• Malawi. The Warm Heart of Africa.

    August 1st 2015. Mike Mazzullo writes about his time in Mzimba, Malawi working alongside fellow Columbia University alum and CAC Staff, Nora Dooley.

    The first time I heard that Malawi is the Warm Heart of Africa, slight worry nagged me. Even though it’s winter, the thought of a “warm” place in a continent that has some pretty warm places was alarming. Of course, “warm” probably refers to a generous spirit, but one can never be too careful when it comes to high temperatures. After a week in Mzimba, the double meanings of “warm” Malawi can be safely confirmed.

    To set the stage a bit, this was a first-year program in Mzimba, which is a medium-sized town in central Malawi. Most of the economy is agricultural. It’d be hard to find better tomatoes. Our participants, who come from Mzimba and the surrounding communities, number about 65. The majority of them are teachers, and thus share a special place in my own heart. I learned of their challenges in the classroom. 90 kids per teacher? Small classrooms without fans, in the African summer? Lack of basic materials like notebooks and pencils for everyone? Hard for me to imagine.

    The hope is for CAC’s philosophy – using soccer to teach life or academic or any type of skills – to equip educators with another tool.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Let me explain the Cucu Dance. It’s used as a form of good-humored punishment.

    The Cucu Dance. (Cucu = chicken.) It’s a CAC favorite, and easy to learn. With a slight resemblance to a chicken, you: bend knees, flap elbow-bent wings, and shake your angled legs in and out. Stupid grins are recommended, and tend to come naturally. The whole thing is patently ridiculous and makes a mockery of anyone’s desire to avoid looking like an idiot. It’s a combination of the Charleston, dougie, and Kevin Nolan’s goal celebration. The participants in Mzimba go bonkers for the Cucu Dance. Any awkward silence, on the field or in the classroom or during snack, became an opportune moment to spontaneously break out into full fledged limb-clucking. It’s equally hysterical and shocking. Nora Dooley deserves credit/blame for the proliferation of said dance globally.

    Besides the group’s  willingness to have fun (often at their own expense), there was also a willingness to address the serious social issues in their community. Take something that stirs little laughter: HIV/AIDS.

    One great game to teach about sexual health is the pebble test (officially known as “Can Adebayor See HIV?”). Split your team into two lines, a few yards apart, and facing each other. Everyone put their hands behind their backs. Eyes closed. The coach walks behind the blind rows and quietly places one pebble in a player’s hands, and repeats for the other line. When you shout “eyes open”, one player from each row should be holding a pebble, but make sure everyone keeps their hands hidden. By the way, the pebble represents HIV. Select a player to start the guessing. He or she selects someone on the other row in the hope of revealing the mighty pebble-holder. If the chosen is pebble-less, he or she is the next to guess from the other line. And so on and so on, until finally both owners of the rocks are exposed. What’s the point?

    The pebble test is a simple game with a simple message. Like trying to guess if someone is hiding a pebble, we are blind to someone’s HIV status. You can’t see HIV. Don’t judge someone’s sexual health by using the “eye test”- the way they dress, their reputation, or the supposed guilt on their face.

    The participants in Mzimba loved the set of HIV/AIDS and sexual health games and identified them as a high-point of the week.

    Sexually transmitted diseases are so prevalent, deadly, and misunderstood. What can teachers/coaches/leaders do? Maybe simple classroom instruction is not enough. Maybe some kids need musical songs, other kids need visual aids, others the game of soccer. It’s something worth thinking about, and solving.


  • Beautiful Mountains, Beautiful People, Beautiful Game

    July 15th 2015. Volunteer coach Mike Mazzullo, from New York City, joins fellow Columbia University ’12 alum Nora Dooley on-field in South Africa and Malawi. He writes here about our recent training near Cape Town:

    The first sign that I’m a visitor to South Africa: it’s hard to stop looking out the window. There is no shortage of natural beauty. Landscapes of mountain and vineyards and ocean surprise the eyes at every turn. People buzz alongside highways, walking to work, selling wares, looking for a hitch-hike, and perilously crossing major roads. Different communities pass by, some idyllic, some not.

