A Discussion with Abdul Kassim, Founder of the Kibera Girls' Soccer Academy

With: Abdul Kassim Berkley Center Profile

October 31, 2014

Background:Abdul Kassim founded the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy in his home community and Africa’s largest slum, Kibera. The academy's goal is to promote gender equality and break gender norms. It is now a tuition free high school for 130 girls; the academy also operates a smaller co-ed school. A childhood spent surrounded by the women of his family left Kassim keenly aware that gender imbalances permeated Kibera. To address the issue, Kassim founded an all-girls soccer program, which grew into a free school for girls. Abdul Kassim spoke with Elisabeth Stoddard on October 31, 2014 about the challenges girls face in Kenyan society. He reflects on his life, his community, and his dreams for the future of girls in Kibera. As his Muslim faith requires that a believer seek knowledge, he emphasizes that his school is constantly adapting to improve the education and lives of his students and his community at large. The academy provides creative programs, such as its journalism program, that have received international recognition.

How did you come to be involved in girls' empowerment programs in Kibera?

I think it goes back to my childhood growing up in Kibera slum. Like many other children in Kibera, I had an absentee father so my mother raised me by herself. She passed on when I was 9 years old, and I went to live with my grandmother. She was the tough one and made sure that I went to school and studied hard. Even though she was illiterate, she understood the value of having an education. She would always tell me that I have to go to school. Somehow she knew education was the way out. It amazes me because she had no education, she could not read or write, yet she pushed me to finish my education. She did not want her grandson to have the same challenges she faced.

Thanks to her I graduated from secondary school, went to university, and got a job immediately. This was very unusual in Kibera. The women in my life constantly pushed me to be better, to have a chance for a better life. They knew the key was education. Since I grew up surrounded by all women, I came to be more sensitive to the gender imbalance that existed in Kibera. I noticed that the girls were finishing primary school and then doing nothing. They were being married off at very young ages and pregnancies were rampant. Just like me, their fathers were not around. They needed something to do that would engage them. I wanted to find a way of breaking this imbalance by helping empower the young girls in my neighborhood. I used soccer as my entry point because it was my personal strength. Additionally, soccer was seen as a man’s game. By organizing a girls’ team, we could begin to break the norm and send a message to the Kibera community.

In 2002, I decided to found a soccer program that would cater only to girls. I did not know what the outcome would be, but I wanted do something to help. From the first day that I took the girls out to play, we faced challenges. The boys would snatch the soccer ball away from us and say it belonged to them. So, half of the time I would be chasing these boys around trying to recover the balls! The boys would also chide the girls and tell them they should be at home washing dishes. The environment was not conducive to the girls’ success, so I decided that we needed to get out of Kibera. Luckily, I got the opportunity to take the girls on a four-week trip. The girls were so excited! I had around 60 girls on that trip. We trained, we played, and the girls really began to excel at the game. We returned to Kibera ready to show off our soccer team, but then we realized, there were no girls’ soccer teams to play against. The only solution was take on the boys.

The girls had their rough days and got beaten a number of times by the boys’ teams. But, on one amazing day, the girls won! That was our biggest success. The boys were literally lying on the ground and crying. So many other boys were yelling at them, “Why did you let the girls beat you?” After this, the greatest thing happened. Suddenly the boys, instead of stealing the soccer balls, decided they would play with their sisters. It was wonderful to see one girl kicking a corner kick and both boys and girls fighting for the ball. You could see that those gender biases were dissolving. I should also mention that the girls really started improving because the boys pushed them to be better. The girls maintained quite a winning streak with their help.

How did your soccer program lead to founding the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy?

When I started the soccer program, I had not even dreamed of founding a school. The first girls in the program were primary school age in the Kenyan education system. Primary school is tuition free in Kenya, but secondary school (high school) requires tuition fees. After a few years, my girls reached the age of high school, but they were not going. They could not afford the fees. Even though they were not in school, they continued to come to the soccer program initially. But, one by one I realized the girls had stopped coming to the program.

These girls were like my little sisters, like my children. I wanted to know why the girls were not coming to the program anymore, so I went to their houses to talk to them. Some had left their homes because of family problems and some were married off by their families. The families saw it as getting rid of one extra mouth to feed. Some girls would come to soccer and I would notice that they were changing. They were not even aware that they were pregnant. These major challenges pushed me to find a better solution for these girls. They needed a place where they could continue their education for free and determine their own life course.

At the time, the answer that came to me was education. In 2005, I lost quite a number of the girls. It was really painful. By 2006, I decided, enough is enough. I have to start a school. I began by calling and asking, “If I started a school, would you come?” All the girls said yes! Because it all started with the girls’ soccer club, I decided to call it the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy. We expanded the soccer program into a fully operational high school for girls. It is completely free for the girls who attend. Now we have about 130 students. We follow the curriculum for the Kenyan government and we also enrich the girls’ education through extracurricular activities such as journalism, art, and soccer.

Extracurricular activities like art and debate are not the norm in Kenya. Why did you decide to include them in the school?

