My journey from Durban to Monaco for the Laureus World Sports Awards
17 years ago when Tata Nelson Mandela, stood on stage in Monaco and delivered one of the most celebrated speeches in the history of sport during the first Laureus World Sports Awards I was running around playing hide and seek, indigenous games and rugby in Umlazi, a township South of Durban, South Africa.
Growing up in uMlazi, as a girl I had limited opportunities to play sport. Back then I was not aware of the role sport would play in my life. Today, I am proud to say sport has been such an integral part of my development and I genuinely believe in the power of sport to make a difference. Tata Mandela’s words ring true to me, sport truly speaks in a language that I understand and it has transformed my life, given me a sense of belonging and hope.
Even in my wildest dreams I would never have imagined being in Monaco, celebrating the power of sport with some of the greatest sporting legends of all time and the most celebrated athletes of my generation. As I wondered around Monaco, I reflected on my improbable journey from uMlazi to the glamorous streets of Monaco.
My journey to the Laureus World Sport Awards began when PeacePlayers International (PPI), an NGO that creates leaders and peace makers through basketball introduced basketball to my school. I remember the basketball court rising up from the dust with the backdrop of the azure African sky. The black tar, the white and yellow lines being plastered across the court and the hoops rising up. I remember the balls gingerly falling out of the coaches’ bag, the first time my hands caressed the moody groves of the orange ball, I remember that smell of rubber. I was hooked. About a hundred of us stood on the court transfixed on the coaches every single words.
The feeling I got running after those basketballs was the same feeling I got when tackling my brother over the overgrown grass in front of my mothers house. I didn't know it then but sport has provided me with friendships, a platform for inclusion, countless opportunities and has helped me develop life skills and leadership abilities.
Today I am a proud member of Reach Sports, which gave me the opportunity to travel to Monaco to talk to sports stars about the role sport has played in their lives. I doubt my basketball talent landed me this opportunity to cross paths with celebrated sports stars like Tamika Catchings and Usain Bolt.
Reach Sport is about breaking down the biggest barriers, opportunity & access. And that is how it felt for me to be at the Awards. This opportunity was about, amongst other things, placing me in a world that I never imagine possible. It was about inclusion and embracing the role I can play in the world through sport. I am very humbled.
Seeing Simone Biles’ face as she walks through that door with the Laureus in her hand looking proud, and Tegla Loroupe beaming with pride reminded me of the rewarding of the amazing power of sport. I was reminded of my friends from home and how we need to harness talent in townships and hard to reach areas. Simone and Tegla have overcome insurmountable challenges and they are paving a way for girls to dream about a career in sports. I loved seeing the connection that Laureus creates between sporting legends and grassroots sports.
"To be a young person that has benefited from the work of Laureus and to see the connection between grassroots and elite sport is powerful."
We walked long distances to get to school and with my new found love for basketball my mother was concerned about my safety when coming home from playing sport at night. She did not want me to play basketball but I just could not stop. I kept playing and working hard. I was invited to be a coach at PPI. This gave me an opportunity to give back to young people and share skills I had gained. I was one of 11 youth leaders selected to the first Laureus YES programme, aimed at developing youth leadership through sport. Sport has made a world of a difference to me. I want to help other young people like me through sport.
I live in a world where as a woman you constantly have to prove your worth. A society where ones life is already planned out and decided based on gender stereotypes and norms that usually perpetrate patriarchy. This is a world where racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, violence, poverty and unemployment are everyday occurences. Being lost in that type of world is not impossible. I think sport in a small way provides a refuge.
Thanks to Reach Sport for the opportunity, and thanks to sport for giving me that sense of belonging.
PeacePlayers International participants from Israel and Palestine promote peace at the Laureus World Sports Awards
"We have been fighting in this country for 70 years and it has gotten us nowhere. Sports has the ability to change my life." - Duha, PeacePlayers International
MONACO/ ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Duha and Heni catch up with Reach Sports and share their hoops journey through PeacePlayers International. In sharing the stage at the Laures Awards Sports Awards Duha and Heni (Duha is Palestinian and Heni is Israeli) reminded us of Nelson Mandela's words about "the power of sport to change the world. " Duha talks passionately about how "sport has changed her life" while Heni calls basketball ".. the language for peace." For these two young basketball players, basketball is life.
