A global program to promote development through sports has been launched in Kenya, with a national youth sports tournament in the capital Nairobi Saturday and Sunday. Cathy Majtenyi attended the event, and files this report for VOA.
Sweat pours off the faces of the volleyball players, as they spike the ball across the net.
Nearby, two teams are battling it out in a fast-paced football game.
Several hundred teenagers and young adults from cities, towns and villages across Kenya were in Nairobi for the launch of the Sport for Social Change program.
The program has been developed by CARE USA, with support from the sports company NIKE, the Swiss Academy for Development and other partners.
CARE's Sport for Social Change project director Wayne Lifshitz explains the goal of the initiative.
"The real purpose of the program is to capitalize on the draw of sport, and do relief and development programs with a sport flavor. It changes the way you deliver the message, where you can be more engaging with the youth and with women, because you're empowering them in a different way," said Lifshitz.
Lifshitz says that, at an event like the Nairobi sports tournament, CARE or another organization could discuss maternal and child health issues with mothers coming to watch their children play, or have the mothers themselves participate in events as a way of building their self-confidence and standing in the community.
Millicent Obaso, the HIV/AIDS adviser for CARE International in East and Central Africa, says the aim of this particular sports tournament is to increase gender equality and HIV/AIDS awareness among Kenyan youth.
"We have 11 soccer teams of girls. That is great empowerment for young girls, because, in this country, soccer is a male game, and, when girls play it, they say, 'hey, I can do it!' But if you can do it in soccer, you can also say no to sex, and when you say no, you mean no," she said.
Obaso explains that there is a team of counselors at the event who are on hand to talk to the young people about issues that concern them. The youth are also able to interact with local corporate sponsors to get advice on how to start different careers.
At the event is a row of tents, where people can be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and get counseling.
Volleyball player and 21-year-old university student Zipporah Nyanchera tells VOA she plans to take an HIV test some time during the two-day event.
She explains why she and her friends came to the sports tournament.
"Among Kenyan youth, we need to know whatever that we want in life, and especially when we are in school, we need to get to know about the social behaviors that we are supposed to avoid, and the ones that we are supposed to strengthen in," said Nyanchera. "That is why this social change is of a paramount importance. And, we youth in Kenya, we have a very vital role to play."
Organizers say sports events can also draw people in who would otherwise be isolated.
Two of the sports teams at the Nairobi tournament come from the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border. Normally, refugees living in camps are not allowed to leave the settlements, but an exception has been made in this case.
The Dadaab volleyball team is made up of girls, something that is virtually unheard of in traditional Somali society.
NIKE official Maria Bobnenrieth tells VOA that her company worked closely with the girls to encourage them to participate in sports, and to design uniforms that are culturally appropriate.
"It covers their face. There's long sleeves on it. There's holes for their thumbs, so they have the option of putting their thumbs in the holes and having their wrists covered. There's a long pant underneath, and then, over it, is a kind of long dress. It's made of T-shirt [material], so it's quite light," said Bobnenrieth.
Organizers say preparations are under way to set up the Sport for Social Change program in South Africa, Brazil and other countries. Those involved in the program in Kenya say they plan to also bring it to rural areas of the country.