Diffa – Mike’s first home in Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer – 1983


by Steve Anderson

Diffa, Niger. When referring to the Komadougou Yobé, most locals simply call it “the River.” There is only one. It returns once a year and then ebbs progressively. This cycle is one of the constants in the lives of Diffa’s popu-lation. The River’s rebirth is—by turns—weak or strong, early or late, long enduring or fleeting, but it will happen.

The River has returned more than 100 times since this countryside knew horror and violence akin to that now returned to its doorstep. In the closing decades of the 19th Century it was here that the Sudanese slave-trader and brigand, Rabih Fadl Allah (commonly called “Rabah”), and his bands looted, enslaved, and slaughtered men, women, and children. Their swath of destruction mowed through this same corner of the Lake Chad Basin that has once again fallen under the shadow of an implacable predator.

The oldest people I knew were born just after the termination of Rabah’s bloody reign. These children and grandchildren of survivors refused to utter his name. Those who would speak to me at all of what had come to pass did so in hushed, fearful tones. At a spot close to where I lived, it was recounted that the River had been so choked with bodies that they made a “bridge.” There is a village in a dale named “Man’s Head” for the number of skulls left strewn about the valley floor. And well into the 20th Century, clay jars full of silver Marie Thérèse Thalers continued to be unearthed in isolated spots…the cached fortunes of the unfortunates who’d not been able to return for them. The voices rising skyward, in lament, were legion during those years of scourge.

Rabah was felled in 1900. Three French columns converged on him, one from Brazzaville, another cross-ing the Sahara from Algiers, the third snaking east from Dakar. If his execution marked the beginning of la paix coloniale, Rabah’s brutal legacy outlived him, scarring the collective memory, reaching into the minds of succes-sive generations, transforming perception of past evils to presentiment concerning the future.

The River came and went for more than a century without ever truly washing clean the wounds inflicted by Rabah. And so when we began to hear about another marauder the ancestral dread arose anew. It started vaguely, like the distant nocturnal flare of lightening and soft bumping of thunder that long precede the crashing cacophony of wind, dust, and torrential rain that will come. But no one doubted the inevitability of the mael-strom’s arrival. People spoke in hushed tones of something malignant evolving in northeastern Nigeria, just across the River, just beyond the horizon. The adults would not speak its name—Boko Haram. Indirect allusions were made, eyes fixed on the ground. No one wished to see his or her own apprehension confirmed in another’s regard.

This was ten years into the 21st Century. The wider world was preoccupied with the fighting in northern Mali, yet another coup d’état in Niamey, and the implosion of Libya. To my friends and neighbors these events seemed impossibly remote. They were transfixed by the slow but regular expansion and approach of Boko Haram’s sphere of carnage, and the equally devastating, indiscriminately murderous ripostes of Nigeria’s troops.

In reality, the battle had already arrived, stealthily. It was being waged in the hearts and minds of young men. Estranged and increasingly alienated, much of this new generation was veering radically away from its parents’ ethos and customs. The rupture was largely in-voluntary, fueled by dangerously incompatible trends besetting both rural and urban contexts, namely a burgeoning youth population1 versus incommensurately slow growth, stagnation, or regression of the natural resource base2, educational opportunities, and licit employment options. Simultaneously, the IT revolu-tion has fueled a veritable of globalization of dreams. The now ubiquitous cellphone and widespread Internet access provide an unprecedented window on the world. They tantalize with visions of a life that poor people will never attain, emphasizing the sense of relative deprivation already felt with acuity by ambitious by side-lined young men.

The narrow strictures of fundamentalist ideology are at odds with what most young men wish to do with their lives, but what happens when you are without viable career prospects, when your life is in disarray because the traditional values inculcated by your parents have revealed their bankruptcy? What happens when extremist dogma propagated online or in the streets is neatly packaged as an easy-to-follow recipe with which to organize and give sense to your errant existence? What happens when this new ideology is cloaked in sanc-tity, as a right-thinking movement meant to sweep away a corrupt world order, the entrenched elite whose cushioned indifference to your plight you feel bitterly every single day? Why not strike a blow against it, in a violent and purifying flameout? Compared to that, what are your vain, flimsy hopes for temporal wellbeing? Especially now that things are going to pot here…with Boko Haram attacking on Nigérien soil (which every-one said would never happen), the imposition of martial law, the denunciations, the arrests, the stop-and-frisk searches, the jailings, and the ever-present, pervasive fear and suspicion that transform anyone into a potential enemy.

