In Zimbabwe, the average lifespan was 61 years in 1990. Today, the average adult dies at 39 with only 3.5 percent of the population making it to 65. The reason? HIV/AIDS. Deaths from AIDS-related illnesses have orphaned one million children in the country — 20 percent of all Zimbabwe’s children — and that will likely continue considering that 20 percent of pregnant women were HIV-positive in 2003. According to UNICEF, more than half of the patients in Zimbabwe are hospitalized with HIV/AIDS-related illnesses and more than 120,000 children under the age of 15 have HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS. Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit that includes a Charleston photographer among its ranks, focuses on preventative education for 12-year-olds in Zimbabwe, using interactive programs and engaging volunteers whom the children will listen to with rapt attention — their soccer heroes.
There are lots of tools to fight HIV/AIDS, but usually soccer’s not one of them. That is, until Thomas Clark created Grassroot Soccer. Clark, an American who spent his early teenage years in Zimbabwe while his father coached soccer, fell in love with the country and eventually played for the same team his father coached. After returning to America for medical school, Clark decided to create Grassroot Soccer as a class project in 2002 after realizing that soccer could be used to reach children who are dealing with the realities of AIDS.
“It’s a way for the cultural love affair with soccer to be harnessed for something good,” he says.
The Grassroot program is loaded with informative games and information for children, but Clark says the focus is on community involvement and utilizing these children’s idols.
“Otherwise it’s a series of games and points anyone could do, but the special sauce is getting the role models involved.”
Though Grassroot Soccer is only one of several initiatives intended to spur HIV/AIDS education in Zimbabwe, the message appears to be getting across. In the last two years, the HIV prevalence rate has dropped from 24.6 percent to 20.1 percent, according to UNICEF.
“It’s certainly not solely due to our efforts, but it’s due to prevention education,” Clark says.
An independent evaluation of the program by Stanford University in 2004 found the program “significantly improves student knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of social support related to HIV/AIDS.”
The study found that students who participated in the program had a more positive attitude toward condoms and HIV testing and had more negative feelings about unprotected sex. There also seemed to be a decrease in the number of students with prejudice toward those with HIV and AIDS.
Welcome to Zimbabwe
The country was formed in 1980, but democracy never really took off in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, the nation’s first prime minister, has ruled the country of 12 million for nearly 20 years. He rigged presidential elections in 2002 and quelled labor strikes calling for his retirement in 2003. His political arm, ZANU-PF, stole March 2005 parliamentary elections to allow it to change the constitution at will, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. A month later, Mugabe would institute Operation Restore Order, displacing 700,000 mostly poor supporters of the opposition, by United Nations’ accounts.
Immigration isn’t a problem, because the unemployed, who account for about 80 percent of the population, are leaving the country for economic opportunities in neighboring South Africa and Botswana. In response, South Africa has militarized its border and Botswana has installed electric fences to deter the exodus. News from Zimbabwe is sparse in America — the government raids last summer weren’t reported in The New York Times until November.
Aside from the political strife, the Central Intelligence Agency notes environmental nightmares, including deforestation, soil erosion, land degradation, air and water pollution, and poaching. Poor mining practices have also left the country with toxic waste and heavy metal pollution.
This was the backdrop last May as Alice Keeney’s plane pulled into a hangar in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city. A soccer player for the College of Charleston before graduating in 2004, Keeney had spent a year learning photography in Paris until some friends suggested that she travel to Africa for a month and document the work of Grassroot Soccer.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I went over there pretty naive, to be honest.”
Keeney was the first off the small plane, greeted in the hangar by men with automatic weapons.
She had her $30 cash in hand — she’d been told that having the processing fee ready would help her move through customs quickly. She told them she was vacationing. Working photographers and aid workers can sometimes get a hard time from the government — while she was visiting, an American photographer was being held prisoner by the government.
“I never felt extremely unsafe,” Keeney says. “But, being there and hearing about it are two very different things.”
Tommy Clark, the director of Grassroot Soccer, also didn’t know what to expect from Keeney’s trip.
“There’s always someone going over there,” he says of media attention for the group. “I was just hoping nothing bad would happen to her.”
Keeney was introduced to the Grassroot staff in Zimbabwe, comprised almost entirely of locals.
“They’re either group leaders for after-school programs or professional soccer players,” she says.
While most Americans would be hard-pressed to name one of our soccer heroes from the past 20 years, Zimbabweans have a quick answer — M. Khupale. Known as Mr. Khupa to the masses, M. Khupale draws crowds and cheers everywhere he goes. The excitement is no different when he works with the Grassroot program, Keeney says.
“When he walks in to a classroom and starts teaching kids about HIV and AIDS, their attention is just wrapped around him,” she says.
In an age when some people push undeterred for abstinence education for teenagers, it’s impossible to imagine the Grassroot program of HIV/AIDS education will ever take place in the United States. In America, the realities of AIDS can be easily avoided by most any seventh grader.
“You walk into a classroom in the U.S. and you talk about sex and condoms, there’s giggles everywhere,” Keeney says.
But in Zimbabwe, where the darkness of AIDS takes family, friends, and neighbors hourly, let alone daily, children can’t be children anymore. “They realize they can be a victim of it.”
The Grassroot program lasts eight days over a two-week period. The students spend the first day in the classroom, answering true and false questions to dispel dangerous rumors long removed from American perceptions of HIV, but still prevalent in Africa.
