By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — He may have a collegiate coaching resume as long as your arm (and far more distinguished), but Niskayuna rotarian Kalekeni Banda has shifted his focus from NCAA soccer to a pitch across the ocean.
Banda, a native of Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa, is the founder of the Banda Bola Sports Foundation and the Chituka Village Project. Those charities provide soccer equipment and the opportunity to play in a league to village children who stay in school.
He has partnered with Coaches Across Continents to bring soccer and education to a place so remote, he said, that some residents have never seen a car or airplane.
“School is not compulsory in Malawi,” said Banda. “Many children leave school to help their families or get married. Some girls are as young as 12.”
Banda’s campaign to keep children in school, encourage people to solve problems together and treat women equally has been a journey.
His father was a diplomat to the United Nations, so the Banda family came to the United States in 1967. After graduating from high school, Banda accepted a scholarship to run track and play soccer at University of Massachusetts.
Following his college graduation, he was the coach of the Malawi Olympic team. After returning to the United States, he coached track and soccer at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University at Albany.
For decades he avoided travel back to Malawi, but when his parents passed away in the early 1990s he couldn’t avoid it any longer.
“At their funerals, I heard how much my parents meant to the community and all the ways they had been leaders,” he said. “I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and it became about honoring my mom and dad’s legacy.”
In 1995, Banda delivered soccer balls and jerseys to his home village to give the children access to games and play. Since that time, he has returned regularly and this year will spend around five months in Malawi, working with schools, families and the soccer program.
He reports that the problems in Malawi are layered and complicated. There has been an increase in the birthrate, which means more students. There has not, however, been a boom in teachers.
“When I went to school, there were maybe 20 kids in a classroom,” Banda said. “Now there could be more than 89 students and only one teacher. How can they learn?”
Additionally, Banda reports that teachers in Malawi don’t necessarily set out to be teachers. Rather, they are often high school students who graduated from high school but did not score well enough on entrance exams to attend a university. Instead of having a passion for education, teaching is sometimes viewed as a career of last resort.
According to a 2016 Business Insider report, Malawi is also the world’s third poorest country, with many residents lacking access to clean water. As such, children are often relied upon to help with household chores like fetching firewood or water and are not allowed to attend school.
With such multifaceted issues, Banda has to be a master juggler and relies on community support and does not compromise his values.
“In order to play soccer, you must be in school and be a student in good standing,” he said.
The program provides tutors and mentors to help students academically along the way.
“If your school wants a soccer team, you must have both a boys and a girls team,” he said.
Banda was an early supporter of Title IX policies which, among other things, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education and athletics in schools. “We need to do a better job of teaching and educating the children,” he said.
When Banda goes to Malawi this summer, he will work with partners to create a curriculum that teaches problem solving as well as women’s and human rights as it pertains to getting an education.
Banda’s goals are that communities buy in and support the mission of education. He also wants to see local residents empowered to solve their own problems and have an increased sense of personal agency. He also wants to see women empowered through relationships with compassionate mentors.
Organizations from the Capital Region to the Midwest support the Chituka Village Project and Banda Bola Sports Foundation. Union College has donated soccer balls and equipment, and a nonprofit from Indiana will visit to help with curriculum development and donate supplies.