Updated: Apr 2
The boys took off their shirts and tossed them outside the field. Their sweaty small chests glistened in the sun. I envied the flatness of their chests; puberty was still a long way for them. All eyes were on me, waiting to see if I’d take my shirt off too. My hands shook, and I could feel a stream of sweat dripping in my armpits. That was the day the whole world found out I had breasts.
My breasts started budding on the same day we had the final match for our street’s Chicken League, where the winner was to win a live chicken. I was mortified, so, I lied to my teammates that my mother forbade me from playing football that Sunday.
‘It’s the final game, how can she do that to us?’ Mchina, our next-door neighbour, complained. We called him Mchina because he had a fancy name we couldn’t bother to pronounce, Valentino. ‘We can beg mama to let you play. What if we offer her the chicken we win?’ Abu, the youngest in the team, came up with another idea. I just wanted them to leave me alone, but they weren’t going to give up.
Our team was made up of misfits, kids who couldn’t make any other team. We were also known as sissies, mostly because of me, the only girl in the league. Yet somehow, we had fought our way to the finals, we beat Bondeni and Jeremeka, and we were about to play against Migoko, the most notorious team in our neighbourhood. Migoko literally means big shins, and they got their name because of their super strong legs and rough play.
‘You need to sneak out.’ Juma, the quietest in our team whispered. Everyone agreed. I had the strictest mom in our neighbourhood, so no one would be brave enough to ask her for permission.
It was 1 pm, three hours before the game. My mom was in the living room, reading some Sunday newspapers. The team had gathered outside, planning on the best way to sneak me out without my mom noticing. I was still wearing my Sunday clothes, a puffy pink lace dress with a padded chest, thick enough to hide my impediment.
‘You guys can still win this without me, get Frank to play,’ I said. Frank was a new kid in our neighbourhood. He wasn’t good, but he was the extra body we needed and could probably pass a ball here and there.
‘No, we need you man! We need a strong midfield to win.’ Ngwengwe, the captain and coach of our team started to lecture. ‘We can’t win on strength; we need speed and strategy. They got Deo on defense and Matongo on the goal, those guys are strong, we will never be able to play ten against eleven.’
At 12 years old, I was this swift tall thing on the pitch. Everybody called me Peter Crouch, after the English player. I hated the name, but it stuck on people’s mouths. I started playing football with my neighbours when I was five years old because I sucked at all the other games - jumping rope, rede, I was even bad at playing house because I would change my character every five minutes.
Back when we could still count the number of houses in our street, kids used to gather in front of our house to play. Girls played rede and boys played one-touch football. The rede matches were intense. The players would divide themselves into two teams. They would get an old sock, fill it with sand and paper to make a ball. Two people from one team would stand on opposite sides and try to hit a player from the opposing team with the ball. The player would move between the throwers, dodging the ball while staying within set boundaries, counting how many times she successfully dodges the ball, and at the end of the game, the team with most dodges wins. Sometimes, to spice things up, the player would have to dodge the ball and fill an empty soda bottle with sand to win the game.
Rede was about athletics and attitude. My sister was the best player in the neighbourhood. She ran fast, dodged with attitude, and hit with gusto. One day she hit someone so hard that she threw up her lunch. She had tried to teach me her skills, but I always got hit on the first throw. I gave up on rede and played one-touch football instead. The rules of one-touch were simple, you could only touch the ball once, so you had to try and score with every kick. I was better at it, so I started playing football with the boys. Although football wasn’t as popular as rede, we managed to entertain ourselves. Sometimes, instead of one-touch, we switched things up and played chenga, a dribbling and scoring game where you are judged by how well you can trick a defender and score. Sometimes we played tobo bao, another dribbling game, but instead of scoring, we had to get a ball to pass between someone’s legs (weirdly known as ‘the nutmeg’ in English or ‘tobo’ in Swahili). Whoever gets nutmegged can be slapped by anyone until they touch a tree or whatever object we agree on to signify their release. Sometimes when more girls joined the game, the boys would switch from tobo bao to tobo busu, that way whoever gets nutmegged can be kissed by anyone, and all the boys circled around the girls they liked hoping to nutmeg them and blow air kisses at them. While chenga was exhilarating, it was one-touch that drew me to football and kept me there.
As our neighbourhood grew, the friendly one-touch games turned into intense football matches, almost as intense as the rede matches. Kids formed street teams and competed at various levels. The chicken league was the world cup of our street football, the be-all-end-all league.
