Nepalese football academy rescues street children

Three years ago, Mahendra BK was a 12-year-old boy living on the street in Pokhara, a middle-sized Nepalese town with a population of about 200 000. His mother died when he was still an infant and his alcoholic father died of tuberculosis when Mahendra was only eight.

Mahendra lived in extreme poverty with his sister and grandmother for about a year.
At the age of nine, he left them and ended up in Kathmandu, the capital, where he was living a high-risk life on the street, collecting garbage and selling it for petty cash to recycling factories.

Mahendra’s story is all too common among children in Nepal where, according to the local NGO Child Workers in Nepal, an estimated 5 000 children live on the streets without a family.

But Mahendra BK (a two-letter family name is common in Nepal) was lucky. Today, he is one of just more than 20 boys in the Sahara Football Academy in Pokhara. Sahara (the Nepalese word for “support”) is a social welfare organisation that provides street children with lodging, food, education and something to do—playing football.

Mahendra is the goalkeeper in the Sahara team, and he explains that joining the football academy has changed his life and given him hope for the future.

“When I was living on the street, I was sleeping under empty rice sacks in many different places. The police used to come around and chase me away. So I was really happy to come to Sahara. Here, we practise football every day and I hope that one day I will be good enough to become an international footballer ... like Oliver Kahn, my favourite player,” he says.

Of course, not all of the 20 boys will be able to make a living by playing football.

“I think that perhaps five of the boys we have here possess the talent to go on to play in the Nepalese A division and on the national team in the future,” says Keshab Bahadur Thapa, Sahara general secretary. “Even if they go on to play professional football, they can’t expect to become rich that way. There isn’t very much money in Nepalese football right now, but it is slowly getting better.”

That is why the club also tries to provide vocational training for the boys when they turn 16 years old. After that age, the club helps them establish their own life outside the academy.

“Firstly, we try to place them in other football clubs where they will receive a small salary, but we also give them training as mechanics, electricians, plumbers and carpenters,” Thapa explains.

While the academy was established as a regular football club in 1998 by members of the local community, the idea for social work and the combined orphanage and football academy developed later. In 2004, the club was made a reality, largely through the inspiration and fund-raising of Nepali expatriates such as Navin Gurung who lives in the United Kingdom.

Gurung relates: “I was already involved in organising sports events in the UK. One day a friend told me about the activities of the Sahara club and I was really touched. From there the connection started. Now many of my personal friends, Nepalese acquaintances and business connections have all assisted me in organising various fund-raising programmes to support the valuable work that Sahara is doing.”

In addition to funds raised abroad, the Sahara club also receives money from the local business community in Pokhara and through ticket sales at the tournaments it arranges every year.

The Sahara club isn’t the only home for orphans and street children in Nepal. Indeed, there are many such homes. But the quality of the Nepalese orphanages varies a lot and they often lack proper management.

The United Nations Children’s Fund spokesperson in Nepal, Rosanne Vega, says: “Since there is no proper monitoring of orphanages, the quality and conditions for the children vary a lot. Almost anybody can start an orphanage here, including people completely lacking experience in this field.”

Indeed, it is common for street children to stay in an orphanage for a while but then run away and end up on the street again, as the conditions in some of the orphanages are even worse than living rough.

Rajesh Thakuri, aged 11, is one of the many street children in Kathmandu. He was staying in an orphanage but ran away because, as he says, “They didn’t like me. They hated me there!” He now sleeps on the street and begs for money outside a hospital.

Another street boy, 12-year-old Raivi, has lived on the streets for the past two years. He is a rag-picker, going through other people’s garbage and collecting glass, metal, paper and plastic that he can sell to recycling factories.

Raivi sleeps every night in relative safety in the no-man’s-land behind the airport perimeter fence. Every morning he goes around town and searches the garbage piles before the sun heats them up and makes them too smelly.

According to International Labour Organisation statistics, the thousands of rag-picking children in Nepal work an average of six hours a day, making about 87 rupees a day—just short of â,¬1. But living on the street, there is always the risk of losing the day’s wage to gangs, junkies, bigger boys or even police officers.

At Sahara, staff say, with some pride, that in the three years since the academy started not one child has run away.

The children’s programme in the academy usually starts at 5am when they get up and have a snack before taking a five-minute walk to the local stadium, where they have two hours of football training. Then it’s back to the hostel for breakfast and school.

When school is out in the afternoon, they again practise football for an hour or two before doing their homework. The two assistant trainers in Sahara work as tutors and help the boys with their studies.

In the evening, after dinner, they sometimes watch English Premier League football on TV, wash their clothes or play in the garden across the street. They don’t really have toys, so they just play with whatever they can find, as is normal for Nepalese children. Once a month, they play friendly football matches against some of the local school teams.

Although the dormitory at Sahara is crowded and the facilities a bit rudimentary, there is little else that the boys really need here. They have good food and warm beds, form strong friendships and there is always an adult around to help them with their problems.

The goalkeeper, Mahendra, expresses a single wish: “I would like to have a pair of goalkeeper’s gloves for the winter football training.”

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