By Christian Konczal
Two months ago I was told to pack my bags because I was chosen to accompany the BREAKAWAY team on their journey across the globe. I was ecstatic. BREAKAWAY’s mission to help end violence against women and girls nationwide is a goal that is crucial and necessary. BREAKAWAY’s recent achievement at being a finalist for the 2016 Womanity Foundation award the BREAKAWAY team some well deserved attention for all the good they were doing. Along with the excitement I had in being a part of this impressive and meaningful group, I had also never thought I would get a chance to travel internationally in this lifetime. One rushed passport and thirty hours of plane rides and layovers later, there we were, looking at the Grand Daddy hotel in a city at the southernmost tip of Africa.
Prior to this year, I had never imagined that studying in Burlington, VT, would have such a profound impact on the way I see the world in terms of race, gender, and privilege. Growing up in Detroit gave me a certain perspective that I don’t typically find in my peers up here in New England; most of my formative events are are unimaginable to most of my friends. Witnessing gang violence firsthand, getting mugged walking around my grandmother’s neighborhood, and getting jumped on my way to school, those are things almost nobody in my circle can relate to. Those are things that happen to ‘other’ people, those living outside of the Vermont bubble. These discrepancies between my past and that of my peers bred an internal amusement when I heard anyone describe any town in Vermont as a “ghetto”. They just didn’t understand how much worse it could get. I had not realized that this unique perspective of mine had grown into outright arrogance until I set foot in South Africa.
Cape Town wasn’t too unlike most cities; it was bustling with life and had an energy that was as emphatic as it was contagious. We spent our first day working at Grassroot Soccer’s (GRS) headquarters, developing strategies on how to best compliment and combine each other’s programs. GRS runs soccer camps around the world, with a focus on empowering girls and spreading HIV awareness and treatment. We knew our programs had similar goals and methods, so it wasn’t really a question of ‘if’ it was more a question of ‘how’. After a day spent brainstorming at the headquarters, the next few days were spent on the ground implementing our ideas in a township called Khayelitsha.
Khayelitsha is located in the Western Cape, South Africa on Cape Flats in the city of Cape Town. It is the largest and fastest growing township in South Africa. It was like nothing I had seen before. It was in these next few days that I would find the very foundation upon which I viewed on the world violently shaken, and drastically changed. Up until this point, life in Cape Town didn’t seem so dissimilar to life in New York, Boston, or Detroit. Five minutes outside city limits, I already found myself floored at how wrong I was. Thousands of dwellings pieced together by scrap metal and sweat littered the countryside. Vendors lined the streets selling everything from bike scraps to loose fiberglass insulation. Dead dogs laid torn up in the streets getting eaten by other wandering strays, unnoticed by passers-by. In the midst of all this were the children. The children your mother used to guilt you with when you wouldn’t finish your vegetables. Those poor African children who would give anything to spend a day in your life. There they were, right in front of me. I watched them play and laugh joyfully, blind to the poor conditions around them. All of this was juxtaposed against some of the most beautiful mountain scenery you will ever see. I was convinced that if hopelessness had a name, it was Khayelitsha. But, I was wrong, Buried in the township’s center, hidden behind barred windows and gated doors, was a veritable fountain of hope.
We began working in the Football for Hope center in Khayelitsha with the GRS’ coaches These women ranging in age from 17 to 22, gave us all a true appreciation for their great efforts and struggles. These were some of the strongest people, I have ever met. They were smart, and wholly dedicated to their mission of helping their community. In a country where a man having multiple girlfriends is lauded, and beating your wife is an expectation, these women live in a sphere of second-class citizenship that I can barely comprehend. Yet there they were, giving it their all to help girls and boys half their age. They spent the day running us through the GRS curriculum, which included a lot of activity and open discussions about gender disparities and the stigmas that surround HIV. The second point might seem out of context of the program, but it was extremely relevant information for someone uninformed with the area. It wasn’t until 2008 that the government in South Africa stopped denying that HIV actually existed. For a very long time there was an extremely high prevalence of ignorant beliefs in South Africa concerning HIV. Many thought that having sex with a virgin would cure you of AIDS, regardless of consent. This blatant misinformation is extremely hard to uproot in a society where basic access to information is so limited.
After working with the GRS coaches and seeing how they structure their curriculum, it was our turn to show them how the BREAKAWAY team approaches camps and curriculum. We set up about a dozen laptops and introduced them to BREAKAWAY, a game developed at Champlain that combines episodic storytelling with fast-paced soccer minigames. This activity was unbelievably informative and eye opening. It was an endless current of information, and we were desperately writing down everything we could. Introducing keyboard controls, finding out the high rate of illiteracy, as well as a number of localized issues with the story were all difficulties you can’t imagine until you are right there in the trenches slogging through with your team and volunteers. Throughout this period of high stress and emotion, there were glimpses of true success. Watching them go through the, ‘a-hah!’, moment of playing a videogame, the moment when the pieces come together and they just get it was amazing. Hearing sporadic cries of success when scoring a goal or beating a challenge was a shot of adrenaline to the morale. Hearing how excited they were that a girl was actually in a videogame, and playing soccer, choked us up. After this experience we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that BREAKAWAY was going to have a lasting effect here, and we could not have been more excited.
Our last day was spent in Khayelitsha watching GRS hold its finale for one of their camps. They had a day long tournament on their soccer pitch, as well an HIV testing booth that anyone was encouraged to take part of. Outside of the booth was a line of girls who couldn’t have been older than 13 standing, visibly shaken by what they were about to do. I heard from a number of GRS coaches and staff that even the director Ann DeMarle, took it upon herself to get tested and show these young girls that there wasn’t any need to be afraid. Everyone is vulnerable. There should be no associated shame or guilt. I however spent that day being beleaguered by a gang of small children. I made the mistake of letting them see my sunglasses, and after that point they were stuck to my hip and insisted on showing me everything they could, laughing at my inability to understand anything they said. It was a beautiful day, and a fitting end to our week spent abroad.
I have never felt so blessed and so grateful as I do now. Thanks to the EMC and BREAKAWAY I was able to see parts of the world I have only ever heard about, witness struggles and adversity that gave clarity and perspective to my own past experiences, and expanded my views and on the world as a whole. I have never been so motivated and energized to continue the fight against gender violence, not just at home but across the globe. My memories of our work in South Africa will last with me forever. It is one of the most validating experiences to know that there are teams of people actively fighting for what they believe is “right” and “fair”, regardless of the sacrifices made, and realizing that I had the fortune to help them in that struggle even in the smallest of ways.
If anyone reading this wants to learn more or help in their own small way, please go to http://breakawaygame.champlain.edu