Promoting Peace through Play

Jakob Lund loves football, and he's turned his passion into a mission. As founder and director of Play31, an organization that aims to spread joy and peace through football, Lund is putting a humanitarian twist on the sport's familiar designation, "the beautiful game."

The idea for Play31 came to Lund while working on a reconciliation project in eastern Sierra Leone. He noticed children playing football, known in the US as soccer, and saw that "their ball was completely ruined." Like many aspects of village life in Sierra Leone, children's play had suffered from the eleven-year civil war. He offered the children a new ball and their enthusiastic response prompted him to found Play31.

"Football isn't exactly traditional to Sierra Leone," Lund admits, but it was a favored pastime before the brutal conflict disrupted village life. The war ended in 2002, leaving tens of thousands dead and over two million people displaced. War-torn communities are struggling to rebuild in the face of poverty and trauma.

Lund envisioned a greater role for football in fostering peaceful societies where children are free to play. Inspired by Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes children's right to play, Play31 has donated hundreds of footballs and organized tournaments among more than one hundred villages in Sierra Leone.

Play31 works with the NGO Forum of Conscience, whose Fambul Tok project facilitates dialog among victims and perpetrators of violent crimes committed during Sierra Leone's conflict. "This is the part of the Play31 story that doesn't get told often enough," Lund says. Forum of Conscience's approach using traditional concepts and community-based programs to facilitate peace building--empowers Sierra Leoneans and makes them critical participants in the reconciliation process. Play31 supports Forum of Conscience's efforts by bringing together those affected by the war to participate in football matches and community gatherings.

Between October and December 2008, Play31 organized dozens of tournaments in Kailahun district, where the war began. At each event, participants from neighboring villages joined members of the host community in a series of matches. As teams competed on the field, tensions between rival villages eased, and players and spectators gained a greater sense of community. Afterward, both teams celebrated and shared a meal together. These post-match gatherings were modeled on traditional practices of consultation and ceremony, so they provided a safe and familiar context for villagers to talk through difficult problems.

Lund describes one event in which a woman who had been raped during the war recognized her attacker on the playing field. The next day, they met with members of their communities under the village "peace tree." The man expressed remorse for his actions, and the woman accepted his apology. "Reconciliation is never an easy process," Lund admits, but Play31 is helping to create space where reconciliation can occur.

"Women particularly suffered in this war," Lund points out. Because sexual violence played a large role in the conflict in Sierra Leone, Play31 and Forum of Conscience are working to ensure that women play a role in the reconciliation process. Women's participation in the matches was greeted with enthusiasm by both men and women in the villages. "Most of them had never played football before, but they took their play quite seriously. These women had never had a chance to be the face of their communities," says Lund. Their participation in the tournament highlighted the need for a larger public role for women beyond the playing field.

The tournaments continue to generate excitement and cooperation in the villages, leading Lund to be hopeful about the power of football to unify communities and promote peace. On March 23, exactly eighteen years after the war began, another match was held in Kailahun District. The country's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, visited the region for the first time to attend the event. His visit was seen as a show of support for reconciliation efforts.

Play31 plans to extend its efforts to Moyamba District, another area hit hard by the conflict in Sierra Leone. To raise awareness and funding for future projects, Play31 organized a match between teams of UN ambassadors in New York City. The event, dubbed "Diplomatch," took place on April 25, 2009.

Forum of Conscience

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