Playing Football With Care Bears in Tanzania [Ice Cream Sundae]

I first found out about The Great Football Giveaway thanks to a post in my friend Neil’s blog, I think back in 2008 if memory serves. I was immediately hooked by the simple and compelling idea: 1 ball = £10
 
Thanks to donations from supporters, The Great Football Giveaway organises trips to go and give footballs and netballs directly to children to play with, in poor and remote areas of rural African countries. I highly recommend watching this short video about the project; it really says it all and more. If your heart doesn’t melt watching it you might be on your way to become like Professor Coldheart, I’m afraid even the Care Bears can’t help you.
 
Quick parenthesis to give you the chance to read this Sundae along with music; last week my good friend James recommended checking out an event his friend John was putting on at The Social in London. He used to organise large Afro-beat parties in China under the name No Go Die a few years ago. The music was excellent for dancing and appropriate for this Sundae about Africa. Here’s a good No Go Die mix, I’m listening to it while writing this.

Back to our main topic, I loved the simplicity of it: £10 = 1 ball.

Stripping down an initiative to an extremely simple proposition, getting to the essence of a message is exactly the kind of challenges I tackle as a marketing and brand strategist. This is the kind of clarity I aspire to as a result of my work.
 
You know exactly what you’re getting and what is being done with the money.
 
Moreover, you’ll be shown. Supporters get updates about each trip as it’s taking place: photos, videos and even their personalised messages on balls. Supporters know exactly what happened the day the ball they donated £10 for was given.
 
Nobody says it’s going to solve the world’s toughest issues.
 
It’s not feeding the hungry or curing diseases.
 
It is however going to make the day of one or several children in rural Africa who likely only had bunched up plastic supermarket bags tied with string to use as a makeshift ball until then.
 
It brings play and the widest smiles on faces you’ve ever seen. The joy is infectious, whole communities, schools and sometimes even entire villages join the kids to play ball and have fun.

It’s serendipitous.
It’s a gift.
It’s sheer happiness.
After all, what else are we after?

And if you can afford it, that’s definitely worth £10.
 
I also find this kind of project fascinating because it’s a positive difference made on a micro-scale, for one or several kids somewhere in rural Africa.
 
Of course it doesn’t replace initiatives that I’d qualify of acting at a macro-scale; large non-profit organisations like Save the Children or UNICEF being good examples. I’m no expert on the way they operate, though I understand their goals, infrastructure and methods are anchored in a long-term and large-scale view of humanitarian and developmental assistance. We could say it’s more of the “top down” view of making a positive difference.
 
This doesn’t invalidate organisations and projects working on what could be called “bottom up” initiatives like The Great Football Giveaway. On the contrary, every time they have an occasion to collaborate, larger charities are delighted to get footballs for kids to play with.
 
TGFG also focuses on remote areas that don’t have as many visits or activities from other charities, an important point of difference. These kinds of initiatives can also be amplifiers of larger charities working with children who might be lacking in simple and playful fun.

Fast forward to 2010; Neil is looking for volunteers to go to Tanzania with him.

He announced on his blog that he is forming one of the first teams of volunteers to raise money for balls and then go give them directly out to kids in rural Tanzania. He was hoping to find two people adventurous enough to follow him; eight of us raised our hands from a variety of backgrounds: advertising, media, coaching, hospitality and sales. Hugh who appeared on my podcast was one, and later my brother Björn and his wife Justine also joined the team.
 
We raised money through our personal networks and organised a fundraising event in London. In the end we had about 2,000 footballs and netballs, almost as many hand pumps and just under two weeks to go and give them out. We were given a broad geographic area to cover and a one-page sheet with a few bullet-point guidelines about the best ways to give the balls. Things like: “Always give the ball directly to a child, not an adult unless you’re certain they are in a position to give the ball and let the children play fairly (like a school teacher). Other adults might sooner take the ball from kids and play themselves, or sell the ball for cash.”
 
The rest of the planning was pretty much up to us. The area was the Southeast of Tanzania, one of the country’s poorest. Most of the international attention and assistance in the country goes to the capital, Dar Es Salaam and Arushanear Mount Kilimanjaro. After a little bit of research I suggested we make the small town of Kilwa Masoko on the coast our main base, from there we’d split out to cover more ground in three separate teams in different directions.
 
We also took a few days to drive down to the town of Lindi, approximately 150 kilometres to the South, and give balls on the way.
 
The whole experience was so mind-blowing that for months I didn’t know where to start or what to write in my blog about it. It’s definitely one of the best and most exciting things I’ve done in my life. While we don’t necessarily see each other very often, nor are we necessarily close friends, I know the nine of us on this trip remember it dearly. From the first drink we shared after landing in Dar Es Salaam we kicked things off laughing and taking the piss out of each other as if we’d been friends for years. We formed bonds and memories that will last for life.

We all saw the opportunity to contribute to something exciting and fun. We were also all in some kind of important transition, like changing careers or thinking about it.

