April 17, 2012
Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" Odera quit medical practice and instead founded Sadili Oval Sports Academy (SOSA) in Kibera slum, Nairobi, where she introduced the game of tennis to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
SOSA aims to improve the health, education, environment and skills of children from poor communities and prepare them to integrate with the rest of society and give them opportunities to exploit their talent through sports.
The academy has received global recognition through various awards including the 2002 Spirit of The Land Award, from the International Olympic Committee at Salt Lake City Olympics, the 2003 Global Forum for Sport and Environment Award in Japan, and the 2004 Humanitarian of the Year Award, from the Professional Tennis Registry.
SOSA was also selected as the model Centre for Excellence for Africa by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Sports Alliance in August 2001.
In an exclusive interview with Sabahi, Odera explained the inspiration and motivation behind her work and how it has impacted the lives of poor children.
Sabahi: When and how did you develop interest in sports?
Elizabeth "Liz" Odera: My love for sports started from childhood through playing street football with boys and other girls as teenagers in our estate during holidays and evenings after school.
When I joined Kenya High School, one of my teachers, who was a tennis coach, encouraged me to join the school's tennis training programme. She saw [my] talent and helped me develop it. By the time I joined university, I was an accomplished player and my interest in tennis had grown strong. I participated in many tournaments and briefly tried professional tennis.
Sabahi: Tell us about the Sadili Oval Sports Academy.
Odera: We started SOSA in 1992. It was started by a group of young professionals who had grown up in the Langata district, and had the opportunity to get university education in the United States and elsewhere abroad.
The project was the culmination of a dream we had, as a group [of professionals] from various fields, to find a way to give back to society and make a difference in our community when we came back to Kenya.
Sabahi: What was the motivation behind starting SOSA?
Odera: The major motivation for starting SOSA was to give back to the community through a mixture of sports and education. We wanted to build Kenyans of the future with world-class training in sports and education and to enable them develop and realise their talents and potential.
Our first school, Malezi School [which teaches a regular school curriculum], was opened in 1989 with the sports academy coming three years later. We realised that many youths, especially from poor families and [those living in] slums, had potential to excel in sports, but lacked the opportunity to do that.
We started off with basketball and football and then slowly introduced tennis, which has been our main focus. The first students admitted to our tennis programme used improvised racquets and those who did not have them, used their hands with plastic balls. It was a very humble beginning.
We began with just a few children, about 18, but now 700 children go through our programmes every week.
Sabahi: Tell us about your students.
Odera: We normally target youths from the slums around Langata, and any talented children from rich backgrounds. The poor and disadvantaged children don't pay anything at all, but they are subsidized by the charges levied on those from privileged backgrounds.
We have also established some training centres in selected schools, which have accepted to partner with us. But our main focus is the slum area where about 85% of the children in the programme come from.
We have simple rules for the children. One cannot be part of the programme if they are not willing to stay in their respective schools until they complete their studies. They should also be willing to do community work as volunteers like tree planting.
Sabahi: How many children have benefitted from this programme and what is the response from the community?
Odera: Our estimation is that 7,400 children from disadvantaged backgrounds have passed through this programme. The response from the community has been amazing. In fact, children's parents provide free labour whenever we have [projects].
For example, right now we are building a tennis court in the Kibera slums on a land that has been donated by parents of some of the children we are training. The fathers are helping us build it by providing free labour to dig up the courts. Otherwise we have had a very positive response from the community.
Sabahi: How is tennis beneficial to a child's growth and development?
Odera: Tennis generally helps youths know how to handle themselves because it requires certain etiquette. Children learn how to develop negotiation skills as they deal with each other. You know you have to keep time, so it helps you develop self-discipline.
It also helps one plan well and learn how to deal with other people and work as a team, which eventually leads to mental development of the person.
There are a lot of very positive habits you pick up from tennis … it builds individual character. It makes you stand out. It helps children [become] more organised in their school and social lives.
Generally, it helps them acquire and develop important life skills.
We have [produced] young people who have received university scholarships. Some are studying in Australia and in the US and they are playing in [sports] leagues there. We have also produced some of Africa's top tennis players, like Hassan Ndayashimiye from Burundi. He joined us when he was 9-years-old and stayed for five years. He was from a slum in Bujumbura.
Sabahi: What have been some of the challenges in running this programme?
Odera: Funding is the biggest challenge so far. It takes a lot of resources to develop the children. Normally, you need about four years to become good [in sports], and it is challenging to get enough money to support a child for the entire period.
The lack of government support is another challenge. Despite being aware of what we do, they hardly contribute to our success. They just praise us for what we are doing, but they do nothing else beyond that.
Recently, there were attempts to build talent centres by United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, but we were overlooked although we applied for it. We, however, hope they will consider us and support the creation of tennis talent centres in selected counties in the country.
Another challenge is that most parents do not take sports seriously and girls are major victims as some parents pull them out when they reach at a certain age because they are kept busy assisting in chores at home.
Sabahi: What type of exposure do children in the programme experience?
Odera: We organise various tournaments locally and within the region. We have an East African tour that takes our players through Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Kenya.
We also organize a national competition where we meet with various teams and where we also showcase the talents of the children. The regional tournament is the most popular event in our calendar as many local and international coaches come to scout for talent.
We also organise tennis camps during school holidays, and every three years some of the children visit the US for a tour in Florida. Some of the children have received scholarship opportunities through such trips.
Sabahi: How have you managed to finance and sustain SOSA?
Odera: We mostly sustain our activities through partnerships. Right now we have partnerships with the UNEP, which supports our tree planting and other community outreach projects, the French Embassy in Nairobi, which offers scholarships to some of the needy children, Hewlett-Packard, and Virgin Atlantic Airways, which flies our children to London twice a year. We also rely on one-off sponsors.
Sabahi: What is the future of the Academy?
Odera: The future is very bright. We already have had lots of success in the past and we hope that it will follow us in the future. It has taken us 22 years to build and develop SOSA, and it is now a widely accepted brand [that is] recognized locally and globally.
We would like to be recognized as a world-class talent academy providing growth opportunities to children from diverse backgrounds, the poor and those from the rich.
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