To win the chicken meant to win the respect of the entire neighbourhood, something we desperately needed. On any other day, I too would have been as pumped up about the game as my teammates, ready to strategize on ways to send a bunch of teenagers to hell. Unfortunately, I just happened to grow breasts that day. The breasts weren’t much bigger than boiled lima beans, but to me, the slightly painful little mounds on my once flat chest felt as big as coconuts. What if they noticed? Being the only girl on the team was bad enough, but at least I looked like them. To be an actual girl with tits and everything was terrifying. It meant that I too would become a target of tobo busu, that my dribbling and passing skills would suddenly mean nothing, and I’d cease to be the best midfielder on my team and become something else in their eyes. So, while the team planned on ways to sneak me out, I thought of ways to get caught and stay in.
‘Amina!’ My mom called for me from the sitting room. I ran inside the house, leaving the boys to make their plans. Mama was going to visit her friend Mama Furaha for the rest of the afternoon. ‘Be home before dark.’ She heeded her usual warning.
‘Mama said I can’t leave; I need to do chores.’ I lied to the team once more as my mother pulled out of the house in her old Toyota pick-up.
‘We’ll do the chores with you, that way you’ll be done before the game.’ I glared at Ngwengwe for his suggestion but felt a little hopeful that I could still get out of the game.
‘She told me to clean the pig house before she returned.’ Brilliant! The smell in the pig house was always disgusting, and we all hated it. Besides, half of the team was Muslim, so I knew they couldn’t help me.
‘We’ll do it!’ They chorused. Abu was the first to head to the barn.
‘This is haram for you guys. Really, I can do this.’ I grabbed Abu’s skinny hand. The team pushed past me toward the barn area, ready to clean the pig house. As we approached the barn, the smell of fresh dung and maize chaff greeted us. Isaac grabbed a shovel, Abu a broom. Amani pushed the old wooden door open. The concrete slabs were wet, freshly scrubbed. The pigs stretched out lazily on fresh dry grass, their bellies full of leftovers and maize chaff. Someone had cleaned the barn not too long before.
I lowered my head and waited for the team to start a screaming match, but they were all too happy to complain. We left the barn and Ngwengwe told us to meet in front of our house at 3 pm, so we could all go to the match together. I simply nodded. I was out of tricks.
I dragged myself to the house and looked for different outfits I could wear to the game. I tried on different t-shirts, but nothing gave me enough cover. I wished I could go with one of my padded-chest dresses, but that too was out of the question. I shuffled through the bottom of my drawer and pulled out a black lace training bra my sister got for me for my twelfth birthday. It was an embarrassing gift then– and I thought I was never going to need it, but puberty was cruel and made an appearance anyway. My face flushed as I inspected the little lace that was to cover my little secret. Even though I had imagined wearing the training bra underneath one of my sister’s grown-up dresses, I never once imagined I’d have to wear it to a football match. I stuffed the little bra back to the bottom of the drawer.
Time moved fast that Sunday. Before I knew it, it was already 2:30 pm, and I was still out of ideas. Tired of solving the issue by myself, I rushed over to Queen’s house to get help from my best friend. She was the mischief queen, always getting us in or out of trouble. If there was anyone that could get me out of my jam, it was Queen. She was a bubbling volcano of ideas and personality living in a very tiny body. She was the shortest in our class, her height only 120 cm. Although Queen and I had been friends all our lives, we couldn’t be more different – I was shy, she was feisty, I hated girlhood, she thrived in it.
I wanted a smooth idea, something Queen-like. Like last month, when I cut my own hair with a shaving razor and my mom forced me to go to school with bald spots as a punishment. I decided to wear a hoodie to hide my hideous hairdo. It was a perfect idea until about 10 am, when the heat got merciless, and I was drenched in sweat. The idea got even worse during science period, when our teacher, mwalimu Kessy, ordered me to take the hoodie off in front of the entire class and I refused. She ordered me to follow her to her office for a proper beating because she didn’t bring her good stick with her. I was deathly afraid of sticks, and mwalimu Kessy was the best at caning. Even the toughest bullies in the class broke down when her bamboo stick landed on their bottoms. I started crying even before I was out the door. Queen rushed after me.
‘It wasn’t her fault.’ She yelled from behind us.
‘She just woke up like this in the morning. Someone did this to her!’ Most people in our neighbourhood were superstitious. It was common knowledge that people who practice witchcraft would sometimes cut peoples’ hair at night, to scare them or bewitch them, or something. Apparently, they use broken bottles to cut hair, and that’s why a witch cut is the worst haircut.
‘Is this true?’ Mwalimu Kessy asked. I nodded in agreement. She sent Queen back to class, took my hand and led me to her office.
‘Washindwe, kwa jina la Yesu.’ She muttered under her breath as she led me to the teachers’ office. The staff room was empty. We stood in the clear area in the middle of the staffroom. Mwalimu Kessy was a born-again Christian, so, she knelt, put her two hands over my head and started praying for me.
