Children at a school in one of Kenya’s most deprived areas who have been supported by Jude Bellingham since the England ace was just 15 are getting into the World Cup spirit by cheering on their Three Lions hero.
Mustard Seed Project co-founder Rita Fowler, 76, said football-mad youngsters at the Miche Bora nursery and primary school in a deprived area of Mombasa are “so excited” about their link to the Borussia Dortmund star and are clamouring to watch him play in Qatar on television.
The school, which Mrs Fowler launched in 2009 with her husband, Geoff, teaches more than 300 impoverished children aged three to 14, and feeds families at risk of starvation. The charity’s annual “Big Give” fundraising drive being launched next week to help people facing “dire” poverty.
A prolonged drought, the war in Ukraine hitting grain supplies and the impact of the Covid pandemic have ravaged Kenya and left people “desperately poor”, she said, with families struggling to feed their babies and people too weak to bury dead animals.
Bellingham, 19, a standout performer for England in Monday’s 6-2 win over Iran as he scored his first international goal, became involved with the charity when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy on Birmingham City’s books.
The teenage sensation has donated funds to help build the school as well as supplying footballs and kits to locals in recent years.
Mrs Fowler, from Market Deeping, Lincolnshire, returned from a visit to the school last week. She told i: “Kenyans are football-mad and our children are just so excited to know that Jude is supporting the school.
“I had said to the children two-and-a-half years that Jude was one of our supporters. Although he was well known in the UK, nobody [in Kenya] had heard of him.
“This time when he was mentioned they were so excited. They knew who he was, obviously. They were all talking to each other saying, ‘It’s Jude Bellingham’.
“They were all just sort of talking to themselves in groups and getting all excited.”
Staff at the school made special plans to secure a television set as the children were so keen to watch Bellingham at the World Cup, with pupils said to be eagerly looking forward to tonight’s Group B clash with the USA.
Mrs Fowler and her husband, who died just before last Christmas, had initially started the school by renting a building to teach 17 children and two teachers in two classrooms.
Bellingham became an ambassador for the charity after hearing about it from his father, Mark, who works with Mrs Fowler’s daughter.
The building of the school was completed in January 2021, with the midfielder making a “generous donation” that helped build classrooms as well as setting up a fundraising page to feed children.
Bellingham also teamed up with Adidas to help kit out the local Mgongeni football team with royal-blue Birmingham City colours before his move to Germany.
The sponsors and Bellingham helped provide footwear, which the charity sold to raise funds for the school, and footballs for the children at Miche Bora, which they proudly held aloft in a photograph last week.
Mrs Fowler added: “When we first went out there, there were no footballs. They used to make footballs out of carrier bags and string. Footballs are guarded like a precious jewel.”
She met with Bellingham a couple of times before his £25m transfer from Birmingham City to Dortmund in 2020, describing him as a “really lovely guy”.
Mrs Fowler said: “He’s just a nice guy who wants to make a difference. He’s so mature.
“I’ve never been interested in football. The first football match I’ve watched was when I went to see him at Birmingham City. I was watching Jude and I have become interested in football as a result. I can see he is very clever, he’s very astute.
“I very much support him. I feel very proud of him.”
Students at the school are now taught in classes of 25-30 and achieving “excellent academic results” said Mrs Fowler, who has just returned from a four-week trip to the coastal city, where she said people are now “so much poorer” than she has ever seen them.
The charity is now hoping to raise much-needed funds for the local community as part of their Big Give campaign, which starts on Tuesday.
She said: “It broke my heart this time when I went out. It’s really desperately poor as the number of stories while I was out this time was just horrendous. Nobody’s taking any notice over here.
“One senior elder said he had a shamba – a piece of land that people buy that are going to build on for their old age. He said to the people local to his shamba, you can grow on my land if you want to and they said, ‘What’s the point of your land? There’s no water, our animals have all died’.
“There are fields full of dead animals with people who are too weak to bury them. Somebody had come to his house with a baby and said could she borrow about 35p, my baby and I have had nothing to eat and I just want to buy a drink.
“The poverty is just awful. The children at our school are lucky because they’re being fed. But it really is dire out there. It’s so sad because Kenya was prospering and really the drought of the war in Ukraine and Covid have just done for it.”
To donate to the Mustard Seed Project please visit their website here.