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Traveller's Tales: Visiting disadvantaged youth in Zambia with Play it Forward

Read about Anna's visit to Play it Forward



Operations & Marketing Exec
Published on

16 May 2024

Updated on

07 Jun 2024

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I wear many hats at Far & Wild, amongst which one of them is ESG Manager (you may also know me from my marketing work, my emails about finances, or my operational activities). I have been with Far & Wild for almost a year now and have had the privilege to visit Zambia twice – the first time last year for a safari-focused familiarisation trip with the whole Far & Wild gang (read about our trip here), and the second time I have just returned from last month. Both trips altered my perspective, as travel often does, but I would say that the second trip may well have changed the trajectory of my life.

With this second trip to Zambia, I was based entirely in Livingstone and its surrounds, where I visited the offices and locations of Play it Forward, one of Far & Wild’s partner charities.

What is Play it Forward and what do they do?

Play It Forward is a charitable foundation operating in Zambia that uses the universal appeal of football to foster community and create positive change in the lives of children and teenagers. Their visionary approach harnesses the power of this beloved sport as a conduit for instilling confidence, building skills, and expanding horizons.

Through a multi-faceted collaboration model, Play It Forward melds sustainable tourism efforts with high-impact grassroots programs designed to benefit underprivileged children across Southern Zambia. They partner closely with local schools and football clubs to implement a holistic array of educational, health, and personal development initiatives.

Play It Forward
Football players at Play it Forward
Play It Forward education
Play it Forward Literacy Program

Whether on the pitch mentoring aspiring athletes or in classroom settings, Play It Forward's programming equips Zambian youth with invaluable tools for excelling academically, professionally, and in all walks of life. Their comprehensive approach nurtures the whole individual - imparting knowledge, fostering discipline, and igniting belief in one's boundless potential.

From disadvantaged communities, a new generation is emerging - empowered, resilient, and armed with the skills to dictate their own destinies. Play It Forward is sparking a profound transformation, shaping Zambia's future through literacy, nutrition and of course, football.

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Play it Forward's Senior Girls Team

Away we go!

I didn’t go out on this trip alone – I was in fact tagging along on a trip that was happening already with the founder and Chairman of Play it Forward, Oliver Brendon, the CEO of Play it Forward, Jake Criswick and a team of staff from Olly’s travel company, Attraction The intention behind this visit was to see the work that Play it Forward are doing in person, on the ground. And my goodness, we learned a lot.

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Attraction Tickets group, Olly, Jake, and Lwanga

The first thing we did when we arrived in Livingstone – before we had even checked in to our hotels - was head to the Play it Forward offices to meet the staff who do all the important work on the ground: from Lwanga, the Zambian director of Play it Forward to Selina and Starford, the all important football coaches, and Mercy, Livingstone’s first female bus driver and an icon to the girls she drives around.

The Play it Forward office in Livingstone is an unassuming concrete building in an otherwise mostly suburban area that looks like it could be someone’s house. There is a well-worn sign outside the gate that could be easily missed if you didn’t know what you were looking for. Inside the rooms are well-protected from the overbearing sun, offering respite from the midday heat, despite there being no air-conditioning.

Indeed, in Livingstone, air-conditioning is an extreme luxury, particularly at the moment as Zambia, as the country gets the majority of its power from hydro-electric dams, and all of southern Africa is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts seen in decades. Rolling blackouts are common in this part of the world, and the hotel I stayed in (amusingly named “Fawlty Towers”) had a built-in policy of no power to the rooms between 9am and sunset. Surprisingly, these blackouts are very easy to adapt to, particularly when you are out and about all day.

Play it Forward staff at the office
Play it Forward staff at the office with volunteer group (including me!)
Play it Forward Office Farm
The Play it Forward office garden farm

In any case, the staff at Play it Forward made no complaint about the power situation, instead they immediately jumped in to help me and the staff from AT sort through the donations we had brought to the offices, consisting of books for their school literacy programs, craft supplies for schools, sanitary products for the teenage girls, toothpaste, toothbrushes, football kits, and of course, footballs for the children to play with.

