Phoebe Akoth Ndege never played for Harambee Starlets, Kenya’s senior women’s national football team, a dream of many budding footballers, notwithstanding her immense talent, because the team’s selection process depended on “who you know.”
“There was no formal way of doings things,” says Ndege, who was then turning out for Kenya Women’s Premier League side Thika Queens and at the same time pursuing a Diploma course in electrical engineering at Mount Kenya University.
“We would be called for a few days training before a team was selected to represent the country. Getting the call to don the national colours depended on who you know so I stopped going for the trials,” she adds.
A year earlier, Ndege had captained Sega Girls, then a little known school in footballing circles from Siaya County, to winning 2010 national secondary school games, their first and last title to date, emerging the best midfielder in the campaign. In the previous year, at provincial level, she came out top scorer with a whooping 33 goals.
Ndege’s love for football, a game still dominated by men in spite of massive gains in developing it amongst women, was natural, and had all to do with her “tough” upbringing in a large polygamous family of majority boys in Siaya town, in the former Nyanza Province, over two decades ago.
Her father Gilbertus Ndege spared no gender when it came to attending to domestic chores like looking after cattle; this meant she always kept boys’ company and took part in their activities, including modeling with clay and playing football, during her free time.
“I was brought up a very tough person; my dad taught all his daughters tough domestic jobs, the main one being attending to cattle, which is traditionally a man’s duty.”
This experience came in handy when on a Wednesday, while in class 4 at Awelo Primary School, the school’s captain Maureen Oluoch summoned her for a tournament that Friday; “I was somehow afraid because majority of the girls were bigger in size than me, but I said ‘better to give it a try than regret not doing so.'”
Ndege ended up scoring four goals over three matches in the meet, marking her checkered journey in the beautiful game, which included captaining and winning numerous team and personal accolades with both Awelo Primary School and Sega Girls.
She credits her coach Mr. Philip Nyaswa, now a lecturer at Catholic University, Kisumu, for spotting her talent at Sega Girls and instilling discipline in her at a time laziness wanted to take her away from the game she loved.
“I got lazy on the way and wanted to quit. I was not used to daily rigours of training, but my coach could not let me go, he whipped me one evening for absconding training; it was so painful that I had to change my mind since he promised to be caning me every evening if I didn’t show up in the field.”
Nyaswa would also be instrumental in her life after high school in 2012, helping her get an opportunity to join UNICEF supported National Talent Academy at Matuu Memorial Girls after a thorough vetting, which included fieldwork and theory exams.
“I was the only one from Nyanza region. I met so many great individuals from all over the country, and we were taught lots life skills. They used to pay us at the end of these trainings, plus transport reimbursements.”
After the programme, Ndege penned a three-year contract to join Thika Queens, a deal which came with a half scholarship. She chose to join Mount Kenya University because it was the nearest, meaning she could play and study at the same time.
With the dream of representing her country and pursuing football further all but vanished, Ndege found a ready fall back plan in books, and after bagging her Diploma, she worked briefly with Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Geothermal Development Company (GDC) as an intern.
Her first employment was with Setpess Events as wiring and lightning technician. But it was while working as a Plant Operator for REGen Hydro Power in Mt. Elgon, Bungoma County in 2017 that her journey to living American dream kicked off when she met a group of private energy investors, who came to visit the facility.
“After taking them on a tour of the plant, one of the visitors jokingly suggested I should go to the US, where her dad was also an engineer, to share my knowledge, she told me she would help me go through the process. We exchanged contacts and as they say the rest is history.”
Ndege is now settled in Pennsylvania pursing Associate Degree in Electrical Technology at Northampton Community College on multiple scholarships.
She describes her first day at the college as “something worth sharing.”
“It was my first time amongst all whites, again the only female in the class. People were like, ‘will she really manage it’? On that day, my class had electrical fundamentals exam, and I had not prepared at all. With no other choice but to sit the exam, I convinced myself that with the background of education I have from Kenya, I’m going to prove them wrong. I did the paper and in the following class the professor came to where I was sitting and asked my full name and country of origin, and later congratulated me for a good performance. I made lots of friends on that day one of which dropped the course while the other depended on me so much until the end of spring semester.”
Once done, the two-year course will see Ndege become a fully certified engineer, a dream she has held since class 5. It wil also enable her set up her own company.
Ndege was also recruited to join the US Navy, but she is not joining just yet untill she clears school.