Football is not just a game. For some, it represents the only ticket to escape the harsh realities of life and become a useful member of society.
Should he get the chance to line up against English Premier League (EPL) notables, Everton FC on July 7, 2018 at the MISC Stadium, Kasarani in the outskirts of Nairobi, midfielder Patillah Omoto will be stepping into a stage far removed from the squalor he grew up in just a few kilometres away from Kenya’s biggest sporting basilica.
Had anyone told the 25 year-old of two that such a moment would arrive, he would probably dismissed it as wishful thinking since his journey from the crime-infested, low income and dangerous neighbourhood of Kariobangi- a sprawling low income estate in the eastern part of the Kenyan capital-simply does not afford many such a chance.
Put simply, Kariobangi is a melting pot of vice where murder, prostitution, robbery and armed criminal groups mingle with law abiding citizens in a toxic marriage where the odds of a young man rising above the rot to make it in life are so long that many never reach the promised land.
Omoto is an exception, having seen his football talent pluck him out of vicious cycle of poverty and turned him into a shining beacon of hope among thousands of impoverished youth who call Kariobangi home.
We sought out the Kariobangi Sharks FC midfielder who is preparing to take on the might of nine-time English league winners, Everton FC in a landmark pre-season friendly to hear his story and he offered a staggering tale of the insurmountable odds he has beaten to turn into a professional footballer.
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“I was born in Kariobangi and our family background was not good. My father was a hustler, doing any odd job to earn a living in the Jua Kali (informal sector) within the estate.
“Sometimes he would bring something home and other times he would return with nothing.
“My mother worked as a house cleaner for an Asian family for most of her life and this is what used to keep us afloat,” Omoto started narrating with a faraway look of sadness sweeping his face.
Nonetheless, he was enrolled at Murura Primary School in Kariobangi where he cleared his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (Standard 8) before he joined Global Vision for his secondary education.
This is where his learning hit the rocks, the expanded family of four siblings proved to be a struggle for his parents of humble means.
“I would be chased away from school every once in a while and forced to stay home until my parents could get enough money to send me back. I was in and out of school,” the third born in a family he shares with his parents and three sisters told.
However, like any young boy growing in the mean estates of Nairobi, Omoto would gather with his mates for a kick about, with football offering temporary reprieve from the hardships and little did he know that would punch his winning lottery ticket.
“I started playing football in primary school for fun. I started out as a goalkeeper and when we conceded, I would get infield and try help my team equalise,” the midfielder opened up.
At the time, they would play in an open dirt field, in inter-estate matches known by their street slang ‘geri’ where two sticks would be planted to the ground and supported by stones mark the goal.
Omoto and his mates formed a team and before long, local coach Keegan spotted their talent and enrolled them in the Mathare United Youth Association Under 12 sides.
At the same time, Sharks were just starting to establish themselves as a team in the lower divisions in the Kenya football pyramid and before long; Omoto’s team and his future employers would clash over sharing the dirt training ground.
With time, former Sharks coach, Robert invited them to join the team and a relationship that has taken the player from the rough to playing professional football was born.
Omoto has been part of Sharks since 2005, except for brief stints at Kenyan Premier League (kPL) giants, AFC Leopards SC and Bandari FC. But his move away from the nest did not work out and had to return to his parent club.
At the peak of his form, he was selected for the senior Harambee Stars side before injury; loss of form and most of all confidence in the face of a barrage of criticism saw him lose his place.
Ahead of the Everton test though, he has rediscovered himself, emerging as his club’s leading assist maker and last Saturday, his peach of a goal against Bandari was not enough to inspire his side to retain their FKF Shield Cup title when they went down 1-3 to the Dockers at Kasarani in a final played over two days.
Nevertheless, it would have all turned out differently, in a coffin of jail if he followed the path many a Kariobangi youth choose when the pressures of poverty prove too much to handle.
“What kept me away from crime, and most were my close friends was because of my mother. Any time she spotted me with someone tricky, she would tell me to keep away. It would annoy me but eventually, I would listen to her.
“There was this close friend, Kut, who we grew up together. His family was not badly off and we would sleep over at this place when it was hard. I would go over to their house for a meal.
“He decided to join a gang and he did not stay there for long one day, he was shot down by police. Another friend, Dylon, was a next-door neighbour and they would chase each other with another with knives with another friend, Byron, initially as a joke.
“Both were players in Sharks, Byron was a striker and was part of the team it was struggling and one day, they got into a fight where Dylon was murdered. Byron is now serving time at Kamiti Maximum Prison (where he plays for their team),” Omoto confided with his eyes welling up.
Omoto paid homage to Football Kenya Federation (FKF) President, Nick Mwendwa, who founded Sharks in the early 2000s as the single reason he escaped from the web of crime into a responsible family man and role model among the Kariobangi youth.
