Joy…Not Just for Almonds
Nduta Refugee Camp, Tanzania—This week I had the absolute pleasure of facilitating a refresher training for Refugees United Soccer Academy (Academy) coaches in the Mtendeli refugee camp in Tanzania. I knew these coaches from my work in Tanzania last year and was overjoyed to see them again. When the head coach, Anaclet, saw me from a distance in the child-friendly space where the training took place, he took off at a break-neck speed to run up and give me one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever received, picking me off the ground and squeezing me so tight I thought my ribs would crack. It was the kind of hug that makes you realize the person hugging you never thought they’d see you again and they can’t believe you are really there; a moment filled with such joy that my cheeks hurt from smiling so much.
On day one of the training, it was clear that these six coaches: Anaclet, Irene, Claudine, Emery, Étienne, and Chantal, were experts in the RUSA program. When going over the basics, they anticipated everything I was going to say before I said it, citing the Academy principles and objectives like it was second nature. However, the first question came when covering the Academy coach responsibilities. The last responsibility listed in the Academy curriculum is ‘to enjoy’. Anaclet raised his hand and asked, “This means that we must bring joy to our players, yes?” When I said, “Yes, but…” he cut me off and, a loquacious and known orator, he immediately launched into a mini lecture to his fellow coaches about how it was their job to inspire their players and make sure they bring energy, positivity, and enthusiasm to every practice.
When he finished, I agreed with him, but then asked the group, “Why do you do this work? Why are you a RUSA coach?” Irene raised her hand and said, “Because the children in this camp have many problems, especially girls, and the RUSA program can help them.” Étienne nodded his head in agreement and said, “Because the RUSA program can help children build soccer skills AND life skills.” Chantal and Claudine nodded in agreement. Emery also chimed in saying, “Because we love football (soccer)!”
“This is all great!” I said and asked, “Do any of these things bring you joy?” The coaches were silent for a moment and looked at me as if I were crazy. I thought I had lost them completely until Anaclet said, “Of course these things bring us joy! We look forward to coaching every day!” Emery, a hot-shot soccer player himself, said, “I definitely enjoy being a Academy coach; I want to continue being an Academy coach even when I leave this place!” Étienne and Irene both nodded vigorously and said, “We do too! We want to coach internationally and become RUSA trainers!”
Chantal, who is five-months pregnant, and Claudine, who recently gave birth to her first child, echoed each other’s sentiments, explaining that life is hard in the camps with many hardships and a lot of stress, especially for women and mothers. However, when they work with the players in their academies, they have fun and enjoy themselves so much that they are relieved, at least temporarily, from the struggle of living in such difficult conditions. “Being a RUSA coach is a kind of psychological support for us” Claudine said, “When we are coaching, we forget the stress at home and enjoy being with our payers.”
“Do you think the joy that you feel when you are coaching gets passed on to your players?” I asked the group. As if a lightbulb went on in his head, Anaclet raised his hand and said, “I see. If we are enjoying what we are doing as coaches, this will help our players to also enjoy what they are doing in the Academy. Our payers bring us joy and we bring them joy; it is like a circle.” I smiled as all the other coaches nodded in agreement with the ah-ha moment.
“Does that answer your question?” I asked Anaclet. He smiled, chuckled a little, and said, “Yes, it’s very clear now. ‘To enjoy’ is not a responsibility, it is a privilege.”
These programs are entirely community-led. They made every decision from which day to run the program to what hours and to who will be on the teaching team each day. The teams are diverse and yet they have committed to working together.
Trust in the process. Trust in the modeling before the explanation. Trust in the people. Trust in the children, and they will trust you.
If there is anything that can foster community between people and across cultures, it is sharing a meal and a cup of tea. While we do that, we will also be sure to sprinkle in some early childhood development, mindfulness, and games!