We meet them in an empty soccer field: a dusty rectangle between a maize field and a house abandoned in mid-construction. There’s some confusion as we try to figure out a place to sit – the dirt is still somewhat damp from the morning’s drizzle – but then most huddle together on the dirt with their backs to the brick wall of the roofless house, a few others perched on what would have been the windowsills. One skinny boy climbs up and down the walls, his feet finding protruding bricks. The smaller children sit cross-legged, knees touching, giggling intermittently. The rest of them are mostly boys ages 11-14, and all eighteen of them have determined expressions on their faces. Lua, my Tanzanian friend whom I am visiting, and I, sit down facing them.
A sweet-faced boy with a seemingly permanent smile explains their dilemma. The neighborhood kids want a new soccer ball – as we speak, two boys are unsuccessfully trying to patch up the old one, using two sticks and the force of their fingers – but they don’t have the funds to buy one. Lua translates quickly, since my Swahili is still much too weak, and we ask them if they’re interested in carrying out a project.
They look at each other, excitement and hesitation battling in their eyes. “What sort of project?” they ask. Already a boy in a purple shirt, one of the older ones, looks skeptical. He speaks up, unsure about the support neighboring adults could offer, doubting the commitment of his friends. “Why don’t we just all put in some money and buy it?”
“But not everyone has enough money,” another boy points out, surprising everyone with his insight. “And then some will have more of a right to the ball than others. There might be arguments. It’s better if we do something where we can all participate.”
Before the discussion continues, I share the experience I’ve had with similar youth groups in Paraguay, my country. We used to make kabure, a kind of bread you bake over coals, to sell in winter when we needed funds to go to national youth gatherings. In the summer, we would sell dishes of rice and chicken. There must be a Tanzanian equivalent – something people normally do to raise funds, that can involve all the young people that would be interested in procuring a new ball.
They immediately reply “Corn!” Because roasted corn is common street food that everyone enjoys, and can’t be that hard to make. Even the boy in the purple shirt becomes excited. There’s some debating about who can bring what; will each one of them be able to contribute? Someone already sells corn on their block – to what area of the neighborhood will they have to go in order to sell properly? Will explaining to the adults the purpose of their project encourage their neighbors to buy corn from them?
As they discuss animatedly, a man passes by; he seems to work for a phone company. Having been walking in the sun, he stops to take refuge in the shade. As he approaches the group, he turns to Lua and me and asks if he can join us. We naturally say yes, but return our focus to the kids.
They’re starting to realize how much effort has to go into a project like this one, even for a one-time corn sale. They wonder who can contribute the coal; will people buy from them? Some are shy – will people laugh?
Suddenly, the man raises his hand. All eyes turn to him in surprise.
“What are you doing all this for?” he asks. He seems genuinely kind, but I think I know what he’s going to say before he even says it. As the boys nearest to him explain that they want a ball, Lua and I meet each other’s eyes with some alarm.
The man makes our fears come true. “I could buy the ball for you,” he offers with a generous smile.
He’s unbelievably kind, and the group bursts into applause and cheers. But Lua and I are disappointed; we’re trying to encourage this group of kids who are approaching their youth to take ownership of their reality, and independently find solutions to the problems they have, without having to wait for someone to tell them what to do – even when it’s something as simple as purchasing a ball for the neighborhood.
And yet, who are we to tell the man not to give them such a gift, or prevent the neighborhood kids from having what they want?
But we’re stunned when the boy in the purple shirt shushes his friends. “Wait,” he says in a clear voice. “It’s not right for this man to buy the ball for us. Aren’t we supposed to be the ones who make the effort? What if something happens to the ball; will we feel responsible to care for it, or will we just wait for another generous person to come our way and give us what we want?”
There’s silence, and the man looks shocked. The members of the group look at each other pensively for a moment, and then they all nod. One of them looks up at the man. “Thank you, sir,” he says politely. “But no thank you.”
We leave soon after, with the promise that next Sunday, we’ll meet the same group in the same place and make the official preparations. In the meantime, the kids will speak to their families and make arrangements. A shorter boy with a rounded face approaches me nervously. “Where are you from?” he asks slowly in English. I answer, and he’s pleased. They all wave at us as we walk away.
The man finds us as we’re leaving. “I didn’t understand what you wanted to do,” he says, and his eyes are shining with admiration as he looks at the group of boys who have just returned to a game of soccer with their old, slightly deflated ball. “But I understand now. This is good. God bless you.”
On our way home, Lua and I see small children playing on the dusty street, while others carry heavy bags that are almost larger than themselves. Older youth lounge by stores with bottles of alcohol in hand, making rude remarks as we pass by. It’s hard to find the same brightness in the faces of those kids in the eyes of anyone on the street. I wonder how many of the boys we just spoke to will be able to escape this fate through the strength of their character. These, the ages between 11 and 14, may be the only chance for them to develop the skills to see beyond the grim reality of those that surround them.
The goal of obtaining a new ball for neighborhood soccer games may seem a frivolous one, but these are attitudes that inspire youth to take ownership of their education, to reach beyond the prejudices and fears of previous generations, and take up the reins of progress of their own communities. In a simple rural village like this one, too many people wait for the government or some manner of social aid to help, or feel resigned to living a monotonous life of suffering. But these bright-eyed children who stand at the brink of adolescence have hope; they have plans. They just need encouragement and guidance. If they succeed in carrying out a project for the benefit of the kids in their neighborhood, what won’t they be able to do?
Are you caught up on The Malfoy Case? It’ll all be over on the 20th of March!