In early July, I was in Ouahigouya (north of Yako) for a formation called Coaching for Hope. The program started in 2005, four years following the development of the United Nations Committee of Sports (my best translation of the « Comite du Sport »). The committee was created by Kofi Annan to aid in accomplishing the 8 objectives of the Millenium Development Goals, with the idea being that sports are a universal phenomenon and have the capacity to reach various populations in different parts of the world that more targeted programs or NGOs cannot. To put it succinctly, sport is a universal language. This discovery brought to the surface many questions, including : how can sports aid in development ? What is the place of sports in achieving development ? And what is the place of development in sports?
And really, it makes sense, doesn’t it ? If Dr. Kwame Mbeye or Professor Ryan Howowitz appeared on your television screen pleading with you to use a condom, and learn to use it correctly, because it can prevent the spread of disease, you would probably consider it. But if Didier Drogba or Mia Hamm showed up with a soccer ball and his or her country’s flag rippling in the background proclaiming the same message, suddenly it’s cool to use a condom.
The organization Coaching for Hope doesn’t necessarily use soccer celebrities, but they do attempt to use the sport itself to teach lessons about HIV/AIDS – and soccer. A typical session would start on the field with a lesson on soccer technique itself, possibly dribbling, passing, or defense. After discussing the technique, the trainers would set up a few games to practice. Then the team would move inside to reanalyze the key elements of the lesson and how they should be applied. Then, after a lunch break, the instructors lead a session on HIV/AIDS education in the classroom with their team. Examples of topics discussed are: facts about HIV/AIDS, transmission of HIV and personal risk, abstinence, fidelity, and condoms, correct usage of condoms and risky situations, how to negotiate using a condom, family planning, HIV/AIDS testing, and positive living with HIV/AIDS. Finally, after thoroughly covering and answering questions about one of the above themes, the instructors lead their team back out onto the field for an integrated session, which involves soccer games and exercises that focus on developing the technique taught earlier in the day as well as conveying a message about the HIV/AIDS topic discussed later.
Sound complicated ? Impossible ? I’ll give you an example. On a day where we learned proper passing technique in the morning and had a session on HIV transmission and personal risk in the afternoon, we ended the day on the field with a simple passing game. There were five zones placed around the field, marked with cones (well plates, to be exact, since Coaching for Hope also teaches how to convey their message and coach soccer with limited ressources), and players had to constantly be on the move. They practiced passing with two balls, but could only pass or receive the ball if they were in one of the five protected zones. Before we began, our coaches passed out a folded scrap of paper to each of us and told us not to look, but that as soon as we made a pass outside of the zones, regardless of if it was passed from or received there, the two players implicated in the pass had to present their papers to the other. It didn’t take long for the balls to start missing their marks, and the first group of two players had to present eachother their papers. Each scrap had either a plus or a minus written on it, and if the two met, the person with the negative scrap became positive. After only about ten minutes of playing, all but two players of maybe fifteen had become positive, and the two left with negative scraps were either lucky or had been very vigilant in making and receiving passes. Afterwards, we reconviened to have a team meeting and discuss the significance of the game.
As you have probably already guessed, the scraps of paper indicated each player’s serology. If a bad pass was made, it meant that the players had engaged in unprotected sex or risky behavior, and then had to discover the consequences of their actions. If a HIV negative player came in contact (via a bad pass) with an HIV positive player, the former became infected as well. The coaches were also quick to add that just because you are HIV positive doesn’t mean that you can be cavalier with your approach to sex or other types of behavior : there are two strains of HIV, and treating one strain is much easier than two at a time, which can happen if an HIV positive person does not protect himself.
Overall, the formation that we attended was great, our coaches were respectful and engaging, and playing soccer was a blast. It was the first time in this country I really felt like, yeah, I could see myself really doing this after Peace Corps. And I believe in the message. Sports, and soccer in particular, resonate throughout the entire world. Soccer is the most celebrated sport on the planet (sorry, football and basketball lovers), and it’s played from the age where kids are just learning to walk all the way to parents, aunts and uncles at family reunions. It represents a form of communication that is cherished and understood by a greater percentage of the world’s population than is any spoken language, and might just be development’s most untapped resource.
**P.S. I’d like it to be known that I drew a really cool diagram for you guys outlining the game, but the internet won’t let me copy and paste it without completely ruining this blog with large unsightly boxes and random squiggles that mean nothing – sorry!