By Norman Brierley, Africa Development Manager
The early years of my childhood were spent in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa and one of my earliest memories was that of regularly kicking a blown-up pig’s bladder around the mango trees with Balanta youngsters. This is the case with many children in Africa today.
The great Ethiopian long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie said of his school days when he had to run 10kms each day to school, “in the rainy season, sometimes to get to the first lesson we had to run really quick, because we had to cross the river to school and we'd have to go up and down the bank to find a place to cross because there was no bridge.” That was the early training for his two Olympic and four World Championship gold medals won in later years!
The fun and release of energy does not die away as you get older. South Africa's first black head of state Nelson Mandela realised that with sport much could be achieved when he said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all kinds of discrimination.”
Even though the participation and following of sport varies throughout the continent, football is undoubtedly the most popular. Whether in shack, home, hotel or cafe, youngsters and adults are found glued to football on television and invariably they are watching football being played many thousands of miles away in the European leagues.
Following African sportsmen and women such as Samuel Eto'o and Didier Drogba from football, sisters Tirunesh and Genzebe Dibaba in athletics, or AB de Villiers and Kagiso Rabada in cricket is just the tip of the iceberg in hero worship. Anything they wear, say or do has detailed attention from African sports fans.
As the roads of Rome carried the Christian Gospel in the first century so sport is a major means of carrying it today. This is the way to get to the heart of a person – share the common ground we have with them. What are they interested in? What are they normally involved in? Getting alongside the sports fan and enabling their hero to share the Good News.
We do this through our two weekly programmes: Planet Sport, a multi-sport international programme and Planet Sport Football Africa, about Africans in football both on the African continent and playing in the European football leagues. Many of the elite sportsmen and women participating in the programmes share about their faith in Jesus Christ and their life experiences. Forty radio stations in Africa air our programmes weekly with many listeners tuning in on our websites and through the dedicated apps. We receive daily comment regarding the content of the programmes over WhatsApp and social media.