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Making soccer connections

Kalil Konate, Guinea native and volunteer soccer coach, promotes peace through soccer


by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Kalil Konate volunteers as a soccer coach for Willamette United. His team of third-grade girls, the Royals, recently won their bracket of the Willamette Cup tournament.Kalil Konate grew up on a continent far away, speaking a language few in this country understand.

His first soccer ball was an air-filled bladder of a chicken, which he used to kick, barefoot, through the dirt with up to 10 teammates. It was the only recreation readily available to boys in his village in the West African nation of Guinea. Soccer was an integral part of his childhood.

Now, Konate lives in Wilsonville, in a tidy apartment with his wife, Alicia, and their son, Sekouba. He is a college student, studying English as a second language at Portland Community College. He also is a volunteer soccer coach, working with a team of third-grade Wilsonville girls playing for Willamette United.

Each girl on his team has a soccer ball, cleats, shin guards and a bottle full of clean water. It’s about as far from his own experience as possible. Yet soccer links Konate’s past and his present, as well as his dreams for the future.{

“We used to, when we kill the chickens, we take their stomach and fill it with air. And we used to use that as a balloon, as a soccer ball, because a soccer ball was very expensive,” Konate said. “This is how I learned to play soccer, when I was 2. ... There were no rules. The only rules was, just dribble.”

He doesn’t recall learning to play the game.

“For me, soccer is kind of natural. I didn’t learn it. I just started to play like that, he said.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Konate poses with members of the Royals, a Willamette United soccer team of Wilsonville third-graders that he volunteers to coach.

When he was 5, his parents sent him to live with an uncle, whose wife could have no more children. No longer free to play soccer, Konate became responsible for bringing water to his new family from a faraway well, a process that could take him all day. His adoptive parents forbade him to play soccer, but sneaking in a game was sometimes worth the beating he knew he might receive. His education was mostly informal.

His life changed at age 26, when his adoptive father helped him gain admittance to a technical college, where he was to study mining. He traded his labor to the school’s director for his tuition, room and board.

At the school, he met a young American woman, a Bend native and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) volunteer working in the Teachers for Africa program.

“Alicia and I met unexpectedly. It was destiny,” Konate said. “The school director I lived with, he ordered me to bring a mop to Alicia and then in that process she accidentally touched my hand. That was just the beginning.”

The couple proved inseparable, and eventually married.

“I (may have been) the only white person in the whole country. He took me shopping and taught me how to cook. He became my best friend,” Alicia said.

Although their relationship violated cultural taboos involving race and religion, they were married Sept. 25, 2009. Three days later, the Guinean military opened fire on a soccer stadium filled with people taking part in a rally for democratic elections. The stadium was three blocks from the hotel where the newlyweds were staying. The victims were mostly university students and politicians. Alicia was quickly extradited.

“And he was stuck in a war zone,” she said. He was able to leave Guinea about six months later. “The whole time I held my breath, because people were still being killed in the streets.”

Although Konate is safe now, raising his son, Sekouba, in relative security, the country he left behind is still in turmoil. His village has no schools, no hospital, no power, no electricity. Malaria, cholera, yellow fever and tuberculosis are common. Children as young as 10 work in open-pit gold mines, and the chemicals used there create other health problems.

Konate’s brothers and sister still live there, with an extended family numbering in the hundreds. Part of Konate’s heart is in Guinea.

“His whole goal, when he met me he said, ‘I have to take care of my family,’” Alicia said.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Kalil Konate lives in Wilsonville with his wife, Alicia, and son, Sekouba.Although she was laid off from her job in the childhood education center at Mentor Graphics in 2012 and recently exhausted her unemployment benefits, the family scrapes together money to send to Guinea regularly. They estimate that each $100 they send will feed up to 50 people for about two weeks, with rice being the staple of their diet.

Soccer still connects the Wilsonville Konates with their family in Guinea. Though their plans are legion, much of it still is in the dream stages.

“In my country, there’s some kind of fight between ethnicities,” Konate said. “Soccer can bring peace in my country, through tournaments, workshops, games. ... Many billions of people in the world today are soccer fans. It may not be the only way to bring peace in the world, but it doesn’t hurt.”

“It’s pretty hard to kill someone when you’re playing soccer,” Alicia said.

“Here, our lives, we have an easy life. Our children are very fortunate to be born in a country where they can eat, drink clean water, play video games,” Konate said. “They get frustrated sometimes because they want to do something well. For me, my job as a coach is to tell them it’s OK to make mistakes.”

“Our job is just to work for equality,” Alicia said. “We have to do everything we can. We can’t make people see and feel what we’ve seen and felt. We can’t explain the pain of seeing your children die.”

“For me, it’s having fun. If those children are having fun, I’m happy. That’s all I care about,” Kalil said.

Their dream is to return to the village where he was born, opening a school that is linked to a soccer academy. With links to soccer leagues in the United States and Europe, the academy could provide a way out of poverty.

“Soccer in Guinea is not the best way out of poverty, but it can do a lot,” Konate said. “The main way that can change everything is education. ... Focus on school first. Then sports is kind of fun. But what you learn in school is not going to leave you.”

His work with the Royals is especially poignant because in Guinea, a primarily Muslim country, girls are not allowed to play sports or even to attend school, in most cases. Right now, concerns about gender equality take a back seat to daily survival needs.

Konate and his wife have organized a fundraising drive, hoping to raise enough money to improve the quality of life in one village by sending food, medicine and tools. They still dream about starting a school and soccer academy.

“I’ve always loved to be in this field,” Konate said. “Soccer was part of my dream, like being a professional soccer player. Soccer was and is still in my heart. It’s just natural, from the day I was born. I have never lost that love for soccer.”

It’s a love that he plans to continue sharing with the girls he coaches, one soccer season at a time.

To learn more about the Konate’s fundraising campaign, visit tinyurl.com/m8kch7e.

Kate Hoots can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 112. Follow her on Twitter, @CommuniKater.




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