Media

    ‘A Man of the People’
    What Sport for Peace and Development Really Means

    Willi Lemke, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on Sports for Development and Peace, with children from Illeys Primary School, Dagahaley Camp, Dadaab, Kenya. June 23rd, 2008 © UNHCR The dingy, stinking classroom is stiflingly hot, humid, and full of people. Each of the 130 children in the room is sitting on the floor; there are no chairs, no tables, and no schoolbooks. In the midst of them, a little boy speaks up and thanks the visitor with the round glasses for giving him the chance to go to this school. 'I nearly died of shame,' says the man in question, recalling his depressing visit to a school for refugee children in Kuala Lumpur. 'I was being thanked for this hole. I thought back to my time as Senator for Education in Bremen and all the parents who frequently complained about the smallest little thing – and this little boy was thanking me for nothing.'

    Between affluence and poverty

    Wilfried Lemke’s work is akin to a tightrope walk between the minor complaints of the affluent parents and soccer players from his native city and the life-threatening hunger suffered by the children in the slums of Nairobi, or the fear that dominates the lives of the people in the crisis regions of the Middle East. In the early part of his career, he took care of the privileged: as the manager of Werder Bremen he juggled millions of Deutschmarks every day; as senator for education and sport in Bremen, he spent almost a decade dealing with the concerns of parents, pupils, teachers, and sports clubs. Now he is taking care of the needy: he has made the move, or, to be more precise, he was called from Bremen onto the international stage. In March 2008, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, appointed the then 61-year-old Wilfried Lemke as his Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace. The job required Lemke to demonstrate his flexibility: the balancing act he would now have to master in this world so full of contrasts quickly became clear. Can you still take professional soccer players seriously when they demand higher salaries, while a few thousand kilometres away to the south a small, half-naked girl is sitting on the polluted ground of the Mathare slums, trying to make a shoe for herself out of a piece of plastic she finds lying nearby?

    A gulf such as this can only be overcome if you are aware of the injustice in the world, but do not get distracted by it every time you have to make a decision or take action and instead learn to accept it. Maybe it is possible to work with this gulf and make it a little narrower. It is exactly this hope that drives Wilfried Lemke when he speaks to Princess Haya of Jordan about the sums of money needed for sporting projects, or when he encourages the Werder Bremen team to play a symbolic peace match in Tel Aviv and then in Ramallah. At a charity dinner in Dubai, a juala, a ball made of paper, plastic bags and twine from the slums of Nairobi, was auctioned for over $200,000; the proceeds will be used to make sports projects in Palestine or other projects such as a ‘Youth Leadership Programme’ possible. It is successes like this that make the contrasts inherent in his job so worthwhile. ‘This is my dream job,’ he admits. And yet, one could say that he is underpaid for his contribution. He gets a dollar a year, no more! Not only that: the one dollar he got from Ban Ki-moon at the end of his first year in office did not go into his pocket, but was immediately hung on the kitchen wall of his flat back home in Bremen.

    A dollar a year

    But nice little anecdotes like this do not conceal the fact that Lemke’s job is an uphill struggle in which he has to overcome corruption and other hurdles. Sport has to overcome many obstacles before its social function can come to fruition. With every new football pitch, every successful sports project, Lemke moves one step closer to his actual goals: AIDS prevention, aggression reduction, gender equality, and the fight against prejudice. ‘Where there’s a Wilfried, there’s a way.’ And this Wilfried certainly knows a lot of ways to get things done. It takes a huge effort to achieve the balancing act because the contrasting worlds in which he moves frequently collide. Nevertheless, there is a link between these worlds – the sheltered, privileged life in Bremen and the frequently war-like circumstances in African and other countries in the world – and this link goes far beyond the boundaries of Lemke’s personal biography. Lemke can draw on his experience of working in sport management and in the government circles of Bremen in order to initiate changes for the better at a global level. In this regard, he emphasises the importance of helping people to help themselves. ‘For me there is a huge difference between helping and supporting. “If you give a hungry man a fish, you will feed him for a day; if you teach him how to fish, you will feed him for life.”’

