The beautiful game for girls

The beautiful game for girls

In just 3 years, a new sport has exploded across the schools and neighbourhoods of Juba and Maridi where 60 community teams and 30 school teams now compete. In a country where women have often struggled to make their voices heard, the exciting thing, is that all the players are girls!

Boruboru isn’t for the faint-hearted. Matches are fast-paced and athletic. During the 80-minute play, 2 throwers use all their focus and strength to aim a grapefruit-sized ball at a single dodger from the opposing team.  

Photos credit LuAnne Cadd

Barefoot players swap in and out, for a few exhausting minutes at a time. They jump high, twisting gracefully in the air, like fearless gymnasts, to avoid making contact with the ball. Onlookers admire the dexterity and skill of the best players.

Every 20 minutes, the teams swap roles and the hunters become the hunted within the chalk lines of the sandy pitch – battling until the final whistle blows.  

Boruboru gives girls a voice

South Sudan’s youth have played the game, similar to dodgeball, since they were children. But it wasn’t until 2015 that Thomas Titus, MAF’s Dispatch Officer, became instrumental in turning the children’s game played in villages and school playgrounds into an official sport for girls in South Sudan.

It’s just one part of a youth ministry Thomas helped initiate among the youth in Juba and his hometown of Maridi. ‘They were just stranded,’ Thomas remembers. His own experience growing up in war-torn South Sudan was tough, so he can relate to their struggles and pain. 

A sport to reach out  

Maridi Youth Christian Association (MYCA) was started to equip a new generation of Christian youth with tools they need to navigate the future.  

Volunteer leaders like Thomas give their time and money to teach leadership skills, self-reliance, finance, evangelism and boy-girl relationships. They also facilitate peace and reconciliation workshops among the older youths.

MYCA needed an activity that would draw in those who might never come to church, and they particularly wanted to reach out to girls. It needed to be a sport, and everyone loved the South Sudanese children’s game –so boruboru became MYCA’s outreach programme.

Let’s hear it for the girls!

Today, there are rules were written up by MYCA board member Oliver Michael, and a professional body, the Boruboru National Association (BNA) which is registered with the Ministry of Sport. 

Teams with names like Rock City, Lava Girls, Bright United Girls and Super Girls face off in the growing number of tournaments that give visibility and momentum to the female-only sport.

‘More teams are coming up and we receive new registrations every month from neighbourhoods and schools around Juba and other states,’ Thomas shares.

He estimates that there are now 16 neighbourhood teams, 5 secondary school clubs and 23 primary schools playing the game in the capital alone. Clubs have spread to other parts of South Sudan including Mundri, Maridi, Ibba and Yambio in Western Equatorial Province.

It’s hard to imagine that four years ago, Thomas says, ‘Girls didn’t play sport in South Sudan.’

Girl talk

Many of the competitions are sponsored by NGOs keen to use the sport’s popularity to raise awareness of issues like gender-based violence, early marriage and forced marriage. ‘They use boruboru to gather some people so they can send a message,’ Thomas explains. 

‘We did tournaments for three years, funded by Norwegian People's Aid, for peace and youth advocates,’ Thomas continues, sharing how they were able to combine the events with activities to promote women’s health and rights.

‘We’re talking about counties within South Sudan where men are not inviting women to go to school. We tell them, “you have to be in school! Not stay at home for early marriage for a dowry.”’

Sharing a sport

Bringing women and girls together creates opportunities for dialogue that may not happen without the neutral ground of the boruboru pitch.

The activity makes girls physically strong and able to work through their emotions and rivalries in a healthy way. The safe boundaries provided by official rules and referee give them the confidence to talk to girls who may be different from them.

‘The contest is a little bit different from other countries,’ Thomas continues. ‘People are told, right from childhood, that we will never be together with other tribes. We never interact with people from other tribes easily in South Sudan.’  

But playing Boruboru together, he maintains, allows the girls to start ‘digging out their issues and put them outside for other people to see.’

Playing for peace

Before boruboru, many girls were involved in crimes and fighting. ‘During the tournament, when their team lost, they said if they remembered their days before, they would have had a fight. But now they don’t want to do that,' Thomas says. 

‘We are teaching them how to accept defeat and celebrate winning. We say that sports are for peace, and they have to start exercising peace among themselves.’

The idea that women themselves can be peacemakers is empowering for the girls. ‘Boruboru shows that girls can bring people together – as fathers, brother, mothers – all come and watch.’

‘We are strong. We are not fearing anybody’

Margret Aya James, Assistant Captain for Bright United Girls, radiates confidence in the way she walks, talks and plays the game.

She’s talks enthusiastically about how it makes her strong physically and mentally, and the friendships and respect they give each other.

South Sudanese women are strong, she says. When someone questions the validity of that, pointing out how women are treated in this country, Margret displays her fire.

‘They are strong!’ she says indignantly. ‘Those women who have seen education like this, they are very strong. Like now, I’m speaking and not fearing anybody!’

What if a man tries to grab her or take advantage of her?

‘If a man wants to grab you, you’ll see many women will not allow this. They will start fighting. All the women will come. They will come with bamboo and stone. Even the man will fear. The women will protect women,’ Margret asserts. ‘For example, in this area here, there was a woman and this one morning the thief came to take their properties, her bag, and she’s crying, “Thief, thief!” I came there and threw stones at that man. Even that man is fearing me now.’ The game is helping to make her strong, she says.

MAF and MYCA

In March last year, MYCA registered as a Christian NGO with MAF, making highly subsidised flights available to the team. In the first 7 months, MYCA members flew on 13 different flights with 28 passengers between Maridi and Juba, taking advantage of either the weekly shuttles on the large Cessna Caravans, or the small and affordable Cessna 182 charter.

In May, Kefa Samuel, the Maridi Boruboru and MYCA Regional Manager, flew to Juba to referee the neighbourhood tournament.

‘The situation in South Sudan has all the routes entering Juba blocked because you can either be robbed or killed. We’ve lost some of our youth on the roads,’ Thomas says. ‘We are really so thankful to have this partnership with MAF.’

Blowing the whistle on gender inequality

Today, on International Day of the Girl Child, Boruboru National Association team is busily preparing for its next showcase match, which will take place in a few weeks’ time.

The match will be held in Juba’s national stadium where the great and the good, including government ministers and the United Nation Envoy to South Sudan will gather for UN Day, to watch the sport at its best.

‘We’re not going to choose just a team, because others will be jealous,’ Thomas explains, ever mindful of the sensitivities that simmer in the background whenever one group is promoted over another. 

‘We are going to choose the best players, who are performing better than others and make two teams –A and B – training them well so they can advance the cause.’  

The cause is gaining momentum with the growing popularity of the sport – bringing women and girls into the spotlight more and more.

Women may very well be the key to peace in South Sudan and the future begins now with girls, teaching them to be good, responsible leaders. But for Thomas, it must be built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

‘We always go back to our values as Christians, and that makes us different from other associations around. I know the fruit of this will actually unite our youth together and bringing the youth to God. That’s the most important thing.’