Shelby Hicks is a Goals for Girls alumni from the 2010 South Africa program. She is going into her Sophomore year at UNC Charlotte where she is studying Kinesiology and also playing soccer. She is on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee where she helps to plan and organize all athlete events including charity work/community service. She is also on the National Society for Collegiate Scholars and made the Chancellors list both semesters. Shelby is originally from Chapel Hill and has been lifeguarding at the UNC Faculty pool for the past five years and also works as a counselor for the Charlotte Women's soccer camps in the summer. She loves to travel and play pickup soccer where ever possible!
A Universal Language
By Shelby HicksI’ve never been good with languages, not even English. I would stutter, use incorrect grammar and my spelling was just atrocious. Foreign languages were no better. The complex verb conjugations and accent placements didn’t quite seem to click in my mind the same way most other things did. It wasn’t until my trip to Cape Town, South Africa that I realized my true language skills. No, I’m not talking about my skills in Xhosa or Afrikkans, but an unspoken language that may just be the most important of all. It is a language that gave me the ability to connect with people in a new and more personal way. It is a universal language that brings us together and unites us with a common goal. It is a language that has the ability to rally more people than any pop concert or presidential election. It goes by many different names and styles, but here in the States, it is called Soccer.
Cindy Parlow, a former Olympic gold medalist, and also my coach of four years was offered a chance of a lifetime to help lead a soccer program for girls in Cape Town, South Africa (where the FIFA world cup was soon to be held). Fortunately for me, she was to bring some of her team members along to participate. As we boarded one of the largest planes I had ever seen, my soccer team chatted excitedly, taking our seats for what would be a sixteen-hour ride overseas. For many of us this was our first time leaving the country and for a select few it was their first experience flying. We made one stop to refuel in Chad where armed men boarded the plane and sprayed down the aisles for any invasive bugs that may have decided to tag along before finally arriving in Johannesburg South Africa. We were to spend our spring break in Cape Town participating in a Grassroots Soccer HIV awareness program with thirty other girls from surrounding countries called “Girls got Skillz” The program focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, building international relationships, and imparting confidence and self-esteem through soccer.
We spent several days touring the ocean city before beginning the program. In those few days we were living the highlife: taking gondolas through the rugged peaks that surrounded the city life and safari rovers though the backlands. No matter how many times we would say, “We’re in Africa!” nothing had really sunk in; it was as though we were in someone else’s life. However, as we drove through the expansive Paarlberg Mountains to meet our African counterparts, we got our first glimpse at the crushing poverty that faces so many people in Africa. The beautiful city of Cape Town had ended abruptly and without warning. It was as though there was an invisible fence with signs stating, “Beware, poverty beyond this point” and the brutal reality set in.
When we arrived in the small township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, a crowd of children had accumulated around our bus, wide-eyed and yelling as they ran to keep up. “Spook! Spook!” they would call after us, which we later learned meant ghost in Afrikaans. They obviously weren’t accustomed to seeing such a large group of light skinned people. We stuck out like sore thumbs in the dusty landscape, I felt exposed as I realized we had the eyes of the whole town on us.
A small turf field had recently been erected in the heart of the township, courtesy of Johnson & Johnson, and was dubbed the “Football For Hope Center.” We were greeted warmly by the town, along with the girls from Namibia and surrounding areas whom we would be playing with for the next week. The people of Khayelitsha supplied us with our first meal, which we ate graciously around the field despite the questionable sanitation. There was limited clean water in the township and the houses that many of the girls we met called home, were mere shacks with no electricity or running water. The disheveled huts with cloth windows and tin doors stretched on as far as we could see, they were packed closely together and animals ran freely through the dirt streets. Despite all the hardships that the people of Khayelitsha face on a daily basis, whenever they would surround the field to watch us play there was no trace of such sufferings. Smiles lit up the onlooker’s faces as they cheered and clapped with each goal that was scored. It was inspiring to see how much soccer meant to this community. In between games I talked with a girl from Namibia named Elise. When I asked her about her home country I realized that communication off the field would be more difficult than I had anticipated. “Khayelitsha is different from Namibia because there we don't have such buildings, and we have bushes there” she said to me, and as I looked around at the disheveled town I realized what privilege I came from. When one type of literacy failed us, we found new innovative ways to communicate; we shared pictures of our homes and families to those girls that struggled with English. One girl even asked if she could have some of my clothes and I found myself handing them over to her because I knew they could never bring me as much joy as they could to her.
As our differences were heightened by these encounters, it became even clearer to me how soccer could change that. Soccer was a constant like no other; in the United States we may play on manicured glass with cleats and padded balls, while the people here played with balls of trash barefooted in the dirt, but it is the same game. It is a game that has many styles, like different accents of the same language. Communication was rocky at the beginning of the program but the moment a ball was brought out, it was as if our slates had been wiped clean. On the field we were no longer strangers from across the world we were teammates. No longer different races, but the red or blue team. The communication became simpler, more refined. While we had just met, we could anticipate each other’s next moves, signal each other on the field and celebrate together when we scored. It was as if we were viewing each other in a different light, as if the lens we once looked through had been removed; anything that had mattered before didn’t now.
Where before we might have judged each other based on appearance, what clothes we had on, how we wore our hair, or how we spoke, now we judged each other based on how we played, how we communicated, how hard we worked, and how we would react to scoring or getting scored on. It’s amazing how much you can tell about a person and their attitude just by playing a simple game. Seeing this first hand made me realize the significance of the game as a universal language and what it can teach you. The game can give you an insight beyond just the superficial details of someone’s personality; it reveals a persons true character. I realized that what soccer reveals are those things most important in life; it can expose a person’s positivity, drive, persistence and their communication skills. This is how I began to know the girls on a more personal level and gain a strong sense of respect for them as people and as players. Soccer also had a unique way of uniting people of different backgrounds for a common cause, like HIV/AIDS awareness, and it showed us that we were all on the same team in the end.
Learning the game, or the universal language has taught me not only a way to connect with people on a deeper level no matter where I am, but also it has taught me over the years what good character is. It’s not about where you come from, how much money your dad earns, what kind of cleats you have on or whether you even have cleats at all. It’s about what you bring to the field and leave with your teammates. Soccer literacy has not only opened doors and created opportunities for me like getting to play at a collegiate level and traveling to new places, but it has allowed me to see the bigger picture. Soccer is the one language that every country knows; it not only brings us together and unifies us, but also brings us joy, which for many is hard to come by. I will use my knowledge and my experiences with soccer to deal with problems I face throughout my life, soccer has made me a stronger person and I will be forever grateful for what soccer literacy has brought into my life.