Cathérine and I chose a day to visit all of the classes at our high school to announce that we were starting a girls’ team. My school doesn’t exactly have a loudspeaker system set up for announcements, so we had to do it in person. We held practices on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for an hour; I wanted to add one on Saturday, but the girls told me that they have chores in the mornings and then preparation for church at night, so it wouldn’t work. We started out with small numbers of girls coming out, but after a few weeks we had an average of about 15 girls playing (although it was irregular, and some practices the number dipped to less than 10).
We started up the team towards the end of the school year, so Cathérine was often too busy with teachers’ meetings or testing to come to practice. For my part, I had to learn a whole new vocabulary to coach soccer in French, and I was struggling to come up with training exercises. I’ve played soccer since I was about 7 years old, so I had plenty of drills in my mind to run through. However, I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to coach girls who had never played before in their lives. Even the simplest drills became extremely sloppy, and because the other girls on my teams had always taken the sport seriously, I wasn’t used to players who were just looking for a fun afterschool activity, and would only half-heartedly try to aim the ball in the direction they wanted to kick it. No matter how many times I explained how to make a pass with the instep of the foot, the girls simply returned to the toe-ball (which, if you’re a soccer player, you can imagine how frustrating that was).
Thus, our practices were often disorganized, disjointed, and held with little to no resources. The girls usually played in bare feet or flip-flops, on a concrete surface with goal posts that we rarely used because they had no nets, and when one of my girls succumbed to an asthma attack it was only sheer luck that another player had an inhaler she could use, as there was no school nurse to call. I used rocks that I found around the training area as markers and obstacles, and we were constantly defending the two ‘general usage’ soccer balls that we got from the school from the boys who wanted to play.
We ended the school year shortly thereafter and the girls dispersed. A few expressed a desire to train over the summer, but most would be in village or going to stay with family in another part of the country, or even Côte d’Ivoire, and the idea of a summer training program became too difficult. But the girls were happy and wanted the program to continue, so we decided to begin training again the following October, when school started.
Over the summer, I invited Cathérine to participate in a 10-day long formation with me called Coaching for Hope. If you read the blog, you know that it is a training in which participants learn how to combine teaching soccer skills and HIV/AIDS education. Cathérine was the only female Burkinabé participant, and she was a rockstar. Having never played the sport before and being somewhat overweight, she tried her best at all the physical activities, dominated in the classroom, and our team became very protective of her. Overall, the formation prepared us nicely for coaching the girls during the 2012-2013 school year, and to talk to them about issues such as HIV/AIDS.
Cathérine and I had also decided that we wanted to expand our girls’ soccer project in Yako. We visited several other administrations over the summer asking if they would be interested in creating their own teams, with a goal of convincing the three other largest high schools in town to play. We asked for a small contribution from each school of 1 to 2 balls for the girls, and two coaches, including a gym teacher who could train the girls in the sport and a female teacher/secretary who would be there to support the girls and could travel with them if necessary. We also wanted the coaches to take time each week to talk to their girls about issues such as HIV/AIDS, STDs, early pregnancy, skipping school, and others that impact their general well-being (Cathérine and I plan on starting our Coaching for Hope lessons in January). The schools agreed, and we decided to visit again once school started.
In the meantime, we needed funding if we wanted to organize games for the girls. Cathérine and I typed up letters to take around to some of the governmental departments and largest business owners asking for money or materials in support of the project. Now, here is where I want to start outlining some of the particular frustrations involved with working in a country like Burkina Faso.
For one thing, deadlines in this country are never really seen as hard deadlines. Cathérine and I had the idea for the letters, but just a week before school began a friend suggested to me that we try to drop them off before the school year started and various school-related groups and organizations began touring around Yako to ask for money as well; that way at least ours would be on top. I hurried to Cathérine with this information, and as I had been to see the Director of Sports in Yako earlier in the summer to discuss the project, I had a budget that he had written out for me. I typed up the budget, and Cathérine helped me type up a letter addressing each recipient. At our annual teachers’ meeting I printed out over 20 copies of both the letter and the budget to be dropped off.
Our first stop after this was to the Director of Sports, to give him the first letter. He sat down with us and began reading over it and making various corrections, and after a while he simply stopped and said he’d get back to us with his own copy. Apparently there was a certain way to write a letter of demand that he was well acquainted with, and we, unfortunately, were not. He offered to rewrite the letter in correspondence with the manner and dialect preferred by most of our high-level government recipients. The school year started the next day, so I gave up the idea of reaching potential sponsors before that deadline.
A few days later, the Director called us and we met him to get his edited version. He had rewritten the letter completely and redone the budget. That night, I typed up his versions of both, and shortly thereafter we printed the letters, signed them, and deposited them in envelopes, ready to be dropped off.
