FEATURE: Sports keep teens out of crime during lockdown in Zim township

By Tafara Mugwara I Xinhua

HARARE: With schools closed and children cooped up at home with nothing to do, looking after teenagers has become an extra challenge for many parents in Zimbabwe.

Schools in the southern African country were closed in March when the country recorded its first COVID-19 case.

Authorities say schools will remain shut until it is safe for students and supporting staff to return to school.

While parents with toddlers and younger children only need to worry about keeping their children well-fed and entertained, those with teenagers are finding themselves navigating much trickier circumstances.

After noticing the challenges facing teenagers during lockdown in the town of Chitungwiza, Abraham Matuka, Founder of Teen Rescue Mission (TRM) in collaboration with Mwanza Ailack, a professional golf instructor, came up with an idea to teach teens to play golf as a means of keeping them from engaging in risky behaviors.

Chitungwiza is a low-income high-density dormitory town of about 456,000 residents, and is approximately 30km southeast of the capital Harare.

Ailack, who has, over the years, helped introduce golf in Zimbabwe’s schools, believes that “golf is a great weapon in terms of disciplining the youth.”

As someone with a passion for sport and the well being of young people, he decided to teach teenagers golf to keep them off the streets where they are exposed to harmful practices such as violence, drug abuse, crime and early sexual practices.

“I took golf as an initiative to fight these types of behaviors among the youth because golf is a well-disciplined game. I like the discipline that is bestowed by golf,” he told Xinhua during a training session with teenagers.

“Sport is full of rules, you cannot win in sport if you don’t follow the rules, and if the youth are taught that concept through sport surely in life, they will know that in life you don’t make it if you don’t follow the rules,” he said.

Non-contact sports including golf, cricket, athletics, and tennis are allowed under Zimbabwe’s lockdown regulations.

Matuka said with schools closed, idle time can result in unhealthy choices for youths who are particularly vulnerable in their teenage years.

“Schools are closed and the youth and teenagers are all at home and they are becoming idle and when they become idle you know they start to experiment with things that can destroy their lives, that is getting into drugs, getting into early sex, that can really kill the future generation,” he said.

Matuka said families with teens can support their healthy development by keeping them active and engaged during the lockdown.

“As you can see after this golf session they will be tired and they would have exhausted all the energy, so when they go back home they have just killed the day doing something,” he said.

Sixteen-year-old Nyasha Masamba, one of the teenage golf players, said TRM has helped many teenagers not to go astray but to go down a better path.

“Teen Rescue Mission has brought light to the teenagers living in Chitungwiza. These days teenagers are engaging in sexual activities and drug abuse but teen rescue has restored sanity and order among teenagers,” she said.

Another teenager, 19-year-old Remember Makota, said “when you are busy you don’t think a lot, if you don’t have anything to do that’s when you might think of committing crimes.

“After practice I come straight home exhausted, maybe I read some books, then sleep, the day is over,” said Makota.

Adele Mutepfa, a 12-year-old girl, said playing golf is one of the most rewarding activities and encouraged other youngsters to consider sports as a career.

Justice Chiherenge, Headmaster at Fungisai Primary School in Chitungwiza, echoed Makota’s sentiments: “If our children are not occupied, or if we don’t occupy them, someone else somewhere will occupy them, and how they get occupied now is our worry as parents,” he said.

He said it is important to keep youngsters occupied through sport because sport is not just a form of entertainment, but it is also a form of employment.

“Sport also allows our children to interact, and that interaction, as we understand, is guided interaction because there are seniors there, there are coaches there who do not only coach them to have a skill in the appropriate game but they also teach them moral values,” Chiherenge said.

While boys are likely to fall into cycles of destructive behavior such as substance abuse and crime, girls in townships face the scourge of unwanted pregnancies.

Children’s rights experts say the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse some of the gains earned in keeping girls in school and ensuring they were protected from social vices such as child marriages.

Girl child advocate and Parliamentary portfolio chairperson on Education, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga was recently quoted by state-run Chronicle newspaper saying teenage pregnancies were on the rise, due to idle minds as a result of the lockdown and school closures.

“So more free time without school commitments may mean more time to engage in risky behavior, so by all means, unwanted pregnancies will be on the rise.

“Teachers and the rest of the school community are nowhere near at such a time to notice if a member of the class is missing so that they investigate, so many child marriages will happen successfully and quietly,” she said.

According to Human Rights Watch, child marriages in Africa often end a girl’s education, exposes them to grave health risks from early childbearing and HIV, and traps her in poverty.

The prevalence of illicit drug use among school-going adolescent males in Zimbabwe’s high-density areas like Chitungwiza as a way to cope with daily life challenges remain a major issue.