Friday, July 12, 2019
Badara Papa Dia
I'm originally from Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. I came to the United States in December 2001. I was 19 years old, a young man. My father helped me get here. What brought me here was a dream, curiosity, and soccer. I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I thought maybe this is the best place to do it. When I came here I didn't know anyone except my father. It took me years before I met anybody else from Mali.
When I came here it wasn't like what I expected it to be. I thought of America as a movie, high rises, perhaps just beauty. When I came in the winter time, there were hardly any leaves on the trees. I was like, “Where is your soccer field?” I went to look at a soccer field in December; everything was empty and cold and dried up, it was getting dark very quickly. I thought. “Man, what's wrong? Maybe I'm in the wrong place for soccer.” Those were my aha moments.
I was first told by my father that I needed to speak English because I didn't speak any English. He said that should be my goal first, and that I needed to have a Plan B. Education is to be Plan A, and soccer was supposed to be a plan B, because if I made soccer plan A, and I broke my leg, then what will happen? Then instead of soccer being my priority number one goal, now it became a second. Having that affected my dream.
My father is a realtor, a professional person. He is married to a woman who has two kids. While I was going to ESL classes, I was dropping those two kids off at Barcroft Elementary School. I met the principal of their school then. The principal said, “I know your two brothers, they're very kind. You must be a nice guy, also. Would you like to volunteer?” I said, “Yeah, why not?” then I spoke to my father. He accepted it as long as it didn’t conflict with my education schedule. I started doing that and then she motivated me to go further. I began going to school to earn my teaching credentials while I was volunteering. Then I became a personal assistant at the school, and was getting paid for that. Then I went from personal assistant to teaching assistant. At first I was not teaching soccer at all. Then my father said in the spring I could volunteer to coach my stepbrothers’ soccer team. That’s what I did. I began coaching their coed team, young kids. Then little by little, people started to get to know me and my ability for coaching and my knowledge of soccer.
After each session of training I did with my brothers and the other kids, an adult professional team would come to use the field. A professional team from the Bolivian league, Westerman, would use the same soccer field for their practices. I approached them and asked if I could practice with them. They wanted to see me play, and they gave me a chance. They brought me onto the team. I played for them for three years.
I was a striker, they really liked that, because I am really fast. They had me playing full time. They used to pay me to play and everything. We would play in the DMV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia region) area. People came out to see us play for the championship. It was fun. I even learned a little Spanish, un poquito.
I also continued with the teaching, but I was interested in going to the DC United team. I wanted to be a serious professional player, to join a big team. The coach of the Bolivian team was motivating me to go professional in that level. I went to DC United and asked them how could I join the team? I went to speak to a guy in their organization who told me to make a video and send resumes. At the time I did not know how to do that stuff. After doing that, DC United put me on the second team, I started training with them, but they had a requirement that when I'm with them, I'm not supposed to be training anywhere else. There was another Bolivian League who saw me playing, and they also decided to get me for their team. I was young and not smart I guess. They were also paying me to play for them. I was at DC United training, but I would go out to play for these guys, too, as they were paying me until I got my ligaments injured. Then DC United found out, and they let me go. That was the end of that. So I went back to coaching. I focused on coaching. I said, I'm going to train somebody to make the dream.
I was teaching at Barcroft Elementary and then moved to Kenmore Middle School. Ever since 2004, 2005, I’ve been the boys and the girls’ soccer coach at Kenmore, part of the Arlington school system. I do personal one-on-one training, small group training, and full team training. There was a principal here at Kenmore named Dr. Wort who loved me. All of the time that he had been the principal, the school had never won anything. But in my first year as a coach, we won County championships for both boys and girls, so he liked that. Since then I have been the coach and I keep bringing in more championships. We have a new principal here now, Mr. McBride. I also I brought him championships this year and I brought him a championship last year. For the last five years our teams have been winning all the County championships. Soccer has picked up huge in the US from the time I first came here until now. Now Arlington at least has pretty good soccer players.
