soccer chases hunger

TEAM SUPPORT: Pupils at Isaac Booi school in Zwide, Port Elizabeth, encourage their team during a soccer match under the the Grassroots Soccer Programme. Grassroots Soccer helps to prevent Aids.
TEAM SUPPORT: Pupils at Isaac Booi school in Zwide, Port Elizabeth, encourage their team during a soccer match under the the Grassroots Soccer Programme. Grassroots Soccer helps to prevent Aids.

Three years ago, Mahendra BK was a 12-year-old boy living on the street in Pokhara, a middle-sized Nepalese town with a population of around 200000.

Three years ago, Mahendra BK was a 12-year-old boy living on the street in Pokhara, a middle-sized Nepalese town with a population of around 200000.

His mother died when he was still an infant and then his alcoholic father died of tuberculosis when Mahendra was only eight.

Mahendra went on to live together with his sister and grandmother for about a year.

They lived in extreme poverty. At the age of nine, Mahendra left them to live on his own. He soon ended up in Kathmandu, the capital city where he was living a high-risk life on the street, scraping by, collecting garbage and selling it for petty cash to recycling factories.

Mahendra's early life story is all too common among children in Nepal where, according to the local non-governmental organisation Child Workers in Nepal, an estimated 5000 young children live on the streets without a family.

But Mahendra BK (a two-letter family name is common in Nepal) was lucky. Today, he is one of just over 20 boys in the Sahara Football Academy in Pokhara.

"Sahara", the Nepalese word for "support", is a social welfare organisation that provides street children with lodging, food, education and something to do, that is "to play football".

Mahendra is the goalkeeper in the Sahara team, and he explains that joining the Sahara Football Academy has changed his life and given him a hope for the future.

"When I was living on the street, I was sleeping under empty rice sacks in many different places. The police used to come around and chase me away. So I was really happy to come to Sahara. Here, we practise football every day and I hope that one day I will be good enough to become an international footballer... like Oliver Kahn, my favourite player," he says.

Of course, not everyone of the 20 boys will be able to make a living by playing football.

"I think that perhaps five of the boys we have here possess the talent to go on to play in the Nepalese A division and on the national team in the future," Keshab Bahadur Thapa, the general secretary of Sahara says. "Even if they go on to play professional football, they can't expect to become rich that way. There isn't very much money in Nepalese football right now, but it is slowly getting better."

That is why the club also tries to provide vocational training for the boys when they turn 16 years old. After that age, the Sahara club helps them to establish their own life outside the academy.

"Firstly, we try to place them in other football clubs where they will receive a small salary, but we also give them training as mechanics, electricians, plumbers and carpenters," Thapa explains.

While the Sahara Club was established as a regular football club in 1998 by members of the local community, the idea for social work and the combined orphanage and football academy developed later.

In 2004, the club was made a reality, largely through the inspiration and fundraising of Nepali expatriates such as Navin Gurung who lives in the UK.

Gurung relates: "I was already involved in organising sports events in the UK. One day a friend told me about the activities of the Sahara Club and I was really touched. From there the connection started.

"Now many of my personal friends, Nepalese acquaintances and business connections have all assisted me in organising various fundraising programmes to support the valuable work that Sahara is doing."

In addition to funds raised abroad, the Sahara Club also receives some support from the local business community in Pokhara and through ticket sales at the tournaments they arrange every year.

The Sahara Club isn't the only home for orphans and street children in Nepal. Indeed, there are many such homes. But the quality of the Nepalese orphanages varies a lot and they often lack proper management.

Spokesman of Unicef in Nepal, Rosanne Vega, says: "Since there is no proper monitoring of orphanages, the quality and conditions for the children vary a lot. Almost anybody can start an orphanage here, including people completely lacking experience in this field."

Indeed, it is common that street children go and stay in an orphanage for a while, but then run away and end up on the street again, since the conditions in some of the orphanages are even worse than living rough.

Rajesh Thakuri, aged 11, is one of the many street children in Kathmandu. He was staying in an orphanage for a while, but ran away because, as he says, "they didn't like me. They hated me there!"

He now sleeps on the street and begs money for food outside a hospital.

Another street boy, 12-year-old Raivi, has lived on the streets for the last two years. Raivi is a rag-picker, going through other people's garbage and collecting glass, metal, paper and plastic that he can sell to recycling factories.

He sleeps every night in relative safety in the no-man's land behind the airport perimeter fence. Every morning he goes around town and searches the garbage piles before the sun heats them up and makes them too smelly, in the roadside, under bridges, on steep and undeveloped hill-sides, wherever the locals throw their garbage.

According to International Labour Organisation statistics, thousands of rag-picking children in Nepal work an average six hours a day, making about 87 rupees, just short of one euro a day. But living on the street, there is always the risk of losing the day's wage to gangs, junkies, bigger boys or police officers.

At Sahara, several of the 12 staff members express, with some pride, that in the three years since the academy started, not one child has run away.

The Children's programme in the academy usually starts at five o'clock in the morning when they get up and have a little snack before taking the five-minute walk to the local stadium, where they have two hours of football training. Then back to the hostel for breakfast and it is time for school.

When school is finished in the afternoon, they again practise football for an hour or two before doing their homework. The two assistant trainers in Sahara also work as tutors and help the boys with their homework.

In the evening, after dinner, they sometimes watch English Premier League football on TV, wash their clothes or play a little bit in the garden across the street. They don't really have any toys, so they just play with whatever they can find, as is normal for Nepalese children. Once a month, they play friendly matches against some of the local school teams.

Although the dormitory at Sahara is crowded and the facilities a bit rudimentary, there is little else that the boys really need here. They get good food and warm beds, form strong friendships and there is always an adult around to help them with their little problems.

The goalkeeper, Mahendra, expresses a little wish: "I would like to have a pair of goalkeeper gloves for the winter football training."