This piece was written in December 2010 before my evacuation.
Back in the day when YouTube streaming was plentiful, I’d often search for old Nike ads when I needed inspiration and a 30-second dose of motivation. My favorites include one of people doing various sports and each scene includes “I can” somewhere in the shot with “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verbe playing in the background and another, again with various athletic clips, pared to “All These Things that I’ve Done” by The Killers that states: All that I need is inside of me.
The one that seems to stick with me most is one from the early 90s (or so I think; I’d Google that but remember that I live a Googleless life) that featured young girls. The ad started with a string of “If you let me play sports …”. The girls, of various ethnicities, would then tell you that girls who play sports are more likely to succeed in education, leave a husband who beats them and pass through the teenage years without a pregnancy.
The girls in the ad were about my age, 9 or 10, and I was just discovering sports. I’had a quick affair with Peewee baseball but moved on to others that were more appealing to me — swimming, basketball, tennis and soccer. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was a four-season athlete: cross country in the fall; swimming in the winter; track and soccer in the spring; and swimming and softball in the summer.
Of these, the two that molded my adult life were running and swimming. Swimming was the first thing I fell in love with and it helped me remove a shy layer. After being humiliated in a dance class about my bigger stomach, swimming forced me to rebuild my confidence and see my strengths in other areas. (The year I quit dance was the one I decided to join swim team. I traded catty girls for a loving group of misfits. Those misfits and I are still friends.)
Swimming encouraged me to try other things, such as cross country, and I was hooked. Running helped me decide to attend SDSU, move to Idaho, move back to South Dakota and other smaller life decisions. It’s been my friend during breakups and breakthroughs. Wherever I go, including to the bush of West Africa, running comes a long.
Although cliché, it’s safe to assume I’d be a different person without athletics. I was never the best at any sport, actually I was often the worst, but I have a box full of “Hardest Worker” trophies and the I-don’t-take-rests attitude may be the reason I’ve become a full-time dream chaser.
But my story isn’t unique. Millions of girls are put on different paths because they wanted to try soccer or their parents insisted on tennis lessons. In Niger, girls aren’t given the same luxury. They work in the house, not play around with a ball. That’s for boys.
A group project for team Zinder is a two-weekend girls soccer tournament. Each volunteer invites his or her village to put together a team of 18 girls from the middle school to participate. In addition to giving girls an opportunity to play, there will be an AIDS awareness session. The idea is to empower and inform.
Since I opened a post, this will be my village’s first year participating in the tournament. Before I presented the idea, I had a sliver of doubt there would be any interest because, as a small, more conservative village, I’ve never seen girls do anything remotely athletic outside of their physical education class, which is primarily just running. I first informed the director of the school and the physical education teacher about the tournament and, hours later, girls were telling me how excited they were and boys were upset that it was only for girls. That had never happened before.
It’s the village’s responsibility to provide the team. I give them the tournament’s information (which is mostly paid for by Peace Corps, except for a community donation that is required for every PC project) and two soccer balls; the rest is up to them.
To start, they held a tryout, which seem unnecessary to me because I hardly thought they were would be more than 18 interested participants. Well, 27 girls showed up for the selection process.
It was evident that these girls never touched a ball before or had any previous athletic experience. Balls were kicked too hard or not hard enough and in no real direction. Just passing seemed difficult, let alone dribbling or shooting. It wasn’t pretty.
As I watched, my hope for these girls grew. This was only their first day. Maybe they’d work hard, pull something out of themselves they didn’t know they had and become the Cinderella team. They’d win the tournament, proving to the other towns that girls in the bush were not meant to be wrote off and they’d prove to themselves, and our village, that girls are meant for more than making babies and cooking food. It would be such a moving story, Disney would want to make it in to a movie and Foseroo would give it a “Worth the Full Movie Price” rating.
Or not. Maybe all that will come from this is an experience these girls would have never had. Maybe a piece of confidence or the idea that it’s OK to want and to have what the boys have.
My girls don’t care they are terrible. They laugh, make fun of each other and do cartwheels when it’s not their turn. “If you let her play sports …” I thought as I giggled along with them. If you let her play sports, her whole world can open. Mine sure did.