On Thursday 10th August 2023, the British High Commissioner to Zambia, Mr. Nicholas Woolley visited…
If you were to step on the dusty heartland of Kalingalinga’s sport pitches, you would see Zambian life in its element. To your left, the “Fritter Lady” greets you (or rather me, a very regular customer.) The far-side of the netball pitch, a shop and hustling busy residential lane. The young men on the neighbouring pitch are submerged in a football match. Whilst the market down the road is alive with the young and old trading, selling & laughing. You look across to the court; you see girls competitively throwing & passing whatever they can (a plastic bottle, a stone or, at best, a plastic-bag ball.) The girls look across to you; and they run. The happiest faces dash to you and offer greetings and help to carry the balls. They are eager to start the session. As we arrive on the court, the young people are eager to play, they politely ask for a ball, and hurriedly run into play with them. Zambians are competitive, in every sense, and sometime like all children there’s a scramble for the ball before they sort themselves into their own passing practices or shooting competitions. One run-over chat with my team mate Mae, and we are ready to go.
When Mae and I arrived at Kalingalinga, I’d say this description was pretty accurate. Perhaps the 50 girls, didn’t just excite us but also scared us slightly, in a good way of course. It was Day 1, our first session, these young people weren’t running over to us for no reason. They are smiling and enthusiastic because they expected those two ‘Muzungos’ (travellers) to coach a pretty good session. This was despite us not knowing how to say much more than hello, how are you and maybe even Kalingalinga itself. Did this great space of pitches, court & community intertwined cause us a bit of concern? Yes! Would the balls “run away” and more importantly, in UK healthy and safety terms, which young people were we working with and how could we possibly keep them all on this court?!
After a week or two that first fear of the craziness of all young people subdued, we became excited to work ahead and more happy that the numbers sustained.
Anyway as I said, “we were ready to go” or so we thought. Each session at Kalingalinga, or in Zambia varies immensely. To begin, some sort of fun warm up, a favourite of K-Town kids was British Bulldog. For some reason the rush to the other side of the court was so competitive it seemed a matter of life& death. The sessions tended to continue with this dramatic enthusiasm.
It was, however, a gradual journey with these coaches. To begin, these coaches would rock up to the session late, not quite showing the dedication that the young people deserve. Coaching standing up seemed too much of an ask, let alone planing a session. But let’s not dwell on the negatives, this was exactly what we were wanting to do, to work with local coaches to help them to develop themselves. Kalingalinga presented us with the perfect amount of young people, a few peer leaders and lots of room for improvement.
Wednesdays were Mae & myself’s craziest days. Starting at 9hrs the girls enthusiasm was not sleepy, they were wide awake and raring to go. These girls came from Kalingalinga school which they would attend in the afternoon . There were usually around 30, aged 7-12. As with all our sessions there were always some tiny toddlers “joining in” and often some skilled young netball boys as well. Netball in Zambia is for everyone, if they didn’t want to play, plenty watched, often to our annoyance whilst strolling across the court… These sessions ended around 11, after 2 hours of solid drills and play, the young people dripping with sweat wouldn’t ever want to stop. You can tell how much they appreciate the chance to play, they don’t give this up easily sometimes. After this session Mae & I would speak to the peer leaders and talk about any potential changes for the next session.
The next Wednesday session would begin at 1200 until 1330, with more Kalingalinga students running over as soon as the morning session was over. With no hint of tiredness they dashed around the court in their uniform.
These young girls were a joy to work with. Their fiery passion for winning sometimes brought challenges. The language barrier brought hurdles, which were sometimes successfully jumped, and other times dodged with the help of demonstrations and ten-year old translators. They showed focus, passion and hard work, that everyone in their community should be proud of. Squabbles and the occasional ‘poor-pass’ shaming shows the young age of the girls combined with their desire to be the best. They showed us respect and passion for the sport that united them with 50 other young people every week. The fact that the young people race to carry the netball posts the 10 minute walk to the court every session shows their dedication to their teammates and netball.
Seeing the Kalingalinga young players and coaches every Wednesday we saw real progress. It was our most reliable session and we always looked forward to the unexpectedness that K-Town brings. We soon adjusted our sessions with peer leaders to accommodate the large numbers. Switching up fun warm up games every week and incorporating netball principles like footwork allowed us to challenge and entertain the young girls. Whilst the team of 5 coaches really helped run drills with this large group of pupils, Mae & I are so grateful for our peer leaders, especially during some of the wilder K-Town moments. Match time was exciting! Quickly (but not always swiftly) switching young people on and off the court, focusing on key points that had been discussed and matches that had the atmosphere of championship’ finals. These girls showed me through these matches that they really do put their heart into every pass, interception and shot.
