Changing lives with soccer
THE power of soccer is the ability to keep humans knocking the ball around. “Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple,” the
late Bill Shankly, a Scottish football player and manager, once said.
Worldwide, sports, soccer included have been idealised as a way to heal wounds, mend fences, and rise above differences among cultures and nations.
The power of soccer has not only left people in packed stadiums excited, it has marked its place in the management of HIV and Aids by thousands of youths in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo.
Scoring the best life decisions is not simple for youths as evidenced by many who take and make the wrong passes ending up with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, HIV and Aids, and other sexually transmitted diseases, crime and dropping out of school.
Thousands of youths in Bulawayo who are part of the Grassrootsoccer Zimbabwe (GRSZ) concept have been able to mark well defined paths in their lives through basic coaching of life skills.
Youths who have made themselves available to receive training have had a positive change in their lives making it “terribly” easy in terms of reproductive health and other important life decisions.
GRS communications officer Tanya Sibanda said since 2002, more than 25 000 youth have graduated from GRS Zimbabwe programmes whose curriculums are deigned for youth participants aged 12-18 years old in disadvantaged communities throughout Bulawayo both in and out of school.
In 2011 alone, Ms Sibanda revealed, GRS Zimbabwe graduated over 10 000 participants, adding that their GRS coaches have also benefited through the knowledge and skills they have gained.
Ms Sibanda said the curriculum focuses on building basic life skills that help boys and girls adopt healthy behaviours and live HIV-free.
“Through a series of interactive activities and discussions students gain a tangible understanding of HIV and Aids and get a chance to practise the skills necessary for sustainable behaviour change.
“Key curricular topics include basic facts about HIV and Aids, making healthy decisions, avoiding risks, building support networks, reducing stigma and discrimination, increasing knowledge about testing and treatment, addressing gender issues, and assessing values,” she said.
According to Mrs Sibanda, during the course of the intervention, learners build important life skills that help them stay strong and avoid real-life risky situations.
The GRS curriculum, she points out, is also designed to strengthen relationships between the coaches and the youth participants and comprises of ten 90-minute sessions.
Each coaching pair (i.e. a male and a female coach) works with a maximum of 25 youths.
One session is done per week meaning these two role models will see the same 25 youth once a week for 10 weeks, enabling them to build strong, trusting relationships.
Ms Sibanda said the curriculum is also designed to foster maximum interaction between GRS coaches and participants.
She revealed that discussions are carefully structured and prompted by the programme’s participatory and fun activities, which have been developed using soccer analogies.
“Situations from the game of soccer, the most popular sport in Zimbabwe, are analysed by children with the guidance of the GRS coach and compared to real life situations.
“This helps children understand situations and develop coping strategies.
“As an example, in the first activity of each GRS curriculum the GRS coach facilitates “3 Skillz to Win”. This lesson highlights the importance of identifying your strengths, planning your next move, building your support team and taking action in the community,” she said.
The recurring themes are integral to a young person’s ability to build self-esteem, resiliency, a social support network, control and pride in their actions
A second example, she said, is an activity called “Risk Field” where participants dribble a soccer ball in between cones representing HIV-related risks such as multiple partners, drug/alcohol abuse, sugar daddies, etc.
“If one player hits a cone, he and his teammates must complete three push-ups, showing how the consequences of one person’s risk cannot only affect him, but also his friends, family, and community.
“Other activities follow this same pattern of discovery-based learning — youth learn through active participation, as opposed to the passive chalk-and-talk style common among many African public schools,” she disclosed
She pointed out that a 2008 behavioural survey found that 2-5 years after the intervention, GRS graduates were nearly six times less likely than their matched peers to report sexual debut aged 12-15 years, four times less likely to report sexual activity in the last year, and eight times less likely to report ever having had more than one sexual partner.
Through GRSZ some youths like 13-year-old Onwell Gombani of Pumula high-density suburb have received life changing experiences.
He had the once in a lifetime opportunity of attending a World Cup 2010 match in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, as a flag bearer in the England versus Slovenia World Cup match.
“GRS also sent 16-year-old Munyaradzi Mahachi of Mzilikazi township and Renia Phiri (also 16) from Sauerstown Township for a month long Football for Hope tournament, which was running concurrently with the South African Fifa World Cup. “These youths had life changing experiences and were motivated to make a difference to their communities and others,” she said.
The youths who are also GRS peer educators also had a chance to watch the Ghana versus Uruguay World Cup quarter-final match.
Ms Sibanda said they are a registered non-profit organisation, which uses the power of the game to educate, inspire and empower young people to live healthy and productive lives.
She explained how GRS came to being saying Dr Thomas Clark, a pediatrician, along with co-founders Kirk Friedrich and Methembe Ndlovu conceived the idea after having played soccer professionally in Zimbabwe where they witnessed first-hand both the devastation of HIV and the fanatical popularity of soccer.
