Former UMass player, coach  Kalekeni Banda speaks with teams about work in native Malawi

Staff Writer
Published: 8/27/2019 9:25:24 PM

AMHERST — Kalekeni Banda was born to push the barriers of his native Malawi.

His father was a founding member of the Malawi Congress Party, which was the first ruling party after British rule ended in the country in 1964, and then served as a diplomat to the United Nations. That privilege is a main reason Banda was able to attend UMass and play soccer in the early 1970s, which turned into a prolonged coaching career that began with stops at UMass and Amherst College.

Now he’s trying to share that privilege in his native country with the Chituka Village Project through his Banda Bola Sports Foundation. But in order to accomplish his missions, he’s had to touch on many taboos, especially when it comes to the role of girls in traditional African societies.

“We’re changing people’s mindsets and breaking barriers,” said Banda, who spoke with the men’s and women’s soccer teams at UMass on Thursday. “In 2019, we’re still talking about education in areas where they don’t really know what that means. They know kids need to go to school, but then to come up and say that girls can only go to school until they hit puberty and then after that, ‘we’re going to marry them off because we need to have more kids.’”

Banda’s program is working to keep girls in school through the eighth grade and empower them to be able to speak for themselves and assert their rights as young women. There are still a fair amount of tough conversations with parents, many of whom struggle to comprehend the Western ideals that are still struggling to take hold in rural Africa.

But Banda is slowly influencing those in Malawi with the ideas of gender equality and hoping to change the future by starting with the youth in the country.

“Women are still second-class citizens as we talk today, they still look down on them,” Banda said. “It’s very difficult for me to go to a village and have a conversation with men and women about how we’re going to change their attitude. For me, going to the grassroots and changing those girls when they’re 10, that’s going to help us change the attitude when they become women and they become men. They’re going to start looking at each other different.”

Soccer is the crux of Banda’s efforts of improving education in Malawi ahead of the UN’s goal of universal education by 2030. The Banda Bola Scholastic Soccer League for Boys and Girls is a league for schools in the Nkhata Bay South District in the northern part of the country, which enforces good grades and gender equality for teams to participate.

The teams are coed at the under-10 level with three boys and three girls on each squad while above that, a school can only enter a boys team if it also enters a girls team. In order for the kids to qualify to play in the league they must attend school five days a week and achieve good grades. It has already changed the attitudes of many kids toward education, Banda said, but it is just one of two major changes that have been made.

“Soccer is not played by girls in Africa, especially in Malawi, they don’t play soccer,” Banda said. “For me to give a soccer ball to a girl and a boy is looking at me like ‘what’s up with that?’ I go ‘Well, I want her to play, too, so if you want to play, you put her on a team.’ Now the brothers and sisters are playing together and before they were sitting in separate seats and eating at separate tables, so there is none of that interaction. Soccer is now bringing them all together and they’re talking about soccer at home.”

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