Streaks of sweat run-down Rebecca Wanjiku’s face as she darts across the field to defend her goal from an advance by the opposing team.  

'Ciku', as her teammates fondly call her, is the starting centre back for the Rongai Eaglets, one of the semi-professional girls’ soccer teams in the Central Rift Football Kenya Federation League.  Squaring up against an opponent, Ciku deftly recovers the ball. She cuts back to the left, turns and starts toward midfield, moving gracefully, with the battered leather ball seeming to stick to her foot. She then draws her leg back and launches a perfectly timed cross.  

The ball spins wildly in the air before connecting with an open teammate’s foot, making a crisp, hollow sound as it whizzes over the grass, past the goalkeeper into the lower-left corner of the net.  There is a sudden burst of cheers. The score is now 1-0 in favour of the Rongai Eaglets. As the referee blows the final whistle, Ciku and her teammates, surrounded by accolades from the side-lines, hug and exchange high fives. Then they gather into a huddle and one of the players says a prayer, thanking God for the victory.  As the team loads up the bus and travels back to Rongai, Ciku is deep in thought. Not only is she grateful for another — though narrow — victory, she is also glad that the team has maintained a perfect start to the season. 

To Ciku, the game of soccer is so much more than a game. It is the key to overcoming a life of poverty. 
Growing up was not easy for Ciku. At an early age, her father died, and her mother Esther, a subsistence farmer, couldn’t provide for even the basic needs of Ciku and her four siblings.  When a local church opened a centre for Tearfund's partner Compassion International, Ciku was registered into the programme. But soon, centre workers observed that she was reluctant to go home after programme activities. She would hang around the centre until late, playing by herself.

One of the workers, Rahab, explains, “It came to our attention that Ciku’s mother, Esther, struggled with alcohol addiction. When we talked to Ciku about it, she said that she didn’t like to go home because when her mother was drunk as she would yell at her.” 

The centre staff reached out to Esther with help, but when the situation failed to improve, an alternative intervention was sought. With the authority of the child protection officer in the village, Ciku and her siblings were taken to live with a woman from the community who agreed to care for them until Esther dealt with her addiction.    

“I can say many things about how this time of my life affected me,” Ciku says. “But the difficulties taught me to endure — to persevere, be mentally tough and trust in God.”  

It was during this difficult time that Ciku also discovered soccer, a sport that quickly became a passion. She says, “Soccer provided a way for me to cope with the difficult things in my life. I became immersed in the sport.” 
Soon, Ciku, who had a natural talent for the sport, began to look at soccer as a way to improve her future and, ultimately, overcome poverty.

More-than-just-a-game-Blog-2.jpgFor Ciku, soccer has been an escape from some of the grim realities that she would have had to face.

Supporting Ciku’s potential, the centre purchased shoes, a ball and other essential soccer equipment for the budding soccer star. In addition, a professional soccer trainer was hired to conduct weekend clinics not only for Ciku but also for the other children who were interested in the sport.  Because of these interventions, Ciku’s abilities quickly improved. She has been a key player on the centre’s girls’ team, helping the team to advance to the national Compassion tournament finals every year. The many trophies and medals she has won serve as a constant reminder of her God-given talent. 

Ciku's mother overcame her addiction and regained custody of her kids. 

Now in her last year of high school, Ciku says about her experience on this team, “Not many people here, especially girls, get a chance of making it out. The options are limited: early marriage, prostitution or a mundane life. But that is what this soccer team has given me — a chance, an opportunity to become someone.” 

Next year, she will complete her secondary education, for which she has received a partial sports scholarship to a local high school. After finishing school, her goal is to play for the Thika Queens, a Kenyan Premier League team. 

In the meantime, as a star Rongai Eaglet, Ciku says, “The team is also my family. It helps me remain in school, stay healthy, avoid drugs, alcoholism and unhealthy habits due to peer pressure.”  
 

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