Thinking Outside the Box
June 5th 2015. CAC volunteer Rachel Bloznalis blogs about her first ever African experience in Cameroon.
Thanks to the Games 4 Good Foundation for making our partnership with Breaking Ground in Cameroon possible. Their support is allowing our Breaking Ground programs to run effectively and bring about social change and local community development through soccer.
What did I expect at the beginning of the week?
After 24 hours of flights and a 14-hour overnight train ride, I had no idea what to expect from my CAC experience when I first arrived in Ngaoundere, Cameroon. This marked many firsts for me—my first time in Africa, my first CAC program, my first overnight train, my first time “speaking” French, and my first hole-in-the-ground-toilet, to name just a few! I was excited for the experiences to come, but I was also nervous facing the unknown. Ngaoundere, I learned quickly, is a mostly conservative Muslim village—a culture and religion with which I am not very familiar. The men wearing traditional African Muslim robes stared at Nora and me and occasionally someone would call out, “nassara”, or “white person”. The insecurity I felt walking around the village, being one of the only women not wearing traditional Muslim dress and headpiece, disappeared when I walked through the chain-locked entranceway to the Estade Ndoumoa—our safe place for the week. Inside the stadium was a clay-dirt field with two thin metal pole goalposts. The field was always filled with people—young and old, Muslim and Christian, male and female, white and black. What we all had in common was that we LOVE soccer.
What on-field game had the biggest impact?
Breaking Ground, this week’s partner program, has a strong focus on female empowerment. The program’s goal is to give women the confidence and the means to become successful and important leaders economically and socially in their Cameroonian communities. CAC’s new ASK for Choice curriculum is used to coach female empowerment. The games that we played created a lot of important discussions for this group. One game initiated a discussion about women having a choice. The simple game (called Brazil for Choice) divided the group into two teams: Team 1 was given only one goal to score on, whereas team 2 had two goals as well as the option of performing skills to earn extra points. It was clear that the team with multiple options was more successful. This initiated a discussion about the importance of having choices in life. The players explained to us that the culture in Ngaoundere is based on the traditional belief that women stay home and that men work. They emphasized that it had always been this way. Most agreed that women in Ngaoundere society do not have many choices socially or economically. Since Nora and I were athletic, educated, female soccer players, we were not “really women” according to their cultural norms. We explained that while women in our American culture still face many struggles, we have many choices. If we want to stay home and cook and clean and raise children, we can. If we want to play sports and make a living as an athlete, we can. If we want to start a business, we can. We all came to understand that there is no absolute right or wrong and that all cultures face problems, but that having choices empowers people. Choice increases a person’s options and provides more opportunities for success.
Where could I see or feel a direct impact from CAC?
This was CAC’s second year working with Breaking Ground, but many of the coaches participating this year were new. The group was composed of about 30 local coaches, educators, and young girls on the Breaking Ground football team. They were shy and quiet at first while we introduced ourselves, but as soon as we started playing, personalities emerged and soon everyone was laughing with us (and at us)! The Ngaoundere coaches seemed eager to learn and hear what we had to say. Nora, myself, and the Breaking Ground directors, Paul and Etienne, had an interesting discussion after the first session about how the culture in Ngaoundere was deeply established around their strict religion and traditions. They felt that these traditions kept them thinking “inside the box”. Throughout the week, they described to us problems they had observed in their community. During the course of the week, with our assistance with sport for social impact, some of the coaches started to be able to think “outside the box”. They realized there could be multiple solutions to some of the problems that they saw everyday. Our local coaches started to appreciate the importance and power of having a choice. I could see the direct impact of our teaching increasing throughout the week. Certain leaders began to step up in games, proposing ideas and initiating discussions about possible solutions that no one else had considered. As more and more coaches become comfortable thinking “outside the box” in Ngaoundere, I believe they will be able to better identify, address and solve the problems they face in their community.
What has been the most challenging part?
Not being able to speak French or a native language here in Cameroon has been very challenging! I am eager to learn and find myself quickly picking up short phrases and words and “speaking football”. Maybe by the end of the trip I will be able to get by as a “novice” French speaker!
Where do I find the most comfort?
On the field! Anytime we gather on a field with a soccer ball and a group of motivated players, I feel more at home. Our shared love of soccer lessens any cultural, religious, and language barriers we face off the field. The mutual understanding that we love to play the same game and share the same goals (literally and figuratively!) is a great comfort as I face this new experience. Good coffee and Internet access are also very comforting!
Where did we stay and what did we eat?
Breaking Ground set us up with a home-stay for the week, so we got to experience real Ngaoundere village life. The family that took care of us was very nice and welcoming and the five kids were great entertainment; I loved reading, drawing, or playing ball with them! During the week, extended family and neighbors came in and out of the house, really making us feel welcome. I even got to celebrate my 20th birthday with them—one that I definitely won’t forget! We ate a lot of the staple foods like eggs, couscous de maize, plantains, cassava root, meat and lots of mangos! One day Nora and I excitedly thought we were buying already peeled fresh mango from a woman on the street, but we found out later it definitely was not mango! We still don’t know what it is, but we gave it to our host family as a gift and they appreciated it. Experiencing life with our host family for our week in Ngaoundere was memorable and they definitely made it difficult to leave.
What was something that surprised me?
Every night at 8 pm, the family that we stayed with would gather around and watch a translated Spanish soap opera. They loved it and watched it religiously, which was surprising to me because the messages and culture in the soap opera were pretty much the opposite of their religion and culture. It was surprising to me to see the outside influence of technology and western culture.
What was my favorite part so far?
I love playing with kids! The fact that they love to play with me makes it one of my favorite things to do. Playing soccer (even though some of the ten year olds are better than me) or just throwing a ball of string back and forth always makes me happy. I love how easy and simple it is to please them and make them smile and laugh. It also helps that they don’t care that I don’t speak French. One of my favorite parts was when the younger girls in our host family taught me French from their schoolbooks and I helped them with their English homework. A close second is that it is mango season in Cameroon!