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Hope in the form of polo

Polo is usually the preserve of the rich, but in the Eastern Free State Poloafrica Development Trust is using the sport to bring opportunities to some of South Africa’s most underprivileged citizens

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Children at the Poloafrica Development Trust are taught more than just how to play polo - they also benefit from lessons in literacy, numeracy, art, computer skills and more 

Set in the foothills of the spectacular Maluti Mountains in the Eastern Free State – one of the most beautiful yet poorest parts of South Africa – is Uitgedacht Farm, home to the Poloafrica Development Trust. The original mission of the Trust, now in its ninth year of operation, was to use the love of ponies, riding and the sport of polo to transform the lives of underprivileged adults and children. This mission remains the cornerstone of the Trust’s endeavours, but the programme has evolved beyond this, becoming a powerful force for good in a rural, disadvantaged community.

Poloafrica’s sport development programme is unique in Africa

Poloafrica’s sport development programme is unique in Africa. It gives underprivileged adults the opportunity to participate in polo, allowing them to flourish as well-respected polo professionals, whether through pony care, farrier work, schooling ponies, or coaching other players in the sport. All of these adults have little education, some having grown up during the apartheid regime, and all having faced the challenges that still exist in rural education in South Africa. None of the adults in the programme have a matric certificate; some did not make it beyond primary school.

Poloafrica fills the gap by teaching them vocational skills that can be translated into employment in any area of the country, or overseas. The coaching they receive as Poloafrica professionals in pony schooling and pony care is among the best in the world.

These adults, with a strong sense of pride, play a key role in aiding the children participating in the programme; there are over 40 at present. These boys and girls have earned the chance to care for the ponies, learn to ride, and play the game, knowing they must demonstrate discipline and commitment to the animal and the sport, register at school, and work hard there and at the academic and practical life-skills lessons provided for them in the holidays.

Unlocking potential
The Transformation Charter for South African Sport encourages change in sport through broader community involvement, and the creation of development programmes at grassroots levels to deliver facilities and infrastructure to previously deprived communities, with the goal of unlocking the potential of South Africa’s black youth. Poloafrica’s strategy delivers these objectives.

The programme provides beautiful, first-class riding and polo facilities in an under-served area, with extensive community involvement. It has already developed a robust pipeline of promising young players from one of the most disadvantaged parts of the country. By changing perception of the sport, Poloafrica aims to make polo more inclusive and encourage wealthy black South Africans to join the game. In 2011 Poloafrica gained increased credibility when it was accepted as a Laureus Sport for Good Foundation project.

Although the overall objective of Poloafrica is to arm disadvantaged children with general life skills for the future, a few participants have gone on to pursue professional polo careers
Although the overall objective of Poloafrica is to arm disadvantaged children with general life skills for the future, a few participants have gone on to pursue professional polo careers

The ponies and the polo, both beloved by the children, are only a means to an end. The point of this programme is not to create future polo players (although this does happen) but to foster academic and vocational inspiration, and a sense of self-discipline and purpose, which will serve the Poloafrica boys and girls well in years to come.

The programme gives children hope and confidence in themselves. As they experience collective success, such as the Poloafrica team winning a tournament, one of their fellows being singled out for the Laureus youth leadership programme, or a cohort of Poloafrica scholars making it to grade 10 (grade nine is the point at which many children drop out of school in South Africa), they all begin to believe that they can succeed. A sense of hope is a powerful force which drives individuals to strive for success in life and which sadly is in short supply in communities such as the one from which these children come.

Learning life skills
The Poloafrica programme gives scholars the opportunity to learn life skills, such as art, beekeeping, carpentry, computer skills, gardening, needlework, spoken self-expression and welding. They also receive extra tuition in maths and English, two areas that present a challenge to rural underprivileged children in South Africa. The children come to the farm on Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, during the school term, and five days a week in the holidays. They spend all day on the farm having riding lessons, pony care tuition and polo practice. Four days a week during the holidays they receive life-skills lessons. It is an all-absorbing programme, keeping the children busy and inspired.

One of the social barriers Poloafrica hopes to help break down is the gender divide, and so it has been very rewarding to see girls eager to learn practical skills, such as welding and carpentry, traditionally only done by men. Equally, some of the boy scholars enjoy needlework and cooking.