After we had sorted our donations into piles, we got out of the way so the Play it Forward project managers could allocate which items would go to which area. Play it Forward sponsors many primary schools in Southern Zambia, alongside their football for development initiative, so there was much consideration to be done.

Play It Forward2024 playing football
Boys playing football without shoes

After checking into our hotels, the group met up to talk and headed over to the banks of the Zambezi to watch the sunset over Victoria Falls. There was a stark contrast between this setting at the bar of the Royal Livingstone Hotel and that of central Livingstone. Surrounded by the incredible sounds and sights of Zambian nature, as well as the luxurious accommodation offered by this hotel (with full power, all day long) it was impossible not to notice how differently the locals of Livingstone experience their city compared to those that come to visit. It is important to note that on this particular day, the president of Zambia was in attendance at the Royal Livingstone, and its sister hotel, the Avani Vic Falls, was fully booked with 400 delegates from the US military, so all the stops had been pulled out to ensure that the area looked impressive.

From this, I returned to Fawlty Towers in central Livingstone, a far more humble accommodation experience than the Avani/Royal Livingstone, but still luxurious relative to the average living quarters of any Zambian local. I was driven back to my accommodation by Lwanga, the Zambian director of Play it Forward. Lwanga patiently entertained my infinite questions about Zambian politics and Livingstone’s nightlife, and the intricacies of Play it Forward’s activities and impact – a role he became very familiar playing with me over the course of the visit.

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Sundowners at the Royal Livingstone
Children eating a nutritious meal prepared by our cooks after football training P Lay It Forward
Children eating a Play it Forward meal

School Visits

Katubya Community School

We started the day by driving out to Simoonga, a town just outside Livingstone, with markedly less infrastructure than the city, but still a thriving area. We passed through Simoonga and kept driving along dirt roads into the bush for almost an hour until we reached the latest school that Play it Forward has partnered with, Katubya Community School.

In the context of Zambia, a community school is a non-government school that the local community has put together to ensure that their children (often including orphaned children in said community) are receiving education. The Zambian Government defined them as “community-based, owned and managed, learning institution[s] that meets the basic education needs for pupils, who for a number of reasons, cannot enter government schools.” These community schools exist all over Zambia in remote locations and are often comprised of the children of several surrounding villages and run entirely by volunteers. These community schools pre-existed European colonisation of Southern Africa (and the establishment of formalised education by missionaries) and were previously known as village schools.

School building Katubya Community School Play it Forward Zambia
Katubya Community School building

It is difficult for many of these schools, including Katubya, to house teachers on-site due to lack of housing and infrastructure and as such, the teachers may not be able to attend school every day.

Indeed, Katubya’s previous principal had the difficulty of a multi-hour bike ride from Simoonga every day, over the same dirt roads we had driven on. The trouble with commuting over these kinds of roads is that in certain weather conditions, they become impassable, especially for bicycles. Even walking can take between three and five hours, and this too becomes impossible in the event of heavy rains, and very uncomfortable in the heights of the dry summers. The current principal has his own car, although he did mention to us that it is expensive to run and still not 100% effective in ensuring that he can get to the community school every school day.

Katubya Community School Principals Office Play it Forward Zambia 2
The principal's office
Driving on dirt roads in Zambia
Dirt roads in the heat of Zambia

As we approached the school, the first thing we saw was the dried-out field that the locals are using to try and build a sustainable source of food for the school so that the children will get fed regularly – something that is not always guaranteed otherwise – especially when considering orphaned, single parent, and otherwise vulnerable children in these communities. Unfortunately for Katubya, the rainwater tower that the government had previously installed so the community would have a reliable source of water was recently destroyed in a storm. They are awaiting government contractors to replace it, and in the meantime are relying on bore water from a source several kilometres away.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the drought in southern Africa on these communities. Over 80% of the crops failed in Zambia because of this drought, which means that without the government and other external bodies such as charities like Play it Forward, people (mostly children) will die of starvation. It is not just these remote communities either – because so much of the staple crop (maize) failed, the cost of buying the grain in markets has skyrocketed, meaning many families have to limit their food intake significantly as they cannot afford to fill their bellies.

