Original Post: 8/4/2009
Coaching and playing soccer in a country where the people have a genuine love of the beautiful game; seeing Coaches across Continents’ success in a smiling child’s eyes; watching an international game on Independence Day where sixty-thousand spectators danced after each goal scored by Malawi: all of these combined to make a perfect summer experience. The practices with the Play Soccer Malawi children were also one of the highlights. I kept wondering how these children become so skillful when there are at most 5 balls for hundreds of kids. The energy and enthusiasm of the coaches, players and site managers would fuel my excitement, from the very moment we would step foot on the dusty, dirt fields jutted with rocks.The Ndirande site, in a neighborhood outside of Blantyre where some of the practices were held, was my favorite. Here a number of fifteen year-old girls were constantly scoring against boys and tackling them, showing their passion for the game. I was impressed by their desire to learn new soccer skills and to earn the respect of their male teammates. After practice we would exchange soccer moves against dance moves. At this site and others, the absence of shoes, the sight of girls running in skirts that prevented them from taking long strides, or a kid battling to sprint with his flip flops, finally deciding that it was better to take them off and skin his toes, and the lack of proper soccer uniforms or even clothing (one child was wearing a one piece pajama “sleeper”), reminded us of the real and dramatic daily challenges these impressive players face from the start – and which the laughter and smiles could sometimes make us forget…
The headmistress at one of the primary schools described to us the problems the Malawian children experience – ranging from misbehavior, theft, corrupting influence of teenagers outside the school, smoking and alcohol consumption – and how much the situation has improved since the students began playing soccer after school with Play Soccer Malawi, while learning important health and social skills. (For example, it is now safe to leave bags in class during recess, without the risk of having them stolen.) Girls are particularly vulnerable, not only risking rape or physical abuse (most often from a parent or family member) and prostitution, but also burdened with caring for younger siblings or with hard labor, like the girls we saw on our hike up Mulanje Mountain hauling heavy bundles of wood on their heads, walking barefoot all along the steep, rocky paths.
Having the opportunity to stay after school to play soccer and compete against boys gives the girls a moment in the day when they can just act like ordinary children. They begin to learn that they can have a voice, which implies the choice not to get married or pregnant at the age of sixteen, or if they do, to continue their studies. I particularly enjoyed getting to know the female coaches in Ndirande who would carry their babies on their backs during the entire practice and with whom I was actually able to play a couple of rough Street Football games. On two different Sundays we joined these women, homeless children, potato merchants and male coaches for a 4 vs 4 tournament. A “field” would somehow emerge from what had previously been the parking lot for two trucks and a space where some women were selling peanuts and bananas. The final touches would be added by the placement of two goals and powder sprinkled around the boundaries. A cheering, delighted crowd would contribute to the excitement of the game. We got an idea of the extent of Street Football’s popularity when we arrived in Mzuzu (in the north) and were recognized by a woman who had seen us on television. Throughout my stay, I was struck by the consistent interest by everyone, from the ordinary Malawian to a local newspaper journalist to a nation-wide television reporter, in the activities and objectives of Coaches across Continents. And although we saw only male journalists, they were all genuinely interested in the issues concerning women playing soccer in Malawi. As the interest in the Street Football games developed during our time there, so did the general realization that girls, too, can score, dribble, tackle, fall on the concrete and get right back up and continue playing.
Coaches across Continents’ unique approach, of working with local organizations and training local coaches, allows it to coordinate with existing programs, taking advantage of their positive features and helping them to improve and expand their influence. I began to grasp the impact the organization will have in Malawi when I saw how much effort the local coaches in Mzuzu exerted to learn and remember the games we taught them for future practices with the children.
My last practice with Coaches across Continents took place with forty children who had been found on the streets. There could have been no more rewarding end to my trip than to coach and play with the children who needed us the most. It was nice to leave, knowing that their coach was one of the local coaches we had trained and who will continue working with these street children. His new motto, which he told us he learned from our sessions, is: “always coach with a smile.”
Help Sophie to raise funds for her 2010 trip with Coaches across Continents by going to: http://www.firstgiving.com/hwssophomores