Those peer leaders working with us on Wednesdays were Gloria, Edwin & O’Brian, our 3 Zambian peer leaders from the nearby area. As time passed, they started to come earlier (on time), gain more enthusiasm as a result of their increasing confidence and lead-coaching more and more of the sessions.
We saw the coaches enthusiasm reflected in their keenness in the workshops, some of our leaders couldn’t keep their hands down when questions were asked about coaching styles and netball drills. We can only hope that this enthusiasm blossoms and that the young people reap the rewards.
In 6 weeks the peer leaders most definitely learned and changed. We formed friendships and trust as coaches to coaches and saw with some encouragement that these peer leaders weren’t lazy but unsure of themselves. A little confidence boost and they were keen to join in, get involved and really improve the session for the young people. I’ve turned around to see a peer leader offering help to a player and the pride in their face when they successfully teach the youngest players to manage that first strong chest pass. In the manic matches and training of Kalingalinga, these flashes of progress are easy to miss.
We hope that the Group 3 volunteers help to solidify their progress and recruit more coaches. We already can see through the pride and growing confidence of Gloria, the enthusiasm to learn from O’Brian and the excitement of Edwin that these peer leaders are on their way to making K-Town a netball hub with organised and strong coaches.
There is, however, no pretending that this will change over night. These three coaches have great enthusiasm for the hub and the benefits netball brings in the fight against local vices as they often told us. Yet there is still so much room for improvement and space for more coaches. The beauty of Kalinglinga is the proximity of it to the schools that girls & boys attend. They will continue to play as these coaches develop. Whilst the location of the court in the heart of the community means it catches attention of potential coaches. We found this on our last session as an experienced coach returned to help the other coaches lead the session having stopped coaching at K-Town in the past due to job commitments. The coach knew that if they turned up the session would be on as the young people are always there to play. This shows the ever-expanding network of coaches in the area and the longevity of the site.
Whilst on a Thursday we would work away from the main hub site of Kalingalinga at a nearby primary school. This school, Felma School, had many young players just take their first steps and pivots in netball. It was a great opportunity to work with the teachers at this school as they had a lot of enthusiasm but appreciated the different approach we tried to bring to beginners’ netball. Throughout our time at Felma, we felt welcomed by the friendliest faces in the playground, as we consolidated basic netball skills in fun games. The more advanced players helped us and the teachers through acting as mentors and assisting the younger girls. Netball feels so at home in Felma school as it is truly supported by the entire school.
Finally, on a Friday at noon the nearby schools of Step By Step & Morning Bells gathered at K-Town. These girls were older and very well behaved. Smaller in numbers, this was a different type of session to other Kalingalinga sessions, less crazy to put it honestly. There was more opportunity here to work closely with these students and meant that their coaches could work closely with us throughout the sessions with less distractions. This sessions acts as a prime opportunity for older girls in the community to develop as young leaders. Despite this calm facade, the matches and play was as ferocious as always. The spirit of Kalingalinga apparent throughout all the sites.
Mae & I learned endlessly at K-Town. We learnt even more when things did not go to plan. We learnt to love the unexpected and notice the small steps of progress at multiple levels.
Many of the young people of Kalingalina come from difficult backgrounds. Many young players chase the ball across the court without a worry of broken glass bottle shards slicing their naked feet. But these young people don’t want pity. They want to play. As they play you see strong confident young boys and girls working together, progressing themselves, fighting with all they can to win. Problem solving and finding solutions where most people would give up. They create their own system of justice, of fairness, any netball fouls or errors are sorted through lively discussion in the absence of an umpire. These young people, with balls in their hands, are ready to play, to challenge each other and simply have fun. As long as there is a ball they will play. Having a coach gives them the chance to show a great amount of respect which these young people will always show to someone who seeks to help or lead them in their game. Any coach is lucky to work with this fantastic group of young players.
Each site in K-Town presented Mae & I with greatly different opportunities and challenges. A place like no-other it was an epicentre of activity where young players only focused on the ball and their team. I am so so grateful for my time here. The children made me laugh, learn and re-learn. They often challenged us to re-think or adjust, or completely start over, to be flexible and confidently relaxed, like a Zambian. The rewards of K-Town are bountiful; enthusiasm & passion that I can only aspire to replicate.
I hope all the best for the teams and teachers of Kalingalinga. I know that their progress will not be smooth, nothing is, but that with the dedication of the coaches, teachers and Sport in Action and most prominently the players, this court will witness players grow & succeed through many thrilling and enthralling matches. There will be blood, sweat & tears, but even more smiles & pride (and more sweat too…) I only wish I could be there to see more of these incredible matches.