Africare (Washington, DC)

2 December 2013

Africa: Using Sports to Empower African Youths

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Washington, DC — Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, I was fairly sure I'd never make it as a basketball star. I played for my high school team, but most of the time my tall and lanky self sat on the bench.

One game, though, I got a chance to put my skills on display. Our team was safely ahead. We must have been up by about 50 points. My friends were in the arena watching, and they started chanting, "Put him in! Put him in!" Finally, the coach gave in and sent me onto the court. Right away, I fouled, then traveled and gave up the ball, and I might have even scored for the other team.

Even with as large a lead as we had, my coach promptly pulled me back out.

My time on the basketball team taught me two important lessons. First, that I should keep studying. Second, that even if you're not destined for stardom, sports teach valuable lessons about friendship, teamwork and perseverance. In working with teammates, young people learn how to communicate and cooperate. Playing a sport teaches youth how to master specific techniques, introducing discipline and persistence. Finally, the learning students do outside the classroom ultimately improves performance in the classroom and increases enthusiasm for school.

Now, seemingly a lifetime later, I'm proud to be part of an effort to bring the transformational power of sports into Africa's schools. The organization I lead, Africare, has joined forces with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and ExxonMobil to launch "Power Forward," a new initiative that uses basketball to engage African youth.

Power Forward represents a new kind of partnership between three very different organizations: Africare, a non-profit development organization; the National Basketball Association, a professional sports league; and ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest companies. As different as we may seem, with Africare's decades of experience working directly with African communities, ExxonMobil's strong commitment to corporate citizenship, and the NBA's star powered sport, Power Forward is a formidable combination of companies dedicated to engaging young people and empowering them with skills to succeed in life alike.

In Nigeria, where the partnership is launching, basketball is hugely popular. It's not soccer yet - but its popularity is growing.

Basketball's popularity provides a prime platform to engage young Nigerians who, like youth all over the world, are enamored with sports and look up to athletes - literally and figuratively. As a result, sports provide an opening to positively influence young people's lives.

Power Forward will begin in 10 schools in Abuja, Nigeria and will initially engage 300 students in their last three years of secondary school, while benefiting closer to 3,000 individuals in the broader community. Drawing on an innovative curriculum, the program will use basketball as a vehicle to convene and teach youth essential public health knowledge, improved literacy and other essential skills to thrive in life and business. Power Forward will focus equally on boys and girls, providing an opportunity to not only empower young women, but also to open space to discuss the role young men must play in a gender equitable society.

Helping youth develop the skills they need is an ever-present challenge for every nation. The stakes are especially high in Africa because Africa's youth population is surging. By 2050, it is expected that a quarter of the world's youth population will be living in Africa, and 50 years after that nearly half of the world's youth will live on the continent. If empowered with the skills they need, Africa's youth could transform economies around the world.

By 2035, Africa will likely have a larger working-age population than China or India. The continent has the potential to become an engine for the world's economy, inheriting the role that China played in the last century.

To fully realize this potential, youth must also be properly prepared and entrusted to achieve Africa's future success. Across Africa, youth voices must keep rising, and youth must continue holding their leaders accountable to make their futures brighter. Africa's youth can become star players in Africa's transformation, but more investment is needed.

Governments, non-profits and businesses must collaborate to provide more and better educational and vocational opportunities for youth. We know that the lessons and curriculum of the Power Forward program can serve as a blueprint for these future endeavors of youth engagement.

Sports inspire, sports teach valuable lessons, and sports are irresistible. For decades, Africare has prioritized empowering youth in projects across all sectors. This new Power Forward partnership provides Africare with a new avenue to leverage the work we do every day, empowering Africans to improve the quality of their lives.

I loved the game of basketball, but when it comes to professional sports, I learned abruptly that only a few are chosen. More than a jump shot is needed for a healthy life and a successful career. By channeling fundamental values, sports can add to a young person's future. By further combining sports with education targeted at issues Nigerian youth are facing right now, Power Forward will equip its participants with the knowledge and readiness to overcome any opponent in any arena.

Every kid deserves a shot.

Darius Mans is president of Africare.

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