A new lease of life through football
By Marjolein Roelandt
02 September 2013: Sipping from his cup of tea and eating a biscuit, you wouldn’t believe this shy man comes from one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in Blantyre. Isaac Osman, known as Jomo, after the famous South African soccer player, dropped out of school at a young age. Education wasn’t a priority in his village and when faced with hardships at school no one was available to support or encourage him.
He tells me this with regret in his voice, but strength seeps through when he comes to the subject that really matters to him: girls’ education. “Having experienced it myself, I know how important it is to have someone believe in you when you are doubting yourself or when no one has your back. I had no one to support me when I left school, and for girls it’s even harder. I realized I could make a difference”.
And so he did. Combining his love for sports with his passion to educate young people, he started creating soccer and netball teams and motivating young people to join. Jomo found a partner in Active Youth for Social Enhancement (Ayise), a youth run NGO that has a youth centre is based in the Blantyre slums of Bangwe. Over time, the number of youth joining the teams increased, and Jomo is now managing eight netball and soccer teams. With support from UNICEF under the Girls Only Sports Programme, the centre offers a safe space for young people to develop healthy relationships and have access to information and resources targeted specifically for them. Through sports and recreation, both in school and out of school youth have an opportunity to interact and to simply be young. This centre has been a great success and a replica is currently under construction courtesy of UNICEF UK National Committee as part of the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games partnership.
Although sport is important, the members of the teams understand that one thing will always be put first: education. Through organizing netball and soccer tournaments, Jomo and Ayise want to use sport as a means to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS and the importance of education. Their perfect representatives are Jomo’s senior soccer team, the Ntopwa Super Queens. The girls are unanimous when it comes to Jomo: he saved them from not receiving any education at all. Most of the players come from families where their brothers where given preference over them in terms of accessing education. Jomo offered them a spot in his soccer team, on one condition that the girls had to go to school. Although the Malawian Government abolished school fees for primary school in 1994, fees for secondary school still stand. Apart from having a cultural disadvantage, the girls also faced the problem of lacking the funds to pay for education, an obstacle Jomo helped them overcome by paying for them. The little money he has, goes to his teams.
The girls speak about him with endless gratitude and Jomo leaves us, not wanting to take the credit they are giving him. “Many of our friends don’t go to school, so they get married, crushing their chances of ever graduating. Others get pregnant or infected by HIV, because they never learnt about the risks of having unprotected sex and don’t want to refuse boys, but we don’t want to fall back to immoral behaviour. Jomo does great work, giving us a chance on education, believing in us where others stopped caring, but it’s so hard for him sometimes. People believe he does all this for the wrong reasons, they say he wants to use us, but nothing is less true. He is truly a good man.”
Not only is Jomo a kind man, he also does a wonderful job coaching the team. Ntopwa Super Queens are currently competing in Malawi’s premiere league and three of the players have been selected for the national team, having played international games against Zambia and Lesotho. The success of the team is one aspect that makes the girls dream of more. “We want to use the little fame we have to raise awareness about the importance of education, especially for girls. If everyone could only know about the work Jomo does, we could get more funding to bring our message to even more people, and Jomo wouldn’t be paying for all this himself.”
Jomo is already on the field outside, waiting for the next soccer training.
All it takes is someone to believe in you.