The kids and I have started looking for more unconventional ways to pass the time as classes begin to wind down. After unsuccessfully trying to motivate my students to write more articles, I picked up a football (a soccer ball in English) and casually started kicking it around with Manav. The whole educational center surrounded us in a ring of curious faces and eager feet within five minutes. When one of my kicks strayed into the crowd, it was promptly returned with an excited yell. The game had begun.
In moments, dozens of little boys streamed onto the driveway to join in. It was one of the only times in my life that I have actually felt tall. Suddenly an island of a pink dress surrounded by shouts and wiggling limbs, I beckoned for the other girls to join me. They stared at me like I had three heads and then finally shook their heads “no” with arms crossed and eyes wary.
Something Lauren has frequently said about her sports and nutrition class is that the girls are usually reluctant to participate in the physical activities she has planned. I’ve definitely noticed this trend in my last two weeks here. In every game of football, I am the only female playing; both the girls and the boys are consistently surprised when I jump in to participate. It is a starkly different scene from the mixed gender games of kickball and “capture the flag” that I frequently see in my hometown. This makes me wonder if, somewhere along the line, women in Mauritius are being discouraged from being active. Where are they getting this idea that sports are strictly for men?
I’m sure that, in the inexperience of youth, the gangs of schoolboys that play football in the afternoons don’t exactly welcome their female schoolmates to participate. That’s not the problem. The problem is that there is no infrastructure in Mauritius that encourages young women to become athletes. Not only are sports leagues for girls virtually nonexistent, but a belief in equality of access to sports is also underdeveloped at best. While I recognize that this may be my Western bias toward gender parity speaking (and that extracurriculars are low on the list of priorities for a developing country), I think that a nation with diabetes and heart disease epidemics would benefit from incentivizing half of its population to become more physically active.
When I was younger, my dad gave me a book called How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer. Reading it was my first exposure to how important football is to communities outside of the U.S. Writes Foer,
“Soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.”
For adolescent boys in Mauritius, football is everything. The game is a conduit for social development, athleticism, and healthy entertainment. More importantly, it is the great equalizer. Unlike sports like lacrosse that seem to discriminate between the wealthy and the poor based on ability to afford equipment, a basic game of football requires only a ball and an open stretch of land. Football here is more than a game; it is a way of life.
Playing football with a group of aggressive, energetic kids is as hazardous as it sounds—I have the bruises on my ribs and legs to prove it. Manav, who is significantly shorter than the older boys, always gets roughed up too. I made the mistake of picking him off the ground and carrying him to the sidelines the first time he was pushed down; the others wouldn’t let him forget it. Apparently my protective instinct is a curse when it comes to peer respect for these young guys. It takes some self-control, but I am learning to let Manav discover how to fend for himself and earn his stripes among the group.
The students seem so alive when they are on the field. Seeing them like that has made me regret teaching a class that was just as academically rigorous as their school curriculums. Instead of giving them the break they deserved and letting them just be kids, I ended up creating the same problems that tuition, ELI Africa’s competitor, generates: burn-out and boredom. I hope that future ELI Africa Fellows will keep this lesson in mind when they are designing their summer programs. No matter how creative you think your idea may be, students will not be eager about a class that isn’t fun. Unfortunately for my students and me, I realized that lesson too late. The best I can do now is squeeze in as many football games as possible, learn to laugh, and let the kids score a goal on me every once in a while.