The game that brings people together: The Poloafrica Development Trust
Uitgedacht farm, set in the foothills of the spectacular Maluti mountains in the Eastern Free State, may seem an unlikely location for a polo estate. While the area is well known as a destination for tranquil country getaways, it is also one of the poorest parts of rural South Africa, where unemployment and school dropout rates are extremely high, even higher than that of the national average. This is where Poloafrica was born.
Poloafrica was the brainchild of Catherine Cairns, who fell in love with South Africa in 2000, when she visited the country on business from the UK. She saw the potential for Uitgedacht farm to be developed into a “polo haven” for international tourists to enjoy a polo playing holiday.
After purchasing the farm and starting to work on the project, she became aware of the pressing social issues and desperate needs of the local community, and realized that the relationship with the community should be the driving element in realising the ultimate potential of Uitgedacht farm.
The Poloafrica Development Trust gives the local youth the opportunity to interact with and care for ponies – and learn to play polo – and has become a powerful tool to help uplift the community, as well as developing skills and creating opportunities for the youth. In addition to polo, youngsters also have access to boxing, acrobatics and cycling.
This is the vision that the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation was founded on – using the power of sport to bring people together as a force for good, and to combat social challenges. Laureus contributes funds towards the Trust’s life skills curriculum, and also provides guidance and support in the running of the overall effort.
The Trust uses the attraction of being involved with horses and ponies, the game of polo and the exciting programmes run on the farm, to motivate youngsters to stay in school and develop their potential.
Weekend and holiday programmes include lessons in Maths and English, carpentry, sewing, painting and other life skills, as well as the opportunity to learn to ride, and to play the game of polo. The community’s youth are encouraged to become involved, on condition that they work hard at school and apply the life skills they learn at Poloafrica during the holidays.
Beekeeping is one of the practical life skills taught on the programme, and Molefi Ralebenya, who learnt his trade at Poloafrica, now shares his knowledge with the current group of children at Poloafrica.
Having lost his parents at the age of eight, staying in school was a struggle for Molefi, but his older adult brother cared for him and he found his way to Poloafrica when he was 14 years old. He is now setting up his own honey company with the hives he has built, and is in discussion with the local municipality for assistance to obtain more hives in order to grow his business.
“Everyone who comes to Poloafrica learns to respect each other and have a good attitude,” Molefi said. Molefi’s journey with Poloafrica has taken him to Nigeria to play polo in the UNICEF Charity Shield polo tournament at Fifth Chukker Club near Kaduna, where his team won their three games and met with players from all over the world.
20 year-old Tinto Mothijoa is also a Poloafrica scholar, and was 11 when he first joined the programme. During his time with Poloafrica he has played in curtain raisers for the South African National Team, and he well remembers his first trip to Johannesburg in 2011, where he stayed in a hotel for the first time. Tinto is now in his second year of tourism studies at the University of The Free State’s Qwaqwa Campus, and looks forward to starting his own travel agency.
“Polo and Poloafrica taught me that it was not just about the game, but about respecting each other, and developing ourselves and the community,” he said.
Of the forty or so young people aged between 19 and 25 who live in the area around Uitgedacht farm, only five have obtained a matric certificate. Four of those five were Poloafrica scholars, and amongst them are Molefi and Tinto. The game of polo drew both of these young men into the Poloafrica programme, and the discipline and commitment needed for the sport has helped each of them to find their path to success.
“Every child, every person, desires to belong. Poloafrica provides a safe haven for happiness in childhood. Youngsters are proud to be part of it. My wish is that those that long to belong to Poloafrica will derive a moral benefit from this belonging that will help them keep on track in later life.” – Catherine Cairns.