We look too close, then we overlook
There is this overarching idea that the western world needs to go to Africa and help, but do we see what we want to see or do we see what is really in front of us? I fell into this mindset after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2017, as I knew I wanted to avoid the corporate world a little longer and decided to travel to Tanzania to work for a sports charity. We worked to provide equipment and training to local teams and clubs. I quickly learned how Western influence is not this rainbow filled picture of volunteerism and help. We assume and judge and try to change what we see because it differs from the way we grew up, and then we overlook the issues we leave behind.
Kids in Tanzania play sport to keep off the streets. They play sport to avoid gang involvement. They play sport with the hope of becoming a professional and being able to provide for their family. They play sport with the hope of receiving an education, which they fail to receive at their local schools. In Eastern Africa, sport is a hope, a dream, and a means of survival.
Kids in the United States play sport for fun and to be active. They play to get into college. They play to make money; to be rich and famous. Sport in the United States is a pastime, a business, and a way for school kids to make friends.
When westerners enter these rural parts of Africa, we look close and narrow in on the fact that this boy is playing football without any shoes on and a red flag goes off in our mind. We are used to having the latest pair of Nike cleats at our reach, therefore how can this kid properly play sport without similar shoes? Because of instinct, we search and donate shoes to that little boy and some of his friends. They enjoy and show them off and now everyone in the community wants the same nice shoes. Can you blame them? As volunteers, we do what we can but to give a whole community a pair of shoes is just too much. So we leave these few boys now possessing an unnecessary material item, and unknowingly have created a demand that we cannot fill. We look too close at the shoes, and then we overlook the larger picture.
While the sports industry drives our economy in a positive way, maybe it is driving our values in a negative way. These kids in Tanzania had some of the most impressive football skills I have seen in a youth community, without shoes and without a properly lined field. We need to stop looking at these players as charity cases and begin to see them for what they are, talented youth with the potential to dominate a professional football league. There needs to be a push to get them exposure and the resources they need to have their skills seen, to give them the opportunities to change their lives through sport, the way athletes in the United States can. We cannot expect these opportunities to be identical. They must be relative to the location, such as a chance to escape violence in Tanzania versus the chance to go pro in the United States. These opportunities will vary, but they need to exist.
Don’t get me wrong, donating to a child in need is great and something to smile about. I just hope we can get to the point where we take another step into the investment of these poverty stricken kids. We need to help them take another step towards their future in their new shoes. I hope Western culture doesn’t lose the passion and dedication that is the true key to success in sport, and we do not just remain focused on the money or cool shoes. I hope to focus my future career in sport on community development and athletics that have a direct impact on individuals and their situations. Imagine how many kids from Eastern Africa could out play Ronaldo, but will never get the chance because we only give them shoes instead of a shot.