How Sports are Saving Lives

Using Soccer to Stop HIV

soccer hiv programBy Michelle Burford

In many ways, South African teen Nkosinathi Stempalo, 17, is like scores of others around the globe: He studies hard to keep up his grades, he likes girls nearly as much as he likes sports, he rooted for Brazil in the World Cup (after his native South Africa lost) and he dreams of becoming a psychologist one day.

"Once I finish secondary school, I hope to go on to the University of Johannesburg," he says.

Yet in the rural, impoverished village where he lives, the teen has a greater chance of contracting HIV than becoming a college graduate.

In South Africa's easternmost region, the Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga province, just across the border from Swaziland and Mozambique, a staggering 65 percent of adults between ages 18 and 34 are HIV positive, health workers estimate. They are part of the other nearly 6 million South Africans who have the virus, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization.

TRIAD Trust wants to change the grim statistics. The Boston nonprofit, whose name is an acronym for "training to reduce the incidence of AIDS-related death," is using soccer to teach teens about HIV.

In 2009, TRIAD launched a year-round boys' soccer league that operates in five area villages. Already, 2,500 boys 17 and under are participating. The kids participate in daily soccer practices, except for one day a week when they have a mandatory health education session, during which they learn about how HIV and AIDS are spread and how to prevent them. In addition, a theatrical group called Improv Ed presents an eight-week workshop in which players learn about HIV by participating in skits, songs, poetry and games. For instance, leaders once turned a lesson about birth control into a "Jeopardy"-like match. As part of the program, students are encouraged to take an anonymous finger-prick HIV test. Even in a culture where HIV carriers are highly stigmatized, more than 80 percent of the players actually do.

Part of what differentiates this program from other well-meaning attempts is its sustainability: TRIAD's counselors are local people.

"Each health educator is from the village where he or she works," says Chloe Lewis, TRIAD's director of health education. "We want the community to take ownership of this program. It's theirs to lead. The goal is for local health educators to be completely responsible for this organization."

South African native Nomsa Shabangu, 26, is one such leader. As director of medical education, she oversees a team of counselors and HIV testers.

"We not only teach kids how they can prevent HIV -- we help them work through their situation if they find out that they are positive," says Shabangu.

If a player discovers he is HIV positive, for example, he can immediately turn to a clinic staffed with a doctor and a nurse, a dietitian, and a social worker, all of whom provide support in managing the disease.

As the program moves forward, the area's females will not be forgotten: Leaders are planning to create a netball league (a sport similar to basketball) to attract girls -- a sprinkling of whom already participate in the Improv Ed and health education sessions.

"Athletics have intrinsic value, and we can use them to build leadership and self-confidence in all children," Lewis says. "Sports also give us a way to provide students with information that they won't necessarily get at home -- because in this culture, it's considered inappropriate for kids to talk about sex."

That cultural reality is what has allowed crippling rumors to abound. Many have heard that HIV cannot be contracted the first time you have intercourse; others believe that if a male doesn't have intercourse, the unreleased sperm will make him insane.

"Rumors are rampant," says Lewis. "That's why it's so important for health educators who live among the teens to provide them with the facts about HIV."

Whether he ever fulfills his aspiration of earning a doctorate in psychology, Stempalo is one field goal ahead of many of his peers: He has already been tested for HIV.

"At first, I was very shy about getting tested," says the teen, who admits that he is sexually active.

He says that since he joined the soccer league four months ago and began learning about HIV, he has been using condoms.

"Once I realized that the test was simple and private, I decided to try it," says Stempalo. "I've learned that this disease is killing our entire nation. People are not protecting themselves because they don't have the proper information. That's one of the reasons why I have to play it safe."

At least for now -- and the leaders of TRIAD hope forever -- this teen is HIV negative.

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