More than twenty years ago, Michael Mitchell and Dave Stahl played together on the soccer team at Chico State University in Northern California. After graduation, Mr. Mitchell joined the Peace Corps and went to Niger. Dave Stahl says his friend took soccer balls with him to the West African country.
“Soccer is the international language of the world. I mean, people play soccer everywhere and they get a lot of joy out of it. And that brings communities together.”
After two years in Niger, Michael Mitchell returned to Chico State for his master’s degree in physical education. Mr. Stahl helped him structure his thesis. His thesis was that soccer could improve the lives of African children. The paper was called “Project Play Africa.”
It took more than fifteen years for the two friends to make their dream come true. But finally, with thirty thousand dollars in donations, they ordered two thousand soccer balls from China. Dave Stahl says that was the easy part.
“It was very difficult to get the balls to Niger because there’s not a lot of commerce going into Niger and it’s expensive to ship the balls. You have import duties and, you know, where are the balls going to be when they get there, etcetera, etcetera.”
Once they solved those problems, they went to Niger, rented a car and drove into the countryside. They gave away soccer balls and air pumps in settlements, villages and schools. Dave Stahl remembers one of the stops.
“We’re driving down the road and we’re going by this little village and we see about a dozen kids trying to play soccer and they were literally kicking around a sock filled with sand. So we stopped and got out and they were very excited. We started kicking the ball around and we started kicking it with the kids. And then we got our translator to communicate that, ‘Hey, we’re going to leave you guys this soccer ball.’ And when the kid had the ball in his hand, all the kids just started jumping up and down and screaming. We have that on tape!”
In twenty-ten, with help from the Peace Corps, volunteers from Project Play Africa went to Benin. But on that trip, they realized that their efforts were not measurable or sustainable.
So in twenty-eleven, they decided to focus on Libore, a small, rural community near Niamy, the capital of Niger. The volunteers came with information, equipment and a plan to work with local clubs and schools to create a soccer league.
Dave Stahl says volunteers returned to Libore this year and were extremely pleased to see what the local people had done with the idea.
“They embraced the idea and staffed all the positions and created the league and played the games and were hungry to expand it. It engaged boys and girls, which is very unusual for a Muslim country — to know that the parents were letting their girls participate in an activity because usually the girls are doing housework, fetching water and wood and so on. We found we had the support of both the tribal and the political leaders of Libore. We saw that the program created pride in the village and the school.”
Dave Stahl says he especially enjoyed watching the boys and girls championship games.
“We drive up and they had literally a thousand to two thousand people there — both adults and children — to watch these kids play soccer. They were probably aged between six and twelve years old. So the field is totally lined with spectators and then they had, like, a lean-to tent at the center of the field where the mayor and the chief and the dignitaries were sitting. And it was incredible to watch.”
Dave Stahl says Project Play Africa’s greatest challenge is to find a soccer ball that is not only low cost but also easy to transport. It must also be strong enough to survive for more than a few weeks on Niger’s rocky playing fields. Once they find the right ball, he says, Project Play Africa wants to bring soccer balls to all of West Africa.