The belief that football can be an effective vehicle in enacting social change is often underpinned by an aggressive optimism. It is widely coined the global game, a sport that can transcend conflict, breaching barriers while offering hope to those living in the most austere of circumstances.
But football contains many paradoxes and Criminologist Victor Jupp’s analysis of sport reflects the nature of the game. “On the one hand sport is the context for that which is bad in us and society – sleaze, corruption, fraud, violence and aggression – and at the same time is a model for that which is good and the panacea of social ills”
Although the road to eradicating football’s aforementioned ills remains long, when used in the correct manner, there is no doubt it has a social and humanitarian role to play. There are a myriad of examples. The Football4Peace project was created to facilitate peaceful integration within several neighbouring Jewish and Arab societies while football has also been used in the volatile political environments of Northern Ireland and South Africa. During his research on the possibilities football offered various demographics in the reconstruction of post-conflict Liberia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, academic Gary Armstrong, asserted that football gives people reason to visit and better understand the “people over the hill”
However much of the work being conducted by organisations across the globe often slips under the radar. Thanks to the blogging and ‘tweetosphere’, I was lucky enough to come across the work of Football Beyond Borders, the charity kind enough to provide a platform for this article and one that uses football “to inspire young people to achieve their goals and to tackle inequality and discrimination.”
The fact that Arsenal midfielder, Santi Carzola, just became the charities new patron speaks volumes for their progress and it was their altruistic work that inspired me to write an article on an initiative in which my friend is involved.
While sharing a drink with this friend (Saalim), he told me about the work he was doing for a charity called the Mlambe Project. The project – created by a group of Physic students at the University of Manchester – is based out in the African country of Malawi. Its overarching mantra is to aid the Malawian people in their struggle against poverty through the provision of sustainable livelihoods and a proper education. Sourced from their website, they aim to achieve this via two primary objectives:
- To promote the use of earthbag building across Malawi
- To develop and implement new educational technologies and methods in a responsible and sustainable manner.
Intrigued, I enquired further about why they chose Malawi. “Malawi was chosen as one of our co-founders Jamie [Proctor] travelled through the country, he was immediately drawn in by the amazing Malawian people and the amount of inspiring projects which already exist, something which myself and Brad [Vanstone] felt. So, I guess Malawi chose us!” Saalim told me.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and while one organisation can’t solve this, their work within the Mlambe community is already making a significant difference.
“We have created jobs by teaching local builders the new skill of building with earth bags, providing a new revenue stream into the village.” Using this technique a new school block, toilets and a head teacher’s office (with computers) have all been built.
“This has helped improve school-life at Mlambe for both teachers and students who can now study indoors as opposed to underneath trees – a lesson underneath a tree doesn’t sound too bad for those of us who went to UK schools where an outdoor lesson was the most exciting part of the day – but it really is a tough ask when attempting to teach a 100-student class with the wind swirling and the incredible heat. I gave it a go and it was not easy!”
As head of educational development at the Mlambe Project, Saalim’s role is primarily concerned with developing educational initiatives. Shortly after speaking to him, he travelled back to Malawi to work on his latest initiative in which he is hoping to provide an alternative means of education for those children who can’t afford the school fees to attend secondary school, which he emphasised, was an alarming number.
As we continued to chat, the conversation’s focus invariably turned towards football, at which point Saalim began to tell me about how the game had become integral to both the charities work and the Mlambe community. Their ventures have included building a football pitch, creating a team in Mlambe and organising the village’s first football match. Fascinated, I asked Saalim if we could conduct an interview. “Sure” he said, “but the person you really want to be speaking to is Brad Vanstone [Head of New Development Opportunities], the football pitch was his project.” I interviewed both and here is what they had to say.
As you know I am primarily concerned with the role football can play within society both positive and negative and it’s great to see the Mlambe project utilising the sport, but is there a strong footballing culture in Malawi?
(Saalim) “Malawians are football-mad! There is something quite special about being in a room which would comfortably house five people with about 10 times that crowded round a tiny T.V. watching a game; you can’t really beat that atmosphere! Everywhere you go people are wearing football shirts, predominantly English Premier League teams but I did also run into a Bolton Wanderers fan on my travels! The kids are nurtured with football as one of the few hobbies available to them; and their resourcefulness in creating footballs out of nothing was nothing short of mind-blowing. They usually collected rubbish that had been left lying around and with a few plastic bags and some string managed to create a perfectly crafted ball that would last at least a month- and once it reached the end of its recycled life they proceeded to make another one with just as much ease. I sat and watched a few kids create balls and tried to make one myself, it’s definitely not as easy as they make out. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of people reacting against their poor situations, not just accepting them.”
