Here in the US many of us see sports philanthropy as sports stars or organizations giving back to causes that matter to them. While that is a big part of things, there is another part that is much more grassroots. We spoke to Kalekeni Banda about Banda Bola Sports Foundation, an organization he created to encourage young people in Malawi go to school. The foundation is classified as a sport for development organization, meaning they use sport as a tool to create change in communities. Banda spoke to us about how the power of sports has impacted the lives of the children he serves.
Using Soccer to Create Banda Bola Sports Foundation
Starting Banda Bola Sports Foundation wasn’t always in the cards for Banda. He was born in rural Chituka Village in Malawi, and moved to the US at a young age. He has been coaching soccer here in the US from the youth, club and college levels since 1975. “I realized that my passion in life was coaching,” Banda explains. “I created the Banda Bola program (Bola means ball) and started working with young people to improve their soccer skills”. Once he started running soccer clinics here stateside to earn some extra cash, Banda realized he had a viable model to share with other communities.
After losing both his parents within just a couple years of one another, Banda decided he needed to return to Chituka Village and give back to the people there. “My dad was a political activist,” says Banda. “My parents, both of them, most of the time were helping people. All of that got me thinking, what can I do to help my people the way that Mom and Dad would if they were alive?” The answer he settled on was what had been his passion all along – coaching soccer.
Banda explains that in Malawi, kids don’t have the opportunity to play like they do in countries like the US. There is no required physical education and no organized sport for kids in Malawi to participate in. Struggling with basic needs like running water and electricity, springing for soccer equipment and physical education isn’t a top priority for schools there.
“I decided that I would bring the village some soccer balls so the kids could play,” says Banda. “I was most concerned about girls going to school because my first coaching job here in the US was for women’s soccer.” Banda was a founding member of the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship Committee while he was coaching at the University of Massachusetts. “I wanted to make sure girls at home in Malawi also got to play soccer because they don’t usually get the chance,” he adds. “My goal was that for every boys team there should be a girls team also.”
Even though he had the impetus for starting the foundation, Banda needed a lot of help. “The first question was how do I officially start this?,” said Banda. “I coached this woman’s daughter and after practice one day I was telling her about my idea and she recommended I speak to her husband, a lawyer. From there, it was born.”
Then new challenges arose. How would he get the equipment? Banda remembers going to family and friends, schools and athletic departments from his coaching career, sending mailers, emails, and more to collect the soccer equipment he needed. “Then it was the question, how am I going to ship all of this stuff to Malawi?” laughs Banda. Luckily, he had some help. His aunt, Dr. Joyce Banda, had been named President of Malawi, and through her, he was able to connect to a retired NFL athlete in the states, Jack Brewer, who through his own foundation was able to help fundraise enough for the container to go to Malawi.
Since then, Banda has shipped 4 different containers to Chituka Village for the youth to have soccer equipment, jerseys and most importantly, school supplies. “I’m dealing issues beyond soccer,” says Banda. “As an educator, I want to see children grow and have fun being a child.” He explains that in Malawi, many times children are forced to grow up quickly and be adults from a young age. “It’s hard to fight for the idea that children have the right to play,” shares Banda. “That’s really my purpose for doing this- I want the kids to have fun every day and have a safe place for them to be a child.”
The Power of the Soccer Ball: Current Impact in Chituka Village
The Banda Bola Sports Foundation is currently in 35 elementary schools and 3 secondary schools in Chituka Village. Each school has a girls and boys travel team from grades 5-8. The elementary schools also have grassroots soccer for grades 1-4. These schools have an average population of 850 students, but in some classes the student to teacher ratio can be 80 to 1.
So why soccer? Banda explains that sport can change perceptions and bring people together. “For me, the soccer ball helped me open doors, and helped me get into areas that normally I wouldn’t be able to access,” he says. “Right now, we are discussing girls’ rights and women’s rights, children’s rights, and more with a soccer ball. These are things that I would have never been able to talk about in my village, but the soccer ball has allowed me to have these conversations with local teachers, local leaders and local volunteers.”
Banda and his team use sports to attract young people to attend school and stay through 8th grade to finish basic education. Malawi doesn’t mandate their students attend school, and only 35% of young people complete primary school. The foundation’s goal is to have every child stay in school through 8th grade and to provide a safe space for girls and boys to play.