Seventeen years on from Mandela's powerful speech we are seeing an emergence of real life examples of how sport is creating positive change around the world. Duha and Heni met through the ground breaking PeacePlayers International programme, which uses basketball to unite, educate and inspire young people to create a more peaceful world. We are inspired by them.
Below is the Q&A with Duha and Heni.
How did you get involved at PeacePlayers International?
Heni: My old coach, Vito was involved with PeacePlayers and he recommended that I join. He encouraged me to volunteer with a mixed team of Arab and Jewish participants. The very next day, I went to Jerusalem to start coaching a team and then I began participating in other activities as I felt more comfortable.
Duha: In 2006, two guys from PeacePlayers came to my elementary school and said that they wanted to open a basketball team for boys and girls. At that time, I wasn’t a part of any other sports teams or aware of many opportunities for girls. They explained that we would also be playing with Jewish kids but I didn’t care about that, I just wanted a chance to play sports.
What’s made the biggest difference in your life since being involved in PPI?
Heni: When I first joined PeacePlayers it wasn’t easy to participate because my family didn’t support the idea. We used to argue a lot about PeacePlayers and why I wanted to be involved in an organization that worked with the other side. After I returned from the army things began to slowly change. First, my perspective on the conflict greatly changed. I started to see the other side as people and not just the enemy. Slowly, my family’s perspective also started to change as they saw how much I loved PeacePlayers and what a positive role it played in my life. The biggest difference is simply the way I look at the other side, which has greatly changed the way I live my everyday life.
Duha: PeacePlayers has changed my life in so many ways. However, the biggest difference that PPI made was changing my perspective about the other side. They taught me that not everything that I learned or heard in my past, or from school and my community was always true. I learned that I need to make up my own mind about what I think through my own experiences and that it is very important to be open minded.
How is basketball playing a role in the lives of young people in Israel and Palestine?
Heni: I can only speak to the role basketball plays in the lives of young Israelis and Palestinians in PeacePlayers. For us, basketball represents a neutral setting that has the power to overcome deep divides on both sides. Basketball allows us to look at each other as equals and develop friendships we would have never had if it weren’t for PeacePlayers. For us, basketball is the language of peace.
Duha: Basketball is a place where you can feel free and escape the hardships of living in a country in conflict. It’s a different world than the community you live in, at least for me. Sports have a huge role for Israelis and Palestinians when they are young and when they are developing their personalities and interests. Sports can teach valuable lessons that you will take with you after you stop playing sports. After High School, Israelis go to the army and Palestinians usually go to study but the lessons they learned from basketball will stay with them forever.
What was your highlight at the Laureus Awards?
Heni: The highlight was definitely being on stage and sending a message about PeacePlayers. Seeing how much the audience supported us was a moment I will never forget. At home people sometimes give us negative feedback and ask why we do what we will do because there will never be peace. At the show, to see people supporting us gave me the inspiration to continue doing what I believe in.
Duha: It was amazing to meet people from all around the world. At first, we were nervous to speak with other people but after we presented on stage we had the courage to speak to some of the amazing people that were there. The highlight was talking with them and hearing how much they supported us and admired us. It was shocking to hear this from people who are so well-known and established. The fact that they could actually be inspired by us was surprising but motivated me to keep working to bridge divides in my community and to continue to work harder to do what that I can to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
How important was it for you to be on stage at the Laureus Awards?
Heni: I believe it’s very important for us to show that there are many positive things going on in the world. It is important to show that people can change and overcome divides, even if they go back 70 years. I think that if one person learned from us that you can choose to be different and choose to make a change in your life for the better, then what we did was very important.
Duha: First of all, I was honoured to speak about PeacePlayers at an event like this. It was so important to me because many people from all over the world were there and it is important to spread our message as loudly as possibly. Having the opportunity to bring awareness to PeacePlayers and the work we do on such a large platform was incredible. Sometimes the media only shows the bad side of where I’m from, the violence and hatred but it was special to be able to show the world that there is another side. It’s important for us to show that there are positive things happening here and there are organizations like ours that are bringing people together to create a more peaceful place.
Thanks to the PPI team for helping us with this article and to Duha and Heni.
*images from the Laureus Archives, PeacePlayers International and Reach Sports.
We celebrate the power of sport to make a difference in communities around the world.