    On his visits to refugee camps and sport or aid projects in Africa and in other countries, he doesn’t like to see Europeans looking after local children and sportsmen and women. Sudden personnel changes and the cessation of funds regularly mean the end of a project and a return to the hopelessness of poverty. Lemke wants to promote projects that have strong roots in the local population and are carried by ‘role models’, young people like the 25-year-old Kenyan Peter Ndolo, who was himself born and raised in the slums, grew up in the MYSA youth project, and now manages media and photography courses in that same slum in an attempt to get kids off the streets. It is all about putting young people in the mindset that ‘if one of us can make it, then we can make it too.’ Lemke wants to train role models like Peter for the kids in his city.

    No fear of making contact

    ‘Mr Lemke is a man of the people,’ says Peter Ndolo, whom Lemke brought to Germany for three months to complete his training and gain experience so that he could return home and share what he had learned with the people in his country and his slum. What Ndolo says is true: Lemke is not afraid of making contact with the people. At marathons where the sporty, lively German is only supposed to speak a few words before the start, he instead spontaneously decides to run with the participants, leaving behind his security guards, and then celebrates with the locals after the race. He is always right there in the thick of things, is not afraid of bodily contact, and asks people directly what they hope for and what they are afraid of. He wants to see their suffering with his own eyes, smell the misery with his own nose. It is the experience he gains in so doing that spurs him on; experience such as the knowledge of what a ‘flying toilet’ really is, something he saw with his own eyes while walking through Nairobi’s worst slum: plastic bags into which people empty their bowels, tie with a knot, and then throw onto the street. His inner restlessness and his thirst for action occasionally cause a sensation within the United Nations system, whenever he proceeds in unorthodox matters. Lemke is aware of that. He wants to see results, make real progress. It doesn’t matter who he deals with. A UN peacekeeper in the rebel region of Côte d’Ivoire tells him that a sports field will soon be built for himself and his brothers-in-arms. Lemke comes straight out and says ‘Well, if you can build a playing field for yourselves, why can’t you build one for the locals as well?’ The peacekeeper in question thinks about it for a moment and concedes. Lemke’s directness gets results: today, the people of Bouaké have their own football pitch.

    Drawing attention to the post

    This true story, which took place in the West African state of Côte d’Ivoire in October 2008, provided the title to Lemke’s book Ein Bolzplatz für Bouaké [A Football Pitch for Bouaké], published by DVA in March 2010. Critics of the 63-year-old will ask themselves why this man wants more attention, why he now has to write a book in addition to everything else. It is certainly not necessary to move a man like Lemke even further into the spotlight. He knows what kind of presence he has and already uses it to great effect on big occasions, at sporting events, and in his occasional television appearances. However, when he does, the focus is not on him as a person, but on what he represents. His office, his reports, his experiences all have what it takes to trigger debates about the injustice between men and women in sport both in Germany and elsewhere, about the ludicrous and unreasonably high salaries earned by professional footballers, and about the incredibly low profile of disabled sportspeople. These debates are about appropriateness and putting things in perspective. Moreover, listening to debates like this can draw attention to the positive impact that sport – even when not done as part of a mass event – can have in other parts of the world. Take, for example, unisex football matches where goals only count when scored by the girls; or information sessions and AIDS prevention lessons during the half-time break in a football match, in which each correctly answered question gives the team a point, which is then added to the goals scored during the game. In this way, fair play and a sense of responsibility are communicated using a soft approach and associated with games. But it is not only the others who have to learn. We too can take such methods as an example and learn by them.

    Launching a moral appeal? Yes, sometimes it is necessary. Not because people are essentially bad or evil, but because they forget, become inured, and grow accustomed to contrasts and injustice. Sometimes one has to be shown the image of a half-naked girl who is desperately trying to make a shoe out of a plastic bag; not so that people start to feel guilty about how good they have it and immediately get out their cheque books to make a donation, but so that people start to appreciate their own shoes and realise what steps they can take with them.
    Simone Falk
    is a journalist based in Berlin.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to
    Mail Symbolkulturzeitschriften@goethe.de

    Related links