Farm WIP Katubya Community School Zambia Play it Forward
The farm in progress at Katubya with a local member of the community gardening

Nevertheless, despite these increasing hardships, it was amazing to see how the members of the nearby villages banded together to make the farm a reality for this school. Some of these volunteers have children in the school and thus a particularly vested interest, others just want to ensure that the community thrives.

After driving past the field, we went slightly uphill to arrive at the school building, a brick and concrete structure consisting of three rooms – two large classrooms and a small office for the principal in the middle. There is no power, no running water, and no toilet block at this school. Play it Forward will be instrumental in helping to change this over the next few years.

School grounds Katubya Community School Play it Forward Zambia
School grounds Katubya Community School
Katubya Rooms
Katubya Building

The children were all gathered near the school building, watching our three-car convoy approach with apprehension. Being new to the Play it Forward program, the children at Katubya are not as familiar with meeting outsiders as other kids at other schools. Some of the older children did appear excited and as Olly and Jake carried giant bags of lollipops into the classrooms, it became suddenly apparent why. The teachers led us through to the main classroom and the boys and girls sat down around the limited number of desks. As our group tested the children on their literacy and numeracy skills, they slowly started to warm up to the large group of strangers in their midst as they competed for the right to answer the questions and receive a sweet. Their literacy skills are very impressive given the lack of formal education and that for every one of these children, English is their third or fourth language.* Given that numbers transcend the barriers of language, they were far more confident in their numeracy skills.

It struck me as I watched the lesson unfold how alike different cultures are in our youth; some kids eager to impress with their learning abilities, and some hiding shyly in the corner hoping they won’t get called on. All desperate to get outside and start playing games as soon as they were allowed.

Olly teaching Katubya Community School Play it Forward Zambia
Olly teaching the class

After the lesson we did indeed head outside so that coach Starford could guide the older children through a football lesson. It was utter chaos, but the children were delighted to have balls to play with and ran circles around him as he tried to rein them in. Eventually he succeeded and a training session was underway. A young, vibrant girl declared that she was better than all the boys at football and then proceeded to prove herself right by maintaining dominance over the mini-matches that ensued.

The younger children (around 6 years and under), watched wistfully as the older kids played (one toddler even attempting to join despite her diminutive stature) until another ball was produced for them to play with. What then occurred was perhaps the funniest game of football I have ever seen – the only apparent rule was to run to the front of the swarm of children and kick the ball forward. This game took place over a large space of dirt and saw several of the adults join in as the ball went beyond the limits of the play area.

Younger children playing with football at Katubya Community School
Chasing the ball - a new form of football
Football in the air Katubya Community Schiil Zambia Play it Forward
Football in the air!

The children who were unwilling to run around in the midday sun sat under the shade of a large acacia tree and stared at us bystanders until we sat down to talk with them. A few of them took it upon themselves to impress us by counting as high as they could (they got to one hundred!), which was adorable and baffling until it became clear they were vying for more sweets from us. We, of course, obliged and rewarded them for their efforts.

Once the training session was concluded and the children worn out and happy, we said goodbye to the community and loaded back into our vehicles. As we went to pull away, we were stopped by a lady asking if we could drive her to Simoonga. After some shuffling where myself and the staff from Attraction Tickets became very cosy very quickly, the woman, whose name is Elizabeth climbed into the van only to reveal she was carrying a live chicken.

Elizabeth and her chicken Katubya Community School Play it Forward Photo by Lara Luthgens
Elizabeth and her chicken, photo by Lara Luthgens

We all laughed in shock and asked where she was taking the chicken, who seemed very calm about the ordeal and simply let Elizabeth hold her. Elizabeth said she was taking the chicken home to cook, as she was a volunteer from a village several hours walk away and someone had gifted her the chicken for her help. She was so grateful for the lift avoiding a long walk in the sand that she promised Jake (our guide and driver) his own chicken the next time he came to visit.