Methembe, born in Luveve, Bulawayo went on to be the first student from his region to attend university in the United States at Dartmouth College.
After Dartmouth he returned to Zimbabwe where he played for and coached both Highlanders FC and the Zimbabwean men’s national soccer team.
In 2009, Ndlovu won the prestigious Martin Luther King Award for Social Development.
Ms Sibanda said to date GRS has, through Ndlovu’s contacts, facilitated scholarships for more than 10 underprivileged youths to high schools and universities in the USA.
“The founders of GRS developed and piloted an interactive, soccer-themed HIV prevention curriculum that was first implemented in Zimbabwe in 2002-2003.
“After a positive independent evaluation of the project by the Children’s Health Council, a Stanford University affiliate group, GRS received a three-year programme
grant in 2005 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand its work.
“GRS now operates flagship sites in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia and has worked through partnerships in 18 countries worldwide,” she said.
Ms Sibanda added that GRS trains role models, especially soccer celebrities, to work within communities and promote youth development.
“These role models are trained in interpersonal skills, emphasising on developing quality caring relationships with the youth that are non-discriminatory and non-judgmental to allow for maximum interaction.
“Once trained, the coaches deliver fun-filled participatory activities to youth teaching them about HIV transmission and prevention, making healthy decisions, building support networks, understanding gender inequality, being resilient, and taking action in their community through community service,” she noted.
Coaches, she says, remain a support structure within the community, which young people can turn to for guidance and support.
GRS also hosts soccer tournaments in which school teams and local league teams have participated.
“These serve as a way of engaging thousands of community members in the programme.
“GRS Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) events, which started in October 2012, are soccer tournaments where HIV testing and health services are provided on-site and youth and community members are encouraged to undergo free testing for HIV.
“The ingredients of a Grassroot Soccer VCT tournament are simple but the model produces results: over 1 000 people were tested for HIV in four tournaments last year between October and December,” she revealed.
Added Ms Sibanda: “Each tournament takes place at a community site and invites youth to participate in a curricula implemented by GRS coaches and play in organised soccer games.
“GRS is working with Matabeleland Aids Council (MAC) and New Start Bambanani to provide free HIV testing and pre-and post-test counselling on-site during the event, while soccer matches and other entertainment reduce stigma and create a fun atmosphere.
“Outreach visits by trained GRS coaches and home based care group members before and after the event ensure consent for testing and effective follow-up for ARV treatment.
“Families and community members are also encouraged to test and utilise services provided by health partners such as PMTCT counselling and family planning resources.”
She revealed that Grassroot Soccer and Barclays Bank also joined hands in the fight against HIV/Aids to empower the youth of Bulawayo not only with knowledge in
HIV/Aids but also with knowledge on financial literacy.
The programme is called Skillz for Youth, and it was officially launched in June and was graced by the Honourable Vice President John Landa Nkomo, the Mayor of Bulawayo among many other delegates, Barclays Bank staff (local and abroad).
Benjani Mwaruwari and Vusa Nyoni, who are also GRS ambassadors, were also there in full force.
She revealed that GRS and PSI Zimbabwe will be hosting Bulawayo’s first-ever male circumcision soccer tournaments to promote male circumcision from April to June.
Ms Sibanda said health partners at the events will offer free referrals for medical male circumcision including appointment bookings and free transportation to the PSI male circumcision clinic on site, with free HIV counselling and testing as well.
Soccer celebrities spearheading this campaign include some of Bulawayo’s hottest talent — Bantu Rovers’ squad, which is fresh from a tour of the United States. From April 1 to 8, Bantu represented Zimbabwe at the 33rd annual Dallas Cup tournament in Dallas, Texas.
Other Bulawayo soccer celebrities promoting male circumcision and voluntary counselling and testing are goalscoring legend Gift Lunga Senior; “The General,” Johannes “Tshisa” Ngodzo, who now plays and coaches for Bantu Rovers; and Gift Lunga Junior, former Highlanders and National team player, and now coach for Highlanders.
She added that GRS Zimbabwe benefits immensely from a very close relationship with one of the local professional football clubs, Bantu Rovers FC.
Ms Sibanda pointed out that GRSZ also has the honour of being selected by Fifa as the host for a new Football for Hope Centre site.
Fifa pledged to build 20 centres for the 2010 World Cup hosted in Africa.
GRSZ was selected for its third FFH Centre, one of the only organisations selected by Fifa to run more than one centre.
With an artificial turf pitch and classroom space open for use by the community, the centre is slated to begin operating by 2013.
This honour is a huge acknowledgement for GRSZ and Bulawayo community.
She said GRSZ is in the process of opening offices in Harare, first Harare programming should commence this month.
They also plan on also expanding to Gweru in 2013.