Photos courtesy Africa Goal
They call it “the beautiful game” because of its simplicity. According to FIFA World Cup commentator and writer Jamie Trecker, soccer (or, football, as it is known everywhere but the U.S.) has clear rules of play. It’s easy to follow, too. Individual players shine, but always as part of a collaborative effort. You can always play it anywhere, with most anything.
Africa Goal knows another simple reason why soccer can be considered “the beautiful game.” It brings people together as fans, and, during the World Cup matches, communal excitement is at an all-time high. The organizers of Africa Goal realized that the World Cup playoffs was the perfect time to reach communities hard-hit by AIDS with HIV prevention and treatment awareness, as well as on-site testing and counseling. Activities also seek to empower individuals in marginalized groups and extend the impact of local service organizations.
Traveling across various communities in African nations wracked by the highest HIV prevalancy rates in the world, the members of the all-volunteer Africa Goal team sets up live-feed, jumbo-sized projection screenings for communities to enjoy the matches and joins in any other soccer-related fun. In coordination with local partners who are expert in HIV services, the team engages community members about HIV with culturally tailored and age-appropriate materials. In particular, the team and partnering organization strive to bend the ears of youth, men, sex workers, truck drivers, marginalized groups, and those engaged in transactional sex, who have traditionally been more difficult to reach through conventional health-promotion means.
Africa Goal is comprised of a ten-member soccer-loving team of dedicated experts in the fields of HIV services, health, community partnering, technology, and travel, among others. It is extremely grateful for its sponsors and help from organizations like SAfAIDS, which develops HIV information for distribution during the project.
Africa Goal has completed two HIV prevention awareness road trips so far, in 2006 and 2010, the last World Cup Years. Now, in 2014, they are setting out again, traveling a route through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. New this year are stop-offs in rural fishing villages in Western Kenya and Uganda, which comprise some of the areas hardest-hit by AIDS in East Africa. The route has been called the “AIDS highway,” a multinational corridor where a booming transport-and-trade economy and increased HIV risk intermix. According to a 2012 UNAIDS report, East and Southern Africa comprise only five percent of the world’s population, yet these regions account for half of the world’s population living with HIV, forty-eight percent of the world’s new HIV infections among those ages fifteen to forty-nine, and forty-eight percent of all AIDS-related deaths.
“2010 was a great success and was really well received by community members and partners alike,” notes Kenyan Mary Leakey, Africa Goal project coordinator, about why 2014’s trip will not change much in terms of the concept or implementation. “We are working with many of the same partners this time so, having implemented the events a couple of times with them, we have a pretty good mutual sense of what we all want to achieve through the events—we achieved that last time and hope to do so again this time.”
Some of the information has changed to reflect new WHO treatment guidelines that have been adopted, and this will, in turn, change the focus of some of the events, says Leakey, who works as a grants officer for Mildmay Uganda, an HIV materials author for SAfAIDS, as well as a development consultant for a number of other NGOs. “For example, as part of a big push to eliminate pediatric transmission of HIV, all pregnant women living with HIV are now eligible for ART for life so there will be a bigger focus on prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) and couple’s testing in many of our event locations, along with the other key prevention and treatment information.”
Emboldened by the successes of 2010, when some of the partners introduced on-site HIV counseling and testing in response to increased access to HIV treatment, Africa Goal is encouraging all of its partners to offer testing and counseling during this campaign. Access to personal technology in the form of smart phones has increased, too, so the organizers created the Africa Goal 2014 mobile app, which provides another World Cup-centered way to disseminate information.
“We were thrilled to reach almost 25,000 people during 2010 in one month—but, of course, this year we would like to reach even more! As we revisit places, many people remember the previous events so that definitely helps with bringing together more people each time,” shares Leakey. “People always ask us to come back the next World Cup and we always say we will try—but four years is a long time to pass so it’s great to see people genuinely excited that we have actually come back!”
Chael Needle: In 2010, the World Cup took place in South Africa, the first time on African soil. Do you expect soccer fever to be diminished now that it is taking place in Brazil?
Mary Leakey: 2010 was definitely an incredibly exciting year for Africa—not least because it was embraced as a show of faith in Africa, a continent which is too often better known for bad news stories. There was certainly a very palpable feeling of hope, excitement and opportunity across Africa and, of course, the hype around soccer was at an all-time high! Having said that, much of the “extra” excitement was about what hosting the World Cup signified. Even though the World Cup will not be hosted in Africa this year, we are not at all concerned that soccer fever will have diminished. The love, excitement and passion around watching and playing “the beautiful game”—and following the World Cup—remains as strong as ever.
A common love of soccer and a celebratory mood makes for a good opportunity to talk about a proactive approach to health, but how exactly do you juggle the two? Do the partnering organizations help prepare the residents before you arrive?