After a long, dusty road back, we stopped and let Elizabeth out, and headed on down sealed roads to the next school, Nakawa Primary School.

Credit booths Livingstone
Near Simoonga
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Off down the road we go (bonus elephants)

Nakawa Primary School

By the account of the various Play it Forward staff, Nakawa has been partnered with the NGO for several years already, and as such, it presented a very positive picture of how Play it Forward can impact the lives of disadvantaged youths in Zambia.

On first impressions, things are already far more developed than Katubya. The school property is enclosed with a large fence and gate, and as you drive into the driveway there are several brick buildings, playground equipment, and planted greenery. Greeted at the entrance by the impressive principal, Cynthia, we headed first to the school’s garden to see how their crops were faring.

School building central Nakawa Primary School Livingstone Zambia Play it Forward
School building Nakawa Primary School
Generator at Nakawa Primary Shcool Livingstone Zambia Play it Forward
Generator at the school for power

The established garden at Nakawa presents a lot of promise for the in-progress garden at Katubya (with continued support from the local community, government, and donations and oversight by Play it Forward). The Nakawa garden has a variety of crops including the all-important maize, some chili peppers, some aubergines, and other vegetables. The garden is well-kept and enclosed with its own fence to prevent both people and animals alike from raiding the crops overnight. They also raise and breed their own guard dogs, and we were lucky enough to meet the adorable little puppies currently growing up to protect the property. Elephants are apparently a particular menace to farming in this part of the world and require a number of different types of deterrents to keep them away.

Chili peppers Nakawa Primary School Livingstone Zambia Play it Forward 5
Chili peppers growing in the school farm garden

From the garden, we moved to the school and once again the difference between an established project and a burgeoning one was immediately clear as the children were extremely excited to see us and ran up to all of us individually for hugs and high-fives. Evidently, the kids at Nakawa are familiar with Olly, Lwanga, and foreign visitors who bring them sweets, books, toys, and school supplies. Cynthia had prepared for the children to sing us several songs. I will admit I teared up as a group of six girls performed a poem about how climate change is drying up their water source and killing their crops.

Unlike Katubya, the children at Nakawa almost all had school uniforms and were more familiar with the routine of a school day. This is probably due in part to the relative accessibility of Nakawa versus Katubya as well, as it is along a main road, and the school even has its own transport. Unfortunately, said transport is a small five-seater hatchback so they are hoping to replace it soon with something that can transport more of the children to and from school. In addition to teacher housing, a farm, playground equipment, toilet blocks, and irrigation and running water, Nakawa are hoping to add a dedicated kitchen building to their school to ensure the nutritional needs of the children are met every day.

Children in classroom Nakawa Primary School Livingstone Zambia Play it Forward 1
Children in the classroom at Nakawa
Farm at Nakawa Primary School Livingstone Zambia Play it Forward 1
The farm garden

As we left the children in a wave of goodbye hugs and high fives again, we headed to the makeshift school shop, whereby Cynthia’s artist husband sells his artworks (comprising all manner of souvenirs) to raise additional money for the school.

Something to note with the amounts of money being requested by these schools is that a little bit of UK money goes a long way in Zambia. Currently, the average salary of a formally employed person in Livingstone is roughly 6500 kwacha (e.g. £210). Food and clothing are relatively inexpensive but imported goods (appliances, cars, etc) are very expensive and unattainable by most locals on the average salary. There are a variety of ways that communities come together to combat this, but these are often slow processes that don't necessarily result in success. One way that we can directly help is by funding charities like Play it Forward who ensure that the money is going where it is needed most.

Play it forward logo horizontal

Play it Forward Football and Literacy Classes

After visiting Nakawa, we headed to the football grounds to witness the core of Oliver Brendon’s vision at work – using football for development and education in Zambian youth. We were lucky enough to catch the women’s team at practice – a team that has done so well through Play it Forward’s development that they have made it to the Zambian premier league!

