On April 29 2018, Kenya international Johanna Omollo, or his handlers, sent out a communique informing the media that he had launched a football academy in the sprawling Dandora slums in Nairobi.
The curt, three-paragraph e-mail stated that the academy’s purpose was “to transform the lives of the children through giving them a platform of exploring their talents through soccer and supporting their education,” and that he had “had the privilege of enjoying a good career in Europe, and it is important that I look back after my own community and give everyone a chance.”
The Academy would be named the Johanna Omollo Foundation, and would cater for needy but talented children aged between 12 and 14 from Dandora, to help them advance their education and football careers.
That was it. No animated public appearances, no media interviews, nothing.
In a country that elevates chest thumping and the overt celebration of even the tiniest forms of help extended to the poor and underprivileged, Omollo’s shyness was considered weird, but only to those who have never interacted with him.
For Omollo is and has always been a soft-spoken and quiet individual, and bits of his character weave through his entire life, including in his football career where he prefers to play the central midfield position, when everyone knows that he can also play upfront instead, and wear the glory and glamour that comes with scoring goals.
“Omollo is a very easy fellow. I won’t let you people ruin him by making him captain. Let him concentrate on playing football on the pitch, not for the cameras,” former Stars coach Stanley Okumbi once told a journalist in jest when asked why he hadn’t chosen such a talented, successful and down to earth person as his captain.
Last year’s press statement said little about Johanna Omollo the man. It didn’t explain why he had chosen Dandora as his launch pad. Or that he had committed to remit one per cent of his salary to “Common Goal”, a charitable movement.
But recently, thanks to an article published by ThePlayersTribune, his motives have been laid out bare for the world to know.
Omollo, a father of two who plays and resides in Belgium, was born in Dandora and raised there, and is one of the very few youth who have shunned crime and rose above the cycle of poverty, drug abuse and violence that is prevalent in slums.
“After I moved to Belgium something kept haunting me for years, like a ghost. Whenever I’d go to sleep I’d remember what I’d seen in Dandora, what I’d left behind … and who I’d left behind.
“I soon realised that this ghost was going to keep haunting me unless I did something about it, so I did,” he explains in ThePlayersTribune article titled: “They say nothing good comes from Dandora.”
He and 130 other players are members of “Common Goal”, a charitable movement that was launched with the support of Spanish footballer Juan Mata, who pledged one per cent of his salary to the initiative and called for other players to do the same in August 2017. The organisation has organised youth football programmes in places like Zimbabwe, India and Colombia so far.
“It’s a really good thing. And one per cent of your salary won’t ruin you. I promise,” he advises.
Kenyan coach Sebastien Migne (left) is flanked by Johanna Omollo during a press conference in Cairo on June 30, 2019 on the eve of their Africa Cup of Nations match against Senegal. PHOTO | COURTESY |
Growing up, Omolo endured several intriguing episodes where footballers as young as nine would witness gang men shooting at police or other gangs right in the middle of the training pitch! Some of his friends joined occult gangs and took oaths, while some took the most common easy way out. Crime.
“Imagine what it was like for those nine-year-olds to grow up in that environment. So many of the kids in Dandora have dreams and talents, but you cannot tell them to be disciplined and work hard because they don’t have the platform to make anything out of it. They’d work hard … and for what?
“Try to put yourself in their shoes. Now you’re 15, the only son in the family. Your little sister goes to sleep every night hungry. You feel you should do something for your parents. Then one of your friends decides to join a gang. He goes out to steal. Suddenly he turns up in these nice clothes. He looks happy. His family is eating well.
“And you? You’re playing football, sure.
“But is your family happy? Are you taking care of your responsibilities? That’s why crime is the biggest temptation for the kids,” he says in the article.
But through it all, Omollo stuck to football at the Mathare Youth Sports Association, and set his sights on playing for Harambee Stars, like Kenyan international Pascal Ochieng who was his idol at that time.
But there was a caveat. His mother, having seen so many young boys go to jail, get felled by the policeman’s gun or lost in alcohol and drugs, was strongly against his involvement with football.
“By the time I was 13, I was trying to make the selection of the MYSA team that would attend training camps in Norway. But my mother stopped me. “Who do you think is going to let you go to Norway? You’re from Dandora! They’ll probably pick a kid from another area.”
Two years later, his father, who was about to retire from the Fire Brigade, overruled his mother and Omollo boarded his first flight to Belgium. He came back one month later with strange stories to tell, a changed heart, and 100 euros to give his mother. Now that he had seen the possibilities, he started playing football with a new kind of passion.
“When I came back, I told my mother, “mom, this is every dollar that I was given, and I’m giving it to you.” I’ve never seen her so happy and proud. That smile … wow. It was like she was a little bit lighter. That smile made me realise that I could help my family with this football thing.
Soon he made the Under-20 national team and before long a Belgian who had set up an academy in Nairobi, invited Omolo to train at his facility.
Kenyan midfielder Eric Johanna Omollo (right) in action for Antwerp in a past match. PHOTO | COURTESY |
“I trained so hard. I had seen Norway, I had seen my mother’s smile. I wanted more of it. After two months this guy brought me to Belgium where I got a contract with a team in Liège. And that was it,” Omollo says.
The 30-year-old has been capped 17 times for the national team, has scored four goals for the senior team, appeared for seven teams in Belgium between 2007 and now, scored 24 goals abroad and now, is involved in charity.
In his estimation, has he done it all? Is he done?
“Our aim is to build an agency that can take young players from Dandora to Europe. We want clubs and agents to go to Dandora because whatever talent they need, they can find it there. And if we can make that happen, I know it will open a lot of doors for young people in Dandora. I really believe we can do it,” he tells ThePlayersTribune.