‘Let no evil touch this child’” She repeated over and over until she was speaking in tongues. “Leshashaghalababa….” I closed my eyes and covered my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
That was the kind of inspired idea I needed from Queen to get out of the game!
I found her playing rede with a bunch of other girls on the sandy road in front of her house, her lacy Sunday dress flowing as she ran and dodged the ball in the middle of two girls. I didn’t have time to envy their freedom of running in the middle of the road in their padded dresses.
‘You have to help me,’ I pulled Queen out of the game, ‘I can’t go to the game today.’ I told her.
‘Why?’ She paused for a second to catch her breath from all the dodging. ‘It’s the final game?’
‘I-have-breasts.’ I pointed to my chest and covered my mouth as if I had cursed.
‘What? Show me?’ She said, her right hand stretched out, ready to search for evidence. I pushed her hand away from my chest.
‘I wish…’ She smiled and folded the palms of her hands as if in prayer. ‘You are so lucky!’ Queen has always been fascinated by breasts. She wanted to have them so much that in fifth grade she dug out fukufuku, antlions, and put them on her breasts so that they would swell. Her breasts were yet to make an appearance, but she was more than ready for them.
‘What am I going to do? The game is in an hour.’ I tugged her arm desperately.
‘You can probably cover them, and no one would notice.’ She paused for a moment to consider some options then snapped her finger in excitement before running into the house. I was immediately excited by her finger snap. She used to call it the brilliance snap, when she thought she had a really good idea. Like the time she hid me in her wardrobe after I beat up Amani so that my parents wouldn’t find me. The snap meant that my problems were almost over. I ran behind her. She went straight to her room and rummaged her cupboard. I stood by the door and waited for her to find whatever she was looking for. After a few minutes of frantic searching, she pulled out a crepe bandage and safety pins from a pile of things. I probably should have been sceptical but in my desperation, I let her unzip my dress and tie the bandage tightly around my chest, securing it with safety pins. The bandage was so tight, I could barely breathe, but my chest felt flat again. I walked out of Queen’s room feeling a little more confident. I went to my house to get ready for the game. Despite the heat, I put on two t-shirts for good measure.
At 3pm, the team gathered under the mango tree in front of our house. We talked formation as we headed to the football pitch by the river. ‘What are we going to do with the chicken once we win?’ Abu asked the team. ‘Let’s sell it and buy a rubber ball.’ ‘Let’s cook it.’ ‘Let’s buy jerseys.’ Everyone in the team wanted to do something different with the chicken, but we all had one goal: to win.
We had started our team just a few months before after getting rejected by all the other teams. Abu was too young. Ngwengwe was too short. I was a girl. Amani was too fat. Ndutu’s grandmother was a ‘witch’, and the rest just weren’t good enough to play in other teams for one reason or another. So, we had gathered one day and cleared the plot behind Mchina’s house whose owner hadn’t started building yet. We made a ball out of plastic bags, a little bit of sand and sisal rope and started playing together every day after school. When the Chicken League started three weeks before, we signed up to play and made it to the finals. Winning the league was the biggest revenge we could take against everyone that looked down on us. We were ready.
We reached the football pitch early, kicked off our slippers and started jogging. We all played barefoot because none of us had cleats. Migoko team arrived shortly after us. They jogged around the pitch, making hissing sounds to intimidate us. A crowd started gathering around the field. Queen and the girls had abandoned their rede game to watch the match too. There was much anticipation - who wins, who gets injured, who cries? Migoko team was known for making kids cry on the pitch.
Shabani, who played for the older boys’ team, was the referee. He held the trophy chicken in his arms, a white rooster with a bright red crown. He tied a rope around its legs to keep it from running away and kept it on the edge of the field where other older boys from his team stood. The chicken, probably terrified, cried in protest. Shabani called the captains to toss the coin to decide on who starts the game, and because we didn’t have uniform jerseys, the coin toss was also to decide which team wore shirts, and which played shirtless.
‘Heads or tails?’ Shabani asked Ngwengwe and Matongo.
‘Heads.’ Matongo answered first.
‘Tails, I guess,’ Ngwengwe shrugged. Shabani threw the coin in the air, and it landed on the bare ground. I bit my nails as he picked up the coin from the ground.
‘Migoko starts, Sissies play shirtless.’ My stomach sank when the ref announced. Migoko started laughing at our team. I searched for Queen in the crowd, hoping she would offer some kind of support from afar.
‘Take off your shirts you sissies!’ Some older boys shouted from the crowd.
‘Ref, can we just keep our shirts on? We have a girl in our team!’ Ngwengwe pleaded on my behalf.