Girls Football practice Play it Forward Zambia 2
Football practice with Olly and Jake

After practicing ourselves and showing the women’s team exactly how talented they are by comparison, we headed across the field to watch the local Livingstone kids attend optional literacy classes, and it was truly a joy to watch as the very talented teaching staff, including teacher Claudia, used music and rhythm to teach the children reading and writing. We learned about some new playground games as well as watched, including some involving timing and movement and others involving keeping a beat and copying actions.

While we did this, published children's author and Attraction Tickets staff member, Renata Formoso, led a group of children in developing their own book so that they could tell their story together. Watch this space for when that becomes available!

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Literacy games
Renata writing a book with the kids at Play it Forward Zambia
Renata and the future authors writing a book

After class, we helped Hellen, the Play it Forward Nutrition and Sexual Health Co-ordinator to hand out meals to the children that attended. For many of these children, it would be the only meal that they would have all day, and for some, easily the most varied and nutritious they would have all week. Ranging in age from 8 to 17, we handed out meals to over 150 children and every single one was gracious and polite in receiving their food – there was no pushing to get to the front of the queue, no snatching, everyone said thank you and they all made space for each other once they had collected their meal.

Handing out food nutrition Play it Forward
Handing out food for the football and literacy classes

After mealtime, I had the fortune to chat with one of Play it Forward’s greatest success stories a young man named Francis, who has recently left Livingstone to attend university in Lusaka, on a scholarship provided by Play it Forward. Francis has come up through Play it Forward’s program from a young age – from a vulnerable background he has applied himself with the encouragement of the staff at Play it Forward and his own community, and is now happily studying agriculture and nutrition at university. He told me he hopes to apply his education to change agricultural practices in Zambia. Francis is one of only a handful of students who have made it to university through Play it Forward so far, but the team at Play it Forward hope to make that number much higher as time goes on and more children stick to their education and finish high school.

University of Lusaka
University of Lusaka ceremony
Play It Forward 2
Developing literacy early is important for long-term employability

Staff Impact

The day finished at a restaurant with the Play it Forward staff, where we sat and listened to their stories, about how they came to work for Play it Forward and how their lives would be impacted if Play it Forward didn’t exist. These incredible people eat, sleep, and breathe for their jobs and I was moved to tears on more than one occasion as the team talked about the positive impact this foundation has had on their lives, and the lives of the children they care about so much. Beyond that, how much they want to help more children, but lack the necessary resources at this stage.

The coaches told us about their SRHR program in which they trained 20 coaches in sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV prevention, and life skills integration through football. This initiative has not only equipped the coaches with vital knowledge but also inspired girls who had dropped out of school to return, aiming to create healthier and more informed communities.

SRHR training Play it Forward
SRHR Training day in August 2023

Their nutritionists and cooks told us about how providing the kids with food, often the only meal they get in a day, is changing their lives completely - giving them the energy to turn up to school and focus, to stay in school and find long-term employment.

Their finance team talked about how even they feel connected to the kids despite their relatively office-based positions because of the nature of the organisation - everyone gets involved. Mwenya, the bookkeeper, spoke about how the foundation employed him when he was at one of the lowest points of his life - in rehab and disabled from a stroke caused by his drinking - and Play it Forward helped to turn everything around just by taking a chance on him.

The communications staff talked about how Play it Forward is the epitome of actions speaking louder than words. The staff are on the ground, helping the beneficiaries in person, using the money raised to directly support and uplift their communities. As Comms and Events Officer, Precious Mulabika put it: "seeing those smiles on the young people’s faces really drives me to do my best."