We knew that the girls had a lot of talent that could help them with jobs in the future. We wanted to provide a mechanism for them to explore their interests and develop their skills for life after high school. We needed to encourage them to engage their talents from an early age.
The journalism club has been the stand-out success. We are now contributors to the Global Journal Project along with two other high schools in San Diego, California.

The schools all work together to put together a magazine with articles from students from all of the participating schools. Most importantly, the magazine is exclusively youth led and youth driven. The teachers and schools have no input about the topic or format of the magazine content. We let them write their own story. We send them out to research their articles and then they write it up, take pictures, and send it directly to the Global Journal Project. Most of the stories, I have not even heard about until I read them in the magazine!

The girls have been dedicated to organizing themselves, electing a chairperson, and keeping each other to their deadlines. Their biggest article was about the water situation at our school and in Kibera at large. Through that article, we even received funding to build our own water station. The magazine, actually, received one of the highest awards in youth magazines which is given out by Columbia University.

The journalism club has done great things for the girls and our school. The other schools in the project have also given us a number of e-readers loaded with a few hundred books. These have really encouraged a reading culture in the school. It is amazing to me that through these extracurricular, the girls have directly helped fundraise and improve our school.

What other clubs are popular at KGSA?

Apart from the journalism club we have a number of other extracurricular programs. Every student is required to participate in the debate club. This is because we believe it is crucially important for the girls to develop their own voice. Through the club, they are able to speak out without fear. We encourage debate as much as possible because one thing we know is that a girl with a voice is a powerful tool.

The Kenyan education system is known to emphasize memorization over critical thinking. Does your school deviate at all from this norm?

We do follow the Kenyan curriculum, but the most beautiful thing about the school is that most of the teachers are young people from Kibera. They have gone through the same challenges and situations as our girls. We are a small school, so we encourage strong teacher-student relationships. Our teachers become almost like big brothers or sisters to their students. This kind of close relationship has allowed the students to excel and even move on to university, some even on government scholarships.

We add to the conventional education system by encouraging critical thinking through our extracurricular activities. The drama and arts clubs pushes them to use their imagination and create while the debate and journalism clubs gives them the opportunity to be critical of their surroundings. They write articles on the political situation and issues that are important to their lives and communities. We also have an environmental club which challenges them to be accountable for their everyday actions and think at a global level.

These extracurriculars also give the girls the tools and the confidence to start their own businesses after high school. The journalism club has been so successful that a group of graduates started a journalism company. They have now been in business for almost three years. The company employs about 10 girls who work outside of school. They have a main office, generate income by doing weddings in the area, document community events, and they even get asked to do birthday parties. Ashoka recently had a huge event in Nairobi and they gave these girls the job of covering the whole event! Our model encourages girls to pursue their interests and use their talents to generate income for themselves after graduation.

Kenya is an ethnically and religiously diverse country. Is this reflected in your student body?

The girls come from different faiths and backgrounds. We give opportunities to all girls in Kibera. It does not matter which religion or ethnic group they come from, we accept everyone. When you come to the school, you will notice that there is quite a number of Muslims and there is a huge number of Christians. But what we really emphasize is sisterhood. I keep telling them, “You are your sister’s keeper. You have to know where your sister is at all times.” We have encouraged that kind of a bond. Thankfully, Kenya has not really had any form of religious friction and neither has our school.

Do you teach religious education as a part of the standard Kenyan curriculum?

The curriculum does have a religious education component that should allow children to take Christian, Islamic, or Hindu education. However, this is based on the training of the teachers available. Because of our small staff, we are only able to teach Christian religious education at the moment. We are not able to teach Islamic religious education but we have not had any issues with the parents or the students.

What is taught in the Christian Religious Education (CRE) class?

Most of the lessons revolve around history and learning part of the Bible. But there is a focus on morality since that is a huge part of religion. Our students are allowed to choose between the Christian religious education and social studies courses. Social studies also teaches a broader version of morality and good citizenship. Quite a number of students, especially the Muslim students, decide to choose social studies over Christian religious education. Some of the Christian students also choose social studies. The decision is completely up to them.

Do any of the Muslim girls choose to take CRE?

Actually, one of the girls that received the government scholarship to go to university was Muslim and stayed at the top of her class in CRE. She decided to take it because she thought it was interesting. I am a Muslim as well and, I too took CRE in high school. For me, I was intrigued to see the similarities between my own religion and Christianity. I took Islamic religious education (IRE) in primary, but when I went into high school, there was no teacher for IRE. I had to be the in CRE class. Even though I came in with less knowledge than the Christian students, I was able to compete with them because the core of the two religions are tied together.

How has your community reacted to the school? Have they been supportive?

At the start, a lot of them were really skeptical about the direction of the school. Running a high school is expensive and they wanted to know that our girls deserved this opportunity. However, we continued to grow, overcome challenges, and eventually we earned their respect.

Have you thought about including boys in the school?

