In December last year, I attended the 22nd International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Harare, Zimbabwe, as part of a delegation from Grassroot Soccer (GRS). At the conference, I met and learned from so many incredible people doing inspiring and impactful work on the issues of HIV/AIDS and sexual health, but one interaction stood out.

At the conference, I was thrilled to meet a former GRS SKILLZ participant, 22-year-old Sibonginkosi “Sbo” Dlamini, who was attending as part of a group of young people selected to attend the conference based on their influence in their community.

After graduating from SKILLZ programs, GRS participants make a pledge to “make a move” in their communities by sharing information that they have learned with their peers, while also exemplifying leadership in their own behavior and conduct. Sbo typifies what this pledge is all about. She has not only overcome a number of challenges in her own life, including a mental health crisis, but has also taken the initiative to inspire positive change amongst other young people.

I was delighted to catch up further with Sbo after the conference and learn more about her story.

Praise: You participated in SKILLZ Girl and later joined a SKILLZ Teen Club. What do you remember about the SKILLZ programs, and what was your favorite part?

Sbo: I remember the games and the lessons that we learned at GRS, especially those on the effects of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies that can result from unprotected sex. 

My favorite part was how the games we played helped me to connect with other students during the sessions. I used to be an introvert, but the program helped me to open up to my Coach and the other participants. We got to learn life skills together and, most importantly, discovered who we are as a whole through identifying our strengths and weaknesses. 

How did the program make you feel?

At the beginning, I remember I was the one person who kept to herself. I used to enjoy being alone, just being quiet in my own space, even at school amongst my peers. The program helped me to connect with other students and discover myself even more. I started to enjoy talking to my classmates and played more with them. It was actually fun!

There is a strong link between physical and mental health. What did you learn about mental health through the program?

There is a misconception within our culture that as adolescents, you have to pretend that you are okay, even when you are not. You are afraid of being judged and think about what people would say if they see that you are stressed or depressed, or that you will appear weak if you say you are not okay. 

Through Grassroot Soccer, I learned that it is okay not to be okay. It is part of being a human. You are not a robot – you go through stuff, whether young or old. But you can take your time, you can heal, and you can get back up. My SKILLZ Coach helped me to understand this. 

What do you remember about your SKILLZ Coach?

She was this warm person who created a platform where we could ask her anything, no matter how personal or how hard it was. She created a safe space where we felt we could be free and would not be judged for whatever we asked her – about anything and everything concerning our health and relationships. She helped us to be open, and we always felt safe that she wouldn’t use whatever we told her against us. 

We got to tell her about the stuff we were going through as students. Sometimes young people feel depressed, and there is nobody to talk to. But our Coach gave us that platform to open up and talk about anything. She told us that it is okay not to be okay, and that at the end of the day you have to keep going and be resilient.

How did what you learned through the Grassroot Soccer programs set you up to be resilient in life and overcome setbacks?

I went through financial problems at some point, which led me to feel really depressed after high school. There was peer pressure to be dating an older partner who could give me money, but I was resilient, assertive, and was able to say no to the pressure. I thought about how Grassroot Soccer taught me not to give up, and I worked on myself. I found ways to cope and stay strong, and I am healthy and where I am today because of the lessons I got from the program.

You attended ICASA last year because of the influence you have had on young people in your community. How did the SKILLZ program influence your behavior in this regard?

Kids look up to me and how I conduct myself in the community. I am not the kind of person who dates older men for money, and I thrive to be independent and focus on my goals in life. 

I like giving advice to young people, especially girls. What makes me feel gratified is that they always come back and thank me for assisting them. Grassroot Soccer helped me to become a role model and an effective communicator. Without them, if I had kept to myself and remained the introverted youth that I was, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.

What would you like to say to Grassroot Soccer today?

You’ve helped me a lot. In 2017, I was so young and was prone to make mistakes. Grassroot Soccer helped my peers and I discover the changes that happen to our bodies as girls, and importantly even the boys learned those lessons too. Gaining knowledge about the effects of having unprotected sex and multiple sexual partners, what to do when you have an STI and knowing the symptoms, was important. Our parents don’t really tell us that, and if it wasn’t for GRS, my peers and I would have made a lot of mistakes. I believe that, if you can, it’s always best to learn before you make a mistake. 

I am one of the people who learned a lot from the Grassroot Soccer program. I wouldn’t be here, this healthy and focused, if it wasn’t for Grassroot Soccer. Keep reaching out to those youngsters. They really need you.