You could tell that the girl loved cricket. She’d sneak a pocket radio to class at Roedean School, the all-girls institution in Johannesburg. She’d thread the earphones through her blazer and lean on them ever so surreptitiously to hear the commentary. And just like every other girl who was ever crazy about the game, she had a friend who was decidedly not crazy about it at all. In fact, her friend thought it was a huge risk listening to sports commentary in the middle of class and a needless one at that.
This story, however, isn’t about the girl who snuck a pocket radio to class. It’s about her friend, the one who enjoyed cricket as much as a child enjoys downing a plate of brussel sprouts, and how all that changed in the spring of 1992.
On March 8, Aliya Bauer decided to make a concerted effort to understand her friend’s fascination for the game. Several thousand miles away in Australia, South Africa were playing a World Cup game against Pakistan in Brisbane. Bauer had just started listening to the radio commentary when something happened – a player named Jonty Rhodes ran out another player named Inzamam-ul-Haq – and what followed was a state of frenzy she found both odd and inviting.
“There was massive excitement on the radio and the radio commentators were just jubilant,” recalled Bauer. “The way they expressed what was going on was with total amazement. It made me curious about the game because I just couldn’t understand what was going on.”
And so Bauer told her friend, the cricket fanatic, to take her to a match. All on her own accord.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked. Not that it looked particularly easy either. Her friend tried to explain what was happening on the field, in a game between Transvaal and Barbados in the Benson and Hedges Night Series Trophy, but Bauer kept firing questions. Eventually, another spectator tapped her on the shoulder and suggested she enroll herself in an umpiring course to learn the game’s rules and regulations properly.
Bauer made some phone calls but was told there was no umpiring course that she could enroll in at the moment. The only class that was available was a scoring course and so she signed up for that.
Often in sport, a player’s rise through the ranks is described as meteoric. The same could be said of Bauer’s. She went on to play cricket at her local university and qualified for the Kenya Women’s team. She was the official scorer at the 2003 World Cup final and has since acquired a Level II coaching qualification.
But as much as Bauer learnt to love the game, she had other dreams as well, in the fields of wildlife conservation and environmental preservation. In pursuit of those dreams, she went to Kenya in October 2004 and it appeared cricket would be on the backburner.
Several months later, Bauer’s research studying baboons led her to Laikipia – a vast plateau in the heart of Kenya, stretching from the slopes of Mt Kenya to the edge of the Great Rift Valley, and the only place in Africa where wildlife numbers were on the increase.
Bauer’s main interest in the baboon research project was to understand the wildlife conflict, especially between primates and the pastoralist Maasai tribe in the semi-arid regions. She wanted to talk to the children and felt her best chance was through one-on-one interactions.
“I thought maybe if I introduced a sport to them, I’d understand them better,” said Bauer.
The Maasai community knew football, volleyball and athletics. As for cricket, they were only familiar with the insect. But that didn’t deter Bauer.
In May 2007, at a local primary school in Il Pollei, she started teaching a few Maasai children about cricket. During one of the sessions, a few morans (warriors) were walking by and showed interest in learning the game. She readily agreed to teach them as well. The hours she put in as de facto cricket coach of the Maasai community soon clashed with her baboon research project and she was forced to choose between the two. The Maasai community won.
Forming the Maasai Cricket Warriors team took two years. The morans struggled with the batting aspect, but were naturally gifted at bowling, having mastered the art of throwing a spear. Their first proper match was a 15-over exhibition game against the Kenya Women’s team at the Laikipia Highlands Games, a sports competition that cut through ethnic, tribal and political divide – the brainchild of activist Kuki Gallman. The Maasai Cricket Warriors lost the match, but they were about to fight bigger battles off the field.
Bauer, while engaging with the children, soon became aware of the challenges and societal pressures and social issues within the Maasai community. Female genital mutilation, polygamy and child marriages were accepted practices. HIV/AIDs was a constant threat but any discussion of the topic was considered taboo. Bauer decided to solicit the help of Cricket Without Boundaries (CWB), a NGO based in the United Kingdom.
“Alone, I couldn’t really do much,” said Bauer. “When CWB visited, they came with many coaches who’d visit the schools, introduce the game and help with cricket coaching. What was great was they started incorporating messages about HIV/AIDs awareness. That gave me an easy platform to introduce it on the sports field where it wasn’t seen as taboo and children were more receptive.
“My intention is not to change people but to make them more open-minded and knowledgeable.”
While the Maasai Cricket Warriors spoke out against the more harmful practices of the community, they weren’t altogether abandoning their culture. They preferred vibrant red shuka (robes) and elaborate beaded necklaces to cricket whites and helmets, bringing a new dimension to the sport and attracting plenty of shutterbugs.
The Maasai Cricket Warriors won hearts worldwide for the social causes they were promoting. They were invited to the Last Man Stands World Championships – an eight-a-side 20-over game aimed to develop cricket at the grass roots – in Cape Town in 2012 and in London in 2013. Their journey to Lord’s has even inspired a documentary film titled Warriors, with Barney Douglas as director and England’s very own James Anderson as executive producer.
“Some of the cricketers hadn’t ever traveled to the capital city of Mombasa,” said Bauer. “Taking the train to get there was a first for many players and then traveling a plane was another new experience. “It does have a lasting impact on their lives and makes them dream bigger and have bigger goals. They’re now seen as role models within their own communities. The younger children now idolise them.”