We improvised and learned on the go. We had three four-wheel drive jeeps with local drivers to also help us translate and make recommendations about the best places to go. The container of balls had been delivered to Kilwa. Every day we’d stop at the container to fill the back of the jeeps with deflated balls. The two sitting in the back would start pumping them full, ready to be given and played with. At least in my jeep, the person in front usually decided where we’d be going, often randomly, or with instructions from a previously met person.
 
In the jeep we’d say things like, “Hey look, a dirt path there! Let’s turn left and see where it goes” or “I think I spotted a school to the right, let’s check it out!” Whether we’d come across random groups of children, schools, or remote bush villages each day was filled with joy and surprises.
 
Online research had yielded little results as to other non-profit organisations we could contact in advance, as we had been told this area of the country wasn’t particularly visible or known. Still, Neil had located and contacted an orphanage South of Dar Es Salaam that we could stop and visit on the way to Kilwa. The joy and happiness of the kids playing ball was beautiful. The establishment specialised in getting orphan children off the streets of the capital to care for them and provide them with an education.

Play is vital for children but with a tight budget essential amenities are of course prioritised; footballs, netballs and hand pumps that they couldn’t afford were welcomed and loved.

We organised playful competitions with the children to “win” the balls for the orphanage. In similar circumstances we’d talk with people in charge at the orphanage or schools to quiz the children on lessons they had recently learned. Other times we’d come across a few kids playing and stop to just throw a ball at them.
 
We were emboldened and excited by our first day, thinking we’d figured this whole thing out. The following day we thought we didn’t planning, closed the large map Neil had set on a table and just pointed on the map to the nearest town, Kilwa Kivinje.
 
It was a Sunday morning.
 
We hadn’t paid attention to the day of the week.

It was a chilling experience.

From the moment we showed up and gave a first ball things didn’t go as hoped — it was immediately was stolen from a larger teen who ran away, we saw adults adults stealing balls and fighting over them It was either mass or market day so the centre of town was busy with people, quickly driving a raving crowd to almost assaulting the jeeps of these crazy Mzungu giving brand new footballs away.
 
The feeling going on was nothing like what we intended, it was aggressive, greedy, with a hint of violence in the air.

We retreated, a little shaken and confused.

We stopped on the way of the town, close by what seemed to be a makeshift football pitch. Some of us started talking about what went wrong with the drivers. Meanwhile, I think it was Darren and Hugh, took a football from a jeep, walked up to the pitch and starting kicking the ball. That attracted the attention of a couple of nearby kids. They invited them to come and play. In no time we had a several groups of kids playing and having fun with us on the pitch.
 
The drivers helped us organise a quiz to give away a few balls, having the children promise to play together. The magic was back.
 
We put more thinking into our planning after that. We organised our days around going to schools in the area as a main objective, and branching out from there if we saw random kids, or heard of other worthwhile establishments to visit.

On our way to Lindi we drove by another jeep with a Save the Children logo.

We flagged them down and learned they were a small unit providing pre and post-natal care to women in remote bush villages. We gave them a bunch of balls so they could give them in the much further away villages we wouldn’t have time to visit ourselves. I’d write messages and take photos of all the balls my friends had donated money for, so I could tell them exactly where the money went.
 
In the evenings, we’d regroup and talk about our experiences of the day, trying to make sense of it all — from sometimes feeling kind of useless with meagre footballs in the face of so much needed in the country like health care, education, infrastructure, clean water, and more. And the following moment, one of us would share one of the magical moments we kept having of sheer happiness of these kids playing. We also had memorable laughs and stories around the dinner table and drinking the local firewater with the actual image of a fire on the label; Konyagi.

We weren’t helping solve tough issues yet we also knew that whatever we were doing was so emotional and magical that I’m certain it was valuable.

I guess this could be what I’d like to leave you with for this newsletter. As we grow up and become adults, we might occasionally take too much of a serious approach to what’s important. We worry about our work, taxes, paperwork, healthcare, retirement, etc.
 
Of course these are all important but ultimately not the best indicators of happiness or even fulfilment. In your planning of everything serious and important for your life, make sure to leave room for play too.
 
Whatever play you enjoy: kicking a ball with friends or children, playing a game, finger painting, playing a musical instrument, or even fun behind closed doors with your partner.

Happiness is never far away from play, and that’s kind of invaluable.

If you have £10 to spare or more, why not give a ball to a child somewhere in rural Africa?
 
Thanks for reading, as every week I really appreciate your time. If you’ve enjoyed it and know someone else who might, can you forward them the email please? Sharing it on social media also works, look to the bottom and you’ll find buttons to post it on Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin.
 
If you’re looking for something to listen to as well, this week I published a fun and fascinating conversation with Anjali Ramachandran for my podcast. Anjali is the Head of Innovation for a global media agency and also co-founded an online support network for women in technology and business, Ada’s List.
 
To finish, I’ve officially completed my last client project, if ever you hear of anyone looking for a brand & marketing strategist (preferably in London) please keep in touch, I’d be glad to be introduced and find out how I can help.
 
Till next week!
 
Cheers
Willem

This newsletter was originally published via email on the 1oth April 2016. You can also sign up to receive the newsletter on the website to receive it first. Ice Cream for Everyone is a marketing & brand strategy consultancy.

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