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Mpira! Mpira!” (“Ball! Ball!”)

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Posted by Sandra Cress on 02/5/13

As I walk around Stonetown, a pack of young boys leaving school see a ball — a One World Futbol — tucked under my arm.  “Mpira! Mpria!” (Ball! Ball!) they shout happily – hoping they will get me to share my ball with them.  Soon the boys have dropped their book bags in a pile, and are kicking the ball and shooting at an imaginary goal in the doorway.

In January, I had an extraordinary visit to Zanzibar, where One World Futbol Project has partnered with the Zanzibar National Sports Council and Save the Children to distribute 20,000 virtually-indestructible balls to all the schools and youth programs on the islands of Unguja and Pemba. Through our collective efforts, more than 340,000 highly-vulnerable Zanzibari girls and boys will have access to equipment that can withstand the harsh landscape and enable many years of play.

The Zanzibar archipelago is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania in East Africa. Its pristine beaches, plentiful seafood and exotic culture are a draw for honeymooners, backpackers, and other sun-seeking tourists from around the globe. But as in so many vacation dreamlands, the people of Zanzibar are poor, with more than 50 percent of the population, most of them children, living on less than $1 per day.

During the week, we travelled to the far reaches of Unguja Island to meet some of the children who will benefit from the donation of Chevrolet-branded One World Futbols. Two things struck me immediately. First, the children are very, very small compared to American and European children. A 12-year-old looks about eight years old, and 15-year-old would barely pass for 11 or 12 in the U.S. Stunted growth is common, caused by chronic malnutrition, a result of the harsh poverty in Zanzibar. Second, even in the hot mid-day sun, with no water to drink and no shoes on their feet, the children play football with abandon. They play with balls that are made up of rags tied together. They play with old soccer balls that have no outside leather left, and no air in them—deflated bladders so that balls just barely roll. They play on the beaches; on the stone streets in Stonetown; on thorny, patchy fields that double as cow pastures. The goals are made up of sticks, PVC pipes, even coconut tree trunks.

The children imitate the moves of their soccer heroes—Messi, Ronaldo, Mata, Van Persie, and other global soccer superstars. Someone calls a foul, and one child studiously paces off the 10 meters from the free kick. The “Beautiful Game” helps these children be healthy in unhealthy circumstances. It allows them time to feel good and experience joy, to bond with teammates. Playing soccer helps them learn and follow rules of the game. It builds self-esteem and teaches them to treat each other with respect.

Mubarak Mambud, the tireless Director of Save the Children, Zanzibar, speaks of how much more attentive and productive children are when they have time to play. Having access to a ball in school even reduces truancy and decreases behavior disruptions in school. It decreases crime in communities, and sexual activity among adolescents. As a direct result of our partnership with Chevrolet, One World Futbol Project is distributing enough of our “magic balls” to enable access to play to virtually all the children in Zanzibar—through schools, orphanages, youth leagues and community organizations. Save the Children and others will now be able to measure the impact on the Zanzibari children over time, because all the schools will have One World Futbols that can endure the play of generations of youth.

On the afternoon of our last day, Stonetown is abuzz with the kick-off of the ball donation. There is a festive ceremony in a packed Amaan Stadium just outside of town. The Zanzibar President, Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein, presides over the celebration. Save the Children and UNICEF launch an awareness campaign addressing the issues of violence against children in Zanzibar. There are demonstrations of women, disabled athletes, and select under-12-year-olds playing soccer. The Presidential marching band plays. Many speeches later, President Shein hands over ceremonial bags of the golden balls to representatives from each of the regions of Zanzibar.

All for the want of a ball.