Naomi Wafula seems like your ordinary 13-year old. A Standard Seven pupil at Makini School, she enjoys swimming and athletics, and her favourite subject is Mathematics because “It’s fun to play with numbers.” But the shy girl is also one of Kenya’s top young golfers, with an astonishing handicap of just seven.
Naomi is the youngest golfer in the Kenya ladies golf team, and early this month returned from Zambia where she helped the country successfully defend the Gilberson and Page Trophy, which brought together top golfers from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. She and her partner, Florence Maina, made the most points in match play during the tournament.
“It was my first time travelling with the team. I was very happy to be selected; I couldn’t imagine that golf would take me this far,” says Naomi.
Her favourite part of the game is driving the ball. “I love hitting the ball and just seeing it go miles,” she says. “But I’m still practising my putting.”
Her handicap of seven is exceptional because most of the rest of the team have between 10 and 20 years’ experience on her, and she has managed to match their playing at the age of just 13.
Naomi is one among 15 girls who are part of Rose Naliaka’s unique program to kindle the interest of girls from humble backgrounds in the game. If they play well enough, these girls could get a chance to play for Kenya, like Naomi has, or turn professional like Naliaka, who is the only female professional golfer in the country. The girls could eventually compete with top seeded international golfers like Michelle Wie.
Naliaka’s supports the programme entirely out of her own pocket. This is unlike other countries such as South Africa and the US, where the collaboration between junior and professional golf makes academies likeRose’s poised to obtain financial, material and technical support from sponsors as well as country’s professional golf association.
Naomi has been playing golf since she was seven. Her prodigious skills have been honed on the greens of Nairobi’s Golf Park, where she trains on weekends with her aunt, celebrated professional golfer Rose Naliaka.
“I used to go with Aunty Rose to the course and watch her play. I saw the many prizes that they win and that made me want to learn how to play and win too.”
Naomi is a student at Naliaka’s golf academy, where every Saturday afternoon at the Golf Park, Naliaka gives lessons to young girls, mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds. The golf academy is now in its fifth year.
“I’ve been enjoying this game for the last 32 years,” says Naliaka. “I felt that it is time to give back, and bring up the next generation of lady golfers,” adds the only Kenyan woman golf professional.
Naliaka says her mission is not only to pass on her skills and her passion for the game, but also to teach the girls lessons in confidence, integrity and responsibility.
“We’re not just teaching golf here,” she says. “The game is about personal discipline and that’s one of its positive life lessons. We’re working on the girls’ confidence as well, and opening up their world — showing them that there is more to life than what they know.”
On any given day, a typical training session begins with a confidence-building activity such as role play. The girls’ mentor and Naliaka’s co-trainer Christa van Luijk, a former netball coach from South Africa, helps the girls practise their public speaking and confident walking. After this, the girls take their clubs and move to the greens, where they work on their technique as per the programme for the day, such as putting, chipping and driving.
Golf in Kenya, and without a doubt in the rest of Africa too, is associated with rich, corporate types, but Naliaka is working to change that perception by working with girls who mostly come from the nearby Kibera slum. Hers is a walk-in academy, where any girl can attend lessons for free. She also provides lunch and transport back home after lessons.
“There is a perception that golf is for the elite. But none of these girls are anywhere near being privileged or rich. Anyone can play golf, as long as you have an interest and a commitment to learn.”
One of her youngest students is nine year old Ashley Awuor. She doesn’t have a handicap yet, but the Standard Three pupil at Jamhuri Primary recently came second in a tournament at Nairobi’s Royal Golf Club, and was elated to take a trophy home.
“A friend brought me here to the academy. I liked the game so I kept coming back. I want to play like Naomi [Wafula] and teacher Rose. I need to work on my chipping though,” she says with a smile.
Fourteen year old Agnes Nyakio has been playing for the past five years. She is working on her putting, and says she eventually wants to turn pro, like her teacher and mentor.
“I’m working to bring my handicap down from 25 to 20 by Christmas this year,” says Agnes.
A handicap is a numerical measure of an amateur golfer’s ability to play golf over the course of 18 holes. The closer it is to zero, or “scratch,” the better the golfer is considered to be.
Sports academy model
Naliaka hopes to have more control over the academic life of her wards, and believes that the public school system is failing them by insisting on extra tuition and Saturday classes, when the benefit of the extended hours is negligible.
“All those extra hours in school at this age is not necessary. The girls can use this time to learn real-life lessons,” she says.
The trainer hopes to obtain land to expand her academy. “My dream is to start a real golf academy, which will bring together students from all backgrounds and from all over East Africa,” she says. “We would teach the academic lessons in the morning, and then have golf lessons in the afternoons. The students would have to keep their grades up as an incentive to play. That way, everyone wins.”
Sports academies around the world have used this model to take talent of talented young people and mould them into star players, by blending sports with the traditional academic subjects.
Currently, La Masia, the youth academy of Spain’s Barcelona Football Club, is credited with nurturing the talent that filled the ranks of Spain’s national football team which lifted the 2010 World Cup trophy, as well as providing players for FC Barcelona’s current squad, widely considered the greatest football team in recent times.
Spanish football stars such as Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandés and Andrés Iniesta were all groomed on La Masia’s fields, as were Carlos Puyol and Gerard Piqué. One of La Masia’s most celebrated graduates is Lionel Messi, who moved from Argentina with his parents at the age of 12 to attend the academy.
The culture of sports academies is not strong in Africa, as a result of an emphasis in conventional careers paths and the “professional” subjects. Despite the fact that the world has changed in the past few decades, and now sportsmen are some of the best-paid professionals, most of the continent’s education systems still relegate sports to “extra-curricular activities.”
However, there are some notable academies on the continent. Cameroon’s Kadji Sports Academy in Douala has produced some of Cameroon’s best footballers, such as four-time African Player of the Year formerly with FC Barcelona and now Internazionale striker Samuel Eto’o and former Manchester United and Aston Villa player Éric Djemba Djemba. Eto’o made his international debut at the 1998 World Cup in France at the age of 16.
Naliaka hopes to fashion a golf academy along these lines, which would offer scholarships to young women and craft their skills to create East Africa’s premier golf talent pool.
Other women golfers laud the work that Naliaka is doing, and Naomi’s partner Florence Maina is full of praises for her young protégé.
“I got my handicap in 1983 and I’ve played for the Kenya Ladies Golf team since 1990, so I have the experience,” says Maina. “I can tell that Naomi is going to be a great golfer. She is cool and collected under pressure, and most importantly, she listens and learns. Because of Naliaka’s work, we have our young champion in the team.”
Maina believes that the Kenya Ladies Golf Union should do more to promote the game, especially among the young. “The Union should sponsor young people who are interested in the game. If more people get the chance to play, this would break the perception that golf is a preserve of the rich.”
Naomi is the only girl in her primary school class who plays golf, although she says that “two boys in Standard 8 play as well.” She intends to turn pro and would like to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour like her idol, US top golfer Michelle Wie, who turned pro shortly before her 16th birthday.