swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh
February 16, 2005 6:42 PM
A Swiss charity is using sport to help improve the lives of some of the thousands of children who live on the streets of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Sport The Bridge has the backing of Adolf Ogi, a former Swiss cabinet minister and organiser of the United Nations-sponsored 2005 Year of Sport.
The charity was set up in 2002 and has undertaken several projects in Swiss schools using sport and physical activity to help integrate foreign children living in Switzerland.
Sport The Bridge’s project in Ethiopia marks the first attempt by the organisation’s team of volunteer workers to demonstrate how sport can be used as an overseas development tool.
"We chose Ethiopia because in many ways it is like Switzerland, in the sense that it is multicultural and multilingual," said the charity’s president, Stephan Zihler.
"On the other hand, Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world, and Ethiopia is one of the poorest."
The activities centre around learning and playing sports, but the children who choose to take part are also given food, shelter and advice on how to stay healthy while living on the streets.
Zihler, who has enlisted the support of the Ethiopian government, the Swiss Olympic Association and football’s world governing body, Fifa, says the first few months were the most challenging.
"In the beginning, the children were fighting among themselves because they thought that we didn’t have enough water… so we had to teach them how to share resources and think of each other," he told swissinfo.
Twice a day, the children are offered the chance to learn and play a variety of team games, including football, basketball and volleyball.
Zihler is quick to stress the importance of sport as a social activity for children who spend most of their lives fending for themselves on the dusty city streets.
"This is not just sport for sport’s sake. In football, for example, we teach them about passing and running with the ball. In the process, they are learning about fairness, the rules of the game and about working as a team."
Sport The Bridge ultimately aims to get children off the streets and reintegrate them into family life.
"In a family, you are also a member of a team and have to take care of each other, and this is something that can be learnt through sport," said Zihler, who makes regular visits to Switzerland to drum up support for the Ethiopia project.
"When we first started, all the kids wanted to do was grab the ball, score goals and win every game. Losing was just unthinkable. And if they did lose, they tended to cry and run away.
"So the first step was to persuade them to stay. We then encouraged them to celebrate as a team rather than as individuals whenever one player scored a goal."
The launch of Sport The Bridge’s programme in Ethiopia coincides with the 2005 Year of Sport and Physical Education.
The UN hopes activities such as the Swiss project in Addis Ababa will focus attention on how sport can help achieve the Millennium Goal of halving global poverty by 2015.
Zihler anticipates that up to 200 Ethiopian children will have taken part in the programme by the end of the year.
But he admits that the reality of life on the streets of one of the poorest capitals in the world makes it difficult at times to live up to global promises to help developing nations.
"The street children on our project have nothing. All they own is the T-shirt and shorts they are wearing.
"One particular ten-year-old boy who joined us had been abused… he had no fingers and terrible wounds on his leg. He was very angry and didn’t trust any adults. Eventually we had no choice but to take him back to the streets. This made me very sad."