It is a hot, humid afternoon and the children of Nairobi's Mathare slum are once again playing football and trying to put behind the tribal violence that nearly tore them apart.
Like many other kids across Kenya, these children aged 12 to 18 were caught up in the turmoil that erupted after disputed presidential polls in late December.
AdvertisementBut unlike their counterparts, the children of Mathare are unique in that they are products of a local sports association which has helped thousands of children in the sprawling slum of about 300,000 people since it was created in 1987.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) has pioneered the linking of sports with social improvement and community development activities such as the cleaning of the slums.
Drawn from different tribes, the children have also put Kenya on the international football map when they won the first FIFA street football World Cup in Germany in 2006.
It is against this background of being society builders that the children of Mathare survived the trauma of the inter-tribal clashes between the Luos and Kikuyus in late December.
Tens of thousands of families were displaced in the violence in Mathare and 182 children registered in the football club went missing.
MYSA's sports project officer Stephen Muchoki acknowledged his association was hard hit as it draws its members from all the communities residing in the slum.
"We suffered most from the displacements," he told AFP.
Some of the children and their families sought protection at the Mathare police station where officers decided to allow matches at a nearby pitch and, more importantly, provide security during the games.
Working with the information from their membership lists, MYSA officials managed to trace the missing children to tent camps and churches where they were living after their homes were burned to the ground.
They gave them food, clothing, school books and uniforms collected from donors.
Still Muchoki said some children were afraid to come to the field and risk being targeted.
"They are scared," he said. "Even kids who were friends cannot visit each other."
It is not the first time that the two communities have fought each other on tribal lines in the impoverished district.
In 2002, about 50 people were killed in gang warfare between the Mungiki Kikuyu group and a Luo militia group calling itself the Taliban.
But officials said the ongoing African Nations Cup tournament in Ghana has served as a big unifying factor.
"The tournament could not have come at a better time," said MYSA director Peter Karanja.
"The children come together in small kiosks to watch the matches and cheer the opposing sides. It diverts their attention. It's truly a healing process."
"I like Cameroon because they play entertaining football. I believe they will win the Cup," said 13-year-old Stephen Njoroge, who was separated from his family in the upheaval and has been living in a nearby church.
Njoroge, an MYSA youth striker who idolises Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, was able to rejoin his football clubmates after being traced to the church through MYSA's lists.
While the club is up and running again, MYSA officials said registration for the new season was well below that of last year. They have only managed to enlist 200 teams compared to 1,300 at the same stage in 2007.
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