Football for Reconciliation: “The Beautiful Game” transforms Local Communities in Sierra Leone

[This is part of a series of posts I’m porting over from my old blog. This particular post was written in early 2010. My writing style has changed a lot since then, but it’s still cool to read and republish some of the old stuff I’ve written a while back]

Last Christmas, Nebe Warutere conveyed his deep remorse to Elizabeth Kena under the “peace tree” — a traditional venue where conflicts were resolved in Sierra Leone. The meeting sparked the beginning of a series of talks between Warutere and Kena. Kena had been Warutere’s rape-victim during the Sierra Leone civil war. Through a reconciliation process that, unexpectedly, got kickstarted by a football match, Kena ultimately forgave her transgressor.

“Soccer has an intriguing power to bring people together: when people gather to play, history, race, and culture is put aside, and people focus on the game,” said Jakob Silas Lund, founder of Play31, a non-profit organization that taps into the power of sport to gather and reconcile post-conflict communities in Sierra Leone. Two years since its inception, Play31 has organized football tournaments and other community-building activities in various parts of West Africa such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea — areas that for a decade have suffered the brunt of war.

Nebe and Elizabeth’s gathering was a direct result of their presence at a Play31 match held last December; due to the post-war segregation in Sierra Leone, they would not have met otherwise. Asked if it was the exclusive quality of football that impacted the local community, Lund claimed that ultimately, soccer was just the means and not the end: “It was just one way that I saw worked effectively to unite the people in Sierra Leone. The tools could be a lot of things other than that.”

The matches, which will continue till March this year, help create the space for individuals in the community to build friendship. Approximately 1,200 people attended a match held in the Kono district in East Sierra Leone last December. The energy at these matches was soaring and the demographics surprising: not only did more women participate in the matches than men, children and adults formed equal number of teams. Participants and spectators would also often remain after the matches to participate in communal dinners and dances organized by Play31.

The local Sierra Leone community playing with a Play31 football

Pel Koroma, a previous refugee from Guinea, who now works to oversee Play31 matches, is excited about the use of “reconciliation-based” approaches to rebuilding West Africa. “In a diamond-feeding zone that was completely raided by the rebels during the war, almost every structure in the kono district was burnt down and destroyed. It was moving to see different villages come together,” noted Koroma. In areas such as the Moyamba district where the “section head quarter town” was burnt down during the war, the villages were divided and split in competition, each vying to replace the “section head.” The most recent “Football for Reconciliation” match enabled the divided sections, for the first time since the war, to bury their division and form a united team against another village. As the chief of the Mye section, who declined to be named, noted, “The various factions worked together for a common purpose and banked on the fact that they will be stronger when united. This was a big step for them.”

Since Koroma’s involvement with Play31, he has become active in reporting news on West African development, and is now an active advocacy for peace-building in Sierra Leone. As a refugee from guinea, he previously found difficulty finding work at the remnant organizations in Sierra Leone after the war. He currently also serves as a communications director for “Forum of Conscience” — a human rights organization based in Sierra Leone that acts as Play31’s partner NGO.

Forum of Conscience has been instrumental in helping Play31 set up matches tailored to each community. “NGO programs have to be driven not just by foreigners, but also by local people and initiatives,” said Lund. Indeed, the values of two neighboring villages in Sierra Leone can be strikingly different, and there seems to be little way a foreign organization can assume understanding of these values without local guidance. Freedom of Conscience has helped Play31 tap into existing dynamics and organizational structures in Sierra Leone, which had been key to the setup of Play31 matches tailored to each community.

The Play31 matches have not only allowed communities to engage in conflict resolution, they have triggered infrastructural development within the villages. Communities are eager to build houses and schools nearby “match venues”, and there has also been talk to incorporate football into official school curriculum. On the other hand, the organization has been careful not to galvanize opposing teams in a negative way. Over-competitiveness between two villages has caused the cancellation of matches two hours prior to their commencement, and both Lund and Koroma are careful to emphasize fair play as well as the end-goal of reconciliation to these matches.

As the rainy season approaches, Play31 will likely branch out into other indoor activities and sports such as Handball. Their expansion and activities, however, has largely been dependent on external donations and the availability of funds. Lund has no doubt that if larger donors witnessed the impact Play31 has on the Sierra Leone communities, they would be compelled to give to the organization generously. Despite recently receiving a rejection from a larger donor to Lund’s request for funding, he maintains optimism. “We will still continue to apply for grants, and have continuously been encouraged by smaller donations.” A particularly touching gift was a 700- dollar donation from a woman last month whose 9-year-old daughter — compelled by her love for soccer and the United Nations — offered to use her birthday party as a fundraiser for Play31. Play31 has also recently been elected the official charity of the International Soccer Film Festival in New York. “These smaller donations have been the lifeline of the organization,” noted Lund, who is inspired to expand Play31 in the future. “I idealized an organization that would advocate the basic right of play to build peace. Play31 is in that unique position to bring about real-impact to a community, and we will keep striving to do so.”