Tackling HIV From Behind The Headlines

HIV isn't in the news much these days, but a million people still die from the disease every year in Africa alone. A charity is trying to lessen its impact, through football...

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"HIV is maybe not in the news so much anymore," says Charlie Gamble, CEO of football charity Tackle Africa. "But there's still an enormous need.

"It's not in the headlines because it's been around for 30 years, but there are still a million people who die every year in Africa alone, and they don't need to or have to."

Gamble and his organisation can't control the news, so instead they're working to educate young people about the HIV in Africa, hopefully helping to prevent its spread. Tackle Africa was founded around ten years ago by a man called Ben Mateland, who was teaching English in Tanzania. And not teaching it very well, by all accounts, so he resolved to do something a little more practical.

"He wanted to do something to help involving football," says Gamble. "So he set up the charity, which originally ran football tours around African countries, so people like you and I would go round and play football, drawing crowds and then they would do HIV workshops there.

"That was quite good, but not brilliant in terms of impact, so in about 2006 we implemented coaching alternatives, which proved to be a better model."

Tackle Africa don't educate in the traditional way, but rather use football in a practical manner to help inform young people (usually between 12-18, as and just before they become sexually active). Their representatives travel to countries across the continent and teach members of local organisations how to educate through coaching, out on the pitch. These organisations then pass on this teaching to young people, hopefully educating them about HIV and how to avoid it.

They primarily do this through coaching drills, much like the ones most of us will have been taught down the years. Nothing is done in the classroom, which is theoretically a more effective way of getting through to kids who are perhaps not quite so comfortable in a formal setting.

"People learn through having fun, and actively doing things," says Gamble.

For example, one drill Tackle Africa use asks the students to take it in turns to shoot balls at a goal, which initially has ten goalkeepers. The goal represents the human body, while the keepers are the white blood cells that should keep out any viruses and the balls are the infections themselves. The effects of HIV are demonstrated by removing the goalkeepers, or the natural protection that the body puts up. This makes the impact of HIV clearer and more visual for the young people involved.

Another drill attempts to represent the risks taken when people have multiple partners without protection, or without being HIV-tested. Each player has a piece of paper in their sock, but they don't know what's on it (i.e., they've not been tested) and they play a series of one-on-one dribbling games (representing sexual contact), switching partners every few minutes.

Tackle Africa resource development officer Laura Brooks explains: "At the end of the drill, players reveal the papers. On one piece only it's marked HIV. Everyone that's played against that player has put themselves at risk of infection. And the drill works so that every single player has played against the infected player, therefore the entire family/community/network can be at risk from just one single person."

So how do they find the students to teach? Simply put, people come to them, with requests from different organisations coming in a few times every month asking them to provide training. Most of them are independent organisations looking for new ways to educate young people, which is where Tackle Africa come in.

They're not the only ones using football for important social causes. Tackle Africa are a member of a network called Street Football World, a group of around 200 organisations that in some way use football to make a difference. The Homeless FA, who Football365 spoke to back in November, is also part of this network, which Gamble describes as a 'quality assurance' for football charities.

If, by now, you don't want to get involved with Tackle Africa, you're probably a very bad person. Possibly. So how can you get involved?

Gamble says: "We've got lots of opportunities - loads of openings for coaches, if anyone really wants to get involved with our programmes, actually going to Africa and delivering the training. These opportunities range from a couple of weeks, which don't come up very often, or up to a year, which are a bit more common."

One such volunteer is Brooks, who will travel out to Nairobi later this year to work for Tackle Africa in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

"I'm a qualified football coach, and one of my teachers a few years ago left to go and work with Tackle Africa, so I've followed them since then," she says. "Then when I was working in Tanzania the year before last, I wanted to set up a female football team, and there happened to be a Tackle Africa coach out there at the time. And they really helped me with equipment etc., and ever since I've been asking 'When can I be a part of this?'

"My two passions are teaching and football, so combining the two in one job is pretty much the ultimate. Plus, I can travel to some of my favourite countries. It's a no-brainer."

Brooks will be spending at least a year in Africa, which is quite a commitment. If you perhaps can't take yourself off for a whole year on another continent, an easier way of helping out is through one of Tackle Africa's Football Marathons, which is exactly what it sounds - teams take playing football for 12 hours in order to raise funds.

The most recent event in Brighton raised over £20,000, but the main marathon takes place on July 6, on Wormwood Scrubs playing fields in London. 512 players in 64 teams will attempt to raise £120,000 to help Tackle Africa continue their brilliant work. Registration to play at the event is closed, but you can donate here, or by texting TAFM13 £10 to 70070. Alternatively, like all charities, Tackle Africa are always looking for more practical help - IT support, graphic design or ideas for new drills - any aid is welcome.

"There are still 30 million people around the world living with HIV," says Gamble. "It's not gone away." That may be true, but with the help of groups Tackle Africa's help, its impact can be lessened. It's things like this that make you remember that, even though this game of ours can be frustrating, profligate and sometimes plain grotesque, its power can be used for wonderful things.

For more information about Tackle Africa's work, visit their website, TackleAfrica.org. To donate to their Football Marathons go here, or text TAFM13 £10 to 70070.

You can follow them on Twitter here.

Nick Miller - follow him on Twitter

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