    Each morning I’m sobered by the disparity between living conditions for the wealthy and the poor. It is hard to overestimate the gap between townships and suburban enclaves. I think of the homeless on Park Ave. Such inequality just doesn’t feel right.

    We arrive in Khayelitsha, the location of CAC’s 2nd-year program for the Western Cape. Cars full of participants arrive and filter into the gym that is our home for the week. Good-bye to any sadness from the morning ride’s sights. Five minutes with the participants fill that space with hope and laughter.

    The participants are a mixture of local community leaders and coaches. training4changeS, the implementing partner, brings their crew of seven coaches. Girls and Football SA brings four, all female. Dumi represents City Mission. There are many others, each with his or her own story and sense of purpose.

    Every day a participant’s story floors me. Take Keke’s. His experience is all too common.

    We are united by the idea that soccer can be a force for positive change in the world around us.

    And the participants brought, along with their enthusiasm and football skills and jokes, problems from their communities. Let me talk about one.
    Gang violence recurred throughout the week. People spoke of the allure of gangs in offering economic opportunity, how gangs can become a family for those who have none, and how gangs entrap children at a young age. These conversations carried glazed looks, suggesting firsthand exposure. It didn’t take me long to notice graffiti of “28” and “26” – prominent local gangs – marking some buildings and traffic signs.

    …How can soccer deal with such an issue?

    I forgot to mention Nora Dooley. She’s CAC staff leading the program, and happens to be awesome. Nora coached the game called “Say No to Gang Violence”. CAC had originally designed the game to confront human trafficking in Indonesia.

    The set-up is simple. Each corner of the field (or gym) has a coned square box. These will represent what happens when you are “stuck” in gangs. Group discussion identifies the effects of gangsterism. It could be violence, theft, drug abuse, whatever the group thinks.

    Next, the discussion moves to how gangs attract youth in the first place. Three “taggers”-people holding cones- represent the methods of entrapment. It could be involving kids in petty crime, the legacy of an older sibling’s involvement, financial reward and social status, whatever the group thinks.

    The game is for the “taggers” to catch everyone else and send them to the boxes, which represent the harmful effects of gangsterism. It’s a pretty powerful image.

    Next we talk solutions. Are there safe spaces, ways out of gangs, strategies for avoiding them in the first place? Lots of conversation and ideas.

    Nora introduces cones and soccer balls as symbols of safe spaces/deterrents/escape routes – you can’t get tagged if you have the ball. Share the round thing and help others! It’s another powerful image, that football can save youth.

    The game continues with more progressions, further confronting the main question of: What can we do about it? Ultimately the coaches and local organizations will decide.

    One of the t4c coaches, Sylvester, imparted an African proverb:”If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

    I think the mingling of various groups will have a long-term return. In any field – business, education, sport or whatever – ideas stale. One benefit of a CAC program is the ability to bring diverse people together.

    Even nonprofits can succumb to one-mindedness, but these organizations of the Western Cape saw each other as partners and allies. The biggest divisions in Khayelitsha emerged over Man Utd vs Arsenal, Kaizer Chiefs vs. Orlando Pirates, Ronaldo vs. Messi.

    And on the car ride back to Stellenbosch, again seeing the gamut of natural beauty and human experience, I thought less about passing strangers and more about the CAC participants.


  • #BringBackOurGirls. Her and Me: Defining Chance

    CAC Senior Staff member, Nora Dooley, tells her story as it compares to the lives of the young women she meets in her CAC travels. 

