“O Sport, You are Peace! You forge happy bonds between the peoples” – Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics
As the world has been focusing its eyes on the Olympics, the people of Somalia have been proud to see that their country is once again being represented by two Somali athletes in London.
While the outside world has tended to view Somalia solely as a land of conflict, Somalis have long enjoyed sports, not only as spectators, but also as participants.
In a place that still endures crises, in some areas of the country sports can be a positive outlet for youth who are at-risk from conflict. The central town of Galkayo is one such place. Since 2010, Oxfam has been supporting youth sports in Galkayo through the establishment of a youth center, complete with sports facilities. Having the opportunity to play sports is not common in this part of Somalia.
“I’ve talked to young men and young women there, for them it’s an opportunity to display their skills,” said Zam Zam Billow, Humanitarian Program Officer for Oxfam. “Not many people in Somalia get this opportunity. It’s an environment where they can interact with other youth. When they’re idle, they could be open to negative influences. This was a way to occupy them; it helps as peace building for the youth. They learn from each other, get to know each other. It’s a way of unifying them.”
In the insecure environment of Somalia, the youth and sports programs have many benefits, such as keeping young men from becoming child soldiers. The sports activities promote peace building through positive interaction between youth from the different communities in Galkayo.
The youth center and sports programs were implemented through a partnership with the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development. Also known as the GECPD, the organization has been an Oxfam partner since 2000.
“There is an average of 300 youth in sports activities per month,” said Hawa Aden, Executive Director of GECPD. “The facility provides them with shoes and athletic clothes, which motivates them to play.”
“There was no facility for young people to meet outside of the classroom,” adds Joyce Muchena, Oxfam Programme Officer. “They came up with the idea for a youth center. What is exciting about it is that GECPD came up with the land through local donors. So it was about putting up the basic infrastructure; the buildings, the sports pitches, and the wash rooms.”
Built with the support of the local community, The Galkayo youth resource center has a football pitch with seating for 800 spectators, a volleyball court, and a basketball court. The main building has toilets and wash rooms, offices, a library, a counseling room, a first aid room, and a conference and social hall, which is also used for table tennis.
“The aim of the youth center, is towards encouraging peaceful co-existence among young people, using sports as the common denominator among them,” said Muchena. “Sports are an easy way of reaching young people. For a basketball team, it doesn’t matter where the players come from, youth will gravitate there for love of the sport.”
“These kids, when they do these sports activities, they come together,” said Zam Zam Billow “The population needs to see sports as a way of unifying the community, not just for fun.”
There were difficulties. Due to ongoing conflict, this hadn’t been done before in Galkayo. “It was a challenge to find coaches, as most sports experts had fled the country,” said Muchena.
Another challenge was to include sports for girls, as Somalia is a conservative culture where girls sports are generally not common. In keeping with local traditions, the girls’ sports activities are conducted separately from those of the boys.
“It’s more girl oriented that way,” said Billow. “For many girls, it gives them the opportunity to experience sports for the first time. They have a pitch for basketball; it’s more enclosed, so the girls feel safer. It’s in line with the cultural beliefs of Somalis, so they can play matches out of sight of the public.”
Hawa Aden agrees. “Girls like the program, because it gives them the privacy they require to participate in sports.”
For the young women at the center, just participating in a sport can benefit their self-esteem. “Before, the girls have only seen sports on TV,” said Billow. “When they play themselves, they feel like they can be like their role models, when they are playing it for the first time.”
Now that the youth center is established, they have been able to bring in nationally known sports figures to lead training sessions. “They have had the opportunity to learn from, and be mentored by renowned names in sports, such as the National Team Coach Abdifarah Gelle, and former National Team Striker Mohamed Hajji,” said Hawa. “They have conducted training for the youth at the center.” Some of the events were even attended by the Sports Minister for Puntland.
Although the Somali national team has not won a medal at the Olympics this year, Galkayo’s youth have still found other inspiration.
“They would like to engage in athletics,” said Hawa Aden. “They are inspired by the success of Mo Farah, the Somali immigrant who has won gold for the UK in the ongoing Olympics.”
Another important visit to the youth center, was made by a delegation from the Somali National Olympic Committee. Who knows? Someday, maybe an athlete from Galkayo will represent Somalia on the grand Olympic stage.
Other Oxfam support for GECPD in Galkayo, has included scholarships for girls to attend their all girls school and support for displaced families. Funding was also provided from the Oxfam Novib Innovation Fund for gender, HIV/AIDS and Gender Based Violence awareness-raising through education institutions.