Sport is transformative, crossing cultures and uniting people in their love of the game and their community.
It can inspire people and change their lives for the better.
The power of sport can even encourage people to turn away from violence and, instead, play for peace.
In rugby league-mad Papua New Guinea’s Highlands, the creation of a new ‘footy’ league in the Hela region is playing a significant role in bringing stability to the area and building peace.
The establishment of the Komo Rugby League Association (KRLA) by the region’s youth in early 2019, supported by PNG’s Royal PNG Constabulary and Defence Force as well as ExxonMobil PNG, is changing how tribes in the incredibly rugged and difficult-to-traverse jungle highlands connect and see one another.
This league has grown over a short time to include 30 men’s and women’s football teams and continues to encourage people to put aside tribal disputes and pick up the ball.
“A lot of youth wanted a change in the community, and we knew we had to do something,” said Johnathan Edwin, one of the young men involved in the KRLA. “We wanted Komo to be peaceful so that we could focus on the future.”
Johnathan said even though the league has run less than a year, it has already had a massive impact on reducing violence and bringing the region’s tribes together.
“It’s hard to believe how much has changed in such a short time,” he said.
Nila Moses, captain of one of the women’s teams, said this is also the first time women have been allowed on the pitch, helping to change the perception of gender roles.
“According to our custom, women don’t play rugby, but by having these teams, it has brought the whole family together, as well as the community,” Nila said. “You can feel the difference it has made.”
The games have become a local hub each weekend, with about 2,000 people attending the matches and numerous stalls set up to sell everything from food to clothing.
The Hides Gas Development Company, a Hela-based landowner company, has provided sponsorship support and pledged additional funding, while ExxonMobil PNG has provided uniforms, training support and is upgrading the rugby pitches.
“This initiative is restoring normalcy to the community,” local primary school teacher Gini Wayabe stated.
“To see this kind of change in the community… it’s almost like a dream,” Gini said.
Gini said seeing the players on the pitch has inspired many children within the region to return to school, which could put them on the pathway to joining their new sports heroes.
“The uniforms have had a huge impact. It’s become a symbol to them that if they work hard and do well in school, they too may be able to wear one of those jerseys,” she said.
“It’s important for children to have this kind of inspiration.”
John Tiko, president of one of the teams, the Gateway Storms, said sport has put the region on the path to peace.
“People wanted peace, but we never thought it was possible. Now we see that change can happen,” he said. “In the past, we only knew how to stand our ground as clansmen and warriors, but now we are standing as sportsmen.”