“A lot of them have misconceptions, like you can get it easily through a mosquito bite,” says Keeney. They also might think HIV is contracted easily through schoolyard horseplay or that dangerous traditional healing practices will purge the disease, she notes. “It’s just a huge lack of education, really.”
After day one is complete, the rest of the program is chock-a-block with activities.
“It makes the kids think,” Keeney says. “That way they’re not just being told.”
One of the more effective games is “Hide the Ball,” where students are lined up shoulder to shoulder and a tennis ball with HIV/AIDS scrawled on it is passed behind their backs. Someone yells stop and a student left out of the line is asked to pick who has the ball.
“The point is you can’t see it,” she says. “It’s impossible to look at someone and see that they have HIV or AIDS.”
In “The Transmission Game,” the students learn the value of protection as students mingle in the classroom as if the people they speak with are sexual partners. At the end of the lesson, students learn that only three of them given a “condom” pass at the beginning of the class would survive if the game was actually intercourse.
Other games include “My Supporters,” which focuses on the community as a support system for those with HIV and AIDS in an area where many with the disease are still ostracized. In “Juggling My Life,” students learn how to make positive choices for themselves, and in “The Final Game,” the students use what they’ve learned in a team-style trivia game where correct answers move them through an obstacle course.
Along with the games, Grassroot Soccer also works with Ray of Light, a dance troupe of teens that help the students learn about HIV and AIDS through dance.
Once the program is completed, parents and family members are invited to a graduation ceremony where students are congratulated for their work. In one instance, parents told Clark that having their children go through the program gave them the courage to tell the children that both parents were HIV-positive.
“There’s such a stigma about HIV and AIDS,” Clark says. “Stories like that are so encouraging.”
Grassroot also has a sister program for U.S. students called KickAIDS. Through the program, sports teams coordinate an education campaign that includes HIV/AIDS awareness, but focuses more intently on helping America’s young people understand the plight of Africa’s youth.
“It was a notion that it’s important that American kids understand what’s going on over there,” Clark says, “and encouraging them to be advocates in their community.”
The program includes a viewing of A Closer Walk, a documentary about Africa and AIDS narrated by Glenn Close and Will Smith. Students then organize fund-raisers, be they juggle-a-thons for soccer players or swim-a-thons for swim teams, with the proceeds going to Grassroot Soccer.
The group does have one American superstar contributing to its mission, although he’s better known for his reality TV appearances then his soccer skills. Ethan Zohn, a two-time Survivor competitor, including his $1 million victory in Africa, has used almost all of his stardom to highlight the programs of Grassroot Soccer, including wearing a T-shirt with the group’s logo during his stint on Survivor All-Stars. Zohn now coordinates the group’s American programs.
Keeney returned home with photos of the hope that children in Zimbabwe get from the program. Grassroot now uses the pictures for fund-raising events and on the website to garner attention for the plight of Africans struggling with HIV/AIDS and the need for preventive education for Africa’s future. Clark says he has Keeney’s photos on his cellphone and his computer.
“She continues to be a big part of the organization,” he says. “She’s made herself invaluable.”
Keeney also notes the importance of pictures to show Zimbabwe’s children confronting their country’s struggles.
“A lot of the images you see from Africa are really desperate pictures,” she says. “Kids with flies all over their faces, which is definitely happening. But there’s also the other side of the story, where there is so much hope and desire for change.”
The response to the work of Grassroot has been very positive in Charleston, Keeney says, likely stemming from the program’s proactive approach.
“People like to see an organization that is doing something positive on the prevention side,” she says, noting the photographs she brought back show the realities of AIDS in Africa. “It helps having pictures. It puts a face to a name.”
Since her trip, Keeney has given Grassroot free use of her photos, providing about $10,000 in fund raising. Through local programs, she’s tried to educate South Carolinians about the dangers of HIV and AIDS a world away and here at home.
“It’s become a big part of me,” she says. “It’s nice to do something I love and help out a good organization.”
From the time she stepped foot on the plane to come back to the states, Keeney says she was ready to plan another trip back. She’ll be returning to Africa in a few weeks for a two-month stay with the help of local contributors, including Kudu Coffeehouse owner John Saunders.
The trip will begin in Botswana and Zambia, where she will document Grassroot Soccer’s other programs before heading back to Zimbabwe. She’ll then visit South Africa, where Grassroot is working with local mining camps to expand the AIDS education program. After harsh rebukes towards South Africa during the recent AIDS summit, education is a top priority.
“There’s a lot of pressure to set it up,” Keeney says. Grassroot will be a good fit for South Africa, with the 2010 World Cup planned in the country.
Before she goes, Keeney is holding two special events this weekend to go toward her work with Grassroot. On Saturday, Sept. 9, Kudu Coffee House will host a fund-raiser from 6-8 p.m. with prints for sale, a silent auction, door prizes, and music by Toca Toca. Beer and wine will be served. Keeney will also have a table set up at the Charleston Battery game against Rochester at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10, at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island. All profits from both events will go to Grassroot Soccer.
One teen that helps Grassroot Soccer with its education programs told Keeney that these children take the message just as seriously as the adults do.
“He said, ‘We’re the future of Zimbabwe. If we don’t make change, there won’t be a Zimbabwe,'” she says. “They realize something has to be done.”
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