There is a golden chain linking two of the world’s richest people with children kicking football on a field in Africa.
At one end of the chain are youngsters trying to dribble past the poison and disease of life, at the other are billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates.
The Football for Hope Centre in Alexandra, near Johannesburg, is one of the oldest and most rundown townships in South Africa – more than 14,000 kilometres away from the plush Gates residence in the United States (US) built on the riches of Silicon Valley.
On a sunny Johannesburg afternoon, when we meet them, youngsters are playing soccer on a neatly-cut grass, soccer field.
The programme plans to educate young girls about HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health and gender norms.
It is spearheaded by Kenya-born Dr. Saiqa Mullick, who is no stranger to the task. For more than 19 years, Mullick has worked in South Africa as a reproductive health specialist.
“We are planning to do research and capacity-building around HIV, sexual and reproductive health. And how best to deal with these issues. We are also looking to provide technical assistance to policy and guideline development with key stakeholders in various countries,” says Mullick.
In her role as Director of Implementation Science for the Wits RHI, Mullick will design and monitor research studies measuring the process, effectiveness and impact of reproductive health interventions on children, from grades 8 to 9.
“We are not only putting together an innovative, new intervention for boys and girls but also trying to use the opportunity to measure the impact the project will have. So, we are going to be developing a robust research portfolio,” she says.
The programme will expand to Soweto, another township in Johannesburg, and Khayelitsha, near the Western Cape.
Grassroot Soccer, a non-profit organisation founded in 2002, uses activities and games to provide the youth with extensive HIV prevention and life skills education.
“By using soccer, we are trying to get the message out about healthy behaviour and the risks of HIV. We have shown that we can break stigmas, change behaviors, and turn the drift against HIV,” says Sammy Malaka, project coordinator at Grassroot Soccer.
The GAP programme is still in the process of selecting 20 schools across the three townships. The soccer coaches have to go through three months of training.
“Playing soccer is something that is not common amongst the girls. It brings a certain gender stereotype. But it also allows them to break down the barrier of talking about sensitive issues… It allows them to have fun and enjoy themselves,” says Sikhumbuzo MnCulwane, the GRS South Africa Gauteng Programme Manager at Grassroot Soccer, also present on the soccer pitch.
“It is easier for the girls to talk to us as women coaches, especially when they go through their periods for the first time. We even keep sanitary pads in our bags, here, at the center, for when they need them,” says 29-year-old coach Lebogang Tlahko.
At the same time, they will be encouraging positive behaviour in boys.
“We also teach them about gender norms, we want boys to learn the importance of respecting girls. And to stop bullying in schools and that girls too can play sports,” says Tumelo Makwena, coach at Grassroot Soccer.
The coaches will rotate through the schools.
The girls are taught how to kick, pass and dribble a ball but most importantly, how it feels to be part of a team.
For most of these children, the combination of life skills and football brings value to their lives.
Thirteen-year-old Khabonina Boshomama for example has been part of Grassroot Soccer for two years. She says the program not only provides her with information on HIV/AIDS but keeps her from getting involved in drugs and sexual activities. She says the program also helps her build leadership skills.
Throughout the programme, the Wits RHI will be collecting crucial data.
So, billionaires in the US are helping young African children get a kick out of leading longer cleaner lives.
Bill Gates is the world’s richest man, according to FORBES. And with his wife Melinda, and through their foundation, Gates has been saving lives around the world.
In Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, present for 15 years, has three main offices — Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa, and “supports African partners whose bold ideas and creative approaches have the potential to save lives, improve health and help farming families across the continent”.
Half of the foundation’s resources are devoted to projects in Africa.
Says Dr Ayo Ajayi, Director of the Africa Team of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “Africa, with its amazing potential and major challenges holding the continent back, is at the heart of the work supported by the Gates Foundation. We are investing and working with a wide range of partners, local, national and international, in the private sector as well as the public sector, to remove the biggest barriers to the continent’s progress. These include how to improve maternal and children’s health, how to promote gender equality and increase agricultural productivity. In all these areas, we hope our involvement and investment can unlock innovation and find new, practical solutions to these challenges so they can be scaled up quickly. As an African, I know that if we can crack these problems, the future for our continent and everyone who lives here is very bright. And I am very excited that the work of our partners and the Gates Foundation can bring this exciting future closer.”