Roses in the Desert
In the heart of the desert, where hope might seem scarce, Desert Roses proves that roses can bloom in the most unexpected places. In a community where girls are often seen as sources of wealth, groomed for early marriages, Desert Roses is challenging norms. Through football, Rael Lomoti—a dedicated social worker and football enthusiast—and her team have sensitised families about the importance of education, using the sport as a catalyst for change.
Lodwar is the largest town in Turkana County. It is the administrative and economic centre of this region. It’s hot, the sun is intense, and the temperatures are very high. The landscape, dominated by acacia trees, thorny shrubs and rocky outcrops, is dry and dusty. The harsh conditions notwithstanding, there are bustling activities in this region. The unique culture and traditions make this region a place where modernity meets tradition.
My first stop is at a shop where I ask for an ice-cold beverage. Rael Lomoti, my guide on this trip, teases, ‘We don’t sell small sodas and water here. It’s not like Nairobi where there are plenty of small drinks available.’ Lomoti, 28, is a professional social worker who founded the Desert Roses, a community-based organisation committed to advancing sports development within the community.
The organisation, established in 2017, seeks to address the unique challenges and limitations that girls face by providing opportunities for their participation in sports. Having grown up here, she has an intimate familiarity with the issues affecting girls in this region and is well-equipped to tackle them.
She has also received formal training as a referee and a coach, making her an asset to the organisation and the community. It is these aspects that motivated her to dream of creating a football league exclusively for girls. She aimed to inspire and guide young girls, teaching them about the importance of education as a tool for growth and progress.
‘Girl empowerment is the backbone of Desert Roses,’ she says. ‘Girls from this region face various challenges. Since birth, they are objectified and viewed as a source of wealth. Parents groom them for marriage so they can receive a hefty bride price. Due to these circumstances, investing in girls is not a priority. Even in schools, they are significantly less than boys.’
In 2017, her dream started to take shape. She formed several football teams for girls, which she used to sensitize parents and the community on the significance of letting girls access education just like boys.
After our cold drink, we leave for Loitokutoo village where we meet Agnes Lotuu, a mother of eight. She is the mother of one of the Desert Rose’s favorite forwards nicknamed Messi. She is proud of her daughter, stating that her quest for formal education has been met thanks to her footballing prowess.
‘Without her talent and dedication, she would be languishing at home,’ she states. ‘Football has really helped me as I do not have any helper. My daughter would have dropped out of school were it not for her involvement with Desert Roses.’ She confirms that in the past, girls in her community were not encouraged to pursue formal education and were instead expected to stay at home until marriage. ‘In my father’s homestead, those girls who went to school are now formally employed—those like me who dropped out are facing hardships.’
Lotuu fondly looks at both sports and Desert Roses as sources of inspiration and hope. She advises other parents to allow their daughters to play and be part of the team, confident that it will lead to further development in their area. ‘By playing football, the girls will become beacons of hope and progress. I am convinced that sports, coupled with formal education, will open many doors of opportunities, not only for the girls but for the region as a whole,’ she says.
Messi concurs with her mother’s sentiments. She was inspired to start playing football after watching boys play. She got together with other girls to form a team, Imani Queens, at their local church. She joined Desert Roses in 2023 and tells us that her talent and passion have seen her access scholarships that have kept her in school. Playing football, she notes, shielded her from teenage pregnancy and early marriage. It has also contributed to her being fit, disciplined, and focused.
For most girls and young women like Christine Ikai, Desert Roses is an oasis of hope. Ikai, a mother of one, is passionate about the sport. She is grateful for it as it has nurtured her resilience. She notes that there is a difference between those who play and those who do not; ‘Players have stronger bodies, are disciplined and their passion keeps them focused. However, the ones who do not, have a lot on their minds and may display unruly mannerisms. Being part of the team and attending training shapes behavior,’ she says. Lomoti chimes in, ‘Football is about consistency in practice, maintaining fitness and being committed.’
Unfortunately, these girls face numerous challenges. They train daily but due to high temperatures, they have to do it at dusk. Some, like Messi, are at times forced to report to school on empty stomachs and later to the field for training. Lomoti reiterates that another challenge is the state of the playground. It is too rough yet most players lack proper boots for playing—the donations they received were mostly small sizes.
Desert Roses is also unable to get drinking water for hydrating the players. She notes that poor infrastructure is hampering their progress. To support the girls’ passion for football, she has suggested constructing a centre that includes a properly equipped football field. She has even generously donated land from her inheritance to help make this idea a reality and is currently seeking resources to achieve this goal. Despite these obstacles, the girls remain committed to their passion for football and what it represents to them.
This noble initiative has illustrated the possibility of spurring development through sports. It has given girls a purpose and validated their immense value in the community. It is now common for parents to enroll all their children in school, even their daughters. Some families believe that an educated daughter will fetch a higher bride price, but regardless of the reason, this trend has led to a significant increase in girls’ enrollment rates.
Desert Roses stands out as a pillar of girls’ and young women’s empowerment. They also organise football tournaments to create awareness of other issues such as *HIV/AIDS infections, teenage pregnancies, and early marriages. They have actualised the saying ‘Educate a girl and you will educate an entire generation and community.’ Most of their alumni are part of the development discourses in the region. What Lomoti started nearly seven years ago, driven by the passion to change her community, is slowly becoming a reality. Through her initiative, Turkana will soon be a desert full of roses.