When I first came to Kenmore, at first the great diversity of students was a bit shocking, but I quickly understood and grew to like it. I like diversity. I had to adapt, but I like that diversity. It was a change. There are so many different ways of thinking. I wondered how the different kids saw me. Do they see me the same way I see them and what they think of me, do they think of me the same way I think of them? All those were questions in my mind as I went about in my daily routine. This school’s very diverse. Kids get along well, though. It's incredible. That’s why I love this place. I haven't moved yet because of the diversity and how that diversity helps us get along. My daughter, who is eleven, feels the same, she has friends from all walks of life. She was born in France. She’s new here. But now she has friends in this school from all over, every walk of life.
When I first started teaching there were some things to adjust to. My first shock was because you have an accent or because you don’t speak the language properly yet, people thought you were stupid. This was interesting to me. You may know much more than those people probably do, but because a person has either an accent or doesn’t speak their language, they think you don't know anything. It’s simply ignorance. I just rose above this, because that's part of being professional and smart. Before I came to the US, I hadn’t played with girls in soccer or taught girls. It was a change. In Mali girls were meant to stay in the house, cook and do family chores, but not play soccer. My sisters never played. Younger and older cousins, they never played. But now, here, they can be a goalie, be a striker… on a team.
I didn't think there was any difference coaching girls and boys on teams at first because I thought, coaching girls, coaching boys, what would be the difference? Until I got into it and I'm like, “wow.” It was a struggle because I’m very passionate about the sport. I would coach with my passion, but I found out that for most girls who played the sport it was because it's fun. Fun comes above everything else. For boys, generally competition comes before the fun. To them, competition is the fun.. My first year coaching girls actually was in middle school. I had a success. We were very competitive. But ever since then, my girls haven't wanted to participate that way. So now I’ve changed that side of my coaching, turned the competition side of it to make it more fun. For the parents here it’s just all about their daughter and her team. It's a gift she's on the team, just as long as she's on the team, she’s practicing and playing the game
My goal with the kids is to let them see that I'm here to support them, that I want to be part of the change for them, for their future, whatever their vision is because they all come with a vision. I feel I am not here to tell them what to do, but am here to support what they want to be, whatever that is.
Outside of all this, I have my soccer academy in Mali. (http://papadiapush.org).
This is the story. When I was a young kid, twelve years old, I was playing, and I don't know why, but I just had a passion for teaching, Even at home, I was the one teaching and coaching. It didn’t matter if the other kids were older than me or younger. I was the one coaching and teaching people in the house to do stuff. I remember as a boy putting little kids together eight and nine years old, not much different than my age, and I would be their coach. After we lost a game, I decided to play, too, and then that motivated my passion more. The other kids began calling me their president, their coach.
When I finally went back to Mali for my first trip since I came to the United States, these kids were grown, but they were still calling me, “our president is back! The president's back!” even after I had left them for over 10 years. They're still calling me their president! I started taking soccer and sports equipment with me. I brought soccer shirts and shorts from Kenmore. I donated all that to this group of kids who called me their president, their coach. Now every year after I go back and take equipment with me, little by little. I start hiring coaches that I pay to coach teams in Mali. I turned this effort into an organization. A man in Arlington, Barney Cohen, helped me to do this. Sadly, he just passed away. He helped me make my organization an official nonprofit organization here in the States, to manage the donations properly, so I can transfer them to Mali to give it to the kids there.
It is amazing when I go back to Mali, just unbelievable. I feel that they treat me like a president. My house is always packed with little children. We haven’t had leagues so far, but this year we're playing in a modern champion league for the first time. I have four kids who had trained in my academy who are now playing for our national team in Mali. There’s a lot of talent. I haven’t yet been able to bring any of our kids over to visit here, but it’s something I want to do.
In Mali soccer is the only sport for us. That's true for a whole lot of Africa. I grew up with soccer, just like probably 99% of the kids in Africa. It was just there. You grew up, and the first thing you saw at the front door was a soccer ball. It happened in every street in every corner.
Before I began to back to Mali, the kids there didn’t have much equipment. It was the first time ever in their lives they ever put on soccer shorts and shirts, shoes with cleats and socks. Even today some kids play barefoot. Or if they have shoes, they have those Malian ones that are open from the front and bottom, like sandals. It makes it hard to play. That's why they have cuts all over their feet. That’s how it was for me, too, growing up. The uniforms and equipment we brought them built some both protection and some big-time pride. It unified them, helped them feel, bond, and work as a team.
