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Solomons serendipity spawns fertile footy friendship

Woman kicking a football.
Jane shows her kicking style.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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At a troubled and uncertain time in the Solomon Islands more than a decade ago, a chance meeting spawned a lifelong love of the Australian football code known as AFL that continues to bear fruit across the Pacific nation today.

Certain details are a little hazy, but it is some time in 2003 in Honiara, the Solomon Islands' capital.

Law and order has broken down. Intimidation and violence are commonplace. Corruption is rife and government and institutions are failing.

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) has descended on the city in the form of 2,000 police, soldiers and civilians from 15 Pacific nations. They are here to help establish long-term stability, security and prosperity. It is, needless to say, a scary time to be a 12-year-old girl.

Woman with a whistle in her mouth.
Jane was introduced to the game by visiting Australians when she was a girl.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

And yet, Jane Hadassah finds herself venturing out onto the streets near her home, tentatively watching a group of Australian visitors playing an unfamiliar game from outside a fence.

There's a red, egg-shaped ball, lots of jumping around and peals of laughter. She is hypnotised. Eventually, she plucks up the courage and walks up to the group of foreigners.

That 12-year-old is now 26.

"I didn't know how to play," Jane says, recalling that first encounter.

"They were really friendly to me. They wanted to teach me about AFL. They liked that I was interested and they wanted to teach me."

"They showed me how to handpass, they showed me how to kick and they showed me all the skills so that I would know all about the game."

And so it began.

Honiara is a more peaceful and prosperous place these days and those AFL players have long gone. Neither they, nor Jane, could possibly have imagined the implications of that fleeting meeting.

Woman about to handball a football to people with their backs to the camera
Jane is a respected advocate of the game in the Solomon Islands.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Jane has never stopped playing that game she discovered that day and now, 13 years on, the single mother-of-two is the Solomon Islands Women's AFL Development Officer.

It is her job to introduce other young women to the Australian game. The convert has become the missionary.

"We just go around the communities and tell them about the AFL and they get an interest in playing the sport," she explains.

"I challenge and encourage them to put in more effort into this sport, and I give them more effort to keep them going.

"My dream for women's AFL is that I will make sure that the women have a team and have games and the chance to play overseas. I think it is possible."

Statistics suggest it is possible, but it might take some time. There are more primary aged girls playing SolKick, the Australian Aid-supported AFL development program, than boys.

Man kicking a football on a grass field.
AFL is growing in popularity with men and women in the Solomons.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

It's Thursday afternoon at Honiara High School and more than 50 locals have gathered for AFL training.

There are the men, many shirtless, showing a natural aptitude for AFL and a particular delight in the heavy body contact. There are younger boys, concentrating more on motor skills and less on muscle, and there is Jane, surrounded by children, many of them girls.

She is explaining to them the finer points of the game, just like the RAMSI personnel did for her at the same age.

Woman marking a football.
Jane is developing the next generation of female AFL players.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Pretty soon, she is planning to pass the torch to, or at least light the flame in, her six-year-old daughter.

"She says 'Mum I want to play AFL too'," she says.

"I tell her I will bring her to training. She was really happy."

As for her two-year-old son?

"Maybe one day," she smiles.

And maybe one day, the Solomon Islands Women’s AFL team will become a true international force, and they will sit around and talk about that magical day when a little girl showed remarkable courage and was rewarded with the discovery of a game that would be loved by Solomons women for generations to come.

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

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