I’ll preface what I’m about to say next with this: Cathérine is a close friend, a hard worker, and a role model. But she is still a Burkinabé, and the concept of time and urgency here are quite different from what they are in the U.S. Dropping of the letters should have taken a day, or maybe even a week; instead, it took closer to a month and a half. There were countless afternoons where we planned to meet up and take the letters around, and instead I heard nothing from her, only to find out a day or two later that she had actually gone to Ouagadougou to run some unforeseen errand and had simply not called to tell me. It got so ridiculous that I started predicting we would not get together at our designated times, so that when she actually was available I could be pleasantly surprised.
In other cases, the culture still managed to frustrate us, even when the difficulty did not stem from us. I remember one Friday in November, after we had begun going back around to the offices where we had deposited letters to follow-up with their recipients. The day before had been a holiday, and we had visited about three or four offices without meeting anyone when finally Cathérine turned to me and said that nobody would be available. When I asked why, she explained that since the day before had been a holiday, and the day after was the weekend, most government workers would prefer to take a long weekend and, therefore, would simply not show up to work on Friday. No big deal.
Then there’s the actual problem with funding. Most recipients praised our idea when we brought the letters by and said that they definitely wanted to support the project. However, when we began our follow-up visits, most of them looked at us somberly and explained that, unfortunately, they did not have that much money at the moment, or their department did not have the capacity to support projects monetarily, but that they still wanted to give us a contribution from their own pocket, handing us a thousand CFA as they said so. One thousand CFA, in case you are wondering, is the equivalent of about $2; our total budget for the project is several hundred thousand CFA.
With regards to the teams themselves, I had high hopes that we would get a good turnout this year at our high school, since the girls had started playing last year. Cathérine and I visited all the classes to announce the team’s start date, and on the first day of practice…it rained. At the next practice, all of two girls showed up. The next one, about four. I was so confused, but Cathérine explained to me a saying they have here, which essentially communicates that anything that starts out too easily will end badly, but if you have to struggle in the beginning, in the end it will be worth it. So, with that motto in our heads, we trudged forward, slowly building up our roster to about 12, where it sits currently. I hope that this number will grow, but girls’ have it tough in this country, and especially where I live in the North, often because they are heavily Muslim areas. Parents don’t always send their girls to school in favor of the boys, and when they do it’s to attend classes, not get caught up in some sport. If that’s not the problem, then girls’ usually have too many obligations at home to have time to practice. On one follow-up visit, Cathérine and I even had a police officer ask us how the girls would finish cooking and cleaning at home if they were spending time playing soccer.
In order to unify our efforts with the other high schools, I organized a meeting for the other coaches to attend. They all agreed to come, and yet on the afternoon of the meeting, there sat only two coaches where there should have been six (two for each school). Luckily, the two were each from different schools, so only one was completely missing representation (they informed us afterwards that they went to the wrong school for the meeting, after which I suppose they gave up and went home). Of the two coaches attending, neither had officially started a girls’ soccer program at his school, although one had passed around an interest sheet to the girls. We addressed a few key topics with them, including problems they faced in starting their teams and potential solutions, as well as coaches’ propriety and how we wanted to organize the games beginning in January, and then we let them go.
I’m using this project to illustrate some of the difficulties associated with working in a country such as Burkina Faso, especially because it’s important to understand that culture is often at the root of these difficulties, and yet nothing can be accomplished without finding a way to incorporate and work with the culture. People here are fond of saying the phrase, “Ca va aller,” which essentially means, “It’ll work out.” In a lot of ways, this saying is accurate; you miss your bus, you catch the next one, or you find a car driving past that’s heading to the same location and get on. However, in terms of projects and development, it’s incredibly frustrating, and it’s easy to see how forward progress can stall when urgency and deadlines are not prioritized. It’s all too common to set a date for a meeting or a project visit and then nobody shows up, the reasons for this ranging from simply forgetting to having a stomachache to needing to go withdraw money from a bank in another city to the weather. Sometimes, there is no reason given, and even that is accepted.
So, it’s been a long, frustrating struggle to get to where we are today with the project, and we still have a long way to go. However, we’ve got a group of 8 to 12 girls that regularly attend practice during the week. We’ve had materials, manpower, and a tiny bit of money donated to our project, and Cathérine and I plan to apply for a Peace Corps grant to fund the rest. I had previously spoken with a member of the administration that was not represented at our coaches’ meeting and knew that they had not yet formed a team, but the administrator insisted that they planned to. However, I called the other two coaches and was happily surprised to discover that they both had started practicing with their teams, and were eager to start playing games. Cathérine even had a representative from an entirely different school stop her on the road one day and ask how they could start a team and become involved in our project. Finally, a new administrator at our school organized a group of male students to play soccer afterschool and invited our girls’ to play with them, which they’ve already done once.
I hope that my brief description of this project gives an idea of what doing grassroots development work in this country can mean. It requires some extreme amounts of patience and commitment to a goal, but I think that if I can manage to witness a game or two between my girls’ and another school’s team, regardless of the outcome, it will have been worth it.