At first I didn’t get a lot of parents support for this in Mali. But then little by little I started having parent meetings. I sat down and had them look at the program and plans of my organization. My coaches follow those programs. It worked slowly. Attendance at first was not very effective, because the children were kept busy doing chores in the house when it was time to do practice or time for a game. Their parents didn't value what we were doing. I had to educate them. Certain things I want to also try to educate the Mali government about. Because in Mali, as in most African countries, if a kid wants to be a soccer player, they'll drop out of school to go play soccer. Why? Because the schools don’t have those activities or curriculum implemented in school. That's why the dropout is so high. That’s part of the way I’ve stuck to my organization and changed it to the way it is today. I told the parents if I want to invest my money, my time and other people's money and their time into this organization, they have to first value what we're doing, and to value what we're doing they have to be part of it. If we hold a meeting, they need to be there, to know what's going on with their kids. All of this will help create value. Because when I first went back in 2004, I asked kids who appeared to be of high school age, in middle school age, “how old are you?” They didn't know their own age. They didn't even know their birthday. Even today this still exists. That saddens me.
I teach differently to the Mali kids than I do here. I'm far away from the culture now, although I still believe I'm part of the culture. I don't know as much as people who live there. I listen and observed more and I'm very sensitive in how I do things. I don't want the people I deal with to say I'm trying to teach them how to live their life. I'm trying to teach, I teach in a certain way to get along with them, so that they can both listen to me and I also listen to them. I try to be respectful. I know culture plays a part in the game. That's why the United States is struggling in soccer. That's also why lots of African national teams are suffering, because they're forgetting their culture plays a part of the game. I'm respecting the culture as I'm doing that.
My goal is bring some of the Malian kids here, some of the Arlington kids there, to exchange teams. That would be huge. It will change lives in so many ways. Although I did have a parent from here who went to Mali to visit my organization. It was mind blowing. My kids still talk about it. It was amazing. This summer I'm going to have one kid coming from Mali for first time. He's a good soccer player, and we’ll see what happens.
Here there is a system in place.to teach soccer. In Bamako I had to build our own system. Everything I do here is what makes my life there easy and do-able. I have learned techniques of teaching an organization from working here. The idea of implementing activities in the school system there, and how that will save the kids, how that will save the country, how this will progress the life of Malian children, how that will bring development to the country.
They used to have sports in the schools, but those are all gone. It’s very sad. If your kids want to do any special activities they'll quit school. Even if they want to do acting and fashion, swimming, anything, they quit school so they can do it. Which is sad because if you quit school, it doesn’t work out well for you. That's why we have so many drop out, literally. I have said that everybody participating in my organization from now on will stay in school. When I’ve met with the parents, I’ve said “to be part of this program, your kid has got to be in school. Because if this doesn't work for you, school does.” Because of that, in my yearly programs for my organization, we do trips to museums, we do trips to the zoo, we do trips to mosques, we do trips to parks. We do trips to a hospital. We go everywhere because this helps motivate and elevate people. When we go to these places we talk. If soccer doesn't work for you, you can become a doctor, a nurse. We go to the zoo and we do the same thing, you could be a manager, a scientist. Everybody has their own motivation and drive. Anything that clicks.
When I am here in Arlington, I also have parents attend team meetings. I let them know their kids are safe. That should be the number one goal, because they come and drop their kids off and leave. The kids are with me three hours a week. I make sure kids are safe. I also let them know it's more than soccer. Discipline is number one for me, even in selecting a player for my team. I look at discipline above everything else, because if you're disciplined, I know I have the skill to teach you. That's my job as a coach. No matter how skillful you are, if you have no discipline, I cannot teach you. If the player doesn't have discipline I let the parents know. My consequences are, if you are not disciplined I can’t work with you. I give you chances. Sit on the bench to reflect, or you don't play game. I help. I don't give up on you, I’ll help you until I can’t. Most of the parents are supportive of this. To me it's more than soccer, because all the discipline is what makes the game.
