Making a difference: Frédéric Oumar Kanouté

After a glittering career scoring goals for clubs in France, England, Spain and China, footballer Frédéric Oumar Kanouté now dedicates his efforts to his eponymous charitable foundation

Footballer Frédéric Oumar Kanouté now dedicates his efforts to his eponymous charitable foundation. He tells Philanthropy Age the story of its flagship project, Sakina Children’s Village, a community for orphans in Mali, and describes how his faith inspires him to help others.

Where did the idea for the Children’s Village come from?

When I was 21 or 22 years old and playing in England, I started to practice my religion properly and also took a few trips to my father’s lands in Mali. I thought that my purpose in life was not just to enjoy all the luck I had, but to share it with people who need it most, and in Mali, I saw that there were huge problems with poverty. Life expectancy was low and there were many orphans. I resolved to try and build a village where we could cater to all the needs of the kids – from the age of five years – and take care of their education, health and training as they grew older. Today we have a school, medical centre and teaching programmes, as well as a number of other facilities.

How important was it to build a community rather than an orphanage?

I wanted to build a village where the children could feel part of a real family with sisters, brothers and ‘foster mothers’ that live with them. Most importantly, education and skills training is at the core of what we do, because it’s obvious that if you take care of the kids but don’t give them any training, they will become too old to stay, but unable to leave because they can’t do anything else. The children need to be self-sufficient, so that they can live  their own lives, fly with their own wings, and perhaps one day even help the village in turn.

How do children come to find their way to Sakina?

The complex is 30km away from the capital Bamako, but we take kids from all over Mali. Today we have 65 children but the total capacity is up to 150 and there is a lot of demand for places. We go through applications very carefully and it’s sad but we have to decide which children to prioritise. We investigate the family situation of every child, analysing what kind of family is left to take care of them. Obviously they are orphans, but do they still have aunts or uncles that can support them? We have to find those who are the most vulnerable. Many of them arrive with some issues and many are traumatised by their previous lives. It takes time for us to reassure them, to give them back their confidence, and to teach them how to live a structured lifestyle with school, family and a routine. Eventually, they learn to smile again.

How does the Children’s Village fund its operations?

The project began initially with my own funds, but after that we really wanted to involve others and move forward with partners. I tried to make the most of my media profile to organise charity events with organisations such as UN children’s agency UNICEF, and big charity games with famous football stars from around the world. Most of the players we called were happy to come and help, and these funds – along with personal donations through the foundation – have helped to support the project. Other organisations have helped in different ways; for example the Qatar Charity has built a mosque at the entrance of the children’s village, for the use of the local community.

In addition, the school, the health centre, the training centre and other facilities are open to the local  community. They pay a small fee that goes towards the funding of the village, and we are also running livestock and agriculture projects that will help us in the future so that we do not have to rely on external funds. We think the children’s village can be self-sufficient within two or three years.

“Sometimes we say faith is only in the heart, but I don’t think that’s true. It is in the hands as well”Was it a challenge to  balance your footballing career alongside your charitable work in Mali?

The Kanouté Foundation formed in 2004, while I was playing in England, so I spent a lot of time during my career on this. During my holidays I would always go to Mali, and daily, after training, I would be in contact with the foundation managers. While I was on duty with the national team, I would always make time to go and visit the project.

It was quite a rare thing for a  footballer to be doing, although I’m not saying that footballers don’t help. They do, and when they do they’re quite generous. It’s just that this was part of my personal fulfilment and so I was more involved personally, from a young age. I wanted to make sure that nobody deceived me or took advantage. We have been very careful to do everything in a very transparent way because this kind of work is very sensitive – you have to make sure that all the funds raised to go into a specific project actually do go directly to that project. Even with the best of intentions, mistakes can still  be made.

How important has your faith been to your work with the foundation?

In my personal experience, my faith has been the engine. Faith, if you practise it correctly, pushes you to commit good acts. Sometimes we say faith is only in the heart, but I don’t think that’s true. It is in the hands as well. In the Quran we always put the faith in partnership with the actions; “those who have faith and do good”. It rarely says; “those who have faith alone”.

I also believe that it is important to talk publicly about giving. While it is encouraged to give without people knowing, players can also use their profile to influence others and perhaps inspire them to emulate that player. It’s all about the intention. If you talk about your philanthropic work out of pride then that’s not positive, but if you talk about it because you want people that like you to emulate what you are doing, then that’s good.

How does this stage of your life compare to being a famous footballer, at the height of your career?

I wouldn’t mind if, one day, people didn’t remember me as a footballer, or remember my career. I believe I’m going to my creator one day and that He won’t ask me how many goals I’ve scored, but instead will hold me accountable for how I behaved on this earth, and how I helped people. That’s why this is the most important thing to me and that’s why I was not anxious about stopping football and leaving that life.

Recently my little girl had to make a presentation about charity work to her class at school. She asked me about the children at Sakina and based her presentation on that. I was really happy because I saw that it could influence her to go on and do this kind of work in the future.