by Megan Stacey
For a Canadian kid, playing soccer seems pretty simple. In the community we just visited in eastern Ethiopia, it’s something much bigger.
We’re in Harar, in the eastern part of the country, and home to our two sponsored soccer teams. It’s a newer project for us, and it was our first time meeting these powerhouse girls and their coaches.
Yesterday we watched as teen girls – and some of their family members – cried after losing a Saturday morning soccer game. And it was our best day on the trip so far.
There are fifty incredible young women on two all-female soccer teams, and not only are they amazing soccer players, they’re kind and ambitious and resilient people, too.
These girls are facing incredible odds.
Many of them come from families and communities where there isn’t enough to eat.
Some are trying to bring in income to help sustain their parents and siblings without foregoing their own education and soccer dreams.
A few of the kids on these teams don’t even have homes. Today we visited with a family that lives under an abandoned truck on the side of the road. There are two soccer-playing daughters in that family, and another two girls that spent their days there because they have nowhere else to go.
So while it may seem like “just” soccer, it’s also about a lot more.
“Soccer gives a break for all of us,” said Melat Melion, a 13-year-old player from Harar. When we spoke with Melat and asked why she likes soccer, she talked about the feeling of love and unity and cooperation that she feels as part of a team.
Melat wants to be a doctor when she grows up. But she also has dreams of playing soccer at a higher level.
Female sports teams, especially for young people, aren’t a given in Ethiopia. When we watched the teams face off in a Saturday morning tournament, I wondered if I was making too much out of the female empowerment angle.
But the girls felt it too.
“We showed everyone that what the boys can do, the girls can do too,” said 13-year-old Bemnit Adisu.
We saw such determination and commitment and feistiness from our teams (I guess this may explain all the tears from the losing team). They were absolutely devastated. Even the brother of one player sat in the stands bawling. (By the way, we resisted the Canadian tendency to just bring two trophies and declare them both winners, but we did tell the girls on the yellow team how well they played!!)
Watching the girls celebrate their victory was something else. After an appropriate amount of shrieking and cheering and kissing the trophy, the entire team ran running off the field and out the stadium gates, singing and pumping the trophy overhead.
We were later told they ran their celebration onto the main street to show off the win and the hardware.
There was a quieter success that struck me just as hard. As the girls battled it out all morning, there were boys of all ages sitting on the sidelines and in the stands watching the game and screaming their heads off.
I asked Tsehinashe Mitku, another 13-year-old player, whether she noticed or cared about all those male spectators – the ones who are usually on the field.
“When we saw the boys watching, we felt there is no difference between boys and girls,” she said.
In a world where little girls grow up watching men who are given the chance to wear the national flag on their chest or the opportunity to turn a love of sports into a career, seeing our girls spill out onto the field as their community cheered them on seemed like a pretty big win.