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New Hope For The Next Generation

Grassroot Soccer is teaching young Afrikans about football and HIV/AIDS prevention – a necessary and useful programme suported by FIFA in an area of South Africa where suffering is commonplace.
The Isaac Booi School is a plain, two-storey brick building in the township of Zwide, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It Is just after one o’clock in the afternoon, classes are over and yet the playground is still buzzing with activity. Sticking out of the crowd of children in maroon-coloured uniforms arc a few young people in bright yellow T-shirts. They are coaches from Grassroot Soccer, a programme teaching school children about football and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Director Kirk Friedrich started Grassroot Soccer in Zimbabwe in 2002, after several of his friends and fellow football players had died of AIDS. “The idea was to develop a curriculum for HIV/AIDS education, based on games.
Football attracts kids and the message from the game can easily be transferred to life,” says Kirk. The programme combines social theory, public health methodologies, tigorous evaluation and a huge dose of passion. “We trained professional players to teach awareness about the disease and the need for prevention. At the same time the trainers are role models for the children, which is a very powerful concept when it comes to behaviour change.”
After the evaluation of the pilot project in Zimbabwe, and having made a few adjustments to the curriculum, the model was expanded to other countries. South Africa has a total population prevalence rate of just over 11%, with a mortality rate from HIV/A IDS-related causes of almost 40% in areas such as Zwide in Port Elizabeth.
Since March 2006, Grassroot Soccer has coordinated with existing education and after-school programmes and has recruited and trained approximately 100 people as coaches, reaching 3,000 school children to date.
The excitement is palpable as the children stand gathered in a circle, holding hands tightly, enthusiasm and concentration etched on their tiny faces, unified and ready for their “energiser”. Led by the trainers, they are chanting and clapping a simple rhythm: “Siyaharnba” – “We are going!” One by one they enter the circle, showing off an individual move —”I do, I do, I do like this, I do like this” – copied by the others.
“With the energiser we get them in the mood for action,” explains Siyavuya Ntabeni, 23, one of the 13 ptoject coordinators, before he invites the group to play the next game, called “Find the ball”. The youngsters stand shoulder to shoulder in two lines, facing each other. Siyavuya introduces the HIV/AIDS ball, a tennis ball that he hands to the first team, who pass it behind their backs, trying not to attract attention to the person who is actually holding the ball. The opposite team starts guessing who among the other players
is holding the ball. After they have taken a few turns, Siyavuya breaks up the game. Sixteen pairs of eyes are resting on him when he explains the key message behind the game. “You cannot tell if someone has HTV/AIDS just by looking at him or her, just like you cannot see who is holding the ball behind his of her back. You only know
your status if you go for a test!”
Srigma is one of the biggest problems in the community. “If you have the disease,
the community looks down on you,” says Siyavuya. Grassroot Soccer focuses on addressing taboos and increasing the children’s knowledge of HIV/AIDS from an early age. The atmosphere is playful yet disciplined; experiencing structured learning through actively participating in sport is a new experience for the children.
“Before a new group starts with the eight-week programme, we sign a contract with them. We discuss the meaning of out key values, which are to respect each other, feel comfortable about what we do. patticipate in the activities and share our experiences,” Siyavuya explains. “Using the Power of Soccer in the fight against HIV/AIDS” is written on the back of his T-shirt.
Grassroot Soccer is much more than just kicking balls around the pitch. It is the image of the sport, its ability to create connections between people, and the magic of the game that attract the children to the programme. And with South Africa building up to the FIFA World Cup in 2010, the awareness of football among the children is even greater than ever.
“Football is a universal language, it appeals to both men and women of all ages and it’s easy. You don’t need lots of resources to play football as long as you’ve got something to kick around.
Besides, kids like the idea of being part of a team and they understand the language of football. That’s why we use an assortment of analogies in out teaching,” says Siyavuya.
Kirk works closely with Football for Hope, a global movement launched by FIFA and streetfootballworld dedicated to promoting development through football worldwide and contributing to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). “Having FIFA’s support is immensely helpful for Grassroot Soccer, as it not only helps us improve our programmes but also adds a quality seal to our efforts and recognition of the work that we do,” says Kirk.
One of the 200 children currently with Grassroot Soccer in Zwide is Luna, a
tiny 12-year-old girl, planted between two teenage boys next to her in the circle, making her appear younger than she really is. This is until she begins to tell her story. Lungi has lost both her parents to AIDS. “My father was first diagnosed with TB. With treatment, he seemed to be getting better. Bur he started drinking again, things got worse and he passed away,” she says simply. Soon after her father’s funeral her mother started to Suffer from shortness of breath and got sicker by the day. She was diagnosed with HIV and died a year after Lungi’s father. Lungi is being raised by her sister and extended family. “The Grassroot Soccer programme teaches me to be strong and to know that I am not the only one that has lost parents to HIV. My favourite game is the one called ‘choices’, teaching us about making our own choices. There are things you can choose and things you can avoid,” she says poignantly.
Lungi joined the Grassroot Soccer street league last July. The street league gathers twice a week at the Imbewu multi-sport courts and is open to everyone between the ages of 10 and 18. Siyavuya, who introduced her to Grassroot Soccer, sees her as an energetic young girl and a very receptive learner. “She can achieve the best in life and be a role model for others,” he says.
Last year, Lungi was one of the 22 Grassroot Soccer youngsters selected as player escorts for the “90 minutes for Mandela” special FIFA match in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday. She walked onto the pitch with none other than the legendary Pele. A shy smile crosses her face when she recalls the evening, as if walking next to the king of soccer is no big deal. For her it is perhaps a fairly small achievement, compared to what she has had to cope with already in her short life. “I’ve been through a lot,” she says and her face becomes serious as she searches for the words in English. “Grassroot Soccer helps me to get on with life. It makes me ready for life.” As she sits in her bedroom, all walls painted in her favourite colour pink, reciting her own poetry, she looks just like any 12-year-old who loves dancing, writing poems, pink clothes, and South African Kwaito star Zola “because he is kind.”