When Peace Corps Volunteer Hayley Droppert set up a soccer tournament for the women in her small village in Burkina Faso, “most people scoffed citing the ‘widely known’ fact that girls don’t play soccer.” Women’s soccer seems commonplace enough for us in Seattle, but in Burkina Faso it was completely different. After Hayley played in the tournament, she wrote that “men (and a few women) expressed their shock to me that I could play soccer. Some would say, ‘You play like the boys can,’ to which I would say, ‘No, I play like everyone can if you give them the chance.’”
The reality is that soccer has the power to change the lives of women and girls throughout the world. I was able to witness this through the specific lense of women’s soccer in Africa by working with three extraordinary women who empowered young women and girls through soccer.
As a result of my interaction with Hayley, I decided to set up a jersey drive in the middle school at SAAS. I also contacted every person that I could think of who might have a few jerseys in the back of their closet that they would be willing to donate. (We also collected a few pairs of shorts only to learn that girls in Burkina Faso cannot wear shorts that show their knees and above). As a result, we were able to send about 60 jerseys and 100 matching T-shirts to Burkina Faso with the help of Hayley’s parents. The drive turned out be such a success that Hayley asked us to stop sending jerseys because they had enough!
Thanks to Hayley’s parents, my family and I were able to have dinner with Enala Phiri (former head coach of the Zambian Women’s National Soccer team and coach of several girls’ teams) and Samantha Lukonde (an employee of the National Organization for Women in Sport, Physical Activity, and Recreation (NOWSPAR)). Enala and Samantha work to teach girls health and empower women through soccer.
Enala spends every spare cent that she has on everything from transportation to water and food for the women who come to play soccer. Samantha mainly works with girls who have been victims of abuse and violence, teaching them health and helping them to recover through soccer.
However, there is a major roadblock when it comes to women’s sports in Zambia: there is virtually no money. Therefore, resources are few and far between. Even the women’s national team doesn’t have sufficient funding. We learned from Samantha that in Lusaka, Zambia, most people play soccer with plastic bags tied and melted together to create soccer balls. Real soccer balls were only used for important tournaments.
After meeting with Enala and Samantha, I decided to set up another jersey drive for young women and girls in Lusaka. Between leftover donations from the Burkina Faso drive, extra jerseys that we collected for Zambia, and about 180 old jerseys that SAAS donated, we ended up sending around 210 jerseys to Zambia, plus soccer balls, cleats, shin guards, goalkeeper gloves, and shorts.
However, there was a long list of potential problems that we still had to tackle. The first was the way that we would ship the gear. It would be harder to ship balls, shin guards, and cleats than jerseys because of space. We ended up having to ship fourteen separate boxes, increasing the probability that some gear would be lost.
Another problem was the interception of mail. When shipping anything into Zambia, one must declare what is being shipped. If what is being shipped is considered valuable, then it often “disappears” before reaching its destination. We had to work out how to word the labels on the boxes to not only be true but also to downplay the value of the contents. We settled upon “used youth clothing.” Finally, because supplies were in such high demand, there were difficulties in determining the division of gear in Zambia, which delayed the sending of the boxes for a few months.
When the boxes were finally shipped, the only thing that we could do was sit back and wait. The gear made it in time for International Women’s Day on March 9th and was distributed to more than four different communities in Lusaka. Samantha wrote, “I kept looking for much better words to appreciate your donation, but it has still left me speechless.” I had never imagined that my work could make such an impact on people so far away from me who I had never met in my life.
Hearing the stories of Hayley, Enala, and Samantha gave me a new perspective on the power of soccer (and sports in general). What we take for granted in Seattle is fought for and coveted elsewhere, and any one person can make a difference if they care enough.