In the wake of Britain’s decision to sever itself from the EU, and whilst everyone is still reeling from the shock of working out what this will actually mean for the country’s future, it seems a fitting time to share some photographs of a brilliantly collaborative Eurocentric event that the School of St Yared took part in recently.
A couple of Saturdays ago, to correspond with the start of the UEFA European Football Championship, the German embassy in Addis organized a ‘European’ football tournament at the Ethiopian National Stadium and invited schools to participate that had links to some of the different European embassies. One embassy pulled out last minute, and so, with echoes of Eurovision, the Australian Embassy was invited to bring The School of St Yared along. They very generously bought our team snazzy new green and gold football kit (complete with token kangaroos) for the occasion. It was an incredible opportunity for our kids – the equivalent of being invited to play at Twickenham, The ANZ Stadium or some such.
On the day itself, Benji dropped me off at The National Stadium before the students arrived. It is very close to one of the stations on Addis’s new light rail line which opened last year. For some reason, it’s a hot spot for learner drivers too who use its ring road to practice before their tests – due to this, walking along the road was a bit of a death wish, so I wandered inside as quickly as possible.
I was greeted by rows of bright red, yellow and green seats, billboards advertising local beers and giant Olympic rings. Upbeat music was blaring out of a sound system in the stands, and packs of athletes were sprint training at various intervals on the track around the pitch. I later found out from Fitsum, the principal of The School of St Yared, that these athletes were actually in training for the Olympics. Impressive stuff, and it made their ridiculously speedy and graceful workouts make a lot more sense. The stands were fairly empty (it was 8am on a Saturday morning) but were peppered with various embassy staff, including the Australian Ambassador and his son, who had come to support us. As I waited for The School of St Yared team to arrive, to my horror, I noticed several streaks of brown dried blood on the floor. I later found out that there’d been a quite a fracas at a football match between two of Addis’s rival teams the night before – very alarming, but it wasn’t a distraction from our tournament.
Our team arrived with minutes to spare before their first game. It turned out that the whole school was so excited that we’d been invited to play, that everyone had wanted to come along to support. Whilst other teams in the tournament had perhaps a couple of subs in the crowd, we had the entirety of our primary school decked out in their brightly coloured sportskit cheering, singing, clapping, chanting on the sidelines whenever our team played. As we were representing Australia, the embassy provided the kids with a few Australian flags to celebrate with. Despite some confusion about which way round to hold them, the kids absolutely loved them, using them at various points as banners, blankets and general celebration tools. It was fantastic opportunity to build a strong relationship between the school and the embassy, which hopefully will blossom in the future.
Unfortunately, there’d been a bit of a mix up with the delivery of the new kit. For the first match, the kids played in their existing sports kit, whilst someone went to locate the new kit, which then led to a snappy change for all the players before their second game. They looked very smart on the pitch after this, and had photos taken with the Australian Ambassador to commemorate the occasion.
The sun was out after the first match and the team was thirsty, but there was no water provided for them. In wonderful St Yared’s compassionate fashion, all of our students in the crowd gave their own water bottles that they’d brought with them to the team without a moment’s hesitation. It also turned out that none of the students had had any breakfast – on week days they are fed at school, but as they live in such extreme poverty, often there’s not enough food to go round their families at the weekend. After putting 100% into their first game, they really needed some sustenance to be able to have a fair go at the rest of the tournament. The tournament organisers were going to provide the team with lunch, but it was very clear that the kids needed water and food immediately.
Before the next game, I went out of the stadium with Miss Hirut, the Head of Primary, to find some street hawkers who had water and little ‘glucose’ biscuits (the only food available) that we could buy for the kids. As we shared the snacks, I was again overwhelmed by the students’ compassion and generosity – they offered each other biscuits before taking for themselves, and offered staff biscuits too. They always think about others despite how hungry or tired they might be themselves which is truly humbling and again a sign of what an incredible impact the school has on their lives.
Our team played brilliantly for all four matches, their defense was strong and their plucky ball skills extremely impressive. The players in the other teams were often much larger physically, not that they let this stop them putting on a really good fight. Ultimately, we didn’t manage to convert our passion into many goals on the pitch, but our crowds’ support blew everyone else out of the water!
We didn’t make it through to the semi finals, but I would have loved to know how the students would have celebrated if we did. After our last match, the kids started dancing and cheering, forming at one point a massive conga line, and at another, inviting Yared to dance with them – a source of great excitement indeed! Such jumping, laughing, happy celebrations were had!
It was such a privilege to be able to share the moment with them. It was a fantastic show of collaboration too between the various European embassies (and Australia) to put on a truly wonderful event for the students. I am sure it is something that they will remember forever, and may well have a huge influence over their future. Looking around the stadium before we left, it struck me that Ethiopia’s future football team will probably include some of the players who took part in the day.