Being a Sports Missionary

Since my last post was about religion I thought I would continue the thread by talking about my role as a sports missionary.

I remember reading an article a while back that described the pre-departure training of a group of sport-for-development interns. The article may have been in an academic journal, or on a blog, or on a website, but I haven't been able to find it again. It is possible that I have imagined it and am now using it to frame my blog post. Anyways, the article described in passing a brief exchange that occurred during the pre-departure training that I felt was interesting. During the training one of the interns described their future role as being equivalent to a missionary, but instead of spreading religion they were spreading sport. The others vehemently disagreed with this description and the intern embarrassingly recanted his statement. I can’t remember the details of the exchange, but I believe the reason that his suggestion was looked down upon was because of the negative reaction that some people may have towards missionaries and the belief that they are imposing a set of values/beliefs on people. However, if that intern was a little more stubborn I think he could have put forward a pretty good argument that we are in fact sport missionaries.

Bruce Kidd, a Canadian academic, has an often cited quote which is related to this line of thinking:

Whereas the best community development is ‘needs – and asset-based’, i.e. premised on the expressed needs and available resources of the local population, articulated during a careful, consultative joint planning process, much of SDP (sport for development and peace) is donor-defined, planned and conducted with missionary zeal. Sadly, the single-minded purpose and confidence that sport instills in champions, a commendable attribute when transferred to many other settings, militates against inter-cultural sensitivity and needs-based programming in development. There is a fear that SDP simply imposes the values of first-world middle class on the disadvantaged of LMICs(Low and Middle Income Coutnries)…

Professor Kidd is discussing the process of planning and delivering programmes, but I think that the entire concept of sport-for-development should be examined. I think the driving force behind many sport-for-development projects is the belief that sport can teach certain life skills and impart certain values on participants as well as improving things like self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-efficacy. We go out in the world preaching these benefits. We go into communities, holding a soccer ball like a sacred idol, clutching our coaching manuals like bibles, and attempt to spread this utopian version of sport that we have conceived.

I have only been in Lesotho for a short time, so my experience is limited, but I am not sure if this belief is replicated in local communities. Most everyone I talk with in Mafeteng about the benefits of sport will point to sport acting as a diversion; time spent playing sports means time not used for drinking, using drugs, or having sex. I haven’t had one person mention life-skills, values, self-esteem, self-confidence, or self-efficacy unless they are volunteers working in sport-for-development, but I suppose these people would be equivalent to the religiously converted. Sport is a universal endeavor. Everyone plays. But are these values that we associate with sport universal or are we exporting our vision of sport?

I suppose that it could be argued that any international, or inter-cultural, programme is imposing a set of values on people. Even if a project is claiming to be participatory it is still imposing certain ideals.

I am interested in this type of work because I believe sport had a positive impact on me and I believe it can have a positive impact on others. However, I have no idea what aspect of my youth sport involvement resulted in my personal development. Was it being exposed to strong role models? Was it peer recognition? Was it having access to volunteer and employment opportunities through refereeing and coaching? Was it through various community interactions such as fundraising, being included in the local newspaper, receiving recognition from friends’ parents, teachers, and other adults? Was it through the process of being committed to a team and setting and achieving goals as a group? Was it the result of being involved in regular competition and learning how to deal with winning and losing? I could go on. The point I am trying to make is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify what aspect of sport benefitted me. It becomes even more difficult because what was a positive experience for me may have been a negative experience for one of my friends. It becomes even more difficult when you try to identify what benefited me and then transplant that into a different culture.

So, what’s my point?

I suppose that my feeling is that if we believe that sport can be beneficial should our efforts not be put towards simply building youth sport structures. Why do we have to design and frame programmes based on a definition of sport that we have created? Maybe it comes back to what Professor Kidd mentioned about sport-for-development being donor-driven, but I would like to see more programmes that simply help local communities access funds for infrastructure, equipment, and develop youth sporting structures: associations, leagues, clubs, etc. If there are values to be learned through sport and life skills to be taught, why can we not leave that for the communities to decide?

August 30


Since I have arrived in Lesotho I have wanted to write about religion. I have mostly avoided it because of how divisive and complicated it can be and how ignorant I am regarding it. In general, I am a fairly indecisive person. This indecisiveness includes religion. If I were really pressured – if God was sitting on a cloud throwing lightening bolts at me and Buddha, Jesus, and Vishnu were chasing after me all screaming ‘what do you believe in?’ – I would probably have to admit that I am an atheist (I apologize for the possibly offensive description). I wouldn’t consider myself an atheist in the mould of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. I am not necessarily against religion. I think that religion, and religious organizations, have the potential to help people and in many situations do help people a great deal.

After reading a recent post at the aidwatchers blog I have decided to try and write down my thoughts. The post I refer to was not specifically about religion. William Easterly, the author, was travelling in Ghana and was able to attend a religious service. After attending the service he made the observation that “the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians”. He was using this point to challenge commonly held perceptions about people living in poverty – what he calls humanizing the poor. He was trying to use a personal experience to illustrate his point, but the reason it got me thinking was because it comes across as such a huge simplification.

Over 80% of the population of Lesotho identifies as Christian, but I feel that it would be a fairly superficial observation if I just said that most Basotho see themselves as Christian. I would think that the perceptions of Christianity differ a great deal between cultures, especially in many African countries where the religion has been introduced by missionaries and has evolved over time in concert with traditional religions and practices.

What has surprised me a great deal is how much interaction there is with religion in seemingly all facets of life. When we hold workshops and meetings in Mafeteng we have a prayer to open the gathering and we usually have a prayer to close – I should note that the meetings I have attended in Maseru have not followed this pattern. During one meeting I forgot to include a prayer to open the meeting and a number of the participant feedback forms I collected at the end of the day mentioned the lack of a morning prayer. Another example that has stayed with me occurred during my first month in Lesotho. I attended a community meeting involving all of the organizations working with HIV/AIDS in Mafeteng. There were about 50 people in attendance. At one point in the meeting there was a small discussion/debate about the role of abstinence education in HIV prevention. The debate mostly involved two of the participants, a man and a woman. This conversation regarding abstinence would have probably offered me some insight into the role of religion in community based work in Mafeteng, but unfortunately I couldn’t understand any of it because they were debating in sesotho. What I remember most is that almost every time the woman stood up to present her argument or to disagree with the man she would break into a gospel song/prayer. All the participants would get up and sing and dance – including the gentleman that was arguing with her. After the song she would continue with her argument. This happened three or four times. If anything, I thought it was an interesting debating tactic.

Religion is also ever-present in my personal life. When I meet people an invariable question in the introductory small-talk script is ‘What church do you belong to?’ I still haven’t found a way to answer this without just desperately trying to change the subject.

As a result of this continued exposure to religion, I have been able to reflect on my beliefs, or lack of beliefs I should say. I have started to wonder how someone who is born into a life of almost limitless opportunity could question the existence of God; whereas someone who is born into a life with limited opportunities would seem to have unquestioning faith. Maybe it would be simplistic of me to assume people have unquestioning faith. There could be a number of reasons why religion is entrenched in a society and it may have nothing to do with faith, belief, or spirituality. I would think that belief and belonging become a social necessity when religion is so pervasive. It is also possible that belonging to a church provides more benefit then not belonging, regardless of personal belief. However, there still seems to be a significant amount of people who outwardly express their faith in God. It seems backwards to me. I have met people who have lost so much – parents, siblings, friends, and yet they still have the belief that God is giving them the power to persevere. It has made me wonder if atheism is a position borne of privilege. Maybe I can afford to be an atheist because my life has been relatively free of adversity.

August 23, 2010