    I am on a field. The best kind of field. I look around and see players warming up. The best kind of players. I close my eyes. I listen. I am thrown back into a time in my life on a different field, with different players. But the sounds are the same. The feeling is the same. Excitement, energy, passion, and hope.happy soccer When I open my eyes sadness pervades my thoughts. I remember where I am, and reality smashes through my nostalgia like a ball to the gut. The slick turf fields in my mind crumble into the rock­‐strewn dust pitch where I stand. Half-covered in the dust myself, I take in my surroundings. White and brown skin melts into deep black. Common shouts heard during practice jump from English to Créole. Fully‐matured young women run around quite obviously lacking an essential article of female athletic apparel. Goals are missing nets. Cleats are missing soles. But that feeling lingers. Excitement, energy, passion, and, now even more, hope.IMG_9783 The vast majority of my 24 years in this world have been devoted to the game of football – or soccer, thanks America. Before college I lived and breathed the sport. I’m convinced that the only reason I did well in school was because, yes, I have a decent brain thanks to my genes, but mainly I was so competitive in everything else, why not in school too? From the age of 5, it was on. Sports were me and I was sports. Basketball took the early lead, but soccer was gaining fast and soon emerged as the obvious choice – I was a little baller. IMG_7808 Being born and raised in America meant I had to keep up with the competitive nature of the country, which far surpasses my innate yearning for the win and bleeds into every aspect of the suburban sports scene. From equipment to training to multiple teams to travel, blind excess wreaks havoc on youngsters with dreams. A new pair of cleats every season? Par for the course. New warm-­ups so we can look better than the next team? Sure, why not? Beautifully manicured grass pitches? Brand-­new, top of the line field turf? Why? Because we can. This is America. And the best/worst part? My family was on the conservative end of the excess. My supportive parents never reached lunacy like so many others. They only wanted me to be happy, and had the means to do so. How lucky was I? Lucky. Since graduating from Columbia University where I played for the Women’s team for four years, I have jumped full‐throttle into a lifestyle that is drastically different from the first 22 of those oxygen/football guzzling years. I spend my time traveling week to week working for Coaches Across Continents, the best organization that ever claimed to be making a difference in this wildly unequal world. I spread the gospel of football, stifling my competitive urges in the name of social impact – educating underserved communities on how to think differently about the sport in order to empower their children to become self-directed learners. It is a true vocation.
    P1070842 Some of the places I stay would be unacceptable, shocking, in fact, to many of the people I grew up around in suburbia. Places where shitting in a hole with cockroaches exceeding fingers in numbers is the norm, getting malaria is a rite of passage, and iPhones might as well be UFOs. But standards of living are relative, just like pain, and love, and pretty much everything that elicits emotion. We react based on what we are accustomed to – whether I clearly love this man more than the last, or that story about the girl losing her mom hit home because I lost my dad, or man, shitting in a hole sucks, I never knew how high maintenance my ass was. We are the sum of our experiences, and my experiences, lucky as my circumstances were, led me to forgo the comforts of the lifestyle I was used to, and become a bona fide vagabond.But I’m not homeless. I have the most loving family and friends who never make me feel guilty for spending my days so far away. I have financial stability due to a great boss and supportive mother, and I know in an instant, I could return to the other side with the greener grass, and the timed sprinklers, and the fake smiles. But, really, I couldn’t. I can’t. I’m not homeless because my home is on the glass-­ridden, dust-­blown football pitches that furnish communities throughout the world. And, relative to my life, this is the only option. Bridging the absolute abyss that chance of birth creates – this is my ambition.
    IMG_0240 I am back on that field. I’m talking in broken French to a beautiful 20-year-­old Haitian girl. On the surface, sure, we’re different. Her skin is dark, mine is freckled white. Her eyes brown, mine blue. Her hair is in corn-­row braids, mine in one long, thick braid. And then I watch her play, and my metaphorical heart leaps to my throat. What can I say? She reminds me of me – different language, different culture, different people. But in that moment we are two girls with a fierce passion for a game, hoping that it will carry us into our futures, and nothing else is worth the loogie I just hocked.

    So, I ask you, what is the difference between her and me?
    Only chance.
    Coaches Across Continents supports #BringBackOurGirls and last month ran our Female Empowerment program in Nigeria that impacted 7,500 young Nigerian women.