Being a female referee in male-oriented sports such as football is not something you hear of often. Tabitha Wambui, a renowned Kenyan referee and current Guinness Made of Black ambassador is one of the few yet talented African women taking on this position with poise and prowess.
Tabitha who is a mother of two and an advocate for women empowerment, tells a story of sheer determination and consistency that got her the job she has always dreamed of.
Tell us about your love of football. When did you first get interested in the sport?
I started playing football just for fun while I was still in primary school. I’m an only child and I was such a tomboy, I would play football a lot with my uncles.
Upon joining high school, I played for the school team for a short while and then joined the Mathare Youth team and played for them until I completed high school.People believed a woman could not officiate a football game as the sport is considered to be a man’s game. I wanted to prove them wrong - Tabitha Wambui Click To Tweet
What brought about the decision to become a football referee?
I would watch a lot of football after high school and once saw a woman officiating in the Kenya Premier league as an assistant referee. Seeing her out there doing something so different yet so intriguing made me say to myself – if she can do it, why can’t I?
That’s when I made up my mind to try it out. I took courses in 2004 on being a referee and after completing them all the way to the class 1 level, I became a Fifa Referee.
If I wasn’t a referee now, I would have been an athlete because I’ve loved sports my whole life.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
For over a decade, people believed a woman could not officiate a football game as the sport is considered to be a man’s game. I wanted to prove them wrong.
I believe that here in Kenya, it is the women’s football team that will get us into the world cup before the male team. We have already made it to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) so we are well on our way there.
How has the journey been so far as the new Made of Black Guinness Ambassador?
It has been a wonderful journey. It has made a lot of people aware of my job and me as an individual. I do my best as a role model of the Guinness brand, I am grateful that after 17 years of referring to football games, I am being appreciated by a huge enterprise such as this one.
They have helped expose my position in the football world and my journey to who I am today and this, in turn, has reached a lot of women out there and given them the push they need to get out there to pursue their passion.
What challenges have you faced in your journey and how did you overcome them?
During my first match as a referee for the Kenya Premier League (KPL), the Gor Mahia and AFC teams had thousands of fans fill the stadium. As I walked out on to the pitch, people were not looking at me as a referee but as a woman.
That intimidated me a bit but as soon as the game started, I did what I was there to do – my job and people really appreciated it once the match was over and was not downplaying my position as a female referee.
Getting my family to support me on this journey was not easy at first, they didn’t want me to go down this road. They believed that football is a hooligan’s game but I had to make them understand that this is what I wanted to do.
Now they are fully on board and have seen how impactful this position has been not only to me but to those around me as well.What are you doing to help support other girls and women in sports? - Tabitha Wambui Click To Tweet
How can Kenya and its society support more women and girls in sports?
The most important thing is to support them and encourage them, never discourage them. If I did what my parents and friends told me I should be, I would have never become the referee I am today.
It also has to start within ourselves, what are you doing to help support other girls and women in sports?
I train with a small group of women twice every week. I make sure to call them on training days to remind them of our sessions – it has to start with me, then it goes to the community and then it will reach the higher authority like the government.
If we wait for the government to provide that support we will not get where we want to go.
When I started this journey to become a referee, there were only two of us in the game, now there are over 50 women working towards this same goal.
Who are your top 3 role models?
My mother. She is the one who made me the woman I am today. Whenever I had a game or any issue to do with my work I would speak to her and she encourages me to keep going.
The first lady I ever saw officiating a match – Margaret Omondi, she is now a physical instructor. She is the only person in the football industry that I call and share my highs and lows with in relation to football.
Internationally – Thierry Henry. I really loved Thierry and looked up to him even before I got the chance to meet him. I’m not an arsenal fan but whenever he would play I would always watch, he is an inspiration to me.
As a mother to two teenagers, how do you manage to balance your career and your family?
I travel and move around a lot but the little time that I get at home, I make sure I spend it with them. With my schedule, I still never forget my motherly duties because they come first and I have to be a role model to them. I try to plan my schedules in a way that will allow time to spend at home with them.
Mention 3 personal values that have been critical to your career and personal growth?
Confidence: I believed in myself from such a young age – I started officiating games at 24 years old.
Discipline: When it comes to sports, you have to be disciplined, you have to be a role model to other upcoming players/athletes. When I’m on the field, 22 players are looking at me, the fans are also looking at me – so the way I carry myself in and out of the field is important.
Self Trust: Trusting yourself goes a long way.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
This would be the time I joined FIFA as a certified FIFA referee. I never thought I would get to an international level.
I thought I would only officiate local matches but in 2010, I was credited with this position and now I can go and officiate football matches outside Kenya, my first match outside Kenya being in Cameroon, truly a proud moment.
What is your mantra in life?
I always tell myself that I am not just a woman, I am a human being. No matter how people see you, you are an incredible human being.
It’s not easy to do what I do but I do it with all of my heart, and I believe there is nobody as perfect as a woman.
“I learned that excellence is a habit and it should go into every detail of your work process- from how you type emails, speak, dress, react etc” – Heard during exit interviews at the SLA HQ. You about that life? Learn more here.