Washington Spirit midfielder Joanna Lohman is on an adventure in Africa working to empower girls through sport as a sports envoy for the U.S. Department of State. (Read more about her trip here.) Since arriving in Botswana, the Silver Spring, MD native has been busy, and she provides an update on her experiences so far…
“Africa. Botswana. It seems impossible for me to summarize the first portion of this trip without writing a 400 page novel…but for the sake of time, I promise to try.
As most know, I traveled to Botswana to run a program called Girl Power for the Department of State. I ran this program in two cities of Botswana – Maun and Gaborone. It was important for me and the U.S. Embassy that I have a presence in the capital and also in the more rural areas of the country.
In each clinic, I coached 15 girls aged 12-16. These players were chosen by the State Department and every one of them was eager to learn. Eager to get better. Eager to train with a professional from the United States. Considering I am the first ever female sports envoy to travel to Botswana, this was a new experience for all of us involved.
The support from the community was overwhelming. We were donated the top turf fields for the day and each player was given a ball and t-shirt to take home with them. We trained for hours upon hours in 100+ heat, blazing sun, and most players had NO shoes. They played barefoot with smiles on their faces and passion in their hearts. It was inspiring and heart breaking all at the same time.
In Gaborone, we were joined by the U.S. Ambassador, the Botswana representative for UNICEF, and the Minister of Youth, Sport, and Culture. Instead of standing on the sidelines watching the girls train, all the dignitaries suited up and joined the scrimmage. I asked the U.S. Ambassador, in jeans and Lebron James basketball shoes, to be our outside back. With a large grin on his face, he defended that goal with courage. He also promised to supply the girls in Gaborone with proper soccer footwear as it was a shock to him, as much as it was to me, that these girls played barefoot.
In addition to training the girls, I also held technical meetings with a group of coaches who traveled in especially for this event. It is essential we educate the educators. I had the pleasure of meeting the Botswana Women’s National Team coach and other important local teachers. We shared our experiences, our struggles, and our triumphs leading a group of athletes who have very few resources and support to succeed. We are pioneers in the sporting world pushing for gender equality. This is a responsibility that is never easy but so worthwhile. As coaches and models for our future leaders, we must embody every characteristic we ask our players to exude. We must walk the path before them to ensure it is a safer and more welcoming road behind us.
When we speak of educating the educators we are increasing the sustainability of this valuable project. As a guest of the U.S. Embassy, I had many meetings with Embassy staff to discuss this sustainability power of our program. We brainstormed ideas of how to keep the momentum going and continue to build relationships between the community, local government, and even groups/individuals in the U.S. who have the desire to help.
It will come as no surprise to those who know me that here in Botswana I work hard and play hard. On the field, in meeting rooms, in the local villages, in various forms of media, on Botswana national Television, and even at the 241st Marine Birthday Ball. Every second possible, I was advocating for women and girls. Especially the girls I had the pleasure to coach.
There were many moments during this experience where the fulfillment of the work was overwhelming. I learned things that can never be taught in school. I gained even more perspective on how to be an agent of change and how lucky I am to be a female athlete in the United States.
There is truly no doubt that sport has the power to change the world. The power to break down cultural barriers, gender barriers, socio-economic barriers, and geographic barriers. I saw this first hand…
And if I needed anymore reminders, I will never forget what one of my players here in Botswana said to me…
“When I told my mom I was attending your program, she was so proud of me.”
My heart melted into a puddle. These girls rarely feel valued. They rarely get the chance to leave their local neighborhoods. I am so lucky that for one day, I helped to make these girls feel special.
Thank you to the entire Spirit Family for your support while on this African Adventure. Girl Power!!!
– Joanna Lohman”