• 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.


  • Can sex be safe and sweet?

    CAC Self-Directed Learning coach Markus Bensch blogs on our continuing partnership with Vijana Amani Pamoja in Nairobi, Kenya.

    May 20th 2015. What do you think is more appealing to children and youth when talking to them about sex: “You should abstain from sex to avoid HIV and sex is something to be only done by married partners, anyway!” or “Sex can be safe and sweet. Do not focus only on fear or infection, but on good feelings. Good sex requires good communication. Show what you need. Invite your partner to do the same. Be patient. It is possible to have pleasure while using a condom?” I encountered both approaches during our program with our partner Vijana Amani Pamoja (VAP).

    For the fifth week of our programs in Kenya we went to the capital of the country: Nairobi. Turner and I were very curious about working with VAP, because usually life in the capital is much faster than in any other part of the country. People have diverse lifestyles, are more likely to be open-minded and usually have a higher level of formal education. Would this week be very different to the programs we ran before?

    Travelling in Kenya is challenging and takes a lot of time, nerves, and patience. We needed all three when we travelled from Awendo to Nairobi as an estimated eight hour bus ride turned out to take twelve, because of traffic jams. Trucks broke down in the middle of the road and because the road was so narrow nobody could pass and we just had to wait until the vehicle was repaired. After the hours Turner and I spent On-Field we spent the 2nd most time on busses and taxis to get from A to B.

    On the Sunday before the training started it was my father’s 75th birthday and I was a bit sad that I couldn’t celebrate with him and my family. But modern technology and good internet connection allowed me to call and congratulate him to his great day, honour the long life he has lived and wish him many more years. At least I could share an hour on Skype with him and my mom and it was very nice to see him so happy and to know that he had a great day. When talking about my work with CAC my father made an unexpected comment: “It makes me happy to see you happy and to see that you enjoy the work you do.” You have to know that my father, as many fathers are, is not very vocal when it comes to compliments and emotions. So he really surprised me with this comment, but also made me very proud. And it was a perfect kick-off for another week On-Field.

    When we got to VAP’s office on Monday morning we received a very warm welcome by Enouce Ndeche, the Executive Director, and Charles Otieno, the Program Officer. As I entered the first room in their office building the flyer with the slogan “Sex can be safe and sweet” caught my eyes. It made me curious and I looked closer at this advert. I read the sentences that I quoted above which I felt were very friendly and encouraging for youth to develop a positive relationship to their sexuality. This approach is very rare in an environment where youth mostly get told to abstain from sex in order to fulfil religious morals and to avoid contracting HIV. Later this week I should be witnessing this fear related approach again.

    As we got onto the field we encountered a very motivated group that was eager to play many different games. The women of this group were very vocal from the beginning which is rare. Usually the women are a bit shy and they are not used to speak up in front of men so they need a few days to gain confidence to participate in discussions. Not so with this group. The women were very confident in sharing their ideas, opinions and thoughts on the different social issues we addressed with our games.

    As it was our fifth year partnering with VAP we encouraged the group to develop new games for their coach-backs in order to address social issues that were important to their community. Although many freshmen participated in the course we witnessed some good games on Skills for Life, the Environment, Financial Literacy, Female Empowerment, and mostly HIV/AIDS. Those led us to a discussion on HIV/AIDS prevention. Many participants said that they emphasize abstinence as the first choice for their players. I asked if youth usually abstain from sex until they are married and if the HIV rate has dropped in the past 10 years as long as abstinence has been widely promoted in African countries. Both questions got denied by the participants and they are also scientifically proven. We discussed the importance of education and how humans usually want to find out about things that are forbidden. The same applies for sex as youth want to find out about it when the only thing they get told is not to do it. The participants supported the idea that it is important to talk with their players about sexuality in order to build their confidence to make good and healthy choices for themselves. Those talks I have with participants of our programs almost every week and flyers like I have seen in VAP’s office make me dream for a future generation that will grow up in an environment where they can talk about sexuality, express their questions, fears, hopes and dreams, and develop self-esteem in order to appreciate that sex can be ‘safe and sweet’. And coaches like we have worked with in Nairobi will help to make this dream become true.