Field of Play: Soccer can be educational tool in Africa | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: Soccer can be educational tool in Africa

Posted: Saturday, September 21, 2013 | 09:36 AM

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Children take part in a soccer practice session near a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Mogadishu, Somalia last month. (Tobin Jones/AFP/Getty Images) Children take part in a soccer practice session near a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Mogadishu, Somalia last month. (Tobin Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

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Travelling with Right to Play, Scott Russell discovers the benefits of soccer and how it has helped not only break down gender barriers but also its role in helping to educate children in Africa.
I'm writing this in the parking lot of the airport in Cotonou, Benin. Our flight to Accra, Ghana on Air Cote D' Ivoire has been cancelled and for now we're in a holding pattern. 

"There's an expression for it," says Ashton Lawrence, our Right To Play trip leader. "This is Africa. We're pretty used to last-minute changes."

It comes as a reminder that in this vast continent things are very different and invariably, change takes time to unfold. More often than not, it does so according to the local customs. 

A soccer match we attended the other day in the community of Kpomasse provided a startling example of TIA. It was a game involving only girls. The boys were the spectators, relegated to the sidelines where they sat on the window sill of a concrete hut with their legs dangling lazily over the side. In the end zone, the older men gathered to watch and lean on their motor scooters under the shade of the mango tree. 

The women of all shapes, sizes and ages were playing barefoot but clad in crisp red and blue uniforms. The grass was unruly and ankle high but the pace of the game was quick. There was a lot at stake including a big gold trophy and a brand new soccer ball to be awarded to the winning side. 

'Better late than never'

This is a scene which has only recently been possible in Benin. For the most part, men have been the players in this country and girls the onlookers. It's a reality not lost on Perdita Felicien as she took in the match. 

"One thing I've noticed on our visits to play days is that amongst the big group of boys, there are only three or four girls" she said. "I find it unfathomable that the freedoms I enjoyed in sport growing up in Canada, they are only now getting as adolescents. But hey, better late than never." 

There is cheering and jeering and the large crowd under the makeshift grandstand is exhorted by the live play-by-play being provided by two guys on wireless microphones. They mix in a little local music because their regular gig is as DJ's for a company called "Ernesto Musique Plus".

The deputy major and district chief Kpanou Euloge is proud of what he sees developing on this local field of play. 

"They work hard on the football field, then they go home to work hard to help their parents," he said matter-of-factly. "This is what Right To Play is doing by putting sport into their lives. It's building bridges and building a team. They are all in this together." 

After the match the crowd stayed put to witness a skit involving community members playing the roles of mother, father, son and daughter. 

Good choices

It's a common method of expression in Benin and this time the plot line involved making good choices with regard to sexual relations, being careful with boyfriends and a young woman not going to the hotel with a young man but instead going home to be with family. The assembled were attentive to the actors and generous with their applause when it was over. 

"It's sex education just like we used to have in Phys. Ed. class," observed Adam van Koeverden. "It makes sense to me that they express that in this setting and fit the message into their cultural way of doing things." 

That's the thing about this place, there is a certain way things are done and how they get traction. Right To Play, it seems to me, is working within the community to aid positive change instead of imposing itself as an outsider. The result is a sporting spectacle which has inclusion at the heart of the matter. 

This is, after all, the way things are done in Africa.

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