With the FIFA 2010 Soccer World Cup on its way to South Africa, interest in soccer tourism has grown. And it's no surprise that this has collided head-on with the huge demand for responsible travel, community tourism and cultural experiences. Well, I've just been part of one responsible soccer community cultural experience (RSCCE?) that blew my mind -- and changed the lives of dozens of participants.
It was the TK Lions (Lwandle, Cape Town, S Africa) versus Killester United (Dublin, Ireland). An international friendly of note played on 5 February, with the visitors coming out on top 2 to 1. The result easily could have gone either way, with the Irishmen flagging in the heat and the younger lions hammering away at goal in the final minutes, unlucky not to come away with an equalizer and then some.
The soccer, however, was the least of it. Here was an Irish amateur soccer team who won their 2007 city league in Dublin and with it a free trip overseas. They chose South Africa to enjoy their reward and were keen to bring their boots to mix it up with the locals. But not just any locals. They wanted to play a side that was an authentic neighbourhood team, real local lads, working class just like they were. You see, Killester United come from one of the poorest areas of Dublin. If you saw the film The Commitments, you'll remember the line
"The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin."Killester is where it all happened. An unconventional but real affinity with Africa has deep roots in North Dublin.
The soccer action in South Africa wasn't on a lush pitch in Durbanville or in swank Camps Bay beneath the palm trees. No, the TK (Transkei) Lions hail from the community of Lwandle, a township originally founded to house the migrant labourers brought in from the Eastern Cape to pick fruit on farms and wine estates (like nearby Vergelegen). The community grew over time to its current 50,000 and residents became more permanently settled, and now it is a vibrant but poor neighbourhood nestled between Somerset West and Gordon's Bay at the far side of False Bay from the city of Cape Town (Lwandle means "the sea" in isiXhosa).
The history of Lwandle is curated and kept alive by the only functioning museum in a township in South Africa, the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum (LMLM), and the LMLM was the institution that made the soccer match possible. Although the interest in playing came from Killester United to the tour operator, Springbok Atlas, it was only because an institution like LMLM existed that an international friendly of this sort could be included in an international touring itinerary. The catalysts and the ones doing the hard work were Frank and Lunga - the former an advocate and practitioner of "transformative tourism" and the latter a curator at LMLM and community activist in Lwandle.
Almari at Springbok Atlas made the effort to find a truly authentic experience for her Irish clients, and found Frank (the only contribution made by yours truly) -- and the rest was good chemistry, mutual trust, and hard work. The results were magical.
25 working class Irish blokes seeing reflections of themselves in the faces and places of an African township half a world away. An entire community seeing the power of their culture and history reflected in the interest -- and, yes, the money -- coming from foreign whities who paid to come play a game with their local boys on their home pitch. Connections were made. Friendships kindled. Shirts exchanged. Pap, wors and Castle Lager compared to braai culture Killester style. There's already talk of a return leg for the Irish to raise sponsorship to host the Lions in Dublin.
This is the promise of authentic travel, the possibility to go elsewhere and come back different -- kinder, humbler, more connected, more grounded in your own identity because of what you've shared with others. Inspiring to witness!
Post script: There are some tour operators offering packaged day and half-day soccer experiences in townships if you aren't in a group keen to lace up the boots and take on the TK Lions yourself. Andulela is one I can recommend.