The saying “a journey of a thousand miles begin with a single step” by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is one that will keep ringing in the mind of one Raquel Otieno.
The former Kenya hockey international is burning with the desire to promote Kenya’s hockey and boxing through her non-profit sports foundation – Tunza Sports Academy.
At an upcoming indoor hockey turf in Ratta, Seme Sub-county, tens of locals turn up every weekend and, during holidays, to watch hockey matches involving children from the locality.
The project is run by Tunza Sports Academy and Otieno, who is the foundation’s president – and a coach at the GForce Field Hockey Club in the United States of America – believes it will help put Kenya’s hockey back on track.
She also wants to improve the livelihoods of the youngsters through the initiative.
“Three years down the line, or more, we believe these players will be somewhere to impact the game positively.
“As a result, it will help end the poverty that they currently face back at home,” says Otieno.
Rael, as she is popularly known, is a native of Ratta, Seme Sub-county in Kisumu.
She donned the national team colours between 2001 and 2004, turning out as a forward, midfielder and defender in the team that represented Kenyan in the 2003 All African Games in Abuja, Nigeria, and Afro – Asia Games held in India the same year.
WEARS MANY HATS
For club competition, she switched teams several times, featuring for the 21-times Kenya Hockey Union (KHU) women’s premier league champions Telkom, now re-branded to Blazers, Inter-capitale and Blue Eaglets (both disbanded), Mombasa Sports Club and Sliders.
In the USA, Otieno wears many hats in the game of field hockey. She is a technical official at the Junior Premier Hockey League and Pan American Hockey Federation.
The former Kenya international is also a member of the Indoor Master Team and, last year, she made it to the final list of players who were to represent US in the Women’s Masters Indoor World Cup in Hong Kong.
However, she failed to travel for the assignment because she was sitting an examination.
In boxing, Otieno is a trainer at Aces Boxing Club in Boonton, New Jersey.
Thanks to positive feedback from parents to some of the children that Otieno trains at GForce Field Hockey Club, and her love for sport, she saw the need to start a similar project in Kenya. “I was thinking of doing an orphanage or something with sports, and my passion with field hockey made me go for it. Parents of the children I was coaching also kept on sending messages of appreciation that I had changed their children’s character, so it then hit me that I should do the same back at home,” she says.
Tunza Sports Academy was formed in January, 2018, but started operations in March the same year, Mombasa County being the first to benefit.
Then, only girls were enrolled in the programme being held at St Charles Lwanga Secondary School in Changamwe.
Boys have since been brought on board and the place is now home to 35 players – 15 girls and 20 boys.
There is no fee paid to join the programme.
According to the foundation’s president, the societal problem an area faces is the determining factor on whether Tunza Sports Academy set base in place or not.
For Mombasa’s case, Otieno says it was informed by the need to break the “religious bondage” which had kept girls from the region away from taking part in sporting activities.
“In Mombasa, I saw a lot of religious aspects holding girls off from playing, yet we are now in a world where no matter which religion you belong to, you can play even if it means wearing a hijab like it happens at the Olympics.
“The need to ensure girls in Mombasa take part in sports pulled me there,” says the former Kenya international.
She has involved two hockey coaches in training the youngsters during weekends and holidays.
The foundation has plans of owning its own turf in the coastal town.
At the Seme’s facility, which was formed because of poverty the children in the area faces, construction work is underway, with the indoor turf already taking shape.
The slab, where the turf will sit has been built and it is where the youngsters’ trains during weekends and holidays.
When completed in two years’ time as the organizers have envisaged, the facility will house an outdoor turf, storage area and social amenities, which will include washrooms.
More than 60 players have joined the programme which began in September, 2017, and which is being overseen by several selected coaches, led by former Butali Sugar Warriors tactician Dennis Owoka.
He doubles up as the Tunza Academy Sports’ coaching director.
“We want to make the indoor turf to international standards and because we have got additional land space, we will put up a standard outdoor pitch as well,” says Otieno.
Her long-term goal is to establish a sports academy where players will be able to pursue education and sports within the same institution.
Despite the programme being free, the organisers found it rough in convincing locals to allow their children to be part of it.
According to the former Kenya International, the idea was not welcomed because hockey was a “strange game” to most of the locals.
“It took a lot of convincing, giving examples of ourselves to the locals on how hockey has given us an opportunity to either travel or get jobs,” says the Tunza founder.
To ensure the youngsters do not quit playing hockey when they are through with primary education, the organization is in talks with several top hockey-playing secondary schools to enroll them.
It also includes securing scholarships for the players at various top hockey playing universities, both locally and internationally.
During this form one intake, eight girls who are pioneers of the Kisumu academy joined Siaya County girls’ hockey champions Nyamira Girls High School, while four were admitted to Sinyolo Girls Secondary School in Kisumu.
It was a stiff competition among the schools as more than five had shown interest on the girls.
During the Kisumu’s facility launch on January 4 this year, it was joy as the players received different sets of uniforms and equipment, which were donations.
Dressed in a black t-shirt, a skirt, socks and white sneakers, Otieno joined the rest of the coaches in horning the youngsters skills in hockey. This is a norm every time she is back in Kenya.
With no sponsor yet, the project depend on donations from friends.
Otieno says her position as a coach and a member of several hockey bodies in US has made it easy for the foundation to secure equipment. But, she hopes to land a sponsor soon, having met all the requirements.
“We have made an application for the 501c (a license all non-profit organisations in US must have to solicit funds). Ones we get it, companies will be able to chip in,” says the tactician.
Apart from inadequate funding by the government, the former Blazers player blames continued poor performance by Kenya’s hockey national teams to poor training.
She says in Kenya, players are only trained on dribbling skills and not understanding the aspect s of the game, like it is done in US and other top hockey playing countries.
The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, was the last time Kenya qualified for the prestigious event. They finished 12th.
Tunza Academy Sports coaching director Owoka is optimistic the initiative will go a long way in reviving Kenya’s hockey.
“We are starting from the lowest levels because it is known that when a player is nurtured well right from an early age, they excel. With this programme, we expect hockey to improve in a few years to come,” says Owoka.
About 35 kilometres away from the Ratta’s facility, sits the Nyalenda Boxing Academy.
Launched on January 18, the academy, which is also in the initial stages of development, is home to 36 players between 12 and 17 years, who include girls.
It is the first foundation established in the country.
The upcoming pugilists were selected by Kenya Boxing Federation judge David Ouma alongside other coaches.
Otieno says with the program, they intend to tap into talents and keep the children from the slum away from drugs and crime.
“Our main aim is to expose children to quality coaching that will raise the standards of sports to international level.
“We also want to keep the children engaged and away from the streets, because this will in turn increase the vibrancy of boxing in the region,” she says.
The academy is expected to provide an avenue for an exchange programme for the children from Kisumu, with outstanding pugilists having a joint training sessions with their counterparts from the Aces Boxing Club in US.
Otieno says she envisions the Kisumu junior performers representing the country in the 2022 Youth Olympics in Dakar.
Other sports, which the foundation intend to introduce are athletics and Lacrosse.