It’s a chilly morning as we drive to Amboseli in Lavington, at the Hope Centre Senior School, where we have a rendezvous with Tabitha Njoroge. She’s scheduled for other media interviews afterwards, so there’s no time to dilly-dally. Tabitha was born 39 years ago in Kawangware, an only child.
She went to Lavington Primary and for her O-levels, Pangani Girls High School. While in primary school, she was athletic and used to run for sport. Her father was a football fan and loved listening to match commentaries on the radio and she followed as well. While in high school, she developed an interest in football, birthing her passion for the sport.
In her young years, she drew inspiration from Margaret Omondi, who was a referee at the time. Tabitha didn’t start off as a referee, she was a football player. She played for the Dagoretti United Sisters, a local women’s team.
“I remember having the biggest argument I’ve ever had with my family, because they couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of their daughter being in football. They didn’t mind me being into sports, but what they didn’t like was that football was so male-dominated. It wasn’t a sport for girls, as far as they were concerned,” Tabitha recalls.
She also later started working as a community health worker at Kamai Organisation, which was under Plan International. The organisation deals with orphans, vulnerable children and women’s issues.
In 2004, Tabitha decided to take on a career in football refereeing and quit playing. She felt more opportunities lay in refereeing. She explains that to be a referee, one has to be trained. “You can’t just wake up and become a referee. You have to be trained to understand the rules of the game. Being fit is also important.
To be one, it takes three stages; Class Three (beginners), where you officiate local matches, Class Two, where you officiate division level and in the NSL (National Super League), and the final stage, Class One, where you officiate in the premier league,” says Tabitha, adding that referees are continually trained under the FKF (Football Kenya Federation). They also undergo refresher courses to understand the changing rules of the game.
“Football is growing fast and the rules keep changing from time to time. We need to remain in the right frame of mind and be in the know for us to perform well,” says the mother of two. In 2009, Tabitha got to officiate her first match as a Class One referee. The match was between Gor Mahia and Sony Sugar in Awendo, Migori.
In 2010, she was accredited as a FIFA referee, becoming among the first women in the country to hold that position. “Becoming a FIFA accredited referee meant I could officiate matches within and outside the country, World Cup qualifiers and CAF (confederations) matches. One of the most interesting matches I ever got to officiate was between Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards.
Both teams have a huge following and both sides believe they are entitled to win. It was hard to keep both teams calm. The toughest match I ever officiated was Mathare versus KCB back in 2010. Fans tried to intimidate and hurl insults at me, and also critiqued my decisions on the pitch,” shares the ref.
Breaking glass ceiling
Tabitha goes on to explain that she has never felt undermined by her male counterparts. H owever, breaking the glass ceiling has its share of challenges. She has faced hostility on the pitch, when officiating a match and fans throw words. “I have been called names, told to go home and cook or clean and be like other women.
So far, I have remained a hard nut to crack and fans of the game have learnt to appreciate my skills. I also try to communicate on the same level as the players on the pitch, and not look down on them.
This is my best way of building relationships,” she adds. Despite these negative experiences, female interest in football is on the rise, and there are several female referees coming up. Tabitha says that unlike before, where women were judged first by gender and how they look like, nowadays, it has more to do with competence.
Also, on the pitch, it’s hard to satisfy both teams and their fans. “Decision making is always a difficult part; you have to make decisions fast and stand by them. This can be a challenge if you are not mentally prepared,” she says, adding that being a referee appeals to her because of the adrenaline and the challenge.
Opportunities for women
Since she started refereeing 14 years ago, Tabitha attributes her success to discipline and passion. Her day starts at five in the morning and by 6am, she’s at the Kasarani Sports Centre for training.
She also has a nutritionist who helps her maintain her fitness level, so she can be at her best at all times. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed, and she was recently signed up by Guinness as an ambassador to promote the ‘Made of Black’ partnership.
Among the five referees who were nominated in Africa, she emerged top and got an opportunity to meet legendary Arsenal striker Thierry Henry. Over the years, Tabitha’s refereeing path has seen her travel to various countries to officiate matches.
She has been to Tunisia, Ethiopia and Zambia among others. In spite of her busy schedule, she still works for Kamai as a community health worker and most importantly, runs her role as a mother the best way she can.
Her children have been her support system, and they always support her endeavors. As much as she enjoys her job, Tabitha doesn’t plan on being a referee for a long time. “I give myself two years, then I bow out.
I currently run a fitness club called the Uthiru Fitness Crew. I plan on being a physical trainer in the future,” she reveals. Tabitha notes that Kenyan football has evolved over time and there are great opportunities for women in the game, that have seen female players thrive and even represent Kenya in the AFCON and matches across Africa, thanks to the new federation.
She encourages women who may be skeptical about pursuing a male-dominated career to be courageous. “Don’t hesitate, and most importantly, trust yourself,” she concludes.