Woza Soccer’s Impact on my Global Perspective

Written by Ben Hayden, Woza Soccer Alumnus of Peru 2017, Malawi 2018 and South Africa 2019

During the spring of my freshman year in high school, I had huge questions about what my summer would look like with Woza. Will I like the people? Will I be homesick? How in the world will I survive without my phone for three weeks? A little over three years later, approaching this summer of 2020, I was only able to ask myself what my summer could possibly look like without it.

Staying in the 100+ degree heat of Dallas, Texas, for three months was a foreign concept to me. Each summer since my family moved here, I’ve spent a significant portion abroad with Woza. From hiking Machu Picchu in Peru and relaxing on the stunning beaches of Cape Maclear in Malawi, to overlooking the vast city of Cape Town at Lionshead peak in South Africa, traveling and doing work that I love with our partners has defined each of my first three summers of high school.

This summer was a bit different. Instead of climbing stairs up to a lookout over a wildlife reserve in Liwonde, I spend my days climbing atop the water slide at my local pool, explaining to ten-year-olds that “No, you cannot go headfirst.” I’ll spare you the sentence about how different it’s been living in these “unprecedented” times filled with “unique challenges,” because obviously the ongoing pandemic has had far-reaching, significant consequences for everyone.

For me, personally, it upended my final high school soccer season, removed routines and destroyed any sense of a normal sleep schedule, and gave me a summer in Dallas to reflect on how Woza Soccer has had such a profound impact on the way I view the world.

My experiences abroad, particularly in South Africa, have left me more equipped to understand the troubles in my own country, as we deal both with a devastating pandemic and widespread outcries against systemic racism and police brutality. Traveling from the affluent suburb of South Africa’s Fish Hoek into the overpacked slums of Khayelitsha was eye-opening; I gained a new understanding of the ongoing effects of a half-century of apartheid. The starkly different socioeconomic standing of the 99% black Khayelitsha versus the 82% white Fish Hoek was shocking to see.

Growing up in the United States, you may not learn that it is one of just two countries that employed legal segregation at some point in its history, the other being the Republic of South Africa. Although the dramatic visual difference between metal shacks and oceanside mansions was clearer to my eye in South Africa, similar effects of systemic racism are clear in my own neighborhood. I live in a 95% white “bubble” in Dallas, even though the city as a whole is 25% Black and 42% Latino. The harms of systemic racism are as apparent here as in far off lands, and Woza has helped me develop the desire and the tools to be part of the solution.

In a million small examples, you learn that your basic assumptions about life are thrown out the window when trying to understand daily life in an impoverished society. Woza grounded my worldly curiosity so that it became personal for me to confront questions of global inequality. Widespread poverty is a result of systemic racism, colonialism, corruption, and a quiet acceptance that the current state of affairs is often just the way things are. There’s almost no aspect of life that isn’t affected by the underlying inequity.

When training with Ascent Soccer in Malawi, I was at first confused why the club would keep all jerseys, cleats, and other equipment outside of practice time, rather than sending them home with the players who wore them. Wouldn’t each player have a jersey and cleats--even if it was provided by the club rather than purchased by their parents? Given that Ascent has very limited time to practice each week due to the logistics of getting players to their center, it made no sense to me why they would take up a valuable half hour at the beginning and end of practice to give out and collect equipment. I later learned the players’ families were under such pressure living in the most impoverished country in the world that they would almost certainly sell the equipment to support their family. It hadn’t even occurred to me.

Taking my own uniform for granted is the tip of the iceberg. There are so many layers to the inequity that determines whether two players with equal talent will have the same opportunity to capitalize on it. And so many layers that determine whether students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds--even if all from the same country--will have the same opportunity to capitalize on their natural talents and abilities, as well as the hard work they apply to various pursuits. My work with Woza has forced me to ask myself huge questions, and my quest to find the answers has led to a deeper understanding of the inequities that plague our society and an abiding commitment to change.