Football has been used in many different ways throughout history, but one of its most unique stories comes from West Africa, in war-torn Sierra Leone.
The country’s brutal civil war lasted 11 years and left over 50,000 people dead, but now once divided communities are being brought back together by an organisation called Fambul Tok, and football is at the heart of the reunion.
The organisation’s executive director, John Caulker explains how the group, whose name translates as ‘family talk’ was born out of necessity after initial discussions only identified the reasons for the war, and not reconciliation after it.
“Fambul Tok is addressing reconciliation at community level, creating space for victims and perpetrators to sit together to have dialogue on what went wrong, why they turned against each other, and thereby leading to the start of the long journey to reconcile”.
The biggest problem in Sierra Leone was as Caulker describes it ‘finger-pointing’ at those who had committed atrocities during the war and ‘unleashed mayhem’. These former combatants had now returned and were living within the same communities as their victims.
“It became apparent there was a need to help create space for victims and offenders to have dialogue and find ways to develop their communities”, explains Caulker.
It was from these problems that Fambul Tok began to grow, and quickly realised that the global power of football would be integral to their success.
Football for Reconciliation is the result, and thanks to a partnership with US-based charity Play 31, which provides all the equipment, Fambul Tok has been able to create new community spirit in Sierra Leone, and between different groups who wouldn’t normally associate.
“Soccer brings together people who have been torn apart by war, and gives them a chance to interact in a safe and friendly environment. Through football matches and other activities; victims, perpetrators and witnesses are able to play for fun and peace”, says Caulker.
“The games are played at sectional level, which means people have to move to other communities and interact, make new friends and cement relationships”.
Of course the matches themselves form only part of the process, as Caulker describes.
“Before the games, workshops are conducted for the people participating in the games. Topics such as human rights, trauma healing, children’s rights and reconciliation are discussed. Values such as fair play would be emphasised as the games are meant for fun and entertainment. The game is promoting harmony and common interest, a sense of belonging to a group that is dedicated to helping each other. The team can never succeed without cooperation from every member”,
This is the powerful message Caulker and Fambul Tok want to put across to the different communities within Sierra Leone, and it appears to be having an impact, as signs of improvement are already evident.
“People are now exchanging visits that were never common before the football for reconciliation games”, says Caulker. “Before the games, players are encouraged to interact with fellow colleagues from different areas. They develop new relationships on the field, and it is expected that the friendships created will continue off the pitch”.
To aid this interaction, food and free discos are laid on after every game, and bonfires and other social ceremonies take place. The equipment provided is donated to the community chief and becomes readily available for anyone to use in the future. Women and children also take part in their own games, making it a truly family experience.
As with any work in such a diverse and fragile part of the world, there are challenges to overcome, and it is no different for Caulker and his colleagues. There will always be those who don’t want to be reconciled, and Caulker explains how the dynamic political layout of the country also poses problems.
“One obstacle is how to maintain neutrality especially within the context of local politics, as our values speak of being non-political and non-partisan. We attempt to break the patriarchal domination of communities by empowering women to be part of the decision-making process”.
The inclusion of women is another big step for Sierra Leone, where sexual abuse was a regular occurrence during the war, and rape is a taboo subject, with women being shunned because of it. However now women are encouraged to talk about what they suffered, and in some cases accuse the perpetrator in public, showing an astonishing amount of bravery.
This shows how far the country has already come, and whilst there is still some way to go, Fambul Tok’s work is already have a profound affect on the war-torn country, and at the heart of it all is the beautiful game.
For more information on the fantastic work Fambul Tok do, please visit their website, fambultok.org
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