Leading The Way

“Girls are inspired by having a female coach—they can see a pathway for themselves”

Right now I’m the only female coach in the Kenyan Women’s Premier League.

It’s just me.

The other coaches have never seen a woman in this space: it’s uncharted water for them.

When my team arrives, the opponents think our driver is the coach, assuming I can’t possibly be in charge.

It takes them a while to wrap their heads around the notion of a female leader.

But for me, it’s familiar territory. I’ve defied gender roles before, I know what it takes to break down barriers, to fight for a path that isn’t always easy to see.

Of course, it wasn’t an easy road to get here.

When I started boys dominated the local fields, as if they were their stomping grounds, like they owned them.

Across the whole continent of Africa, boys make up 97% of those who play football.

And that’s today. Imagine—me as a 12-year-old Muslim girl, picking up the game 20 years ago in Kenya.

I wouldn’t change it though, my past motivates me. It ignites a fire within me that keeps me going even through the toughest of times. 

It inspires me to help other girls.

I want to break down barriers and stereotypes and show the world that women can do anything they put their minds to.

My name is Fathime Tibu and this is my story.

The outrage I faced for doing something different, for being a Muslim girl playing a ‘man’s sport’ was intense.

I felt a great resentment and judgement every time I stepped outside.

I remember when I first told my family that I was playing football. Their reaction was harsh, it shattered my confidence and made me feel like I didn’t belong.

My family, my teachers, my community – everyone and everything around me thought I was misbehaving – that football was bad for girls.

That I was a disgrace.

When I was growing up you see, Saturday was the only day I could play. The only time I could run up and down that dusty pitch and have a football at my feet. My one day to do the sport I loved, to laugh with my friends and forget about the problems in my life.

But on Saturdays mum had other plans.

Saturdays were Madrasa days--Muslim school.

It was a big deal.

My family couldn’t understand that I could be a good football player and a good Muslim. That these two identities don’t have to compete with each other.

I had to learn to navigate what I wanted to do and what others expected me to do.

That’s why Moving the Goalpost Kilifi (MTG), the place where I have coached for the last 15 years, means so much to me.

It’s a place where girls can realise their full potential.

It’s the place where I found the courage to follow my passion, to defy expectations.

When I first started as a player at MTG, I had several female coaches. They showed me it was possible to defy expectations, that I too could play.

Back then MTG had around 200 girls. Now we have over 9,000.

As we’ve grown, I’ve seen attitudes change for the better. 

Parents now see that football can bring their girls great opportunities in life.

Where I live on the Kenyan coast, high rates of teen pregnancy and low wages engulf us.

Girls are expected first and foremost to be mothers. They aren’t always given the chance to dream.

The few opportunities that do come our way are given to boys.

Take secondary school for example—many families can’t afford to send their kids, but if they can, sons will always be sent before their daughters.

But MTG is helping change that. We’ve been able to help girls with their school fees and provide vocational training for the older ones. This means that girls are directly given more opportunities, that their imagination of what’s possible, their reality of what they can do bursts wide open.

It’s part of the reason why I love being a coach.

There’s a certain power to having a role model. To seeing someone who looks like you and grew up in the same place as you succeed.

By believing in my dreams and persevering, my girls see a pathway for themselves.

They realise if they apply themselves and keep a positive attitude, they can be whatever they want to be.

It’s been such a pleasure to see MTG grow. It’s easier to walk through life with people by your side, with friends supporting you.

After the journey I’ve been on I know the difficulties of standing alone all too well.

That’s why last month I took on my biggest project yet.

Working with the Football Kenya Federation, I helped train 25 women to become accredited coaches and pursue their dreams as leaders.

The women were united by their desire to inspire.

Increasing the number of female coaches and leaders is a crucial step towards gender equality; it allows girls to see what’s possible.

I have big dreams.

I want to see ten of my players play professionally, not only here in Kenya, but around the world. I know they can do it. I believe in them.

And for me personally, I want to be the best female coach in Kenya. I aspire to coach the national team one day.

I want to keep inspiring girls to play the beautiful game, the game that has taught me to never give up.