The impact of the Sports4Peace program in conflict-ridden East Africa
By Marie Florence Bamvuginyumvira
The word peace is often on everyone’s lips, a state that most of us long for. According to the dictionary, it means “a state of tranquility, quietness and harmony.” Yet it is difficult to reach, be it worldwide or in our personal environment.
How can we be peacebuilders? Mahatma Gandhi says, “If we are going to bring about peace in the world, we have to begin with the children.” On another occasion, he stated, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Sports4Peace is an initiative that has these principles at its core. It was invented by Austrian sports scientist and Focolare member Alois Hechenberger, who has a PhD in “Play Leadership and Peace Education.” How did he come up with the idea?
“In 2004, during a youth summer camp in Austria, where we faced the problem that many young people were a bit violent, and angry,” he explained. “Even fights broke out during sports and games activities.” After this experience, Hechenberger consulted with the other youth leaders and children about how to minimize this belligerent behavior among the teenagers in the future. Together they decided to focus on helping the children and teens have a positive experience of family and unity.
Since then, the educational approach of “Sports4Peace” has been tried out by Hechenberger in many workshops all over the world. In August and September 2018, Sports4Peace was hosted for six weeks in East Africa. Around 150 animators and teachers from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan convened in fi ve different workshops. The climax of each workshop was Sports4Peace festivals prepared by the animators. Over 1,200 children in Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan took part in these events.
Hechenberger worked first with teachers and youth group leaders, based upon his experience that children learn by watching. The adults must be good role models, the first to show respectful behavior. They must balance competitive activities with those that promote cooperation, while looking after the needs of the group. If these leaders have a good experience among themselves, enjoying this spirit of brotherhood, then they are able to engender it in the children entrusted to them.
The program takes off
Sports4Peace uses the interaction during speciﬁcally designed games as a method for social learning. Without many words, the players learn in a joyful way, collaboration and trust, be it through simple rope jumping as a group, be it through complex activities like “Team Writing” where players write together a word by individually pulling delicately and silently the ends of strings tied to a marker-pen.
Participating in the team activities, they discovered the strength of collaboration and understood where they had to change. For example, children who were a bit bossy learned to listen to others, and those with a lower self-esteem learned to trust in their abilities.
In war-torn South Sudan the gatherings had a special impact. Christine Ocokoru, an educator, shared, “I learned to be friends with my enemies in different games and toe courageous and a leader myself. I’ve also learned to have more self-esteem and to live a sense of togetherness and cooperation.”
Her colleague Ezekiel gained new hope and courage to face the situation in their society. He said, “I hope we are going to get changes in our country because this place needs peace seriously.”
Emmanuel, a boy from South Sudan, said: “I’ve learned peace and unity.” Elisabeth shared, “I’ve learned how to be honest with everyone.” Linda said, “With all the games, I’ve learned to live as one family with my friends.” They all participated in the Sports4Peace events in the diocese of Rumbek, in the center of the country.
Creating a culture of peace
In East Africa, a region that has been rated by the Human Development Index as among the poorest of the world, peace is what people are yearning for most. Yet nothing seems harder than achieving it. Cruel civil wars, endless ethnic tensions, political oppression, systemic corruption and extreme inequality between the wealthy and the poor shake the region without signs of improvement.
The communitarian African lifestyle, expressed in the idea of “Ubuntu” (“I am because we are”), often succumbs to individualism and competition. And even though education is key, it often fails to address these challenges.
Traditional education in East Africa involved the holistic growth of the person and included transmitting essential values. Today education is mostly delegated to schools and institutions. However, they emphasize cognitive and intellectual formation and neglect the other aspects of pedagogy: social learning and values.
Learn it with the Cube
Sports4Peace’s main goal is to help children to learn several socially constructive values while having a lot of fun.
Inspired by the Cube of Love program, started by Focolare founder Chiara Lubich, Hechenberger developed six motivational phrases. They help to live out in the field of sports the Golden Rule, found in all the main world religions, although expressed in slightly different ways. For Christians, it is expressed as “Do to others as you would have them do to you (Mt 7:12).”
The phrases are written on an inflatable cube, which is tossed before the activity. It reminds the players of the right attitude to have for a game that everybody enjoys, while it improves the capacities of the players with a healthy competition.
The phrases are: “Do your best! Commit yourself 100% and with a positive spirit”; “Play fair! Be honest with yourself and with others”; “Hang in there! Don’t give up, even when it’s difficult”; “Take care of all! Everyone’s important and deserves respect”; “Celebrate! Enjoy everyone’s success as much as your own”; and “Make a difference! Achieve great results together.”
According to Hechenberger, sports require interaction and cooperation on how to solve a problem. He says, “Very often you have to talk to find a good solution. It is an avenue where people enjoy each other’s company but also learn to help each other, respect each other and strive to do their best.”
Sports can contribute to a holistic formation of a person: “By doing games we learn strategic thinking about the rules and how we apply them. Then in an emotional way we are happy if we achieve our goal; but sometimes we are frustrated when we did not do so well, so we have to overcome those feelings.”
People who practice sports benefit greatly in terms of their physical wellbeing, but they can also learn how to help each other and teach others.
The impact on the social level is most important for peace building. “We need to have good interactions and good communication with the other team members to succeed. Therefore, doing sports and games is not a superficial activity; we are involved as a whole person,” says Hechenberger. He quotes a well-known phrase from Confucius: “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”
Orpha Nyakundi, Deputy Director of Social and Human Sciences Program of the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO, said that sports are a very important instrument to promote the talents of young people. “The Sports4Peace program is great because it has brought together people of all ages, from all communities and of all races, for the purpose of thinking of how to live together and to do things together in peace.”
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