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Happy memories and healthy choices: Australian football kicks goals in the Pacific

 young Ni Vanuatu AFL player
Barefoot breakaway – A young Ni Vanuatu player goes for goal at Kazaa.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The AFL (Australian Football League) has become an export product, with the game being played across Asia, North America and the Pacific. It's now also arrived in Vanuatu, sporting a very different game plan.

“Kangaroo,” is the first suggestion, yelled enthusiastically with a thick Bislama accent.

“Ostrich. Ah! I mean emu,” follows, amid much hilarity.

“Dingo.”

And then: “FOOTY!”

They are answers to the question, "what is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Australia?”

The impromptu quiz is happening alongside a shipping container and in the shadow of the goalposts at Kazaa Field in Port Vila, Vanuatu. The contestants are primary school-aged children, or pikininis, who have just spent a couple of hours in knee high grass and baking heat, learning and playing Australian Rules football. Footy Australian-style is top of mind a lot around here these days.

Boys playing AFL in Vanuatu
Footy bisa membantu meningkatkan kebugaran.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This may be celebrated as Australia’s own game, but it seems equally at home in the hands and on the feet of these Pacific rookies. Their apparently innate aptitude for the game should be a source of hope, and perhaps just a little fear, for those who want to see the Australian game flourish internationally.

The Vanuatu sports fields are approximately 3200 kilometres from the home of Australian football - the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) - but its where a new neighbourhood is taking part in the Pikinini Kick program, funded by Australian Aid.

It has one eye on talent development, but a firm focus on forging lifestyle habits that will last a lifetime in a nation where non-communicable diseases like diabetes are a growing problem and positive outlets for adolescents can be scarce.

Pikinini Kick Program Manager Nancy Patterson
Pikinini Kick Program Manager Nancy Patterson with a chart explaining the basics of scoring.

Supplied: AFL Vanuatu

Program manager Nancy Patterson explains that before joining the program, AFL was a thrilling game from a glamorous place that the children would see only if they got near a television.

A figure with a voice that defies her size, Nancy is a mother of three who thrives on turning chaos into clinic and competition. Her toddler, Diego (who everyone jokes weighs more than she does) clings to her leg as she orchestrates 68 participants with calm authority.

"It is very, very difficult for me as a single mother," she admits.

"I commit to my job because I just love it. I just love to be with the kids."

Girl playing AFL in Vanuatu
In the Pikinini Kick Program, girls are on a level playing field with boys.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The AFL’s Pacific Development Manager Ben Drew says, despite her humility, Nancy has piloted the game through off-field administrative dramas and even the devastating Cyclone Pam, which relegated sport to an afterthought. She is one of a growing number of female sports administrators across the island nation.

“Without her, the game might not have survived some of its difficult times here,” he says.

“It is not a personal glory for her. It is a job. And she is not the only one.

"Cricket, volleyball, and other sports, we are seeing women in key sporting positions across Vanuatu."

AFL in Vanuatu
The Australian Game seems right at home in Vanuatu.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

A young boy who arrived to the ground two hours earlier looking somewhat bewildered ahead of his first game, waves goodbye and walks off, chattering excitedly to his father. A young girl who dragged herself up out of the long grass after a heavy hit and kicked a behind, reassures everyone she is ok as she heads home.

And Nancy looks up from counting the jerseys to tell some stragglers to load the balls into a shipping container before they go.

The Australian game plays very differently out here in the tropical heat and while the kids from Kazaa will probably always think of kangaroos and emus as the ultimate symbol of Australia, footy will forever be a source of happy memories and a symbol of healthy choices.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnership funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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