She stares at the trophy in her hand. It is a powerful new resin football trophy featuring the mould of a footballer, with stars visible on the ball. A trophy signifying success, with the player at the pinnacle of brilliance.
She stares a little more into space before turning her head to face me. I can see her mumbling, trying to find the words to express her pensive look.
She clears her throat audibly, finally saying, “This is my favourite trophy. I can stand losing the rest but not this one. It’s what gave me the confidence to train harder and be a professional a footballer.”
Mary Wanjiku is a professional football player who plays for Makolanders FC in the Kenya Women’s Premier League (KWPL).
Secondborn in a family of five, the 24-year-old decided to make her trail different from her father who was a boxer as well as her mum who is a musician.
Her younger sister admits that ‘Shiko’ as they call her at home, has always shown interest for the game at a younger age.
” I remember when we were in primary school, Shiko never used to play with us, she was always playing football with boys,” says her sister Susan Nyambura.
In Kenya and African societies, gender roles are defined and games children play are typically determined by their sex. For Shiko, defying these assigned gender roles was not being rebellious but a call to be allowed to follow her passion.
“I wanted to express myself in the field, to me, the games young girls played never interested me, I was always racing with boys in the field playing football,” she says looking fondly at an old photo of herself.
She hands me the photo and leaves her grey couch for the kitchen. I gawp at her face on the photo trying to spot the changes since then.
She cuts my observation short and hands me a glass of juice, drawing the curtains and letting in copious amounts of light. I prop up on my chair and wait for her next comment.
“I was forced to stop playing football by my mum because I was spending most of my time in the field and not helping with chores.”
After I pry on the reason, she goes on to explain that her mother wanted her to wait until she was through with her secondary school studies to play.
“Immediately after my last paper, I was in the field trying to find a ladies’ team.” She says.
For her mother it wasn’t about denying her a chance to play, she was understandably worried that her little girl was spending most of her time with boys.
“I had to crack the whip, as a parent I feared how close she was with boys…and you know she is a girl,” says her mother, Pauline Njeri.
Even after she finished her secondary education, her mother continued to be hesitant, afraid to allow her daughter to travel away from home.
“I remember having a family meeting together with her coach who was pleading with me to allow her to travel to Mombasa for a tournament, it took an hour of convincing for me to agree, though half-heartedly,” her mother narrates.
The trip to Mombasa was successful for Shiko, she submits that it is that trip that opened her eyes to the world of women in football.
“I loved the Mombasa tournament, personally it was a chance for me to prove to my parents that I am a good footballer plus I interacted with professional women footballers and that is when the seed of going pro was first planted in my mind,” Shiko says with a cheerful smile, holding her half-empty glass of orange juice.
Probing further, I ask her how she transcended from amateur to professional footballing. Placing her glass down and glancing at the ceiling as though looking for the right answers, she says, “After the Mombasa tournament, I came back to Thika and threw caution to the wind. I went for trials at the Premier League side Thika Queens, the coach was impressed and I put pen to paper. This was in 2013, a year after I had finished high school.”
Thika Queens finished fourth last season in KWPL. The club which plays its home matches at Thika Stadium boast of being three-time league champions.
In the same season when she joined the Queens, the league was abandoned halfway due to financial constraints. She was a key figure in Queen’s midfield for two seasons before she moved to another league side in her home area, Thika Rangers.
“Why did you switch to Rangers?” I ask her.
“I needed a new challenge, and Rangers offered me a better deal, I had to jump on the offer,” she replies.
At the end of her first season with Thika Rangers, she was selected to join the national team side for a women’s street football tournament in Norway in 2016.
The national side finished an impressive third and she was named the best player of the tournament.
After her sterling performance, many local clubs wanted to sign her, but she chose to sign for her current club Makolanders F.C.
Her decision was influenced by the Makolanders coach Michael Okanga, whom she had wished for the longest time to play under.
“When clubs wanted me, I chose Makolanders over the rest, I knew the coach over there and I was convinced I will grow under him,” she confirms.
Makolanders F.C signed a new coach at the start of the 2020 season after finishing eighth last season.
She watched from the bench as Vihiga Queens were crowned champions in the last match of the 2019 season due to a shoulder injury that saw her miss the whole second leg.
Her shoulder injury was preceded by a knee injury which threatened to end her career at Thika Queens.
“I suffered a right knee injury in a league match, I had to undergo physiotherapy for a year before I could kick a ball, I am grateful for the club they catered for my treatment,” she says.
“Our league doesn’t have a sponsor, this means we don’t have regular salaries or allowances, sometimes the coach has to use his own money to give us transport after training,” she says, speaking about the challenges she faces now as a woman in football.
The financial situation KWPL was facing was so dire that this season the league decided to revert to its old zonal format where the 16 clubs will compete in Zone A and B.
The move was aimed at reducing travelling expenses incurred by the clubs after FIFA withdrew an Sh750,000 grant it was giving to competing clubs. But that is not the only challenge the ladies face.
“As ladies, we have our menstrual cycle every month, we are sometimes forced to miss training or even matches because some of don’t have funds to buy pads,” Shiko adds.
Last month, Kenya Footballers’ Welfare Association (KEFWA) partnered with Johanna Omollo foundation to help facilitate Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) among female footballers in the country.
Before our conversation progresses further, her 12-noon alarm rings. She tells me it’s time for her to skip rope for half an hour.
I follow her to the balcony where she skips rope, and she goes on to tell me about her active schedule.
“I wake at 5 a.m go for a morning run for an hour, juggle the ball for thirty minutes, prepare breakfast, skip rope at noon and in the evening I head to the gym. I don’t know how long the league will be suspended but I have to keep fit just in case,” she says.
Last week, Football Kenya Federation suspended grassroots football competitions and women leagues including the Kenya Women Premier League, Women Division One League to curb the spread of Coronavirus.
“Are you dating?” I implore immediately she returns from her skipping routine. Wiping her face with a silk towel, she smiles shyly. “Yes am in a serious relationship for one year now,” she says confidently.
Mary Wanjiru draws inspiration from the number of Kenyan female footballers who are playing abroad. She believes that with hard work and consistency she will one day sign for a big club abroad.
I say my goodbyes and leave her rearranging her trophy file, for each trophy, has a story to tell.