It’s over tea, on the street corner, that the young men are mulling over what they’ve heard. It sounds vaguely glorious. And, at least, it qualifies as “doing something,” a signal merit when compared with facing another empty day, one more day you know your family can’t help you get ahead and you’re ashamed to de-pend on them but you do because you don’t know what else to do. One of your group will get up from the bench on which you’ve passed these indolent, unfulfilled days together. It might be you or it might be another. Others will follow, because it’s important to stick together with your friend. And because now you have a plan, a direction in life, not just listless drifting. Apprehensive and hopeful at once, you’ll all head south into Nige-ria, passing first through the palm forest, just across the River.


1 An estimated 50% of Niger’s 17 million population is less than 15 years of age. Similar demographic esti-mates are given for other Sahelian states. 2 Natural resources in the Sahel are under unprecedented pressure from combined effects of climate change (manifested by increased frequency and severity of rainfall deficits) and over-exploitation (more users employ-ing more rapacious, unsustainable techniques). Diffa’s situation in particular has been further exacerbated by the influx of more than 100,000 refugees; the region’s total pre-crisis population was estimated at just under 400,000.

Project Play Soccer Ambassador Scott J. Shick Chief

Scott Schick

Scott J. Schick Chief

I have worked with youth in the juvenile justice system for thirty years. I love what I do for the simple reason that many of the youth I have worked with stayed out of the criminal justice system. The programs I have developed, were intended to provide boys and girls opportunities they would have otherwise been denied. I learned at an early time in my career that meeting at risk youth at their level, taking the time to understand their circumstances, and just being yourself with them gives them dignity and allows for trust and hope. Chico State University where I met my lifelong friend Mike Mitchell, was the foundation for my career of using athletics, recreation, and experiential education as a catalyst for change in youth struggling to find themselves in this complicated world. You put a kid on a road bike, do candle lit yoga sessions in a secure juvenile detention setting, complete a triathlon with a “non-swimmer”, bang out a drum circle with 30 residential program youth, or field a Championship, Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Varsity Soccer team out of hardened street kids from different gang sets, you do any of these things, it will allow the child to build confidence and success identity as they move forward in their young lives. Project Play is a beacon for all of us to get involved and make a difference. There are too many children and adolescents in this world who are being denied opportunities in their lives. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Mike and his ambassadors in support of Project Play and the mission to bring a little Hope to the children of Niger and where ever else we can make a difference. The flame is lit let’s keep it burning!

Scott J. Shick Chief
Douglas County Juvenile Services
Minden, Nevada, USA

Mike Mitchell and a child in Niger

A letter from the founder

I have considered myself a grassroots philanthropist since serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm, service and inspiration alone were not enough to make my dream a reality.  But over the last 10 years with the help of generous friends and supporters who believed, Project Play has now become a reality.

Project Play Soccer is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children through the sport of soccer. We started out delivering and implementing organized soccer programs to impoverished nations of Niger (2008) & Benin (2010) with the goal helping to eliminate poverty & violence starting in the poorest region on the planet the Sub Saharan Africa.  We currently have 1400 schools and 100,000 kids in Niger actively involved in education with the help of the beautiful game, Soccer.

Peace Corps 1984 Niger, Mike with Hadiza, a beautiful Nigerien girl who loved to kick the ball around. She was one of the first girls to publicly play soccer with Mike breaking taboos.

Peace Corps 1984 Niger, Mike with Hadiza, a beautiful Nigerien girl who
loved to kick the ball around. She was one of the first girls to publicly play soccer with Mike breaking taboos.

I know a soccer ball can have a positive impact in children’s lives who live in extreme poverty, I witnessed it personally from 1983 to 1985 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. In 1984 the worst drought in recorded history hit us, the ball was crucial for all of us to make it through suffering beyond belief, it gave hope and created smiles, it was/is a powerful tool in helping to eliminate poverty & violence.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world and the soccer ball is a fundamental tool to mobilize children, encourage healthy living and bring hope to young people with few opportunities in their lives. I have seen the soccer ball inspire leadership, team work and confidence and be a tool to motivate children to attend school.

