By Brittany Ammerman

The concept of sport has been a part of me since I was five years old, ingrained in my mind, body and soul. I played any and every sport available to me: soccer, softball, hockey, surfing, bodyboarding, lacrosse—you name it, I played it. I rode my athletic ability right into college, where I have competed in a nationally-ranked team and received a world-class education. Play has taught me determination, dedication, time management, hard work, and how to lead a healthy lifestyle.

However, it wasn’t until I was 20 years old and traveling through rural villages in Kenya with Health by Motorbike, a community outreach health initiative group, that I fully realized the power of play.

A new lens on the power of play

I originally traveled to Kenya in May 2013 to educate women in rural villages about women’s health. While there, I bought a soccer ball from a street vendor in Mombasa who’d knocked on our bus window. My intention for that soccer ball was to use it to keep busy with the children of the women we were educating.

But to my surprise, it was the women of the village who perked up immediately. They took the ball from my feet and began a pick-up game. The women, 30 to 50 years old, played in skirt-like wraps called congas and bare feet; and for the next two hours, they played game after game. 

Before long, the sun sank and darkness came upon us. The game had left the women exhilarated, but exhausted. With the day coming to a close, they needed to prepare dinner and tend to their families so we said our goodbyes. I would not give the soccer game another thought, except to remember the joy the women had found in moving. The women, however, would not stop thinking about that day.

A moment of play and movement, a legacy of inspiration

A month later, I received a phone call. The women had asked to form a soccer league to compete with one another. They needed jerseys, shorts, socks, shoes and balls.  So that’s exactly what we gave them, plus the chance to move.  Shortly after that phone call, (June 2014) we began the Nikumbuke Women’s Soccer League which now, just two years later, includes a total of seven villages. 

Moving is empowering

Before I embarked on this journey, I only knew about the “superficial” power of sport—the glory of winning championships, the pride of receiving an athletic scholarship. Now I see its true meaning.

These Kenyan women have developed a passion. Soccer has become an outlet for them mentally and physically. Through play, these women are empowered. They’re confident. Their teammates have turned into lifelong friends. These women are dedicated to themselves, their teammates and their sport. They’re having fun, and they have the ability to make things happen for themselves, their families and their villages.

The league has also brought the women a sense of agency. Through play, they now have the experience and confidence to know women can make things happen. Women can be soccer players, leaders and role models. In many ways, these women are agents of their own destiny, and through play, they’re sharing the gift of that knowledge with those around them and those who hear their story, including me.

Read more about Brittany on ESPN.