Soccer ministry reaching out to youth at risk

Nathan Dirks
September 12, 2014
Mennonite Church Canada
Nathan Dirks shows plans to children for a new soccer pitch and improved playgro
Children play on decrepit playground equipment in Gaberone, Botswana
Gaborone, Botswana
When entering Bontleng, Gaborone from the south-easternmost road you find yourself passing tall grass, wrought-iron covers, and headstones of a large cemetery. As the road curves to the left around the nearby Zion Christian Church compound, just before three drinking establishments on the right, marked by stacks of bottle crates, you find an open, dusty plot of land crisscrossed by a steady stream of pedestrians.
On maps it’s marked as a green space, although it’s decidedly brown. Industrious entrepreneurs set up competing carwashes on its perimeter. You can get your vehicle washed by hand and bucket, and swept and polished, for a reasonable P45 ($5.50 CDN), though you need to be careful as you drive out not to kick up dust and sully their work. A middle-aged gentleman sits beside his wheelchair in the far corner of the space under a drooping stretch of shade netting, mending shoes. A thorny Wait-a-Bit tree nearer the middle of the property finds a shack housing a barber, while local men sit and visit outside in the shade.
Residents in nearby houses tell us that a stabbing recently occurred in this park as two men fought behind the bars one evening. Many locals have been robbed of cell phones and money while crossing through the area at night, the darkness hiding assailants who wait for the inevitable foot traffic. Most troublingly of all, the neighbors claim that the remains of a child were found near there in an abandoned car a few years back. Abductions of children for the use of the sangoma (traditional doctors) are not unheard of as certain politicians seek extra good luck during election season.
In the middle of this picture is a playground. Day and night, children love to play on the metal playground equipment, placed haphazardly many decades ago. But every single swing is broken, with a few chains left hanging at awkward lengths. The jungle gym teeters dangerously. Some of its legs are rusted off near the base, while a few are bent from the impact of some careless driver. The rusted slides have gaping and jagged holes, and can’t be used except to scramble up and down. Children do this each day, still wearing blue and grey uniforms as they pause for some fun between school and home.
As children grow into youths, the playground loses its appeal and the focus shifts to the surrounding bars. Neighborhood action occurs there nightly from Thursday to Sunday every week, and it draws crowds of all ages. The recent stabbing was not an isolated incident. Neither are the frequent thefts and assaults which happen both to and by patrons of these facilities.
Bontleng, incidentally, is Setswana for “Place of Beauty”.
When we first arrived two years ago, we began to envision ways that such places could be transformed. The possibilities seemed endless. Recently, we began a project in earnest.
We measured some areas, wrote proposals, made sketches, got to know people at Gaborone City Council and City Planning, and officially asked permission to use some of the land. Almost a year later, we received notice that we were welcome to make use of this sketchy park in the middle of the Place of Beauty. Soon after we received permits, and were off and running with youth and young adults in our Bible studies and community service projects, playing soccer together, sharing meals, and growing as a community of believers from various churches, as well as from the community beyond.
With our youth, we spend time learning from Jesus that God’s word is there for us to know and love. And in learning to know and love God’s word, we explore ways to enact what we’re shown, which is creative, loving, unexpected, un-expecting service of each other.
The people of Botswana love football (soccer) but there isn’t really any football development in the country. On any given day of the week people of all ages play in alleyways, on streets, on hard-packed dirty fields and everywhere in between. So, we initiated a project to give children a safe place which can also be used by youth and adults who might otherwise be drawn towards the bars.
The two of us, with a group of young adults from Spiritual Healing Church and some youth from the surrounding area, are building Botswana’s first futsal court. Futsal is 5-a-side football, and is played in many of the best football nations. Fast-paced, skill developing, easy to participate and fun to watch, futsal is played on a surface about the same size as a basketball court. We’re hoping to use a hard synthetic surface which will be safe, but will also last for decades.
Our team is also rebuilding the children’s beloved playground, recycling, repairing and repainting pieces which can be salvaged, and building new structures of our own designs. With the help of a backhoe, we’ve ripped out all of the broken equipment but we have not yet been able to replace it. Presently children are not our biggest fans.
Under a tree beside the court and the playground, we’re installing a brick patio and the semicircular log fencing of a kgotla, a traditional place of meeting for elders, as well as crafting Muskoka chairs out of wood recycled from old skids to arrange around it. We’re trying to garner donations of hardy trees to beautify the space and create shade, as well as concrete bus shelters for team benches. Around the fenced-in futsal court (to keep the footballs in and the vandals out), we will place stadium lighting. We’re hoping that solar panels will be donated to power them, since we get well over 300 days of intense sun annually. Theywill also light up the surrounding park at night and make it a safer environment.
There are a number of other concepts our team has come up with to make the whole place interactive and profitable for the community, including using it as a recycling centre – rare re in Gaborone. Recycling could generate income for maintenance and security. , By building stalls and fixing up the ones already in use by our friends the cobbler, the barber, and the car washers, we could attract food vendors and more local small businesses selling furniture of recycled wood, locally made t-shirts and hoodies, crafts, and so on.
Former English Premier League football player Peter Butler is the new coach of Botswana’s beloved and unsuccessful national football squad, the Diamond Zebras (think the Toronto Maple Leafs of international African football). Butler is already a Botswana favorite as he’s helped to reshape the Zebras from a losing defensive-minded squad into a winning, offensive team. At Zebras games, signs feature Butler, rather than the players, and when they score the crowd can be heard loudly extolling his virtues: “Eish, what a goal! That Butler…!”.
Coach Butler, a huge proponent of community service and grassroots football development, has expressed his support for this project. He gave us his official endorsement to show to the businesses which we are approaching for sponsorships. He’s also stated his intention to bring out the national team for the eventual launching event. Even better, he is interested in helping to provide football development for the program we intend to establish for kids and youth once the court is in place.
Our hope is that if things work well, the entire project may be replicated in communities throughout the city, and to empower and inspire other youth from churches across the country to be  a blessing in the name of Jesus in similar ways, or in their own unique and creative ways.
The beauty of a place like Bontleng is reflected in the people who live and meet here, who see and envision more in the land and in the people around them. When Jesus-loving individuals come together as a community to serve their neighbors there is a reality to the words of Jesus: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16).
The darkness of the park that allows weak individuals to target strangers and neighbors alike with violence and fear is no match for the light of Jesus, reflected by God’s people in Gaborone.
Please pray that this project would see God’s people coming together in unity to be a blessing to their neighbors, and that others would be inspired to do the same.
Nathan and Taryn Dirks of Niagara United Mennonite Church (Ont.) are Mennonite Church Canada workers in Gaberone Botswana, where they work with youth at risk. Mennonite Church Canada has partnered with Ride for Refuge, a recreational national bikeathon, to facilitate fund raising the $20,000 needed for this project. Those not able to ride but still wishing to support the project can donate here
Photo Credits: 
Bellson Othomile and Nathan Dirks