Every Tuesday evening, we have been coaching a small soccer team consisting mostly of kids with disabilities. It was somewhat tough to get this program started, since most people don’t think that kids with disabilities can play a sport. Working with a local NGO specializing in rehabilitation, we convinced the town’s Youth & Sport Office, the zone’s Youth & Sport Office, and some doubtful parents that these kids CAN play soccer. The first week, we were infected by their doubtfulness, wondering if anyone would actually show up to the stadium. We were pleasantly surprised when 22 kids arrived…and almost on time! Their differences ranged from cerebral palsy to post-polio to Down Syndrome to mental disabilities. At first, the kids were scared and timid, too afraid to talk to us and too afraid to kick the ball with any conviction. Now when we arrive at Stadium, they run up to us with huge smiles, begging for the ball, giving us hugs, asking, ‘Are you fine?’
We start each practice by doing simple drills, like kicking the ball back and forth between two lines or dribbling a short distance, then passing the ball. Then, the kids are split into two teams and the game begins, with Josh and a physical therapist working as referees. The games get pretty serious, with Asrat, a tiny boy with developmental delays, keeping score, doing cheers and cartwheels, and reminding the other kids in a sassy tone which team they belong to. The practice usually draws a crowd of curious spectators, who question why these ferenji are bothering with these kids.
One teenage boy, Tamaru, has cerebral palsy and uses forearm crutches to walk. If he lived in the U.S., he would probably use leg braces for walking and a wheelchair for going longer distances, but these luxury items are not available here. He lives outside of town and has to walk several miles by himself to Stadium, but he comes early to every single practice, carrying his water bottle in a plastic bag around his wrist, waiting patiently for us to arrive. Even when the heavy rains hit, he trudges through the mud in his beat-up tennis shoes and worn-out crutches, and he is ecstatic when we finally arrive and he can play some soccer. Every week, he insists on being the goalie, and he dives for the ball, falling to the ground then getting back up with a huge smile and a coughing laugh.
Another player, Mimi, is 10 years old and has Down Syndrome. She is shy, sweet, and affectionate to all. Her loyal 8-year-old brother, Abdi, brings her to practice every week, and he also participates. During games, I hold her hand, exaggerating how fast we are running and encouraging her to run after the ball in my broken Afan Oromo. When the ball comes our way, the game pauses for a moment, and the other kids say, “Kick it Mimi, kick it!” She gears up, taking a few steps back, confirms several times with her brother the direction that she should kick the ball, then lets it rip!
We end each practice by doing a football-style huddle, each of the kids trying to touch their hand in the middle, while doing a group cheer. At first, we were cheering the typical clichés, like ‘Go, team!’ or ‘Good game!’ Then, one of the older boys suggested we say in English: ‘Yes, we CAN!!!’ That cheer stuck and now every week, the kids repeat it over and over, long after the huddle has broken.