehabilitated, says the good-natured Ms Fatuma. Since she started the girls’ clubs, there have only been a handful girls dropping out of school.

She acknowledges that it has not always been child’s play. Opposition often stands between the feats forged through years of hard-fought battles, as happened in 2008 when our members of her 12 girls’ team were kidnapped and raped by “their prospective husbands’”, usually the symbol of their betrothal and marriage, after returning from a girls’ tournament in Nairobi.

“That felt like my culture was punishing me for upsetting the status quo. I felt the community wanted to punish me for my activities. So, when this happened, I took leave because of the guilt I felt. It took me close to two years to resume work with the clubs,” she says.  

HODI girls during a regular practice session in Marsabit. PHOTO | COURTESY OF HODI


Some parents were also against HODI. Many questioned the morality of girls “baring it all in an open field in shorts and T-shirts. Because of this resistance, Ms Adan had to devise a different strategy. So after consultations with imams, she was advised to reinvent the gear so that it comprised the hijab, with stockings underneath.  

“When I joined HODI in 2013, my mother told me I couldn’t play. Sometimes she even locked me up in the house, scolded me and even beat me to stop me from going. Or when I sneaked out and she found out, she would come to the field and drag me out and scold the coach. She said football wasn’t proper, that it isn’t for girls,” says Hilda Wanjiku, 15, one of the members of the girl’s teams.

Kula Dida, 16, adds: “My family refused to let me play at first. I was told that it was against my religion and culture for a girl to play. . But I love football because other than the game, I have learnt other things that have made me a better person, mostly things about being a good girl,” she says.

Wanjiku also says football has helped her stay focused and avoid bad company.

 “Breaking the Silence Using Football” won the 2015 Beyond Sport Awards for Sport for Social Inclusion.

“Now the same community that was persecuting me has realised the benefits. Mothers are coming to me and telling me to sign their daughters up for football. Head teachers whose schools are not in the programme want in too,” says the lawyer, who says she is trying to take up as many youths as possible to mould them into a new generation of change makers.  

HODI team members Dima Sheke (16), Omar Ali (14), Hilda Wanjiku (16) and Kula Dida (16), perform a dance at a cultural event during their outing in Lyon, France. PHOTO | COURTESY OF HODI


“I am already looking at venturing into Ethiopia, Somalia, Northern Kenya and the rest of the Horn of Africa, all of which are known for their volatility,” she offers. 

Ms Adan, an advocate of the High Court, (admitted to the bar in 2009) gave up her career in law amd moved back to Marsabit and work with the community to foster a peaceful environment.

As a person of mixed heritage her father is a Borana while her mother a Gabbra, and married to a Rendille, Ms Fatuma stared tribal hate n the face, when her husband’s side of the family refused to accompany him to ask for her hand in marriage. Her father, too, was furious.

“I fell in love with a Rendille, an enemy of my community, whom I had to date clandestinely because we could not risk having it known,” she says. The hard-headed woman she is, she eventually married him and they have two children.

Having graduated with a law degree in 2002 from Moi University and gone on to study governance and sharia at the University of Birmingham, many discouraged her from giving up whatever highflying career she could be able to build practising in the city, for these ideas she was having, but she would hear none of it. People kept asking her to do something serious with her life. 

“But how could I be in the city practising law when back home things were not fine?” she asks.

Besides football and education, other programmes run by HODI include livelihood improvement, a programme through which community members in the drought-stricken region are being weaned off relying on relief supplies to build resilient communities with the introduction of greenhouses for agriculture.

Ms Adan has been recognised repeatedly for her role in strengthening community cohesion and has been honoured as an unsung Kenyan heroine. She has won the Stuttgart Peace Award for her work in conflict resolution, as well as the Hope Through Education Award.

She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize snf was one of the speakers at the Geneva Peace Talks in 2013.

Over the years, her programme has been involved in many activities, from offering legal services on issues relating to human rights violation and ethnic violence to using football as a way of educating communities on sensitive social issues such as gender violence, FGM and child marriages.


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