Friendship and life skills: Volleyball in Zambia

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“It’s so hard to put into words the experiences that we have had over the last two years. There have been a ton of challenges and it has changed the way I think about life.”

For Emma Fox, Saints Volleyball Outreach (SVO) volunteer, the Zambian project has a special place in her heart. Emma and St Andrews Volleyball President Hannah Berwian make up two of the five original members of the SVO programme which launched in the autumn of 2012. I was grateful to interview both Emma and Hannah, where I followed the story of their incredible journey and marvelled at the concept of a volleyball team from the University of St Andrews making a difference in Zambian schools.

SVO was launched in 2012 after founding member Britt Martin returned from a volunteering trip in the capital of Zambia, Lusaka. In volunteering as a volleyball coach she was amazed by the Zambian pupils’ enthusiasm to learn and impressed by their knowledge of the game and their skills. Low popularity levels for the sport in the UK meant that there was a lack of volunteers. This was irritating, especially when Britt witnessed a group of young people in Zambia who were eager to learn. This is why the initiative was launched.

A foundation for success and this support system, coupled with encouragement from the Athletic Union, propelled it to fruition. After the success of their first trip in the summer of 2012, the five girls became seven and they set to work planning their next trip for May 2014.

From busking in the streets to “volleying” across Edinburgh, to a date auction, the girls appealed for sponsorship through myriad events. Fundraising is integral and a lot of effort is put into organising drives. As Emma states: “most of the costs go into really implementing our programme in Zambia. Last year the big focus was that as little money as possible would go into our flights, that we would cover those costs through individual fundraising. All the group fundraising would go towards the actual projects we undertook in Zambia”.

It is hard to verbalise the experiences that this group of girls were part of in 2014. Each day, they would split up into teams to ensure that their reach within the Zambian community was widespread.

A typical day consisted of a placement at school, where the girls would begin with P.E. sessions in the morning and follow on with afternoon sessions of volleyball practice. The focus was not solely on volleyball, though. As Hannah points out: “These P.E. sessions were not just about learning the technique of a sport: we also taught some kind of life skill. For example, we would work on certain values and communication skills but we would also talk about drugs and HIV/ AIDS prevention”.

The latter is of huge importance as Zambia has one of the worst known HIV and AIDS records. UN statistics from 2013 estimate that there are approximately 150,000 children aged 0-14 living with AIDS. Through sport, SVO are able to help the children respond or prepare for challenges that they may face by providing them with important information and offering them support.

In Chipata,Emma undertook coaching duties for an U17 boys team. This group of players boasted an impressive skill level and they would challenge any British team their age. She was impressed by the camaraderie between the players and each day she watched them connect and grow closer together as an effective unit.

Organising a community league seemed like a natural step for the progression of this programme. According to Hannah: “The league was meant to be held monthly, so four schools would come together at one of the schools to play.

“This would create an incentive for the kids to go to practise because they knew that they would have a game which made them excited as they would have to work hard to beat Chipata!” The first tournament ran smoothly and the girls hoped that this would be something that the community would continue to sustain in their absence.

For SVO maintaining ties with the local Zambian NGO Sport In Action is important for their continuing success. The peer leaders involved with this organisation were encouraged to support the initiatives that the girls introduced and ensure their application throughout the remainder of the year. Working in tandem with the peer leaders provided a forum for discussion and the sharing of ideas from very different perspectives, which proved beneficial for both parties.

Looking to the future, as Hannah and Emma approach their graduation in May 2015, they are determined that the legacy of SVO does not end with them and are looking to establish it as an annual event in the University calendar. As well as this, SVO wishes to expand their reach within the UK and involve other volleyball teams from universities across the country. They believe that this experience is hugely worthwhile and of mutual benefit to both the volunteers and the Zambian children alike.

However, teaching volleyball is not their sole objective. In fact, for the volunteers most of the memories happen off-court. Building on the bonds they had forged the previous year, developing their friendships, and offering help where it was needed was truly the most rewarding.

For Hannah, “just talking to them about their everyday life or what they were doing in school was something that I really enjoyed. I also gave some extra lessons to the kids because they had exams coming up and they needed extra help. I went to their homes and saw how they lived and this was really special for me.

“To see where they lived and how they often had 7 brothers or sisters – they even sometimes don’t have parents at all. It was impressive to see them overcome these circumstances because it is really different to how we live.”

The volleyball club should be commended for their use of sport to cross cultural borders and to help make an impact in this world.

The girls also maintain an up-to-date Facebook page where they have uploaded a video “Our Zambia: the Official After-film 2014”, which chronicles their time spent in Africa and offers an insight into the activities they were involved in.

Most apparent was the passion these children in Zambia exhibited: they would turn up to practice early and have everything set up and organ- ised for their coaches on arrival. Both Hannah and Emma agreed that it was this level of commitment, energy and enthusiasm married with the high levels of love and dedication that inspired them as volunteers to continue to provide them with the opportunity to play, as well as the necessary equipment to do so. For Saints Volleyball Outreach, summer 2015 is shaping up to be filled with yet more success.

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