SEBASTIAN Chinhaire founded the Stop Aids Football League in 2009 in an attempt to raise funds for a support group he had also started.
The league, however, never managed to raise funds which were the reason for its formation.
Instead it has served a greater purpose in fighting the stigma associated with the scourge and bringing together both HIV-positive and negative people in a way that only sports can.
Chinhaire is a 62-year-old man who worked at Metal Box for 15 years, but in 1995 he tested HIV-positive. He continued to work for three more years until he had to stop because of health reasons.
During those days there were no anti-retroviral drugs, so there was not much that could be done to treat his illness.
He started to show all the symptoms of HIV so much that people in his neighbourhood started talking behind his back.
The gossiping became so much that Chinhaire decided to just come out and let everyone know that indeed he was HIV-positive. He started a support group and people flocked to his house.
All the people that were also positive and who had been suffering in silence started joining the group.
The group became so popular that the Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV and Aids approached him and he was selected as representative in the district. Eventually he became the chairperson of support groups in Harare Province.
The only problem was that there was no money to fund their activities. That was when Chinhaire came up with the idea of creating an HIV-positive women’s soccer team to raise money. He approached the Premier Soccer League.
The idea was that the women would be curtain raisers at matches and the support groups would get some money that way, but it never worked out.
On the first match which was supposed to be at Rufaro Stadium, they were told they could not play because whoever had accepted the idea had not realised that it was a women’s team.
Then the women started forming teams in their districts because they found that they actually liked soccer. Not only was it a good form of exercise, but it was also stress-relieving and refreshing.
Before long, teams were established in 16 districts. Clinics started referring people to the teams, especially those recently tested and struggling to come to terms with their condition.
During their games they helped and taught each other. They also taught others in society and those who came to watch their games. The names and soccer balls of the teams even bore messages.
Some of the names of the teams are ARV Swallows, Positive Believers, Virus Ambassadors, CD4 Count, Immune Boosters and many other such names.
Chinhaire came up with the motto None but ourselves can extricate us from situations that adversely affect us, for the teams.
More than 480 women have benefited from the Stop AIDS Football League and at least 400 men — husbands of these women — have also benefited from this because the soccer and awareness campaigns bring in positive energy and strength to keep them going.
Marianne Katsengu started playing more than two years ago and she has even gone for coaching classes. She is one of the coaches in Kuwadzana.
She tested positive in 2003 and for a very long time she felt devastated. Joining the league brought her together with so many other people in the same situation. Now she is confident and can even stand in front of people and make presentations.
The league has also opened a lot of opportunities for them and they are now involved in a number of projects that not only keep them occupied, but bring in money for their families.
Patience Chidzinzwa, one of the players for Virus Ambassadors in Epworth, said that the soccer teams were very helpful and that they not only kept them physically fit, but they also helped them manage their stress — something which is very important especially when one is HIV-positive.
Chinhaire has also bought them machines to make candles and they have started working on candle-making projects in order to generate income.
Teams have been formed in 16 districts — Chitungwiza, Highfield, Glen Norah, Mufakose, Kuwadzana, Rugare, Dzivarasekwa, Hatcliffe, Tafara, Harare Central and Epworth, to mention but a few.
The league has been approached by groups from Mashonaland Central and Matabeleland North provinces who want the soccer project to be introduced in their areas.
A non-governmental organisation in Zambia, Alive and Kicking which is conducting a similar project, has been donating balls with messages to the league for the past two years and the league has also gone on to donate the balls to Matabeleland North and Mashonaland Central where they have not yet been able to establish the project.
Through peer educators who distribute flyers and stage dramas that are performed at half-time during games, they spread awareness during the games. Workshops and presentations are also regularly conducted so that they can reach more people.
They have formed a referral system with clinics in their districts. The clinics refer patients to their teams and they in turn refer those that are sick to the clinics.
The project is cost-effective and therefore does not require much funding.