Tom Peak and Nhlosoyabo Khlube were both volunteering on the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme that pairs up UK and in-country volunteers to affect change together. In Zimbabwe, they used the power of sport to bring disadvantaged youths together and start the discussion on the toughest issues they face in their community.
With just three months to work in a disadvantaged community, it is easy to arrive and worry about whether or not you can make a difference. Of course, it is the impact of our combined efforts that will change things in the long run.
However, in my own small way, I was lucky enough during my placement to see results straight away.
‘Idle and incapable’
In Sanzukwi, Zimbabwe, we were told that the community had a problem with local youths. They took issue with what are known as ‘Out Of School Youth’ (OOSY) – the unemployed and the under-educated young people in the area.
Viewed as idle and incapable, the boys would be seen down the bars drinking and playing pool and the girls would hardly be seen out of their homes at all. Meanwhile the most persistent issues in the community continued to get worse. HIV was spreading, teenage pregnancy was rising, and drug abuse became more frequent too.
We knew that these young people could achieve more. Working with my Zimbabwean co-volunteer, Nhlosoyabo, we set our minds to how we could help.
Tackling stigma through sport
One day, at one of the local bars, we met a guy who told us that he used to coach some of the boys at football, but that they had run out of the right equipment. The team was forced to close. We heard a similar story about the girls from a lady at the clinic. They used to enjoy netball but no longer had the means to play. This was our opportunity to get the Out Of School Youth together, so we got moving – collecting up equipment and putting posters up to encourage people to come along to play. We even made a special visit to the girls’ goat-keeping class so that we could catch them before they went straight home.
It was a roaring success. Every evening, Monday to Saturday, around 12 boys turned up to play football, while around 20 girls turned up to the netball sessions. The football coach returned to run the boys’ sessions and the lady at the clinic agreed to help coach the girls. It gave us confidence that the clubs could carry on after we had left.
But this was about more than enabling young people to play sport. At the end of every session we would take the time to talk to them all so that we could build a relationship and eventually ask them the more challenging questions. Why do the elders say you are lazy? Why do you spend your money on booze and drugs? Why don’t you use condoms?
The boys out of work told us they felt they had no opportunities to take and were bored because there were no leisure activities in the area. Those in work told us that they suffered from long, physical days in the sun and went to the bars and resorted to drugs to relieve stress.
It was difficult to hear, but at least they were talking to somebody about their issues, and we could nudge them to think about alternatives
The girls had different issues. One of the girls, told us how she was worried about getting hold of contraception because of the stigma associated with going to a clinic. People will think you have HIV and bully you, she explained.
We knew this stigma existed in the community, in the schools we weren’t even allowed to talk about sex. So we started to bring contraception along to the sports sessions and headed to village greens with box fulls to give away. Almost immediately, we completely ran out. It was clear we were plugging a vital gap.
These conversations that started in the sports fields led to the breaking down of some of the stigma around visiting the clinics. On Fridays at 2pm, we got as many as 25 local youths to attend the Youth Resource Corner at the clinic.
The community leader was delighted, saying he had never seen the Out Of School youth so engaged and the take of local services relating to drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and sexual health all increased over the coming weeks.
We did it, we had made a difference – and all it took to start was a football and a netball.