My daughter is in school here, and we live in the community. There are changes happening here. Population, more housing, more high rises. Less space now. When I first came to Arlington there was much more open space. You could stand in one place end see to the other end of it. Now it’s becoming high rises and all that stuff. House rents have increased tremendously and house prices, too. Food prices increased, gas prices increased, almost everything. I see more people living in apartments and fewer in houses now, including myself.
Right now I’m I'm looking and hoping for a philanthropist. I'm looking for a sponsor, anybody who can help me with this project, because my dream is not just focused on soccer. Education is part of the soccer. I want to implement some ideas and activities in school programs in Mali so kids can stay in school. Then they can achieve big things.
Right now I travel back and forth to Mali once a year. I'm hoping to make it at least two or three times a year. That will be more effective. That'd be life changing but financially it's like everything has to be. That's why I'm so busy on the soccer field trying to make money so I can pay my coaches staff properly. Some of them are married and have children. They have to make a decent living. I have two of them who just do coaching for my program, that's their profession. There is no way to fundraise there, which is sad also. Even the mentality of fundraising, they don't have.
Five years ago I tried to implement the same ideas that I have in Mali here. Because even here we have some kids who are needy. I have received donations from people here, like from Janeth Valenzuela’s people who donated some equipment. There's some kids here who have nothing, so I also need to have stuff donated to them. Most of these are H.I.L.T. (High Intensity Language Training) kids. I was thinking to do something here in the community for those kids. I put them on travel teams, I put them in soccer leagues. I have been thinking how I can make the same opportunities for them as I have created for the poor kids in Mali. Because their parents are refugees and immigrants, there are kids here that have the same needs as the kids in Mali. I give them soccer shoes, soccer balls, soccer shirts. Yeah. Even in this school. I do it quietly.
Our teams have a lot of Ethiopians. You see a lot of Bolivians, and kids from many other places. Soccer brings the kids together. But in soccer, here in America, when you go to higher levels, the more competitive soccer starts to become, you find that there are more white people than any other race. Because it costs more money, most travel teams are mainly white kids. The poorer families cannot afford to travel long distances with their kids for long times, or the players themselves when they get older, cannot take time off from work, pay for gas, hotels, things like that. That's why American soccer is suffering. They have players who can afford to be on travel teams, buy the expensive athletic equipment, but not necessarily players who can play the game the best. The wealthier young players have all these titles “I played travel here, etc.,” so they receive college scholarships. When they start recruiting they start looking for these type of players and then they end up on the national team. Look at the American men’s national soccer team compared to the national team for France. France’s national team is 90% black, from Africa; from North Africa, Central Africa, West Africa. They go for guys who can play, not just those who can afford to play. Their academy system is so different than the academy system here. And people wonder why American soccer is suffering. Imagine. America has fifty states, it should be able to produce one team to win the world cup. It’s just insane. It is because it's about who can afford or not afford to play the game.
My boys have epic talent. I would go against North Arlington teams like Williamsburg and Swanson and beat them, but those schools are all travel kids. They're all white. We go we beat them. My kids don't travel. We go against these teams and we win. I guess these kids from these wealthier schools get on the top travel teams based on how much money they have, that their parents can pay to get them to that level.
Some of my kids end up playing on the street except sometimes for certain ones that we've been able to get some of the team parents help by paying a little bit to keep them on team. Some of them are very talented. I have sent them to tryouts. They get picked, but when it comes to money they dropped them and then pick the next guy. All because they can't afford the fancy shoes or the travel costs.
Some of the kids on my teams and their parents come back to work with me. Some of them are working with me now, coaching alongside of me. It feels good, big time. Some of them come and help me with my tryouts. Even though they’re in high school now, they come to help for the tryouts, or come to see me.
One year I put a team together, kids together from around here who cannot afford much. I went to Arlington County and I said, “this is the team I want. These are the very best.” They accepted and they gave us a little money for the team. We won the County championship. The next year, all those kids that were originally rated at the bottom of the league, eight of them ended up on the top out of sixteen players. They got moved up to the higher level. "
Photography and interview by Lloyd Wolf.