‘The other team has to yield since they won the coin toss.’
There was no way Migoko team would agree to playing shirtless. Matongo, Migoko’s captain, and Ngwengwe were sworn enemies. They both liked Queen. She didn’t like either one of them, but every so often she allowed one of them to buy her Sunvita, frozen blackcurrant juice.
The boys took off their shirts and tossed them outside the field. Their sweaty small chests glistened in the sun. I envied the flatness of their chests; puberty was still a long way for them. All eyes were on me, waiting to see if I’d take my shirt off too. My hands shook, and I could feel a stream of sweat dripping in my armpits. That was the day the whole world found out I had breasts. If I kept my shirt on, everyone would assume I had them, and if I took my shirt off, everyone would know I had them.
I closed my eyes for a moment to pray. When I opened them, the crowd was still waiting for me to do something. I slowly peeled off the first t-shirt and tossed it in the pile of my team’s t-shirts. I had just started pulling off my second t-shirt when I saw Queen doing her brilliance snap. I let out a loud sigh when she stormed into the field screaming at the ref.
‘This is unfair! You can’t make her take off her shirt.’
‘I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.’ Shabani wasn’t about to yield to some screaming twelve-year-old girl.
‘Boo! What kind of rules are those?’ Queen never backed down from a fight.
‘Girls-have-the-right-to-play-football!’ Queen started chanting with her fist up.
‘Girls-have-the-right-to-play-football!’ Some people started laughing at her. I couldn’t let my best friend take my punches. I joined her in the pitch with my fist up.
The girls from Queen’s rede group also joined in our march. The chants grew louder. We shouted with as much intensity and rage as we could find in our twelve-year-old lungs. We had all watched Sarafina, and Michael Jackson’s, ‘They don’t really care about us,’ video. This was our moment to protest!
Abu was the first boy to join the march in the middle of the field. The rest of the team joined, and some boys from the crowd also joined. We marched in the field for almost five minutes singing and butchering the words of the famous song from Sarafina, ‘Freedom is coming tomorrow!’
Shabani blew his whistle to silence us! ‘Okay, Migoko plays shirtless!’ He shouted. We all cheered. The crowd cleared from the football pitch and the match began.
The best part of football starts after the whistle blows, at the first kick. For the next 90 minutes, everything becomes clear. The goal is clear. The rules are clear. If you play harder, smarter, and score more goals, you win. For 90 minutes, you know exactly who you are and what you are supposed to do. You know who is with you, and who is against you. You know what makes the game fair, and when it is not, the referee intervenes. When you are a midfielder – you are a playmaker; you seek the ball and find your wings and forwards. When the goal is open, you know it is time to score. Nothing else matters but football. And when the ball is on your foot, for that moment, you are in control of its fate, and your fate.
Matongo had the first kick, and slowly the frenzied crowd morphed into pulse. Their loud cheers meld with our laboured breathing and the sound of kicks against the rubber ball. Migoko dominated the first half of the game. They played hard. They pushed, pulled, and kicked as if we were wrestling. Migoko’s strategy was to tire us out or make us cry with rough play, but we pushed equally hard, building defensive walls while finding opportunities to score. We finally learned, after bumping shins with our opponent, why they’re called Migoko. By half time, half of our team was limping on the field. Luckily, when the whistle blew at half time, the score was still 0-0.
We decided to change our strategy in the second half, to be more offensive than defensive. Migoko didn’t expect such boldness from us, after all, they were better and stronger than us. Our attacks seemed futile at first, like we were softly giving the ball to the keeper to hold. A few times, Matongo smirked when he caught the ball in his arms. The harder we tried, the rougher their defence grew. Shabani, clearly favouring Migoko, didn’t give a single yellow card during the game. By the 87th minute, our entire team was limping and panting like beaten-up stray dogs. But we didn’t give up. We decided to try one more play.
The ball was on our court. Ndutu passed it to Ngwengwe. Ngwengwe to Abu, Abu to Mchina, Mchina to Athumani, Athumani to Amani. We were playing one touch, no one stayed with the ball long enough to be tackled or lose it. I ran faster, my long legs giving me the right edge against Migoko’s defence. I was wide open. Anticipating Amani’s shot, Matongo had left the whole left side open. But Amani made a long pass to me. In one fast movement, I caught the ball on my chest, bounced it on my left foot then with my right foot, kicked it between the two wooden poles that marked the goals.
The crowd went wild. Our team erupted in cheers. We bumped chests, they carried me on their shoulders… and as it was my tradition when I scored, I took my shirt off and threw it in the air, completely forgetting in that moment, that I had wrapped my budding breasts with a crepe bandage. Nothing else mattered.
Credit: Story Art by Deo Shujaa