It all started with three kids, a ragged, ruined football and a young Danish man a long way from home. A game erupted and strangers became friends.
Jakob Lund was staying in a guesthouse in Moyamba in the north of Sierra Leone while working for a local NGO called Forum of Conscience. Jakob was in Moyamba to help organize a community reconciliation project called ‘Fambul Tok’ in an area of Sierra Leone that had been heavily affected by the country’s decade long war.
The Fambul Tok project facilitates community meetings where both victims and perpetrators of violent crimes committed during Sierra Leon’s civil conflict come together to tell their stories.
Jakob played football with those three kids and saw just how much happiness a simple game with a tattered former football could create. He began to realize the potential impact the game could have on children in a place needing reconciliation.
He thought to himself, “Every child should have the right to play with a good football.”
Over the next few months Jakob, a grad student at Columbia University in New York, spread the word, started an NGO, put together a board of directors and, through the generosity of friends and family, raised $3000 US to get started.
Play31 was formed; the name chosen to reflect Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes a child’s right to rest and leisure, including engaging in appropriate play and recreational activities
According to Play31’s website, “football has unifying power, and our goal is to work with local organizations who can use the ‘beautiful game’ as part of creating peaceful societies.” Tensions left over from the war between neighboring villages can be reduced when people are brought together to play the game.
Children and young people can create new and lasting bonds through play.
“I just wanted to make kids happy. I had so much fun with football, I thought others should have the same.”
Play31 donates footballs to school clubs to ensure that the resources will not be stolen or otherwise used for personal gain. This also ensures that local people can use the donation in an appropriate way for the betterment of the community.
According to Mr. Lund, the school clubs offer an existing structure in community settings. It means that a donation of 5-10 footballs will impact up to 700 or more children over the life of the balls.
Though the footballs themselves have a limited lifespan, the project aims to have a lasting impact through the strengthening of links between community members.
Mark I. S. Koroma, head of the physical health education department, coach and games master at St. Francis Secondary School in Makeni, one of the beneficiaries of Play31’s activities, said that this is a very important aspect of the social and physical development of his students.
The donation of footballs helps the school to engage the students in school activities, creates a more appealing learning environment and even helps to identify potential for elite level footballers at the school.
“They (Play31) came here at the right time. All the senior secondary students are here today, tomorrow the junior secondary students. Everyday one class participates. It costs us a lot and we face financial constraints. Without the donation it would be a problem. We would find it difficult to play the game.”
Football plays a major role in the lives of these students, according to Mr. Koroma “(It) determines a healthy person and their physical fitness.”
Playing the sport also fulfills key aims of a new educational program in the country, which seeks to address cognitive, affective and psycho-motive elements of a student’s learning experience. The experience of playing football helps in the development of the cognitive or mental aspects of education in the classroom, the affective or social interactions and relations with peers and the psycho-motive or play and fun necessary to keep students engaged and interested.
According to Mr. Koroma, Play31’s donation to St. Francis is helping to strengthen bonds between students and teachers. It provides a “way in which we engage (with) our people.”
Play31 is currently developing a human rights and reproductive health education element to accompany the donation of footballs. It is hoped that football can lead to talk, and ease difficult topics of discussion.
Play31 currently receives its funding for footballs from individual donations. All other expenses, including flights, are paid out of the organizer’s own pocket. “My dream is that Nike, the Ford Foundation or the US Institute for Peace will like my idea and give me some funding. I don’t want it to be a commercial,” said Mr. Lund.
Play31 hopes to build a worldwide person-to-person network to find donors, facilitate donations and identify potential recipients. This network would create a process that would benefit people on both sides of the ball. Both sender and recipient can get to know each other and the different places they come from.
Play31 has begun this process by starting a group on the wildly popular social networking website Facebook, which has already attracted hundreds of members.
In the first few months of existence Play31 has purchased 100 footballs for donation at 14 schools across Sierra Leone. The organization hopes to expand to other post-conflict countries around the world.
Individuals who are interested in donating the cost of a football can do so by visiting Play31’s website at www.play31.org, or by visiting the Forum of Conscience office in Freetown at 89 Ford St.