Justin Forzano is the founder and CEO of Cameroon Football Development Program (CFDP). He started the initiative to improve the lives of youth in Cameroon with the game of soccer. Because so many youth lack the resources and opportunity to succeed in such a challenging environment, CFDP aims to shine a spotlight on the potential for youth as future leaders and capacitate them with the skills they need to overcome the significant barriers of living in a developing country. To date, CFDP has worked with thousands of boys and girls in the Southwest Region of Cameroon.
I arrived in Douala, Cameroon around half past midnight. Inside the airport, perpetually under construction, I followed the fluorescent lights which guide weary travelers through a maze of control stations: the now-defunct Ebola screening station, a Yellow Fever checkpoint, the Police Control for visas, and finally into the main hall where the conveyor belt might just spit out all of your luggage if you are lucky. I was fortunate that both of my bags made it all the way from Pittsburgh after stops in DC and Brussels. Finally, I was back in my second home!
The car we hired flew through the darkness of the city without street lamps. It was only when we reach Rue de la Joie, or ‘street of joy’, did a few places shine light for us to see that roasted fish was still available. We shared a meal together and then made our way back to the home of my very good friend and brother, Epulle Ernest, better known as “Biggie” for the size of his muscles and his heart.
Up with the sun, we ventured to a local pitch to get in an early game of football (soccer) before the official start of the working day. Upon arrival at the field, we met a team of young adults who train there every morning. The team does not participate in any organized football competition – if you could call any football in Cameroon organized – aside from the occasional summer holiday tournament. The team does not have sponsorship nor do they play on a quality field. They lack quality equipment, playing with a busted ball the morning I met them at the field and wearing some faded, Chinese-made replica jerseys. But they are united. They know each other’s style of play on the field and support one another off the field. They represent the neighborhood. They give back to their community. Every Sunday morning they play 90+ minutes and then spend the next few hours in association-style meetings which sometimes continue into the afternoon. They sing club songs and traditional chants and share plenty bottles of mimbo (drinks) together. They represent the power of football in a country like Cameroon.
Later that afternoon, Biggie and I traveled to Kumba where the Cameroon Football Development Program, an organization I started back in 2010 after spending three summers in country with the University of Dayton School of Engineering, is based. We were met with a warm welcome from the local management team who oversees programs in 14 secondary schools and three community-based youth football leagues in as many different towns in the Southwest and Northwest Regions. It was there I delivered the news to some members of the team: we have been awarded a FIFA Football for Hope grant to support our league expansion in 2015!
FIFA awarded this grant to support our innovative approach to integrating life skills, leadership and health education into competition. We call this our youth enrichment football league; where every season has a social/health theme and every match has a topic. We infuse the education right into the match procedures, so players and coaches learn and share information about important issues critical to the development of the whole community in the most engaging forum: a football game.
Over the next two weeks, I worked with my team to strategize the best approach to our expansion. We discussed the importance of balance between school programs, a new leadership initiative led by our in-house Peace Corps Volunteer, our girls programs, and this our FIFA-endorsed league expansion. We assigned responsibilities. Kama and Wallace would take care of all things concerning the league. Killian would manage the school programs and oversee distribution of thousands of pieces of soccer equipment donated by the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, City of Pittsburgh CitiParks Big League Sports, Avonworth High School Girls Soccer Team, and the dozens of other clubs who supported us in our last equipment drive. Nenne will continue in her role as communications director – making sure equipment donors in Pittsburgh know who receives their old jerseys and cleats. Caroline will collect the ever-so-important data to track our progress with monitoring and evaluation. Ashu manages the finances while Collins oversees the whole operation. The plan was set and my job was done… at least until Monday when I returned to Pittsburgh.
On Saturday, we headed to the beautiful beaches of the Atlantic in the coastal town of Limbe. Upon arrival, we quickly joined a few strangers in a thrilling game of beach soccer before going for a swim and then heading back to the airport. The work was not over, but had merely just begun.
A week later, the Kumba community league kicked off it’s first-ever full season for under 14 boys. Six teams will compete in the season which runs into May. The theme is Gender Equality and the players and coaches have already begun to sensitize the community about the role of boys and men in promoting a more just and equitable society for girls and women.
Members of the Pittsburgh community are invited to get involved and become supporters of Cameroon Football Development Program (CFDP). Connect with a local nonprofit organization creating global impact, by visiting our website (www.cameroonfdp.org), signing up for the newsletter (www.cameroonfdp.org/get-the-newsletter) and following along on social media.