Precious and Myuna giving speeches
Precious and Mwenya giving their speeches
Nutrition and wellbeing Play it Forward
Feeding the kids is a huge part of what Play it Forward do

Football, dinner and dancing with the girl’s team

The following day we watched an exhibition match between the Play it Forward Queens (the senior girl’s team) and the Border Queens, who had come up from the Botswanan border to play. The PiFQ dominated the game and it is easy to see how they have been so successful, their confidence in themselves and each other, their trust in their coach, their incredible footwork, and their excellent teamwork make them a truly formidable force. Olly mentioned a number of times that two of the highest-paid women’s footballers in the world are Zambian, and it's not hard to see why when you watch these amazing women play.

Queens on the sidelines Play it Forward exhibition match
Watching the match from the sidelines

Play it Forward isn’t just invested in football and literacy, however, they have a more holistic approach to ensuring the young women under their care achieve what they set out to. The foundation takes a multi-faceted approach to teaching both their male and female footballers about the importance of sexual health, healthy relationships and the meaning of enthusiastic consent.

After eating with these amazing women and learning a whole lot of Nyanja thanks to “Carlos” (Munzanga zikomo!), myself and all the other visitors were dragged up to learn how to dance with the Zambian locals. Unsurprisingly, the Zambian women had a good laugh at my attempts! Despite my appalling lack of rhythm, the atmosphere in this lively little café/bar lead to a night I doubt I will forget for the rest of my life due to the sheer sense of joy and community found in the space in those few hours. These women and girls truly prove how much of a difference sport can make in terms of community and life development and how the efforts of Olly, Lwanga, Jake and the staff at Play it Forward really are impactful.

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Me and my new friends!
Singing at Cafe Zest
Live music at Cafe Zest

Digital Literacy and the Future for Play it Forward

Finally, we visited the incredible initiative by Play it Forward to improve digital literacy for young people in Livingstone. Many of the AT staff volunteered their skills to help teach the students who had come in for class (on a public holiday no less) and to speak with them and hear their stories. The high-tech facilities, due in part to sponsorship by a local bank, are an excellent example of the future world Play it Forward is enabling for its children and their families

Digital Literacy photo Play it Forward Zambia
Digital Literacy Program

The future of Play it Forward is brimming with ambitious plans and visionary goals. The next crucial step is constructing permanent, functional grounds for Play it Forward FC in Livingstone. This development will include proper changing rooms for both men and women, addressing a critical need for the team.

A key objective is securing land to establish a true home for the club. This space will allow for the construction of classroom blocks, 4G pitches, and a library, creating a comprehensive environment for education and athletic training. Additionally, acquiring a new bus is a priority, as the current one is unlikely to last through the next season.

Ultimately, the goal is to train players to an international level, leveraging their success to reinvest in the community. By nurturing top-tier talent and using the proceeds from their achievements, Play it Forward aims to create a sustainable cycle of improvement, continually enhancing the lives and opportunities of those they serve.

Want to get involved?

Far & Wild can facilitate your visit to Play it Forward in Livingstone - whether you are visiting Southern Africa and fancy a trip to Vic Falls or want to spend some real quality time in Zambia, we are here to help you, help the kids at Play it Forward. Check out some of our trip ideas that include Vic Falls and Livingstone, any of which we can add a trip to Play it Forward to:

Girls at Nakawa reciting a poem titled Help
Girls at Nakawa Primary School reciting their poem titled "Help!"

I can quite confidently say that my life and my outlook has been permanently changed by my visit to the Play it Forward Foundation in Livingstone and the surrounding area. It is one thing to be aware of these causes and these issues that affect people who live so far away - but to go there, and to meet these children, and the adults that have developed from the efforts of this foundation - has reified the situation.

These are real little people, with hopes and dreams the same as any kid in the UK or the US, but they just don't have the opportunities to thrive because of a lack of resources - not just within their families but across the whole country. And it is through no fault of their own. As Olly Brendon says, "It is purely an accident of birth."

I would strongly suggest that anyone visiting Southern Africa should make a trip to Play it Forward or a similar organisation (depending on the country you travel to) to get to know the reality of life in the country you are visiting outside of the most-frequented tourist spots.

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