When Peninah Musyimi heard about a basketball scholarship that could pay her way to university, she was determined to win it. Never mind that the then-high schooler had never played a game of basketball in her life. Or that she didn’t own a pair of running shoes. Or that the tryouts were only a month away. Peninah had a plan.
Peninah grew up in Mathare, a longstanding informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, that’s home to more than 400,000 people living in poverty. She walked 10 miles a day to and from school, often while hungry and tired. Despite being a top student in her class, she knew university was out of reach unless she could win the basketball scholarship worth 40,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $400 USD.
“In the slums, people cannot afford to play basketball,” Peninah says. Unlike soccer balls that are relatively easy to DIY, basketballs are expensive, and courts are usually private in Nairobi. She found a basketball court at a nearby church and convinced a young man who worked there to coach her under the guise that she would later create a girls’ basketball team for the church.
She practiced 11-12 hours a day in the month leading up to the scholarship tryouts. When the day came, Peninah was nervous but determined. She visualized the scholarship amount next to the basketball net and “I scored all of [the shots] like I was in a dream,” she says. She became the first person in her family to attend university and went on to study law and play professional basketball.
Peninah, now 41, became a lawyer to advocate for abused women. But six years into her career, she realized operating solely within the legal system wouldn’t allow her to have the impact she knew was needed. In response she founded Safe Spaces, a Nairobi nonprofit that mentors the next generation of female leaders through vocational training, sports, reproductive health education, scholarships, and more.
“I want to build a movement of women who are strong, who are independent, who can lead the community and transform our community for the better.”
Behind Safe Spaces’ bright blue metal gates lies an oasis from Nairobi’s bustling streets. Children play in small groups on the wide lawn. A dozen or so teen girls type away at keyboards in the computer lab. In a neighboring building, a classroom is transformed into a yoga studio. Down the street, two teams in blue and white jerseys face off on the Safe Spaces basketball court.
“Basketball is a life skill,” Peninah says. “You learn about determination, you learn about competition, you learn about discipline, you learn about attitude, you learn about strengths, you learn about communication. Those are life skills that everybody needs.”
Peninah is determined to be the role model she didn’t have growing up and has worked to build relationships with girls and women in Mathare. She visits girls at home and personally follows up with those who are going through difficulties.
The girls look up to her (many of them call her “Ma”) and feel comfortable sharing the issues they face, from being assaulted to coping with alcoholic parents. Peninah sensitively navigates these issues and teaches them how to do the same. She also uses her personal story of winning the basketball scholarship to encourage girls to think creatively when solving problems.
“I always tell people it’s you who has the problem and it’s you who has to look for the solutions,” she says. “You know what you want to change in your life.”
A few years ago, Peninah had the idea to train young women as auto mechanics. She knew the trade would offer them a chance to earn a living wage and believed women working in the male-dominated industry would actually have an edge. But when she went into a local auto shop to pitch her idea, the male mechanics laughed at her.
“Sometimes I don’t understand men,” Peninah says. “Sometimes they look at you like you are so weak, like you cannot do anything with yourself. … And I was like, ‘You don’t know even what I have gone through in my life.’”
The mechanics relented and agreed to train the girls, who’ve become some of Nairobi’s most in-demand mechanics. Every girl to complete the apprenticeship program has found work as a mechanic.
Results like these have reinforced Peninah’s vision for the community she cares so deeply about. “When you have all the girls taking charge, they are the flowers of the world — everything will be blooming.”