Ahead in the Count

Sayubona from South Africa

posted by Tal Alter

I am also excited to link up on a blog with such a great group of guys who care so much about providing opportunities to youth through sport that will help improve their outcomes in life. We all know from personal experience the power that sport has to capture the attention and imagination of young people, opening up a world of opportunities through potential that may not have been tapped were it not for a ball, some simple rules, a group of teammates, and a coach/mentor in whom they could trust.

I think for my first post, I should try to describe what brings me to Durban, South Africa and the work I am involved in here. Though very different from anything I’ve experience in the States, certainly in Northwest D.C., the basic premise of sports as a vehicle to teach life skills transcends culture, place, and time…

The bottom line is that being a young person in South Africa today is challenging beyond any quantifiable measure. Facing day-to-day hurdles with drugs, alcohol, early sexual activity and sexual abuse, unemployment and heading up homes that have been rendered parentless as a result of HIV and AIDS is something no child should have to face – and yet so many do here. It’s not easy to make good decisions, especially when there is a distinct lack of good role models and suitable outlets from the daily pressures children have to deal with. Through our work, PeacePlayers International (PPI – http://www.peaceplayersintl.org) is tackling these challenges head on.

The overall aim of PPI is two-fold: the first is to teach young people about HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention in an active way through specifically using the sport of basketball for social change and development. The second aim is to change perceptions and bridge the divide that exists across races and gender in post-apartheid South Africa. Although South Africa is a united country in theory; race, class and gender divides still exist and need to be addressed and worked out of society through this young generation.

PPI’s program brings together more than two thousand children from different backgrounds – Black, Colored (a distinct race group here), Indian, White… Rural, Township, and Urban. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, a shocking 25% percent of the population is infected with HIV. Despite this fact, stigma attached to the virus is so strong that people still engage in risky sexual behavior with someone they know is HIV+, then neglect to get tested to know their status, and refuse to go to the hospital to get treatment they could get FOR FREE when symptoms appear. The end result is all too obvious.

Often, young people find it awkward to approach their parents and teachers for advice on sexuality. Many of the children also come from broken or abusive homes and, as a result, lack suitable mentors to speak to them and guide them on these often sensitive issues. Subsequently, they rely on information and advice from equally confused peers, or none at all, which only aggravates the problem. So, that’s where we come in. PPI uses basketball as an alternative channel to help young people open up.

But it does not happen overnight, and that’s why basketball (sport) is so important. Our kids join our program to play basketball. When they first arrive to the basketball court, they are greeted by a young coach between the ages of 18 and 25. The coach shows an interest in them, and stays with them as long as it takes to shoot jumpers or practice cross-over dribbles. Then the kids come back for basketball, and, slowly a conversation develops. The conversation is casual – on the court, on the bus on the way to a game – but a bond is formed, as is a relationship of trust. Before too long, the kids show up as much for the continued conversation as for the basketball, and that’s when we know we can make a difference – because the child is ready to listen.

And eventually, through being mentored by role models to whom they can relate, the children who go through the program develop leadership skills, become role models in their own families and communities, and, eventually, become PPI coaches themselves. This past year, the first kids who joined our program as 10-year olds in 2001 became coaches – and no one is better equipped to serve as role models for our participants. Some more staggering statistics facing our population here in Durban… Of the 550,000 kids who will graduate high school next year, only 15% will go on to study further and work, and 85% will hit the streets with nothing to do. PPI has now trained and employed over 200 coaches.

There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me at talter@peaceplayersintl.org.

Thanks for reading!

November 13, 2008 - Posted by | Overview / Background, written by Tal Alter

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