Something happened in Kibera and six young boys were shot down because of crime. The girls came to me and kept asking, “How can we help the boys? Can we give them an opportunity?” In our community, sometimes families have to make choices. If a household earns less than one dollar per day, sometimes the boys fall to the side because their priorities are paying rent and getting food. The boys face hard challenges. Around the time when the boys were shot, an organization came to me with an idea to create a model of KGSA for boys. We worked together and decided that we would make another, smaller school that would be 50/50 boys to girls. The school is already running under the KGSA model. Right now, we have 18 boys who are in the starting ninth grade class. Every year we will add a class until we have all four high school grade levels.

Is the new co-ed school near the original KGSA?

They are right next to each other! It is definitely funny to see when all the students go out for break and there are 18 boys and almost 150 girls. We are excited to see the schools grow together. Eventually, we would love to see the KGSA model be applied to open up other schools in Kibera.

How large is the need for high schools in Kibera?

It is enormous. Just last year we had over 100 girls apply for the ninth grade. Unfortunately, we could only take a small portion. I live in Kibera. I know that if we do not give them the opportunity to go to school, they will just return to the streets. It is really painful to see. I am always looking for opportunities to expand KGSA so that we can give opportunities to as many children as possible.
We are now traveling around the U.S. to look for potential funders. I am not a teacher. What I can offer is finding new ways to help these children continue their education.

How did the KGSA microcredit program begin?

The microcredit started in 2007 after the post-election violence. Our girls started coming to school with a lot of challenges. They would cry and we would have to take them through guidance and counseling. Others would come to school sick and we would have to rush them to the hospital. We visited their homes and found that most of their mothers, who run small business, had lost everything because of the extensive looting in Kibera. Most of them lost their businesses. We felt that we needed to help so we reached out and put up a SOS, “Please help these mothers.” Amazingly, we received €3,000! We immediately started the microcredit program to support these mothers’ businesses. Somehow, the pressures stopped coming into school with the girls and we were able to continue on with their education.

After the mothers’ problems subsided, we had the idea to continue the microcredit program for the girls after graduation. We started a ten day business crash course for the girls who have graduated where we work with them to develop their own business plans. We critically punch holes through the plan until we think it is viable. Then we give them a little support to help them start their businesses. As we are speaking, a few of them are running their own little salons and boutiques. In addition to this, we created a scholarship for the girls who are college-bound.

It sounds like you try to constantly adapt to the girls' needs?

That is exactly how KSGA is growing, through adaptation. As another example, when we first started the school we noticed the girls were lying on their desks during lunch time. Normally, in Kenya all the students go home to eat lunch with their families. These girls were staying at the school. We realized there was no food waiting for them at home. So, with our pocket money we started a feeding program. It still goes on today! For some of the girls, that is the only meal they will have all day.

As we grew, we started accepting girls that had no interest in playing soccer. They all needed our help. At one point I noticed that my soccer girls would come to me every once and awhile asking for money for a sandwich. They always seemed very uncomfortable in these conversations. I got concerned about the rest of the girls and went to the school register. There I noticed that every month each girl would miss five days of school consecutively. If you add that up for the whole year it amounts to almost a semester of missed classes.

I knew that we needed to have better sanitation facilities so that these girls could continue to come to school during their periods. We are constantly trying to ask ourselves, “What can we do next?” Some of our girls have very hard situations at home. They stay late after school and they come around to the school even on breaks. They have so many challenges at home: no electricity, no water, sometimes not even a meal. So, we have decided that our next move is to establish a boarding facility that doubles as a community center. This could serve as a safe space for the students to stay, do homework, and gather. We are also in communication with a U.S. university that wants to help us bring a social worker to the school permanently.

During the last two and a half years, these students have been advocating for a safe and secure place to live but also to study. They are going home to places with no electricity where they have to work for five or six hours after school to support their families. They have no chance to study. If these girls want a shot at a life after high school, whether that means college or a business, they need that time to study. Our idea is to create a space that has 24 hour access to electricity which is safe, has academic support, and other support that addresses the mental and health challenges. We hope the facility will encourage other organizations to help us create a large holistic approach to poverty alleviation.

Are the fathers or boys of the community ever unsupportive about the girls continuing their education?

A number of challenges come from the homes. I am just thankful that they have taken the first step by letting these girls come to school. It is especially difficult with girls who do not have parents because of HIV. This disease is taking its toll in the slums. So we’re dealing with kids who don’t have parents and they’re living with relatives. We have a number of students that are directly under the custody of KGSA because the government thought this is the best way. Our program director, Richard Teka, is known by the local police chief and the local clinic because he is always running around handling the issues the girls bring from their homes. Those are some of things that are really pushing us to build a boarding facility.

Where do the girls that are under the guardianship of KGSA live currently?

We pay to rent places where they can live in safety. The most interesting thing is that some of the alumni and female teachers from KGSA have taken these girls in under their wings.

Has your Muslim faith played a role in your founding of KGSA?

Yes, Islam plays a clear role in my motivations. In Islam, they say searching for knowledge is a must for every male Muslim and female Muslim. That is a foundational teaching of Islam. We are taught from a very young age at madrasa that looking for knowledge is a requirement for every Muslim regardless of gender. Modern Muslims do not question this order. It is written in the Qur’an. Our priority must be to search for knowledge. By offering these girls an opportunity to gain knowledge, I am affirming my faith.

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