HIV and TB prevention through sport:
On a Saturday afternoon in the Kamukunji area of Nairobi, dozens of kids are running around on a wide swath of bare earth. Cinderblock slum castles line the sides of the field on three sides, the fourth a wall of trash, plastic bags, excrement, rotting vegetables, and flies that people must stumble through to reach the open space. Just outside the rotting fence, merchants are carving sandals from used tires, Matatus zoom by, hawkers sell goods on foot, and a flock of goats descend upon the nutritious refuse.
This scene is typical for many Nairobi slums, but this field is special because kids are playing supervised soccer. Seventeen volunteer coaches instruct, encourage, and inspire. Play is organized so that kids as young as seven are safe here. Throughout the afternoon, coaches break the action so they can talk to the kids about HIV/AIDS. Today is special to them as well, because it is first day that they will expand lessons about how to avoid tuberculosis (TB).
An instructor (Omu) invites 30 kids to gather around. “You have all heard about TB before,” he begins, “but I want to show you just how difficult it is to know if someone is carrying.” Omu lines them up in two tight groups, shoulder to shoulder, so that no one can see through the gaps between. Each group faces the other, and he holds up two tennis balls. “You see this? This ball is HIV, the other one, TB.” Clearly each ball is labelled with a marker. Omu gives one boy a ball in each line and instructs them to secretly pass the diseases behind their backs, so that those in the other line cannot see it. Eventually, Omu calls “stop” and someone from the opposing team tries to guess who on the other side is carrying the “disease.” A boy calls out a name and the other boy reveals his empty hands. Most fail. They are just guessing.
Slowly, after weeks of playing soccer, it sinks in that no one can predict who is has AIDS or TB, and that it is wiser to avoid promiscuity. Most of these boys are years away from even thinking about girls, and yet this is the age when they can be reached. Later, their friends will have more influence than soccer instructors.
ABOUT ENOUCE NDECHE:
My interest in this story is less about what organizations like Vijani Amoni Pamoja (VAP, meaning “Peace Together”) do; but why they ever came to exist in the first place. VAP was founded six years ago by Enouce Ndeche. As Enouce explains it, “we were just trying when CARE found us and supported us. Now we have support from many sports for social change organzations around the world.” Enouce is shy and modest by nature. He avoids boasting about the role he has played. But many of his friends grew up exposed to the same community problems, and saw the same needs, and none of them started an organization. But he did, and now 17 of Enouce’s neighborhood friends work alongside him at VAP as coaches and mentors. Something happened that caused one person to step up and start making a difference.
As best as I can tell, VAP began after Enouce was exposed to a series of new ideas and opportunities. He had the opportunity to go to school, where he met kids outside the slum and made friends easily. He lived among mentally handicapped people and struggled to understand what it is about their brains that might be different. Those questions compelled him to seek out a volunteer opportunity with Special Olympics. There he met an American who listened to Enouce, learned about his passion for playing soccer on the dirt field in front of his house, and planted an idea. This American told Enouce about a project he had heard about volunteering elsewhere, that combined sports with HIV awareness. “That sounds wonderful,” Enouce said, wishing someone like that was in his own neighborhood. He was ready to volunteer at that moment, but no organization existed. There the idea lay dormant for a few years. Enouce was waiting for someone to come along with money and expertise and tell him what to do.
But over the hundreds of daily soccer games with friends that ensued on this field, the issue of HIV would come up occasionally during water breaks, and they would talk about it. Enouce carried on the conversation longer with the younger kids, until he was almost a big brother to them.
Soon he was organizing practice for the team and talking about HIV more often. They had no office, no budget, and no staff – but here was an individual making a difference.
He told everyone who had inspired him along the way about his dreams for that neighborhood, and his friends joined him. Some of the people at organizations Enouce had served previously as a volunteer passed word on to others. They told others, and eventually organizations with resources took notice.
Cautiously optimistic, CARE sent some people to see this tiny organization’s work. They saw a strong network of volunteers on the ground in a neighborhood served by few other organizations. Tons of kids were involved, and the community new about Enouce’s organization and supported it. But if Enouce hadn’t gotten involved volunteering for another organization as a youth, he wouldn’t have had a chance meeting that changed the community.
In my travels talking to GlobalGiving’s project leaders across Kenya, I’ve noticed that getting noticed is to some a miracle, and to others a recognition of their own effort. Few connect the dots of person to person, how planting an idea today will blossom into the social change led by tomorrow’s organization. But I believe change starts with the spread of good ideas and stronger social connections, both locally and abroad. We (GlobalGiving) have started a storytelling project to facilitate this, and we’ve build a SMS-powered community message board for Kamukunji. It is still just a prototype, but it might become something more. I’ve also left my personal mark here. Since I’m an ultimate frisbee enthusiast, I held a clinic four Saturdays later to teach the game and leave behind some discs.
I kept coming back here because I believe VAP is an excellent organization serving the community, and I want to see it grow.