The MentorBox: Interview With Acakoro Football Academy Girls Coach Pauline Awuor On Her Passion For Sports And Chapa Dimba Na Safaricom

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This month we start our MentorBox series where every month we showcase individuals in different fields who are making an impact in society by mentoring and coaching others to achieve their best. This month as we start we showcase Pauline Awuor and Derrick Mwirigi Gatimbu who are mentoring and coaching youth in the area of sports.

I caught up with Pauline Awuor who is the only female coach in the Chapa Dimba Na Safaricom Football Tournament. Pauline is that person whom you meet for the first time and you end up as friends. She is a warm, bubbly and passionate woman who takes her coaching job seriously. She is the coach of the Acakoro Football Academy girls team but she is not only their coach but their mother and mentor away from home. Listening to her talk, you can see her passion for football and also her drive to give the girls she mentors a chance to go professional and also to achieve everything they need in order to become successful in life.

Photo courtesy of Pauline Awuor

Tell me about yourself and how you ended up in Chapa Dimba?

I am Pauline Awuor. I am a football coach at Acakoro Football Academy. I work full time in the academy. I am also a mentor to the girls playing football in the Under 17 category. I am a single mother of three kids. The two girls are 17 and 13, and the boy is 10 years old.

Before you started coaching, what were you doing?

I have been coaching for six years. Before that, I was just hustling. I was a team manager at Kariobangi Sharks. By then, they were playing in Division One. It was a voluntary job so I was not getting paid. So, I used to do side hustles like selling children clothes door-to-door. I also used to wash clothes for people in their houses.

Before that, I was a footballer. I used to play for Mathare United as a goalkeeper. Unfortunately, women’s football was not very common at the time and we never got any recognition. I, therefore, ended my playing career in 2012 and joined Kariobangi Sharks as the team manager. By then, I already had three kids who were staying with my elderly mother who I am also supporting as the last born.

When I was in Mathare, I still had the passion to coach. I used to gather the kids and train them using footballs made out of plastic bags. I had the dream of becoming a football coach but I could not imagine how that could happen.

While I was at Kariobangi Sharks one day I was marking the register as I watched the training session at the side of the pitch. Then two white men and a former Harambee Stars coach Stanley Okumbi came to stand next to me. Stanley was helping with the coaching of Kariobangi Sharks at that time. They were discussing how they would open a football academy in Korogocho. I was there listening to everything they were discussing although I wasn’t part of the conversation.

They came and asked if they could join me where I was seated then they started asking me some random questions. They were surprised when I told them that I was the team manager. I told them about my commitment and my passion for football. One of the players of Kariobangi Sharks had told the then Chairman of the Football Kenya Federation Nick Mwendwa of the need to include me in the project as there were too many men on the team already.

They told me about their intentions to open the football academy. They asked me if I could coach. I told them that I had never done serious coaching before but I had been a player. They suggested that I coach the Under 12 or Under 10 categories. I saw it as a dream come true and I gladly accepted the challenge. They left and kept quiet for a very long time. I didn’t hear from them for about a year. I thought they were just messing around.

About a year later I decided to go to the cyber café and check my mail because I had given them my contacts. I was surprised to find that they had actually communicated and they were flying back into the country with the contracts. I was so excited that when I broke the news to my mum I cried. I was finally going to get a job that paid me.  Of course, my mother was happy about that too.

Did they train you in coaching or you just started?

I just started. It was down to my hard work and my passion to coach. I made the effort to attend coaching sessions. Most of those I have attended are organized locally although tutors from outside the country occasionally come in to offer expertise. We had coaches from KNVB in the Netherlands who primarily coach football and life skills. I started with coaching girls and then, later on, I hope to transition and coach boys as well.

How was the experience like transitioning from a team manager to a coach?

At first, it wasn’t easy. We would come together and everyone had to write down what he or she was going to coach. Sometimes I was just scared. But I had the passion to push me through. I was always doing my research. I was always asking questions and I was willing to learn.

What are some of the things that you do as a coach and as a mentor?

I like talking to girls. I also share with them my own life experiences. I was only seventeen when I had my first child and now I am 34.  I encourage them to work hard in school. Women soccer’s in Kenya is not very reliable. But for our academy, the donors pay school fees and also for medical so that is like a bridge to take the kids to the other side. You only have to work hard and train hard. We encourage the kids to continue chasing the dreams they had before playing football.

Photo- courtesy Safaricom

What is your motivation for coaching now that you have done it for a couple of years now?

I really love it. Sometimes I get concerned for the girls but it is not always easy to mentor them. That is why we train daily for them not to be idle and probably get involved in other things like drugs or get pregnant early. I always feel insecure when I am away from them or when we have been given some time off. I am aware that they can get pregnant within an instant so being away from them for a whole 48 hours is really scary for me. I feel I have achieved something because no one has ever been involved in such behaviour.