Brad, I saw one of your notable ventures was building a football pitch in the village, how was the pitch built?
The whole area needed to be hoed up and the organic matter removed before being ‘ploughed’, flattened and raked. Thanks to the help of the local community, and with the use of some alternative ploughing techniques which were not previously referred to in the risk assessment, we were able to finish this project in 5 days!
(Brad helping assemble the goals)
What did the pitch bring to the Mlambe community?
(Brad) The football pitch is at the heart of Mlambe and has created a real hub for the whole community. Outside of the school and church, the community and particularly the children had no focal point from which to gather. The pitch has given the village a real centre point that is now the height of activity, constantly bustling with people.
An inaugural match was played between Mlambe and local team Nanthomba, do you have any specific memories from the day?
(Brad) The opening game was played between Mlambe and local rivals Nanthomba (where NGO ‘HELP! Malawi’ have done some incredible work). My lasting memory was of a 40 strong parade of woman and children circling the pitch continuously chanting and signing for the entirety of the second half. Mlambe won 2-1 and the scenes of sheer jubilation at the final whistle were also very special.
Have there been other matches since and has the creation of a football pitch seen sport included in the educational programme at the Mlambe School?
(Saalim) There is now a Mlambe men’s team which we are proud to say is one of the best in the district. They play matches once or twice a week and their matches attract crowds of pretty much the whole village, around 200 people! Again, it’s a brilliant atmosphere with women dancing by the pitch, kids acting as very able ball boys, and pretty much everyone trying to manage the team from the side-lines.
(Mlambe celebrating a famous victory versus Nanthomba)
Are any of the volunteers football coaches and if not could you see football coaching used in future Mlambe Project initiatives?
(Saalim) The football team is fully run by locals from the community. Therefore the two coaches who run the team live in the village, if any of our volunteers are ever skilled in football coaching then we’d love them to take some training sessions for the team and share their knowledge. But we try to push ideas of sustainability and the main way of doing this would be for volunteers to spend most of their time with the football coaches themselves.
In your opinion, what are the connections – if any – between your building initiatives and football?
(Brad) The newly erected school buildings have given the community a real sense of pride. That pride is now personified by the Mlambe team during every fixture they play. Training sessions are serious affairs, with the younger children watching their idles, dreaming that they one day might represent the community. Playing for Mlambe bestows upon each player a great sense of responsibility. You are representing yourself, you are representing your school and most importantly you are representing your community.
Developing and promoting education is paramount to the charities initiatives, how do you feel football can and has contributed to this?
(Saalim) The benefits football can have on individuals and society are vast. Some of the best footballers in the world came from upbringings of abject poverty, we hope this inspires some of our younger talents at Mlambe school to go on to greatness! Obviously sport teaches individuals fantastic ethics of teamwork, leadership and notions of belonging. It’s a great outlet and opportunity to forget about the sometimes terrible things local people see day-by-day and we hope it continues this way. Education is not and should not be viewed simply as time spent in the classroom, though this time is obviously important. Extra-curricular options are key to exercising different parts of the brain and sports is great at enabling this.
How do you think football has aided your project as a whole?
(Brad) Football was played at Mlambe long before the project began. We’ve given the community a more spacious, flatter and all round superior surface where they can spend their free time. Although we primarily promote the benefits of a solid education, we also understand the importance of balancing a child’s mental development with their physical development.
I see the young footballers of Mlambe are keen on Chelsea FC, have you made any attempts to try and contact CFC to see if they will get involved?
(Brad) I was blown away by the number of Chelsea shirts I saw in Malawi, witnessing at first hand the impact of players such as Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. I contacted Chelsea FC earlier this year to try to see if they would be willing to donate any old kit to the project. They sadly declined as they are already supporting Right to Play in Africa.
Will football have an ongoing role in the Mlambe project?
(Brad) Absolutely. Whilst the primary functions of the charity will be based around providing a sustainable education for the children of Mlambe and beyond, we appreciate the importance of football in a child’s development. FIFA is forever highlighting football’s ability to unite, inspire and break down barriers. At Mlambe, and indeed across Malawi, their rhetoric is for once true. Football does just that.
This year the Mlambe football team may have the opportunity to represent their community in a festival called the Pamodzi Cup, an event with the intention of mobilising local resources and staff working in the field of HIV aids. To borrow from the anti-apartheid icon and philanthropist Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to inspire…it can create hope where once there was only despair.” Through football, the Mlambe project is embracing this ethos.