When faced with these kinds of external challenges, Banda explains how valuable a soccer ball can be. “When I tell kids that if they go to school they are going to play, to be on a team and get soccer shoes and a uniform, they want to go to school,” he says. Banda asks the teachers to name their top 10 students and they receive extra shoes, jersey, etc. “I want them to compete both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”
His goals for improving the school experience don’t just stop with the children getting to play. “I’m trying to bring happiness to not only the children but also the teachers who are overworked and struggling,” says Banda. “I want to motivate the teachers to be better, and help the children go to school with a purpose. And then help the parents get on board to ensure they are helping their kids get to school.” All that from a soccer ball!
How Partnerships are Helping Banda Bola Overcome Challenges
Banda recognizes that the foundation can’t make all these changes happen alone. They want to grow to surrounding villages across Malawi, but the national infrastructure and culture pose problems. “My coaches don’t have transport to get to group trainings in other parts of town and most won’t volunteer their time unless there are benefits in return,” shares Banda. “And then, on top of that, most of those teachers that I’ve seen and worked with at our schools are not there long-term because they get transferred by the government.” This can make building sustainable programs hard, because Banda has to spend a lot of time re-educating new coaches, teachers and other staff about the program and its benefits.
Banda Bola Sports Foundation’s biggest challenge is not a unique one for grassroots organizations: fundraising. The organization currently collects from local US soccer tournaments, soccer clubs, local colleges, Banda’s church, and local middle and elementary schools. Banda also makes personal visits to prospective donors, participates in speaking engagements and media appearances, sends out emails, and makes phone calls to spread the word. In-kind donations are always welcome, and typically consist of soccer balls and equipment as well as school supplies.
Finding volunteers that are willing to travel to Malawi (on their own dime) or help collect supplies to ship from the US is also a struggle. But Banda has a positive attitude. “I’m a ‘friendraiser’,” he says. “I find friends, do my research, and hopefully I get the right people to get on board.”
Most of the organization’s volunteers conduct soccer clinics as well as tutor and mentor in the organization’s after-school program. These volunteers can range from soccer coaches to teachers to high school and college students. “The main purpose of the volunteers is to share knowledge with the local teachers, coaches, and leaders,” explains Banda.
Because of these challenges, partnerships have been a big part of Banda’s plan for the future. “I need more than just me, so I’m working with other foundations in the US,” recognized Banda. He’s working with Coaches Across Continents to teach curriculum to all his teachers and coaches. “About 50 to 60 teachers came in and were talking about what it means to be a teacher and how to help their students,” he explains. “These teachers get something to take home or take wherever they go.” Banda hopes by providing this value to the teachers, more new teachers will want to participate and word will spread about the positive impact of his program. He understands that he has limited resources and must rely on other organizations to fill those gaps.
A Soccer Ball Changing Perceptions
Despite the challenges his organization faces, Banda is hopeful for positive future for the program. He aspires to create a soccer field complex to train teachers and players regularly, that also has changing rooms and latrines to make it safer for girls to participate as well. Another goal is to add is a feeding program to the after-school mentoring program they offer. “There is no school lunch program in Malawi,” Banda remind us. “Most of the kids don’t eat anything before school and once they come to school, there is no food, so it’s hard to pay attention in class.” Banda is working on getting a makeshift kitchen and some donated snacks so that the kids continue to come back to the program.
“People from the village cannot be what they cannot see,” shares Banda. “The only way I can do this successfully is to bring people to show these kids what they can do.” He hosts women’s soccer players from the US regularly to conduct demonstrations and clinics for the students in Banda Bola programs. He remembers how shocked both the boys and girls were to see these women’s soccer players be able to easily pass and play. “It changed the mindset of not only the girls but the boys too,” recounts Banda. “They had never seen a girl play soccer and that experience helped them see that girls can do the same things they can do.”
Banda reiterated that the entire program and organization would not be possible without one thing: a soccer ball. “The soccer ball is allowing these young people to look at each other the same way and understand that girls can do the same thing that boys can do,” says Banda.
“Soccer and sport is a vehicle to get people out there so that we can talk to them about other issues that impact their lives and what they need to learn,” Banda concludes. “We have boys and girls playing together and co-mingling because of sport. Sport can help change the mindsets of these young people and how they solve their problems.”