Monday, May 10
As well as increasing awareness of the refugees, one of the great personal pleasures of this trip so far has been meeting and seeing the work, first hand, of small organisations that are trying to make a difference in Africa. A few weeks ago I got in contact with ‘Smiling Kids Zambia’. Today, we got the chance to spend some time with this small organisation.
Smiling Kids Zambia is based in the eastern Zambian town of Chipata (population 350,000). The organisation helps to take local kids off the streets and to give them a second chance in life. The children are housed, educated and given fresh hope and motivation for their futures.
Why do kids end up on the street in Chipata? There can be many reasons but the most common explanation is a lack of food at home and the decision by their parents to send them out on to the street begging. Others find their way into the forgotten shadows because of parental abuse or because they suddenly find themselves parentless.
Stephen and Jane from Smiling Kids showed us their kids refuge, where three ‘house mothers’ help look after all the kids there. They took us to see a brilliant drumming, dancing and drama production by one young group of the boys and girls at the recently erected cultural centre, built under the shadows of Chipata’s attractive tree-lined hillsides. One of the young boys, sporting a Man United football top, flared trousers and a trilby would have put Michael Jackson to shame in his prime, such was the brilliance of his dancing.
Next we were taken to the DK Stadium where a football match was quickly organised so that we could watch the under 15 boys play. Once again, football is used by this organisation to help unite the boys (and the girls) and as a way to promote, amongst other things, AIDS/HIV awareness.
It was quite an afternoon with Smiling Kids Zambia, which certainly lives up to its name. The project is successfully taking kids off the street and giving them a future. It is a project well worth supporting. Please take the time to check out their website and donate to the organisation if you wish to.
After getting a bite to eat with two SKZ members of staff in the evening, it already having turned dark, they warn us against flagging down a taxi in that particular area of the city as we think about getting home:
“A lot of the taxi drivers in this area are crooks. They pretend to be taxi drivers then take the people they pick up into the middle of nowhere.”
“Have they attacked any of those people?”
“Yes, there have been a spate of attacks. I think around five people have been killed by false taxi drivers this year. Of course, three or four genuine taxi drivers have also been killed by the people they pick up.”
These are shocking stories in a city the size of Chipata; particularly as this Zambian city is something of an African success story. Not only does it feel very safe in daylight hours but it is very apparent that Chipata is developing positively.
We didn’t need to hear stories like this just before going to bed. Particularly given the fact that the NGO is housing the two of us free-of-charge in a small residential ‘hut’, in an unlit side street, less than a kilometre from the dodgy area we were warned about.
I swig a couple of shots of vodka to help settle the nerves and get off to sleep. We need to get up at 4am to move on. The only two white men in this part of town are all alone in a small hut, our security a feeble padlock, having just been told awful stories of local murders.
Update: (I received this message from Daniel of SKZ):
Thanks a lot for this nice article about Smiling Kids Zambia. I hope you have enjoyed a better night in Lusaka;-)
Some pictures of the SKZ project "Running Streetkids Chipata" you can find under:
Wish you all the best and a safe trip to South Africa
Saturday, May 8
Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi
It is a one hour drive from the capital to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Soon the new road, which is being being built by (guess who?) the Chinese, will no longer necessitate the land cruisers currently needed to negotiate the tough terrain.
11,000 refugees from DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and a number of other African countries reside here.
The main purpose of our visit is to meet the members of an incredible football team. The team is called the ‘Dzaleka Leopards Football Team’.
Last year the Leopards entered the region’s premier league. Despite playing on a pitch that would be deemed unplayable in Europe, having almost no resources and struggling to find a dozen pairs of football boots, this team of young men, with seemingly little hope in life, managed to finish third in the league. Their third-placed finish guaranteed promotion to the advanced league.
If they are promoted from this next tier of Malawian football then this team of refugees will compete in the country’s Super League.
It is one of the greatest football stories I have personally ever come across. We meet the lads, discuss their ambitions for the future and discover that enemies have become brothers:
“Congolese and Rwandans might well kill each other in other circumstances. Here Burundians, Rwandans, Congolese and other nationalities are all brothers in the same team. We are friends, team mates and brothers.”
Religion gives many hope and happiness. It also leads to war and suppression. The beauty of football is that it unites billions across the globe. I do not mean this as an atheist statement, because it is not, but to me there is only one true world religion. That world religion is football.
We ask the lads whether they dare dream of one day playing in the top tier; of playing international football? They all answer in the affirmative. We discuss creating a club crest, logo, motto and unique kit. The boys love our interest. Can you help the Dzaleka Leopards? Can you provide them with a kit, boots and training equipment?
It might not seem important on the surface of things but this team unites an entire refugee camp of 11,000 individuals. It gives everyone who lives here hope. It says: I can dream; I can achieve.
Together with the support of the Red Cross, the UNHCR and the members of this camp the Leopards go from strength to strength. There are now seven teams here; the stars of the camp train the youngsters.
And now the football is being used to promote positive and educational messages such as “Youths against the spread of HIV/AIDS.” within the camp.
If you believe in fairytales then believe in the Dzaleka Leopards. They might possibly be the best refugee football team in the world.
Bjorn and I were honoured to spend the day with them and to participate in a penalty shoot out competition in front of hundreds. I am delighted to say I slotted my first penalty away in the bottom corner, sending the keeper the wrong way. Bodes well for England v Germany in the semi finals of this year’s World Cup finals.