The sport has now spread to 12 primary schools and four secondary schools in the Laikipia region. But while much has improved for the Maasai Cricket Warriors – the 70 Gurkha Field Squadron constructed a first-ever cricket pitch in Il Pollei – challenges still remain. “Other schools where cricket has been introduced still don’t have the proper facilities. There’s no formal sponsorship or income generation, it’s just through donations from volunteers and well-wishers that we’re able to provide equipment.”
Bauer believes it is up to the Maasai Cricket Warriors to take things forward from here. “I believe the film can be used in a positive way,” she said. “I want them to become leaders and take ownership of the project.”
Bauer is back in her hometown in Johannesburg at the moment. If you think she’s knocking back a mojito and enjoying a well-deserved vacation after spending ten years in Kenya, you’d be mistaken. Like Robert Frost, she has promises to keep and miles to go before she sleeps.
She is now volunteering with the Alexandra Township Chiefs Cricket Club – the second charity team, aside from the Maasai Cricket Warriors, that had participated in the LMS World Championships last year.
The first thing that struck her as odd when she saw them at the tournament was that they consisted of mostly minors and had no senior personnel traveling with them. The second thing she noticed was a massive scar on their 19-year-old captain’s face. He was reluctant to talk about it, but later revealed to Bauer that he had a fight with another boy at school “where they nearly killed each other”.
“I started understanding about the gang-related violence, alcohol and drug abuse and I wanted to help out since this was happening in my own home country,” explained Bauer.
If Sandton is “Africa’s richest square mile”, Alexandra Township is its homely sibling, plagued by poverty and crime, where there was only one school that played cricket. With Bauer’s help, the game has spread to ten schools in the area. The Alexandra Township Chiefs are now using cricket as a vehicle to spread awareness about domestic violence, rape, gang-related violence and violence against animals.
Bauer’s bank balance may not compare to Bono’s, but she shares the same ideals about making a difference in the world. She is a rarity in a society that prefers Facebook activism – liking, posting and commenting on an issue but doing little else from spouting the occasional outrage. Whereas the rest of the world waits for Facebook likes to turn into social progress like water transformed to wine, Bauer is willing to slog it out.
Bauer says Nelson Mandela, whom she met at a young age, inspired her. “It was at a wedding where Mandela was a guest,” she recalls fondly. “I used to be a major autograph hunter, I’d get signatures of many players. When he was leaving, I rushed up to him to get his signature but his personal security stopped me. Mandela told them it was fine, gave me a kiss on the cheek and very kindly obliged me with a signature. He asked me where my family was and then went over and greeted them. I’ll never forget that.
“His whole life story is very inspiring. It showed me as a society how focused we are about our own lives and how we often neglect other people. That had an impact on me.”
Lately, Bauer finds herself slightly busier than usual. A little more than a month from now, she’ll be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and playing a cricket match at the summit as part of the charity initiative Mt. Kili Madness.
The seven-day hike kicks off on September 20 and upon reaching Kibo on September 27, two teams will play a Twenty20 match, to raise money for three charities: Cancer Research UK, Tusk and Rwanda Stadium Cricket Foundation.
It started out as a joke when David Harper, the founder, said he no longer had a chance of playing cricket at the highest level and his wife suggested that technically it was still possible.
At 5,785 metres, the game will be over 600 metres higher than the current world record set in 2009 at Everest Base Camp.
For Bauer, Mt Kili Madness promotes three charities that are close to her. After losing her stepbrother to cancer in April 2004, she was keen on doing something to create awareness about the disease. Having worked in wildlife conservation, she understands the importance of preserving wildlife and fighting against poaching. Bauer has also traveled to Rwanda and strongly believes sport can unify and spread forth messages of peace.
Bauer is also hoping to raise enough funds to bring two Alexandra Township Chiefs cricketers along for the climb, which will also include the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Ashley Giles, Clare Connor and Heather Knight.
“I thought if I’m going to go, I should take along two people from a disadvantaged background,” she said. “It will be a motivation for the people of Alexandra Township.”
For now, Bauer is training hard for Mt. Kili Madness. On the website, it mentions: a full game of cricket at such altitude has never been attempted, because the air is so thin there is a real danger of altitude sickness, a complication that can be fatal.
Bauer isn’t too worried. She survived being chased by a lioness in Kenya so a mountain shouldn’t be too difficult for her to handle. “The place where I was staying didn’t have good phone reception,” explained Bauer. “I climbed up on an embankment and before I could find any network, forget hearing the roar of a lion, I just felt it at the pit of my stomach. When I looked up, there was this lioness who was full on charging towards me.
“I assume I must have been near her cubs and she was just defending them. They say never run away from a lion because they’ll chase you. You’re supposed to actually approach a lion because no other animal ever approaches it. But because I was at a higher point and the lioness was low, I would have been trapped in the valley. There was a big water reservoir so I jumped into that and swam towards the center. I thought the lioness would follow me, but thankfully she didn’t.”
Lionesses aside, life hasn’t always been easy for Bauer but volunteering has its own reward that can’t be measured in dollars or pounds. She says her proudest moment was being able to help some girls from FGM and helping them continue with their education. She credited the Maasai Cricket Warriors for making it possible.
As for Bauer, she doesn’t feel she’s done anything particularly heroic.
“I feel like there is so much more that I’d like to do. I think I’ve had an impact on others, but then that’s what we’re here on the planet for.”
Aliya Bauer is trying to raise money to bring two Alexandra Township Chiefs cricketers along with her for Mt. Kili Madness. If you wish to donate money, starting from $1, visit her page.