Art

Sport and film make stars out of poor Kenyan girls

star

Moureen Atieno and Sharon Opari, who starred in ‘Sleeping Warrior’, in Nairobi on June 5, 2021. PHOTO | POOL

Sharon Opari says her life has been transformed by a sport that few Kenyans ever heard of until a few years ago.

“LaCrosse is much like ice hockey except the ball is meant to stay up in the air,” says Nina Ruiz, the German filmmaker who, with Canadian Janet Wells co-produced the documentary film that Sharon stars in.

Technically, the star of the doc film entitled Sleeping Warrior, is the entire Kenyan LaCrosse team of 18 young women who trained for three years before getting their chance to go to Canada to participate in the 17th International Women’s LaCrosse Championship in August, 2019.

But Nina and Janet were so moved by Sharon’s story, it became a critical part of the team’s journey from western Kenya all the way to Peterborough, Canada. More than 200 secondary school girls were initially introduced to LaCrosse as a part of a privately-funded project aimed at advance girls’ education and building their capacity through sports.

Both Janet and Nina had been to Kenya before. But by chance, they met Storm Trentham, the British LaCrosse coach who’d been training the girls. They were so touched by their story that the two filmmakers decided on the spot to make their next documentary film about the girls’ journey and their becoming the first African women’s team to reach the international championship.

Salvation and hope

But as inspiring as the team’s training process might be, it’s the human-interest story of Sharon that makes Sleeping Warrior more than a dry documentary. It’s also a drama about a vulnerable girl who’s abandoned first by her father, then by her mother, that pulls on the heartstrings.

In both cases, Sharon’s trials were no fault of her own. Her parents separated on bitter terms, and both remarried with spouses who didn’t want Sharon around. As such, she was cast off twice, and sent by her mum to live in a foster home with six pseudo-siblings who also mistreated her. One so-called brother even sexually abused her. So LaCrosse became her salvation and hope.

The film is beautifully filmed by Kenyan cinematographer Timothy Mwaura. It’s also framed as a kind of love letter that Sharon writes to the mother she hasn’t seen since she was seven years old. It’s in that letter that she shares her hopes, dreams, and excruciating difficulties.

Her writing is like a fine thread that runs through the larger story which traces the tremendous changes the girls go through as the team takes shape, the girls’ skills are honed, and a beautiful Kenyan team spirit is strengthened by Storm who’s intent on their getting to the Championship, the first African team to do so.

The girls’ excitement is palpable, especially as almost everything is ‘a first’ for them. It’s their first plane ride, boat ride, Nike pair of sports shoes, and first time showing off their shared pride representing Kenya on an international platform.

Multiple film awards

The actual games were painful to watch. The team beat Jamaica, but not Israel, Germany, or China. But even losing is a win for these ‘warriors’, so-called because they all had to battle obstacles to get as far as they did. All had endured ugly blows, but even when they had fallen down, they got up again to battle another day.

Sharon’s friend Moureen also lends to the film’s drama. Being one of the team’s best players, she took it hard when she found she was physically unable to play in Canada after badly damaging her leg in training.

She still went to Peterborough with the team but was heart-broken just the same.

Upon return to Kenya, Sharon’s life initially looked bleak since she had nowhere to go except to that dysfunction family who were more jealous of her than ever. Fortunately, her teammates banded together and invited her to come live with them.

But the loose end of Sharon’s story that never gets resolved is about her long-lost mother who she had hoped to find. That thread got entangled up with women who claimed to know her mother but lied.

The beauty of Sleeping Warrior is that there’s a resolution of the major issue of whether the project would succeed in improving young girls’ lives through sports?

Just ask Sharon to know that it did. Both she and Moureen are now in university, thanks to an education fund established by Nina and Janet. What’s more, the film has already won multiple international film awards.