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US Women's Soccer Team Visits South Africa

Members of a Washington, D.C.-based soccer team had what they describe as a life-changing trip to South Africa. In addition to tours and a safari, the young players spent time with many poor African teenagers playing soccer and also talking about their lives, hopes and dreams. VOA's Andrew Payton has their story.

Earlier this year members of the girl's soccer team DC Blast traveled halfway around the world to South Africa.

Sixteen-year-old Molly Brune and 10 of her teammates spent two weeks meeting with local girls to coach them in their soccer game and to discuss the difficulties of living in a country where the HIV/AIDS epidemic is widespread. "The main part," said Molly, "was we had a five day camp in Port Elizabeth and there were about 11 girls. So there was the same amount of South African girls as there were us. That way we got to become very close to them. And we learned with them about HIV/AIDS. Most of the stuff we were learning we had already learned in school and stuff, so it was a lot of us trying to help them speak out and say what they thought, and process the information."

Anna Rassman, also 16, discussed the culture shock she experienced when driving out of Cape Town and into the townships where the poverty of the continent is more apparent. "When we first got there we were in Cape Town, which is pretty much like a European city, so we were all just kind of like, 'this is not what I expected Africa to look like.' And it was beautiful." Anna continued, "But once we started driving into the townships -- I remember I was taking a nap in the van, and when I woke up, all of a sudden it went from highrise buildings to just nothing, it was just tin shacks, and that was the first time I'd seen a township, and that was shocking."

Rassman spoke of the difficulty in seeing the economic and racial divides in South African communities. "It was just so hard because it was so hard to see. There, government had so many problems and still does, and it's such a fresh -- apartheid is so fresh there -- I feel like these people are being forced to live there and this is kind of what their parents did and their grandparents did. And it's kind of the cycle they're put in."

Coach Ian Oliver arranged the program for the girls through Grassroot Soccer, an organization that uses soccer to instruct African children about the difficulties of HIV/AIDS.

Brune discussed the importance of using education to empower individuals as opposed to other types of more short-term aid. "And they have such high HIV/AIDS rates, and while we have a high rate here in Washington, DC, in Africa they don't have education programs in many of the places. And while we could give them monetary aid giving them educational aid I feel is a better solution. Because it's not, like, just 'here, here's this.' But it helps them change their lives so they'll live longer. And the fact that you can do that through an educational program, it seems like the best way to help I think."

In their trip they hoped that their openness and willingness to discuss difficult issues would influence the South African girls they met. "I think some of the girls you can see that by the end of the week they're talking more. And not just in the games but in lunch, and interacting with girls more. Women in South Africa are kind of second class citizens, so it's difficult for them to speak up. I think they're scared of being wrong, I think they're taught to be quiet."

Brune and Rassman both agree that the experience has shaped the way they think about Africa and the rest of the world. "The whole time we were in South Africa, everyone would be, like, 'When you come back to Africa,' or 'Now Africa is in your blood and you're going to want to come back really badly.' I was talking to my mom about what colleges have good African Studies programs because I think that would be really interesting. Also, I really want to do fundraisers here to get them and help the programs continue just now, not even waiting until I can get a job and go help there."

Though the girls originally went with the intention of influencing and inspiring the young girls of South Africa, they found that they came home with an irreplaceable experience.