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BOB MUNRO

Kenya,

Bob Munro is one of the first people in the world to successfully unite sports and development. Through his organization, Bob has not only fostered young leaders, he has inspired them to change their communities for the better.

This profile below was prepared when Bob Munro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.

INTRODUCTION

Bob Munro, creator of the Mathare Youth Sports Association, is one of the first people in the world to successfully unite sports and development. Through his organization, Bob has not only fostered young leaders, he has inspired them to change their communities for the better.




THE NEW IDEA

Bob created the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in 1987 to establish strong ties between young people, sports, and development. Starting in one of the largest, most disadvantaged slums in Africa, today MYSA is the largest youth sports league on the continent and is recognized worldwide as a trailblazer organization. While football (soccer) is central to MYSA’s work, Bob has established an extensive program to empower youth living in slums and similarly inhospitable areas around the world.

MYSA effectively recruits young people, develops values like teamwork and community engagement, and provides opportunities for leaders to emerge and be recognized. All the while, being owned, led, and spread through these young leaders themselves. Community service programs are as essential as athletic competitions in everything from the way points are tallied to the decisions made by MYSA’s youth executive council. Therefore, to succeed in the program, a young person must be active both on the field and off. In this way, Bob and the young leaders of MYSA have been successful in pairing the development of youth athletic programs with improvements in community infrastructure.

Today, MYSA’s program has expanded to over twenty countries and is renowned in the development field. Additionally, it is known worldwide for its accomplishments in sports and has produced many star athletes. Indeed, all alum’s serve as role models for young people, and thanks in part to the ethics and values they developed while involved with MYSA, they have continued to serve their communities in immeasurable ways.




THE PROBLEM

For the last several decades, urban areas in Kenya and throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa have experienced rapid population growth as economically depressed people leave their rural homes in hopes of finding work, educational opportunities, and modern conveniences in cities. After twenty years of facing this trend, African cities still struggle to provide for these millions of migrants. As populations swell, sprawling slums that lack basic infrastructure like electricity, garbage removal, and sanitation services continue to grow.

By the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people had settled in Mathare, one of the oldest slums in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi. Today, Mathare is home to a half million people and is densely populated, with an average of six people living in every 9 square meters. Most residents still have no electricity, public sanitation and municipal garbage services are unavailable, and face countless challenges, including limited job and educational opportunities as well as ethnic and religious conflict.

While young children play together and forge community ties, they face incredible odds, and many of the youth of Mathare seem to accept abject poverty as their fate. With almost no opportunities for youth leadership, most children rarely finish school. The way to a better life is unclear, and eager young people, lured to the city by the promise of working hard and improving their lots, find themselves waiting for an opportunity—any opportunity—to present itself.




THE STRATEGY

When visiting the Mathare slum in 1987, Bob was struck by the conditions in which people were living. When he saw a group of young boys playing soccer with a ball made of bundled-up plastic bags and twine, he remembered the youth leagues in which he played while growing up in Canada. Since most the families in Mathare were led by busy single mothers, and young people had so few leadership opportunities, Bob was committed to forming a youth-led league, and established the Mathare Youth Sports Association.

Bob views sport as simply the starting point for a robust community development program. While a football team can earn three points for besting its competitors at play, in the way MYSA is structured, six points are awarded to teams that take on and complete community development projects. Projects are designed by the executive council made up entirely of Mathare youth, and range from garbage pick-up initiatives, HIV/AIDS awareness, and street outreach on issues such as sexual abuse and drug use.

MYSA is unique in that its entire leadership structure is made up of young people. Each zone in Mathare elects a chairman and vice chairman from among the young players. These thirty-two leaders participate in either the Sport or Community Services Council and elect from their midst members of the overall policymaking body, the executive council. Bob serves as an advisor to the youth, and at Wednesday meetings over the last two decades, he has drawn from them their own hopes and dreams for the organization.

When Bob first started MYSA in 1987, there were no other groups using sports for development, and donor agencies did not see promise in his idea. Consequently, for the first ten years, MYSA worked with very limited funding. The community projects were local and the competition-plus-community-service point system became a central component of the league. With little outside influence and predominantly youth leadership, the values and culture of the organization were built. Kids’ cleaned streets and public spaces, and when they needed pitches to play on, they partnered with schools, committing to furnish and maintain football facilities in exchange for access to them on nights and weekends. When donor agencies began to notice this overwhelming youth engagement and community revitalization, development agencies finally provided additional financial support.

Bob is now working to create more employment and educational opportunities for the youth in Mathare. Many young people involved with MYSA are trained in physiotherapy and basic sports medicine and he plans to open a chain of health facilities throughout the city to employ these skilled trainers, as well as to promote general health and well-being. MYSA is also building a library in each of Mathare’s sixteen zones, with three already completed. These new projects will no doubt grow and spread through Bob’s tireless efforts and, most importantly through the efforts of countless empowered young people.

MYSA alums number in the thousands, and among them are numerous professionals, two medical doctors, and a Rhodes Scholar, who when he returns to Kenya after finishing his studies, will become the country’s third actuary. Dozens of alums, men and women, are on football scholarships in the United States and twenty-five play for professional clubs in Europe. At home, of the eighteen players on Kenya’s national football team, eleven are MYSA graduates.

Since its inception, MYSA has become the largest youth football program in Africa with over 1,300 teams, 18,000 participants, and athletes that are recognized around the world and play for more than two dozen professional teams. While these players are consummate athletes, they are above all, community leaders.

 




THE PERSON

Being Canadian, Bob grew up playing hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer in the small town of St. Catherine’s, between Toronto and Niagara Falls. He acknowledges that through his active involvement in sports as a young person he gained discipline, a deep commitment to strong teamwork, and leadership experiences that shaped his life.

Bob worked in development for nearly fifteen years until he and his wife decided to move permanently to Africa. By that time, he had attended more than 200 local and international meetings and, though the work was exciting, he spent a great deal of time writing reports and seeing little results. Disillusioned, Bob started a development consulting firm in Nairobi in the mid-1980s. In 1987, his trip to Mathare changed the course of his life.

Bob always envisioned MYSA being youth-led and today insists that this is not the story of a white man doing good in Africa, but that of young people creating and inspiring deep and lasting change in their communities. Nonetheless, a few years after convening the first football match, Bob decided to commit himself full-time to MYSA and has supported and advised its leaders ever since. His extensive networks in the development community have opened many doors and he has continued to consult and publish widely on the successes he has had in linking youth, sports, and development.

Bob and his wife Ingrid have adopted three sons and live in Nairobi, Kenya.




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