“At the start, it was not easy since Nick was also struggling financially to take care of his own and the Sharks families. Sometime, we did not enough to travel to games and we would request our parents to chip in with Mbao, Mbao (KSh20) to foot our transport,” he recalled.
Omoto credits Mwendwa’s mentorship with keeping him in the straight and narrow path to play a prominent role for Sharks in their ascent from the fourth division of Kenyan football to the SPL.
“I don’t know what Nick saw in me. Every time he was on toes with me. There was a time I was playing for the sake of it and he once came to me and told me that football is business.
“He narrated to me what Manchester United FC players earn and the facilities they have for training, he would tell me ‘usicheze ball ukule mandazi’ (don’t play football to eat pastries). Since then, he has been on my toes at all times,” he revealed.
Omoto started to make his name when Sharks made waves in the second-tier National Super League (formerly FKF Premier League) and he was soon in the senior national team.
“I was first called up for the national team for the 2012 Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup by then Harambee Stars head coach James Nandwa and it was such a shock.
“I was thinking about the big players I would meet in the camp and I was not used to playing or living with them. I was under so much pressure. I made the final squad and we travelled to Uganda where we were the runner-ups,” he recounted.
Kenya went on to lose 1-2 to hosts Uganda at Namboole Stadium, Kampala in the regional decider on December 8, 2012 in a performance that beat all odds.
“I was a Sharks player then and no one complained at the time and after the tournament, Nick asked me to consider options available to continue my career.
“I had the choices of Tusker FC, Leopards and remaining at Sharks and after analysing videos, we opted for AFC. However, I suffered injury and lacked playing time and I moved on to Bandari.”
His move to the Dockers did not also bear fruit when he lost form and confidence with lack of game time and in consultation with his mentor, he was back to Sharks.
Upon his return to his boyhood club, Omoto got good playing time and was soon playing a central role as Sharks finally gained promotion to the SPL, finishing second behind Nzoia Sugar FC in the 2016 NSL campaign as he regained his form.
At the time, Mwendwa had already surrendered his role as Sharks chairman having been elected FKF president and Omoto made the first Stars squad named by his former club boss, Stanley Okumbi for the 2019 AFCON qualifiers.
Following a 1-2 loss in their opening Group F qualifier away to Sierra Leone who were later banned by FIFA, in June 2017, Omoto was one of the players who was singled out for criticism simply because of his links to Sharks.
“It affects you. At first when people start speaking negatively about you, it is unsettling and you need someone to stand by you, Nick was there to help me through it. Sometimes, I would look at what critics were saying and seek whether there is some truth in it.
“I took the positives from it and dumped the negatives,” the midfielder emphasised.
Since that rocky period in his career, Omoto who became a parent whilst still a teenager has been on the up, playing an instrumental role in the rise of Sharks as a force in Kenyan football.
“I had to make that step forward together with my teammates to make a solid team. I remember we lost our first three SPL team and when we travelled to Nzoia for the fourth, we knew the result would shape our destiny.
“We were going there for a draw to at least get our first points in the SPL and I scored the winner and from there, we unified as a squad and our coaches never gave up on us,” Omoto held, admitting their 1-0 victory at Sudi Stadium in Bungoma at the start of the 2017 season was the catalyst of their charge to finish third that season.
Winning the 2018 Shield represented the coming of age for Omoto and his teammates such as Duke Abuya and captain Eric Juma who have been Sharks through and through.
“Winning that trophy was a big occasion for us who started with this team from the bottom. Personally, I asked whether those who tried to prevent me to returning to Sharks had any point, I had made the right decision.
“Winning the first trophy in career was a huge occasion for me, especially since I did it with some of the boys we have grown up with together.”
Sharks and Omoto surrendered the Shield title last Sunday and finished ninth in the SPL and to the midfielder, luck was simply not on their side this term.
“We outplayed most of our opponents only to concede late goals to draw or lose games in the league and even in the Shield final, I scored a great goal and we had the better game but it was not enough.
“We were well on top of Bandari and I cannot say exactly what happened this season. We shall sit and go through what happened and return back stronger.”
Like all his teammates, July 7 cannot come soon enough when they will put their talent on display against Marco Silva and his Blues.
“Playing Everton is a big opportunity for a player like me based on where I came from. Playing a UK team is not easy and it a chance to learn from them, what we do not do right or what we need to do to reach their level,” Omoto underscored.
Having risen from the slum to playing at the big stage, Omoto has never shed his Kariobangi roots and still lives there with his spouse Mary ‘Shi’ and their two children, a boy and girl.
“We got our first child when I was young (16) and my parent and Nick advised to shoulder my responsibilities and not to abandon Mary, whom I met in the estate and that was a wonderful decision since my family is my strength.”
To give back to his community, Omoto bought three motorcycles where he helps the youth of Kariobangi to earn an honest living and keep them away from crime and with time, he wants to do even more.
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