Phase I of Project Play was implemented in February 2008 when a small entourage landed in Niamey, Niger. The Project Play entourage delivered over 2000 balls to communities and rural villages throughout Niger. We were fortunate to experience first-hand the joy and happiness a soccer ball can bring to children and their communities.
Returning from Africa with renewed enthusiasm and proof that the simplicity of a soccer ball can change lives, Project Play stepped up plans to expand efforts to other African nations and to implement programs to replenish balls to schools, organizations and villages already visited. We have partnered up with the NGO Pencils For Kids creating a connection between education and recreation, a match made in heaven. We are also actively pursuing funding through donations, sponsors and grants please help us in these areas as with your support we continue our mission.

My requests to you are simple:
• Learn more about Project Play Soccer.
• Pass this message on. A simple email can inspire one voice to a thousand.
• Become a sponsor
• Organize a presentation of Project Play at a school, club, media, etc.
Make a donation.

Project Play is committed to continue our mission in Africa as well as other regions around the world that need HELP … one ball, one child, one village, one country at a time.

Mike Mitchell, Founder Project Play Soccer

Mike lives in Brazil with his wife Telinha and son Keegan.

Ibbo Daddy Balls

Letter from Ibbo Daddy (Country Manager – Niger)

Niamey, Niger, May 13th 2008

From: Ibbo Daddy Abdoulaye
Investigative Journalist – Niger, West Africa

Although I am not a soccer addict, I traveled all over Niger in order to help distribute over 2000 soccer balls in February 2008. The champion of this feat is quite a man that I had met only one month before through email. His name is Mike Mitchell and he belongs to a breed of people that could motivate anyone with his all-consuming passion and overflowing energy, possibly even the dead.
That explains how this crazy and fun-loving, former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Niger in the 1980s, recruited me in what I now regard an amazing adventure on the potholed, dusty roads and paths of Niger. This crazy road trip was a two week adventure, rushing around Niger with many unexpected stops at settlements or roadsides villages to give kids, generally kicking around an old sock full of rags, a real leather ball!

The dream conceived 25 years ago by Mike Mitchell who understood the universal language of soccer and global tool, the ball, when he brought a dozen of balls to Niger during his Peace Corps time as a youth coach in a far and remote town of Niger. As he enduringly put it, “The ball is the most effective tool to combat poverty and imbalance. People say, ‘Well, we need food, we need clothing, we need housing to help (the poor).’ All of that isn’t going to end the problem because it’s just too big. What is needed is energy. Energy harnessed into a single, positive frame of mind.”

I volunteered to get involved after hearing about this story through my virtual exchange with Mike. Honestly, no sooner that I promised to help with the promotion and communications that I was assailed by doubts. I asked myself, is it logical to leave my business to volunteer for two long weeks? Is it normal to go round giving soccer balls to children who obviously need a bowl of rice? But the enthusiasm of Mike and his team was so contagious that I soon forgot my worries. Moreover, it became obvious that it was a good decision for I have never seen such radiance as in the faces of these kids when we arrived, as if by magic, exchanging their rags ball with a brand new ball. I have never felt such a satisfaction. And I know what I am talking about because working as a field journalist; I covered many stories involving free food distribution or other humanitarian relief.But I never experienced such a noble act that doesn’t put the recipient in a position of inferiority.

The icing on the cake… At one of our unexpected stops was a toothless old man, who obviously didn’t know anything about soccer, but gave me a real lesson of soccer or rather a lesson of life. He pointed out to me that the soccer ball is like our millet ball (a popular Nigerien dish made of pounded millet and sour milk). Like the millet ball, people gather joyfully around the dish without any discrimination based on race, age, or gender . Like the millet ball dish, every person is eager to show how he maneuvers the soccer ball, just as it is with the ladle… I had never thought of it in this way.
Well said.

Thank you Mike! By the way, when is the next Project Play trip?

Ibbo Daddy Abdoulaye

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