Bruce Pelz, an honors graduate of the University of Colorado, came to Tanzania to study and conduct research for his honors thesis on “The Future Environmental Views of Children across Cultures and Socioeconomic Class” in 2010 with the School for International Training. After graduation, Bruce became a Co-Founder of the Maji Safi Group and is currently living in Shirati full time as Maji Safi’s Vice President and Secretary. This is Bruce’s story of Maji Safi’s exciting new soccer program and how the love of this game can help teach communities about disease prevention.
It had come down to the final moments of a penalty shootout. With music playing in the background and Lake Victoria sparkling in the foreground, team “Msikiti” had the chance to snatch the under-15 final from team “Human” and take home the coveted chickens in the first ever Maji Safi KUKU Cup. The venue was a pitch at a shore side school under construction that had just reopened after a one-month break. The circle of 200 people I was standing in could only make me think of how we live in a world of cycles, more specifically habitual cycles.
Sota is a fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria. It is known for high rates of open defecation, Bilharzia (a parasitic disease that is estimated to infect 75% of all primary school children from bathing in the Lake), and chronic diarrhea as a consequence of drinking untreated and unprotected water. These cycles are the result of poor sanitation and hygiene in a fishing culture where life is lived on a day-to-day basis. In spite of these living conditions, the human spirit and an intense love for soccer now appeared to have started to kick these cycles and bring attention to preventing the diseases that historically have paralyzed development in Sota. The KUKU Cup seemed to be working.
What is a KUKU Cup, you might ask. In Tanzania, it is very common for soccer tournaments to be organized with animals as trophies. There are KONDO Cups (Sheep), MBUZI Cups (Goats), and KUKU Cups (Chickens), but you could probably use just about any animal as the trophy. The Maji Safi Community Water Workers (CWWs) took it upon themselves to take this tradition and combine it with our mission of preventing disease through holistic community empowerment. All the CWWs asked for were teaching materials and 2 balls. Subsequently, they organized a 3-week tournament where there would be an afternoon game three times a week. In order for a team to be eligible to play in the afternoon, the participating players were required to attend the 1 hour lesson about disease prevention before the game.
This idea worked great with each lesson being attended by 30-40 youths who learned mostly about fecal-oral disease transmission and the Bilharzia cycle. As the weeks passed by, it was fun to see leaders emerge that dared go up to the board and educate their peers about these disease cycles that affect their daily lives so adversely. The participants also learned about taking Bilharzia medication (about $1.50) once a year to prevent this sometimes fatal disease from invading their organs. In a village on a peninsula with no running water, swimming in the Lake and getting Bilharzia are almost unavoidable. This new exposure to knowledge about an annual treatment and preventing disease is vital to all residents, and it can change rare family habits. Throughout the KUKU Cup, participants seemed to be committed and engaged in both the education and the soccer, with winning those chickens on their mind.
As “Msikiti’s” final penalty shot crossed the goal line, securing them the coveted chickens, the first ever Maji Safi KUKU Cup came to a close with a dramatic finish that was only fitting. With the music still blaring in the background and the water still sparkling in the foreground, smiles and laughter broke all the disease cycles that had been filling my mind. With the hand washing line still full of kids waiting for popcorn and the newly won KUKUs in the air, the power of soccer and sports was shining with the sun setting over Lake Victoria.