A sense of hope is a powerful force which drives individuals to strive for success in life

The extreme poverty in parts of rural South Africa means children living on farms often drop out of school as the logistics and cost are too much for the family to manage, especially when it’s time for the child to leave farm school and attend school in town. All children are given transport and homework help for school attendance, and some receive additional financial support.

Scholarships are granted on merit, with one or two bursaries granted on the basis of severe need. The focus on education helps the village communities; studies show that as education improves teenage pregnancies fall, and the health of families increases.

The opportunities reach beyond the Poloafrica children who directly benefit from the programme. Poloafrica is widely known in the local community, affecting many families, and is seen as an important force for good. A family receiving educational support for one child is better able to help other family members attend school. The labour requirements of the programme are intensive, given that over 70 ponies and extensive infrastructure are vital.

Positive economy
The employment Poloafrica offers has a significant economic impact in an area of high unemployment. More than 70 percent of households in the seven villages within a 15km radius of the farm have a family member participating in the programme – be it an existing or former Poloafrica scholar, an existing or former employee, contract worker or volunteer. The economic influence spreads further than this, as Poloafrica draws on the local community for teaching help during holidays.

Poloafrica is branching into other areas of social development. Currently under construction is a schoolyard complex, to improve the educational support available at weekends and during holidays. This complex is being built out of traditional materials to give an opportunity to people with traditional skills in the community to pass these on to the next generation.

There is an expert thatcher in the community, who cannot read or write, but who is a master craftsman. He has attempted to teach his skill to younger people, but as yet in no coordinated way. He is building Poloafrica’s new schoolhouse complex, while teaching members of the community his beautiful and sustainable craft.

Poloafrica has installed electricity at the schoolhouse complex, with the goal of expanding the programme’s educational efforts. The aim is to provide e-learning opportunities for the Poloafrica scholars, to support and augment their schoolwork. A focused programme of e-learning, with particular focus on maths, science and English, could result in step change for these children’s educational prospects.

A second important focus is vocational training, not only equestrian-related but involving a range of practical skills used in a farming community. Take beekeeping – this is a skill in short supply in South Africa, particularly so in the Free State. There are not enough beekeepers in the country, yet bees are an essential contributor to the health of the countryside and the success of farms. Beekeeping is a vocation that people who live in rural areas can embrace with little capital outlay, and which can provide a viable source of income for a family.

From gardening to caring for chickens, the children at Poloafrica help out around the property
From gardening to caring for chickens, the children at Poloafrica help out around the property

Poloafrica’s also believes that beekeeping teaches empathy towards nature and animals. It cultivates personal commitment and self-discipline – qualities Poloafrica fosters in its scholars. Poloafrica has a beekeeping project, running for two years now, as part of the children’s life-skills programme. So far twelve children have passed the introductory beekeeping course, two have progressed to intermediate practicals, and three more to advanced practicals – meaning they are now beekeepers in their own right.

The scholars at the intermediate and advanced level look after their own hives on the farm. The children are also encouraged to learn gardening, and pig and chicken care on the farm. All the Poloafrica scholars who are currently in grade 10 or above have elected to study agriculture for their Matric and the programme’s mentors are exploring opportunities specifically for females in farming.

Driving change
The curious juxtaposition of ponies, polo and a disadvantaged community is driving change for good in a beautiful corner of South Africa. Above all, quite apart from the education, sport and social development opportunities the programme provides, Poloafrica gives underprivileged boys and girls a chance for childhood happiness. The Poloafrica scholars spend much of their free time in a beautiful safe place, with lots of books, ponies, and mentors that cherish and care for them. They can read, ride, fish, play polo, and garden – having lots of fun as well as feeling proud to be part of Poloafrica. It is a childhood dream.

Catherine Cairns, a British businesswoman, is the founder and main sponsor of the Poloafrica Development Trust. Catherine, a graduate of the Wharton School and a Fellow of the Lauder Institute there, has an investment banking and management consulting background and broad operational experience in a variety of sectors across the world. Catherine currently works as a company turnaround agent on the African continent and further afield for an international group with interests inter alia in telecommunications, fibre optics, liquid filtration and solar solutions.

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  • Jean Christophe

    Well done Pierre-Emmanuel!
    At last, Polo of use to lofty ideals …