Liberian President George Weah’s story is inspiring to many Africans, but it carries a special meaning for Leonne Mwangi.
For just like the President, the 11-year-old was born in squalor — in Korogocho shanties, one of the largest slum neighbourhoods in the region.
Yet despite constant hunger, lack of education, poor shelter and lack of basic hygiene, Mwangi is determined to carve out a future for himself by playing professional football.
Luckily for him, Good Samaritans came his way three years ago and set his dream in motion.
At such a young age, Mwangi has travelled the world, at a time when many of his peers have either dropped out of school, died of disease or are living in sin and crime.
A formidable defender due to his sturdy physique and combative nature, Mwangi captained his Acakoro team in the Donauauencup tournament held in Austria two weeks ago where they finished fourth.
The Donauauencup is an annual tournament that brings together the best age group teams from around the world, including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund.
This year, Acakoro fell to Germany’s Borussia Dortmund at the quarter finals but in the last two editions, they had established themselves as the great minnows by beating them all and lifting the title in the 2016 and 2017 editions.
Mwangi and his Acakoro team mates take part in this tournament every year and it is here that they beat their more privileged counterparts who train with the best coaches, well-run schedules, lush playing pitches and the best fitness equipment.
“I have played in that tournament in the last three years and this year we lost just because of the referee’s mistake,” young Mwangi explains.
“I remember I delivered a very fine pass and my teammate sent the ball home, only for the referee to disallow the goal. After that we got so discouraged and ended up losing the game,” he said.
It all began on May 2016 when a hungry, unkempt and severely malnourished Mwangi was sitting with his friend on a heap of dirt in Ngomongo slums, both of them having suffered corporal punishment at school for lacking proper uniform and the required books.
“I have lived with my grandmother for the better part of my life and a few years ago I have been thinking hard, trying to find ways of getting out of this place. Life here is hard. When I attended trials at Acakoro I was really determined to get into the team.
“School fees was hard to come by and I was out of school often. Whenever I was kicked out of school I couldn’t go home because there was nothing to eat so my friends and I used to like going to the dumpsite to pass time.
“That is where I heard someone say that there would be trials that Saturday for Acakoro football team. I didn’t even know what the academy was about but I made up my mind to try my luck,” Mwangi says.
It would be another month before Mwangi heard anything from the academy managers, but the miracle occurred one cold evening when two people appeared at his grandmother’s doorstep and told him he had been selected to the team.
The two were Stefan Köglberger, an Austrian youth division coach and his wife Eldona, who run the Acakoro football academy with funding from Austria.
They promised Mwangi free dinner, a roof over his head and a chance to break the cycle of poverty by carving out a career in football.
“They promised to pay half my school fees, give me at least one meal every day and provide training kit for me.
“I thought it was a dream come true and that is how I started getting serious about my football career,” he said.
Acakoro, short for Academy of Korogocho Football, is a non-profit organisation that operates in the Korogocho slums and targets young boys and girls living in surrounding areas.
Under the guidance of development coach Stefan Köglberger and with support from donations from Austria, Acakoro has been operating in the slums for six years now; offering food to its members, temporary shelter and an opportunity to exploit their sporting talents.
The academy has grown in leaps and bounds since it was established a decade ago and has grown into something of an incubator for national team players.
It has a number of players within the different national age group teams, including 16-year old Veronica Arum who is a member of the national girls’ Under 20 team.
Acakoro was a brain child of an Austrian NGO by the name Hope for the Future, which built three schools — two primary schools, one secondary school — in Korogocho before founding the academy.
Köglberger and his wife Eldona are both Austrian football experts who are permanently based in Korogocho.
Their aim is to nurture the children’s talent and give them a chance in both sports and academics through quality education and professional football training.
The academy partners with three schools in Korogocho: Damascus, Our Lady of Fatima and Anointed, where it pays half the school fees for all its students.
They also use the training pitches in these schools and provide playing kit and balls for the very needy students. Dinner is also provided at the Acakoro centre.
The academy currently has 108 children divided in the under 13, under 15 and under 17 men’s team, while the girls form one team.
Being in Standard Eight, Mwangi knows that this is his final year with the team, before moving on to secondary school in the next 10 months.
At Acakoro, he is guaranteed of at least a meal every day, half his school fees is catered for and he stands a good chance of getting into the national junior team, kick starting his dream of playing professional football.
But as he is basking in the small joys of representing the country, Mwangi remains acutely aware of the plight that many of his friends continue to grapple with.
“If I wasn’t playing football I don’t know where I would be. Probably at home because of lack of books and lack of school fees.
“Or even lack of food. I like it here in Acakoro, but sometimes we have to stop training because there is no water,” he said.
Mwangi and his teammates train five times every week at the Our Lady of Fatima secondary School, one of the few schools in the area whose playgrounds have not been taken over by land grabbers.
The school is located at the intersection of Kariobangi South and Dandora slums intersect.
It is here, where the smell of danger and filth hangs limply in the air, that budding footballers like Mwangi converge every day in the hope of eking out a career in football.
Watching them play barefoot and with no training gear whatsoever, one can hardly help but wonder: Do poor children have as much a right to play and enjoy life as rich ones do?
The sports sector has been identified as one of the significant drivers to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Key among the goals are to eradicate of poverty, promote health, promote gender equality, achieve quality education, promote sustainable human settlements, contribute to peaceful, non-violent societies and develop human capital and human potential.
But what does it take to rehabilitate kids so badly damaged by the effects of poverty?
What are the chances that a street child, who is more prone to stealing from his colleagues than being part of a team, can pursue his career dreams?
“A lot of sacrifice. It takes a lot of sacrifice and a good strategy because many times these kids are beyond counselling.
“It is very difficult to deal with teenagers in the slums. Many of them come here having endured the worst situations you can ever imagine. Some of them come here damaged completely and sadly those ones you cannot save,” coach Rashid Mohammed said.
This story first appeared in the Daily Nation.