In July 2017 Zambia won the COSAFA U-17 title. Zambia has not had a winning streak in football since the thrilling victory at Gabon, winning the 2012 AFCON cup. So last July the whole country celebrated in usual exuberant style, connected by a strong sense of national pride. Football is the most popular sport in Africa by a long shot. It is a game played in every village, every compound, every town. There is always a football, be it leather or plastic bags tied in string, being kicked somewhere near you. It percolates throughout society and so a win is celebrated by all.
The goal-keeper of the winning team, Emmanuel Mphasi, comes from Mfuwe, the gateway to the South Luangwa National Park. Behind his success is a story that weaves together football, tourism and conservation and it all started with a young boy called Luke.
Luke loved living in the bush. Born to Ron and Anke Cowan of Kafunta Safaris, his childhood was full of wildlife as much as traffic is for an urban kid. Elephants would pass through camp daily. He would fall asleep to the loud grunts of the hippos in the nearby Luangwa River. Monkeys and baboons would distract him from his home schooling. Wildlife was omnipresent. He loves the Luangwa and the wildlife. But his passion? Football. Like many boys across the world, he has a deep passion for the game. At ten years old Luke was sneaking out on the daily staff runs to play in the villages. Once discovered, he harnessed his father’s input and soon they had founded an Under 12 league. As the schoolboys grew up, a second league was started, the Under 15s. These two leagues now fall under the Mfuwe Junior Football league with ten teams each and 400 boys involved every weekend. More recently the Luangwa Safari League was established for the 18+ players and is already eighteen teams strong and covers four Chiefdoms. A safari operator or individual staff member working in safari camps sponsors around a third of these teams.
In 2012, Wilson Malambo, a manager at Kafunta, inspired a few sport enthusiasts in the area to co-found the Mfuwe Sport Association. One of their first achievements was to start the girls Under 15 netball league to run along side the football leagues. The teams in the Mfuwe based leagues have also been assisted by well-wishers. Funds were raised through the tourists visiting the South Luangwa to buy football equipment and stripes. The former international player and national team coach from Austria, Walter Hormann, brought 62 kgs of gear. Project Luangwa, a community focused CRS arm of five safari companies, runs the fund and distributes the donated equipment. The footprint of sport continues to grow.
In 2016 Conservation with a big C got involved. A three-week tournament was organized by Kafunta and the Mfuwe Sports Association. Called the Carnivore Conservation Cup, it was supported by the Zambian Carnivore Project (ZCP) and part funded by the USA based National Geographic under their Big Cat Initiative. The tournament gave a platform for the conservation message in the community. The final game, with 6000 supporters watching, was the most attended event of the year in Mfuwe. One of the prizes for the finalist teams, donated by Kafunta, was a game drive into the national park, something that many from the community never experience. Football, conservation and tourism were all involved in this event.
The 2017 the final game of the second CCC tournament was played at the annual Conservation Fun Run, organised by Conservation South Luangwa. This is a day for the community to enjoy sport and games, underpinned with the conservation message.
National Geographic continued their sponsorship of the tournament. Elephant Charge, a Zambian 4×4 event that has raised over $750,000 in ten years for conservation across the country, is a major sponsor of the annual Fun Run.
Football is now a well-organized sport in the area, with 38 league teams playing every weekend. The tourism and conservation communities are involved and supportive. And star players are now emerging from this seven year journey. The original group of young boys stuck together and now has all the benefits of a team with longevity. Called The All Stars, they are playing at the countrywide Zambia Amateur League level, although they are still schoolboys. And yes, you guessed it, Emmanuel Mphasi of the winning national U17s team is one of those boys. He is still at school, but already representing his country. And where is Luke? Finishing his education in Australia. However, football remains his focus on his regular visits home in the South Luangwa.
Tourism and Conservation organisations involved:
Kafunta Safaris www.luangwa.com
Mfuwe Sports Association – see facebook page
Zambian Carnivore Programme www.zambiacarnivores.org
National Geographic www.nationalgeographic.org
Conservation South Luangwa cslzambia.org
Project Luangwa www.projectluangwa.org
Elephant Charge www.elephantcharge.org