The Japanese football players from Peace Boat were in a boisterous mood as their minibus convoy rolled through streets of Toamasina on Sunday. Chants echoed off the Mercedes’ aluminum roof, camera shutters clicked, and shirtsleeves flapped at open windows.
With Peace Boat docked in Madagascar’s second city, participants in the ship’s Peace Ball programme visited SOS Children’s Village’s Football Center to play a series of friendly matches there, and learn about how the international NGO supports vulnerable children in the country.
“Wherever you go in the world, even if you just have a ball made out of duct tape, you can connect with people through soccer,” said Kurita Arata, a member of the Peace Ball team. Outside, pus pus drivers thickened the morning traffic on National Road #2, and canted shacks sold meat, batteries and scrap metal.
The football center, situated on the grounds of the NGO’s 12-hectare Toamasina complex, aims to teach life skills and build self-esteem, and facilitates scholarship through sport. This year it is celebrating its tenth anniversary.
SOS Children’s Villages International originated in Austria as an initiative to protect abandoned children following World War II. Hermann Gmeiner, SOS’ founder, housed war orphans and widows together to create surrogate family structures that would provide a safe and nurturing environment for children to grow up in.
In Madagascar, where approximately 69% of the population lives below the national poverty line threshold of one dollar per day, children’s rights are an acute issue. Herinirina Mamy Razatovo, the football center’s director, said that around half of Malagasy children did not attend school, and that parental abandonment was also common in the country.
With around 50 students in tow, the Peace Ball group toured the SOS Children’s Village in Toamasina. Some of the children held hands with the Japanese visitors, some kicked around a football, and others chased long-legged roosters through the jackfruit trees. In addition to the two soccer pitches, SOS’ complex incorporates school classrooms and a canteen; a library; a medical center; and lodgings for the most vulnerable women and children.
In one lodging, where ten children lived with an adopted mother and ‘aunt’, a school assignment about the earth’s crust and drawings of cars, flowers and Disney characters were tacked to the wall next to bunk beds. Beyond the village’s perimeter fence, neighborhood kids looked on at the Peace Boat tour.
In 2013, SOS supported close to 30,000 children across Madagascar, but centers like the one in Toamasina are oversubscribed and the organization has to deny places to many children.
“Each time I saw kids begging on the side of the road, I questioned whether they also needed the kind of help SOS provides,” said Peace Boat passenger Nagai Misato, who had joined the tour.
Last December Hery Rajaonarimampianina was elected President of Madagascar, ending a four-year political crisis in the country following a coup d’état in 2009. The election– deemed free and fair by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – saw Madagascar re-admitted to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade regime, and the reopening of various channels of foreign aid.
But commentators such as Brian Klaas have suggested that the leadership race was more about personality than policies, with Rajaonarimampianina and his rival Dr. Jean-Louis Robinson effectively proxies for ineligible former presidents.
According to Football Center Director Razatovo, the election result has changed little in Toamasina. “We have our president, but we are not politically stable in Madagascar,” he said. The morning of Peace Boat’s arrival there had been a power cut at the center and Razatovo suggested that the government’s inability to deliver on promises such as fixing unreliable electricity networks was causing a resurgence of political tension.
After a lunch made by students at SOS’s culinary school – one of the vocational courses on offer at the center – members of the Peace Ball team warmed up on a dirt soccer pitch. Bare-footed Malagasy supporters, who threw their arms up in unison with the stretching Japanese and chanted a chorus of Japonaise, Japonaise, joined the Peace Ball team on one field. On the other field, the soccer center’s men’s and women’s teams prepared for the game.
Despite a goal by volunteer interpreter Jason Shon, the superior organization and endurance of the Malagasy players proved decisive. “They had very good teamwork and were technically very talented,” said Peace Ball footballer Kusanagi Hiroaki. “In the second half, the Japanese team could hardly keep up with the Malagasy team.”
In the women’s game, played on an adjacent pitch, the Malagasy team also defeated Peace Ball’s women’s team 5-0.
According to Razatovo, the popular appeal of football makes it easier to reach children who may not attend school or enjoy a stable and secure family environment.
“The Football Life Skills program is about making a parallel between the techniques of football with educational life skills,” he said in an interview after the game. “Most of the children here do not have good self-esteem, so we have to build it up again.”
Through learning to control a football, students at the center are taught about the importance of self-control, which is supplemented by lessons on safe sex and HIV awareness; a strong women’s team challenges traditional gender roles in the country.
The football center also encourages students to return to school and supports them through the provision of study materials, parental sensitization programs, and academic scholarships. In cases where children show academic promise, SOS will even finance university education, but often the focus is on basic literacy. “We consider it a great success if we can convince [the children who attend the football center] to go back to school,” said Razatovo.
Helendros Julien Rakotonandrasana, an 18-year-old football player on the Malagasy team said, “Through the Life Skills Program, I learned to respect others; to be serious in my studies; and to be focused on what I want to do.”
Rakotonandrasana, whose father died when he was a child and whose mother struggled to support him financially, first came to the football center when he was 11 years old. Rakotonandrasana matriculated from junior high school a year early and plans to attend university next year and eventually become a forensic police officer. “If I didn’t come to the center, I don’t think I would have stayed in school; I would be a street guy,” he said through an interpreter.
Before leaving to return to the ship, Peace Ball team members donated 98 footballs, 19 pairs of football boots, t-shirts, and school stationary to SOS.
Onboard representative of the Peace Ball program Masagaki Naoto explained that the goods had been sourced from Japan in consultation with SOS. He said that for the Peace Ball team members, many of whom had been involved in collecting the items before the ship left Japan, being involved in the collection process, sorting and packaging goods and giving something tangible was more meaningful than making a monetary contribution.
“It’s such a simple thing but just one ball can make a huge difference,” said team member Tohda Kazuma who captained his university football team and is considering becoming a high school PE teacher when he returns to Japan.
“In Japan sports are not seen as academic or something through which life skills can be taught, whereas here they really bring it into focus: it’s the means through which they teach students about life, about different subjects. That is a perspective I think I can bring back,” he said through an interpreter.