Soccer, Soaps and Social Change

December 7th, 2010 by Laura Fraser

In Kenya and 11 other countries, the soccer-based program The Team is a winning mix of popular entertainment and conflict resolution.

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The Responsibility Project

In Cote d’Ivoire, a soccer player tells his coach he’s been fired from his job for no good reason. Another player, angry, says that that boss always fires people who aren’t from his tribe – so they should teach him a lesson. The coach calms the riled young men and insists they solve the problem without violence, by talking to the boss instead. So the players arrange to meet with him.

“Our country is like the national team,” the first young man tells the boss. “You like soccer, right?”

Bien sur,” says the boss, who eventually decides, over the disapproval of others in his tribe, to rehire the soccer players from the other tribe.

Like everyone around the world, the boss loves soccer, which is what makes The Team, a soap opera based on a soccer team, a hit in the countries where it runs. The soap opera isn’t just popular entertainment — though it is that — but a metaphor for ethnic relations and a message promoting conflict resolution between warring tribes. John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground, which produces the soap operas, says the core message of the soap operas is simple: “If they don’t cooperate, they don’t score goals, and they lose.”

Search for Common Ground, which has produced conflict-resolution programs internationally since 1982, often using popular media, initially created The Team in response to the tribal violence that roiled Kenya in December 2007 following a presidential election. During that conflict, which was spurred on by hate messages on the radio, 1,500 Kenyans died and 300,000 were displaced. Marks and others at Search wanted to turn those media messages around, using a soap opera to promote peace instead of violence. In the show, players from different tribes must work together in spite of their differences, solve problems without violence and take personal responsibility for their actions.   

In one episode, a coach unwittingly makes a woman from another tribe – the tribe that murdered his wife – the captain of the team. When he later learns the truth about her tribe and wants her to step down, she proves she can motivate the team to win. The coach comes to see her as a person, not a tribe member, and keeps her as a leader despite deep disapproval from his family.

Along with the Kenya show, Search for Common Ground is creating similar versions of The Team in 11 other countries that are riddled with ethnic violence. Shows are already on air in Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Morocco, and in production in countries including the Congo, Liberia, Nepal, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Pakistan. Funded by U.S. and European governments and non-profit foundations, the Washington D.C.-based Search team produces the shows and creates a structure for the series, but in every country, local writers and actors fill in the details of the stories so that they ring true to viewers.

“In each country the stories are different, because each culture has its own problems and its own storytelling traditions,” Marks says. In Morocco, for instance, players tackle the growing conflict between the rich and the poor in their communities. In Congo, the players have to grapple with gender issues and violence. (All the teams on the soap operas are co-ed).

Like soccer and soap operas, the series has become very popular. In its first season in 2009, two million Kenyans watched The Team, and two million more tuned in to the radio version. The Team is consistently rated among the 10 most popular shows in Kenya, attracting 25 percent of the available viewing audience.

The show has been successful in affecting attitudes about other ethnicities and reducing violence in Kenya, Marks says. Actors and members of the Search staff showed episodes to community leaders in violence-prone areas in that country and facilitated discussions afterwards. “It had unbelievable effects,” Marks says. “People were saying things like, ��I’ve forgiven the people who murdered my brothers.’” After one such meeting, he says, a criminal gang that had been terrorizing Nairobi slums decided to go straight, make restitution to the people they wronged and become a positive civic action group.

Follow-up evaluations show that the soap opera has had lasting effects on attitudes and behavior in Kenya. In surveys conducted by Search, two-thirds of respondents said that the issues of tribal identity and differences affected them “very much,” and almost all said that The Team was an effective way to address the issues. After mobile cinema screenings in areas without access to television, participants reported that they were more accepting of people from other tribes and that the shows had helped them develop individual confidence, self-discipline and taught them to accept responsibility for their actions.

“One of the continuing themes in the series is people taking responsibility,” says Marks. “Individual players realize that they can’t rely on tribes, that they need to be responsible for situations as individuals.”

Marks started Search for Common Ground out of a sense of personal responsibility. A former State Department official, he resigned in 1970 in protest over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, and then worked as a policy advisor to a U.S. senator to try to cut off funding for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He then wrote The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, an exposé of U.S. intelligence abuses, and The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate,” about the CIA’s use of LSD and other behavioral techniques.

Marks realized that he had become a figure opposing the war, opposing the CIA – in short, an oppositional character. “I wanted to be for something,” he says, and so decided to work toward doing something positive. During the Cold War, he wanted to help defuse the confrontation and promote common security. With the help of an inheritance, he started Search for Common Ground and worked on anti-nuclear projects and international mediation. In 1989, Marks created a Soviet-American Task Force on Terrorism, working unofficially with a former CIA director and the ex-head of counterterrorism for the KGB to outline recommendations about how U.S. and Soviet intelligence organizations could work together to combat terrorism. Both the KGB and the CIA eventually accepted the recommendation to cooperate; the RAND Corporation, a national security think tank, became the co-sponsor.

Over 28 years, Marks’ organization has spread throughout conflict-ridden countries in the world, mediating between leaders and creating peaceful messages and conflict-resolution tools like The Team through the media and popular culture.

“I’ve been trying to transform conflict on the planet,” Marks says. “That’s my work, my passion and my life.”

Creating peace is a responsibility everyone shares, he adds. “You can start by taking responsibility for resolving the conflicts in your life peaceably, with win-win situations,” Marks says. “It has to go from the individual to the group to the globe.”

Laura Fraser is the author of the bestselling travel memoirs An Italian Affair and All Over the Map. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Salon.com, More, Gourmet, O, the Oprah Magazine, among many others. Her website is laurafraser.com.