In the middle of Bontleng, Botswana, there was once a playground with colorful plants, swings, and shiny new slides. Over the years, the flowers were trampled into dust, the swings broke, and rust took over the slides. The space was crisscrossed with people coming and going to the barber, a car wash, or just sitting in the shade of the lone tree. "This park [was] not safe at night," said Wame Chiepe, who lives beside the park and works with the Pula Sports Development Association (PSDA). "People [got] robbed; some [got] stabbed. It [was] quite dangerous."
In addition to Bible studies, Nathan and Taryn Dirks knew that they needed other ways to support their young adult friends. Having now returned to Canada, the Dirkses served for five years in Gaborone, Botswana, and together, with PSDA, worked to turn this rough part of town into a park for sports, environmental awareness, education, and community gatherings.
After much prayer and discernment, members of PSDA felt God remind them of the image of Jericho: Joshua leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land. "The park, a place known for vandalism, drunkenness, conflict and crime, was a spiritual stronghold," wrote Nathan Dirks. "Like Jericho, it was surrounded by formidable walls. So, like the Israelites, we knew that we had no chance in this place unless God led us through the barrier."
They decided they would hold a prayer walk around the perimeter of the park every day for seven days. They prayed. They listened for discernment. On the second day in the park, Nathan and Taryn noticed a 10-year-old boy who they had never seen before. The boy asked if the rumors were true, if the park would be rebuilt.
"In Botswana, conversations about God and spirituality are not seen as strange," said Nathan. "So we told the boy that we were not yet sure whether the park would be built or not, and that we were asking God to show us what to do." After hearing their plan for discernment, the boy nodded thoughtfully and agreed to join in the walk around the park's perimeter.
"As he turned to begin the walk, I realized that we had not learned the name of our new friend," Nathan said. "Surely, it was Thabo or Kagiso or Lesego—names common in Gaborone. But rather, it was a name we had never heard in Botswana before or since."
"My name is Joshua," he said.
And with that confirmation, believed to be from God, the PSDA moved forward with the park plans.
At first glance, the futsal court resembles a cement soccer field for a team of five players. In Botswana, futsal is the reigning game, with basketball and netball also popular. So when the park was designed, they made sure it was equipped for all three sports.
The 7,200-square-foot court will drain more than 100,000 gallons of rainwater each year into an underground cistern. That's more than enough to water the community gardens on site. Along with traditional gardens, the community is trying out several aquaponics gardens, where fish and vegetables grow together. (The fish waste provides nutrients for the plants' soil, and plants filter the water for the fish.)
The Dirkses worked with young Botswanans from PSDA to create a permaculture landscape that contains rainwater, prevents erosion, and allows for maximized soil fertility. On what was once a dry and dusty lot, they've recently planted dozens of indigenous trees. "[It] will eventually result in a microclimate within the park, an area that is cooler than the surrounding region," Nathan said.
"Our work at the park has allowed us to see some of the ways that God quietly brings people together, and keeps them together through differences and difficulties when they're willing to stay focused on him. A part of the calling was the opportunity to trust in God and to learn to work through these issues together," said Nathan.
This first Bontleng Futsal Park has brought people together from government and private sectors. Even Lt. Gen. Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama, the current president of Botswana, and Sir Ketumile Masire, a former president, have participated in its creation. They, along with other officials, served during a national government volunteer day and dedicated that time to the park.
"There are wonderful opportunities for [youth] in Botswana," said Nathan. "And we hope that they will be able to seek these opportunities without being side-tracked."
As both a symbol of the transformation to come and as an environmental effort, the park's walls are made with recycled beer bottles worked into beautiful designs.
While the futsal court and gardens are already completed, the vision hasn't stopped. The young adults at PSDA plan to host a market space for local artisans, an outdoor fitness park, and an eco-café (with Wi-Fi) to sell local foods and provide a space for after-school tutoring programs. Additionally, these gathering spaces will be completely self-sufficient and sustainable, thanks to bio-toilets and solar panels.
Building a safe park in my community
By Ms. Malebo Raditladi, vice president of the futsal park
In being responsible for the running of all sports activities at the park, I'm interested in how we can cater to the community living in the vicinity of the park, as well as for the children who attend the Bontleng Primary School in the area.
I am also interested in the "out-of-school" kids who are just hanging around the area, and hope to engage them. We (Pula Sports Development Association, government, and Botswana National Sports Commission) can work hand-in-hand for the advancement of the whole society.
I see the first Bontleng Futsal Park becoming a real sports development center, practicing safe sports concepts at an international level … There is an exciting and challenging adventure ahead of us, and I believe we are ready for it.
Park development benefited from strong cooperation
By Swift Mpoloka
We had a dream to use sports as a vehicle for the growth and development of youth and the community as a whole, by bringing them together in a safe and professional environment where training, mentoring, planning, competing and socializing could happen.
There was a point where we had reached inertia. It was at this critical moment that Nathan's and Taryn's strength of faith and moral fiber, Guy's [Guy Williams designed and built the site] and Malebo's passion, and my networking and strategizing skills saved the day.
It became clear that, between us, we were a formidable team that had over the years gathered together a widespread network of likely sponsors and real friends.
We did not give up. We had innovative ideas in terms of both the physical and metaphysical existence of the place we wished to build. As soon as we brought everyone together on site, everything began to come together. I hope in time we will repeat this process all across Botswana.