POVERTY-stricken youngsters in Rwanda typically play football on stony ground in flipflops without a word of complaint.
But following a mercy mission, delighted children from the war-torn nation are now sporting some flash new gear – including maroon strips to make them honorary Jambos.
Hearts teamed up with the SFA, East Lothian Council and the Tranent Colts to launch a football development programme in the country last month. The group brought a dozen bags, each one crammed with 22kgs of donated goodies including 100 pairs of football boots, strips from local and national teams, and 70 dental care packs.
And wherever they went, they were quickly mobbed by hordes of excited children who were glad to receive anything – even if it was just a pair of socks several sizes too big for them.
Alan White, head of community at Hearts, and football development officer Sean McAuley delivered a series of coaching sessions but found themselves wrong-footed by children as young as nine.
“Some of their footwork was unbelievable,” said Alan. “We were playing against nine-year-olds and they must have sent me the wrong way about a dozen times. They had me on my backside. They are fit and healthy because they don’t have McDonald’s or Krispy Kreme, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and don’t have X Box.
We were playing against nine-year-olds and they must have sent me the wrong way about a dozen times. They had me on my backside.Alan White
“Kids moan about having to play on Astroturf but these kids play pretty much on dust and gravel wearing flipflops and kicking a tatty ball. They play on surfaces our kids wouldn’t even entertain playing on.”
The children are too young to recall the genocide which saw as many as one million people slaughtered in 100 days, but many have been personally affected.
And to pay their respects, the Scottish group visited the Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, as well as a church which was the site of a massacre of more than 5000 people. They also met representatives of the Rwandan FA, representatives of the Ministry of Sport and the country’s Olympic Committee.
The group will now look at taking further football development programmes around the country with the backing of Hearts owner Ann Budge, who has been “hugely supportive”.
Alan added: “It’s the best community initiative we have done without a shadow of doubt because of who it brought together and who it benefited in a country that has been decimated.
“The way they are trying to rebuild the country is a lesson and an inspiration to everyone.
“They have gone through something none of us have experienced but you see the resilience and hope of the communities coming together to support each other.”
Hearts, Tranent Colts, SFA and the council decided to take the project to Rwanda after a previous visit by the country’s Olympic committee to East Lothian.