I even won the Barclays Zuri Award for this achievement. The reason here was because the three women I was competing with; one said she had to shut down the football facility for girls because most girls were getting pregnant.

Tell me about your team Acakoro Football Club

It has been a long journey from when we started with the selections in 2013. The girls we were targeting were aged 10 to 13. At that age, none of them understood how to play football so it was very hard. Whenever I would go back home after the training sessions I would have to take Panadol because of headaches. I had to demonstrate everything, even how they were supposed to shoot the ball. Three years later we joined the regional league and we are doing very well. We emerged number three last year and this year we are on top.

What are their ages?

The youngest is 14 and the oldest 17.

What happens after they complete high school?

After Form Four, the ones who will do well is taken to college on a sponsorship deal. Since all of them may not be able to pass, the average ones will be taken to TVET.

What are the challenges of coaching a girls’ team?

It is not easy. Most of them get affected by menstrual flows and cramps. You may plan a training session of 20 players and then on the day, only four show up and they are not even able to train.

Parents have also proven to be an impediment. You schedule a session but if the parent has other ideas and plans for the girl, it becomes really hard because they expect them to do certain chores first before leaving the house. I tell the girls to try their best to plan their day so that they can complete their chores in time for practice. If we are meeting in the morning, I advise them to wash utensils at night or the evening before then probably take a shower in the morning so that they don’t run late for our meetings.

The neighbourhoods where these girls come from are also not very suitable for them because of the insecurity. Sometimes when we have to meet as early as 5 am or 6 am and they end up arriving late because they cannot risk being outside in the dark at such odds hours. We understand this because they are girls and unlike boys, they cannot take chances with their safety.

How are you trying to solve this challenge?

We talk to them and try to solve the problems. For those who live far, we have motorcycle contacts who we send to pick them up in case they have problems with travel. This is not the final plan however because we are aware that we still cannot guarantee their safety but we are in the process of coming up with better and safer ways of getting the girls to practice.

The main challenge with them at this age is the boyfriend thing and relationships. There are also many challenges in the slums. Sometimes they would come in the morning and tell me that they have not had a meal. So you will have to find something for them to eat even if it is just tea.

Image from https://acakorofootball.com/web/our-kids/

Tell me about Chapa Dimba and your team’s participation?

I just saw the advertisement for Chapa Dimba and I decided to tell the club directors about it. I had played it while I was at Mathare and then it was called Sakata. It disappeared and then re-emerged as Chapa Dimba. We downloaded the form and applied. That was in 2017.

The big challenge arose when the requirement was that for anyone without a passport or ID Card must bring their school ID. We had to make arrangements with a local school to get the IDs for the girls so that they could be eligible to play. We managed to get student IDs for a few but for the others, we just used birth certificates because they did not have school IDs.

That is how we ended up in the First Edition of Chapa Dimba. We went as participants, not contestants. Surprisingly, we were number two in Nairobi region and then we came back to the drawing board. We said the second edition we must win. In the second edition nationally, we ended up as number two at the finals with Kitale Queens. We drew 2-2 then we were knocked out on penalties.

Photo- courtesy Safaricom

We met very good teams in the Nationals. Nyanza and Western play very good football. The organizers were saying this Agakoro won’t make it past the first round. We surprisingly went through and were pitted against Nyanza. They were the Queens. Everyone dismissed us but we defeated them 3-2. That was when other teams started taking notice and realized that we cannot be underrated.

They took notice of our speed and talent. When we won the Nairobi edition, they did a section of children to go to Spain. We managed to get to players from my team. I ended up being the coach of the Kenya all-stars girls going to Spain.

How was that experience?

I never imagined anything like it. Before we began the Chapa Dimba tournament, we were told, in a meeting, that there will be an all-star team and they would select the two best coaches from the eight regions. From the 8 regions, everybody was a winner. I was unique because I was the only female. So, I was just given a direct ticket to go to La Liga. It felt so good to be chosen. I was in Spain for two weeks.

 

Pauline in Spain. Photo courtesy of Safaricom

What did you learn there?

We met some professional La Liga coaches from Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. They were coaching our players and we, as coaches also learnt a lot. We were acting as assistant coaches for those coaches. Whenever we would enter the field, I would make sure I ask questions. I asked about everything they did that was not clear to me.

What challenges did you have coaching a team that was not very familiar to you because only 2 out of 18 came from your team?

For the first 2-3 days, it was tricky especially since some of the older girls gave me a lot of attitude. I had to be firm. I had made it clear to them that I need to be respected as a coach. In the end, it worked out well but it was tough.

I made sure I had meetings with the team for us to get to know each other. Then I told them what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I also gave them a chance to say something. Nobody could tell that I had met with most of the team there. We created a good bond and won a couple of friendly matches.