Yes, we work very closely with our partner organizations to plan the events in advance—we are covering long distances, often on roads in poor condition, so it is not uncommon for us to arrive at the event locations with just enough time to set up and start the events. Our partners are fantastic—the project would not be possible without their collaboration and help with coordination. They see the potential of the events as a great way to reach out to the communities where they are working in a new and exciting way—their support and endorsement of the project is truly gratifying.
Our partners promote the events ahead of our arrival—both the World Cup match screenings and the activities. They also often arrange football tournaments to coincide with the events which also helps with promotion. People who have heard that the World Cup is coming—live and on a big screen—to their community see the cars arrive, get excited and start forming a crowd. Others, seeing the crowd forming, figure something interesting must be happening and join in…we regularly have audiences of several thousand people at the events! The fact that our audience members are united both by a common love of football and by all having been touched, in some way, by the HIV epidemic (HIV prevalence is as high as thirty percent or more—which is almost one in three people living with HIV—in many of the communities in which we work) is a powerful introduction to the events and reason for marrying the two goals of the events: to celebrate a love of football together and to recognize the role that each and every one of us has to play in the HIV response.
Living with HIV/AIDS and even talking about HIV/AIDS are often highly stigmatized. In 2010, to what extent did you face resistance or reluctance along the route?
HIV-related stigma and discrimination is certainly a major obstacle to addressing HIV and a key challenge contributing to community members’ fear of attending health centers and clinics for HIV information and services. Creating a non-stigmatizing, non-discriminatory and non-confrontational platform for engagement is one of Africa Goal’s key priorities—and one of the major reasons that our partners embrace the project so enthusiastically. By approaching HIV as an issue which has, and continues, to affect everyone—and something which we all have a role in addressing—the events create a sense of inclusiveness which helps to overcome potential resistance.
We are routinely impressed by peoples’ willingness to participate actively in the events—including choosing to go for on-site HIV counseling and testing. During 2010, one young man in his early twenties came to talk to us after having received the results of his HIV test. He said that it was the first time that he had been for an HIV test: “I have known that I should go for a test for a long time—everyone should know their status—but I have always put it off. Today, my friends and I were talking and we decided that we had more to be scared of if we didn’t know. So we agreed that we would all go—my girlfriend and I both went for testing today.”
We also often saw people at the matches engrossed, reading the Africa Goal information materials, developed in partnership with SAfAIDS, which we distributed. The materials were packaged in a drawstring sports bag and included HIV information booklets (which also detailed the World Cup match schedule); posters and stickers. We had different age-appropriate packages for adults and children: the adult bags also contained male and female condoms and we had comic book style HIV information booklets for children.
It was really rewarding—and encouraging—to see groups of people, particularly groups of young men, reading and discussing the materials and the information together.
What other highlights from your last campaign stand out in your mind?
There were so many events and instances which were definite highlights, but I’ll start with the event we held in Swaziland. When we arrived, we found around 5,000 people had gathered! It was our biggest event of the 2010 project. We partnered with SAfAIDS for the event and they had engaged the Minster of Health who was really excited about the project and turned it into a National event. They brought together several local HIV organizations to conduct information sessions and activities, including on-site HIV counseling and testing and organized a football tournament between local youth leagues. Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the World so it was great to see so many people coming together to use the opportunity that the World Cup presented to tackle key HIV issues—and it was amazing to see that so many people had gathered for the event (despite it being really cold that day!).
Another highlight was the event we held in Salima, in Malawi. We worked with the Salima HIV/AIDS Support Organization (SASO), which is a small HIV organization based in this very rural village in Malawi. We followed SASO’s directions to a football field on the outskirts of the village and looked back to find hundreds of people following the car, either on foot or on bikes. There was not a light in sight from the event location—it was one of the most rural events that we held in 2010 and there was a huge amount of excitement from the crowd!
There were a lot of individual highlights too—when someone at the event comes to you to thank you not only for bringing the World Cup to their community but for providing an accessible opportunity to find out more about HIV, get tested for the first time or talk to their partner about HIV—it makes all the long drives, car problems, exhaustion and sleeping in very much “less than salubrious” establishments more than worthwhile!
This will run in June. Is there still time to support Africa Goal or something like your Trading Footballs program, which swaps homemade soccer balls in communities for industry-standard ones and then exhibits the handcrafted ones to raise funds to purchase more balls and HIV/AIDS projects?
Absolutely! We have an on-line fundraising site: http://africagoal2014.causevox.com/ where anyone who would like to support the project can make safe and secure donations. Once the project starts, any funds raised will be used to purchase factory-standard footballs for our Trading Footballs program and to print HIV information materials—the materials are hugely popular and our partners are always asking whether we can print more for them.
For whom is Africa Goal rooting, on the field and off?
Africa Goal is always rooting for Africa—both on and off the field! We would be thrilled to see an African team take the tournament title and, even more so, would love to see the global goal of zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero HIV-related stigma brought to reality across the continent which has been hardest hit by the epidemic.
For more information about Africa Goal, log on to: www.africagoal.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.