Have you gotten any other opportunities outside of the coaching because of what you have been doing?

There is the Under 20 national team. The coach told the management that she wanted to work with me. We are still waiting for the response. I am also trying to work with other academies as an individual trainer. I also do individual training. I have already worked with three boys and girls who I have helped improve tactically and technically as players. So far I’ve worked with three parents and it has been a good experience.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?

Because I love coaching, I want to coach abroad. I want to work with academies abroad. I have been trying to do some research. I got one in the UK but I am still working on it. It is a job, not a scholarship.

How do you balance your work as a coach and as a mother?

I almost lost my first daughter to men. I used to attend these tournaments and I would stay away from my kids for long. During Chapa Dimba I would be away for a few days and my children would be all alone at home. Some men took advantage of that and thought they could do whatever they wanted. I had to take leave and go back home just to be with my kids.

My daughter had started being rude and my mother helped me talk some sense into her. She basically showed her that all the long hours I was spending at work was so that she would have a better life. She explained the hardships of being a young mother because she had seen the challenges that I went through, having had my daughter when I was quite young. That talk was necessary because she had gotten to a point where she didn’t have any respect for me and she even got quite rude.

I am happy now that she has changed so well. She is a different girl now and she challenges me to make use of all the opportunities that come my way. She ended up joining my team and she won the best goalkeeper in Nairobi award. My 13-year-old daughter is also in the under 13 team. My youngest child is the only one who isn’t the least bit interested in football which is funny because he is the only boy in the house.

 

Photo courtesy of Pauline Awuor

You also have dreams to work as a coach internationally. So do you want to go and get coached or just coach?

I want to work as a coach. But I will wait for my older daughter to finish high school. I am still planning for that, it won’t be easy because as she will be in form four my second daughter will be joining form one. I will find a way to make it work. It is not something I have already decided, however. It’s a dream I hope can come true one day.

What else do you want to do?

I want to get married. There is no one yet but I am just still searching.

What else do you do beyond coaching?

I am a businesswoman. Before I started coaching, I was selling mitumba. After I started coaching, it became a bit hard to do it. Having three children can be very difficult especially when you are surviving with a salary that is never enough. I intend to go back to business in the near future.

In the past, I carried my mitumba from one place to another looking for customers but I now need a store. I will maybe hire someone to help me run it, probably even my daughter now that she is almost finishing school, that would be a good place for her to learn about business and other life skills before she hopefully joins college.

 

The Acakoro Girls football team. Image from https://acakorofootball.com/web/our-kids/

What are your dreams for your young team?

First, I want all of them to finish high school and follow their dreams. At least they get something to do. There is a scholarship we are working on from Sweden and we hope we can get it so that some can go there. We all pray that such opportunities will come and these girls can see a life beyond the one they are living. The dream is that they earn a respectable living to help themselves and their families.

What would you tell a woman who wants to coach?

In every interview, I always mention that “women, let’s take these opportunities. They won’t come to us”. We need to seek them out and grab them. You can even start coaching in the estates. I used to coach very many children on my own. They used to love it. You do not know who will spot you. I got my break while coaching in the estates, I was spotted by the kit manager from Kariobangi Sharks. You never know where your opportunity lies so keep coaching the right way and something good will come knocking.

Do you have a program where you train other women to be coaches?

I do not have a formal training program, but I frequently invite women over when we are having our practice sessions and I give them the opportunity to observe how we do things. For them to be actively involved in the practical part of the game is more beneficial than any theory that they may learn in a class.

What can the Football Federation do to encourage more women coaches?

They should make it mandatory for the equality rule during these regional coaching sessions. It should be one woman, one man from every region. They should not let the men dominate it because ladies are reluctant. If they do that, we shall have more women. But if we go with ‘options’ it will not happen. We have so many former women footballers doing nothing. They want it but no one is seeing them. So the federation should step in and make it mandatory for there to be gender balance.

The women should also try to be more aggressive in their pursuit because either way, it is still going to be challenging. The coaching course goes on for one week so I understand that it might present a challenge for those who have many responsibilities at work and home. Get letters from the federation to excuse yourself from work if you have to.

How many coaching courses have you done so far? What aspects of coaching have you done?

I have done six coaching courses. One was child protection. It was a part of a partnership between the English Premiership and Kenya. The other one had aspects of social life and football. It was conducted at Kasarani after the general elections. It was also about goalkeeping and was done by a former German footballer. I can do general coaching and still specialize as a goalkeeper coach because I received separate training for that. It was meant for premier league coaches only but since I was the only female coach I was allowed to do it.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to venture into football; whether it is coaching or playing?

My favourite quote is, “It’s never done until it is done.” Let’s love each other. Let’s work together and let’s help these girls. Let’s work and let someone see us or find us doing it. As women, we should aspire to get into more leadership positions rather than always being comfortable to work under the men.

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