Rugby wasn’t always a popular sport in Santiago de Machaca. Just two years ago, none of the 1,000 inhabitants of this remote Bolivian village had ever watched a match, much less played in one. The town’s playing field sat empty, its synthetic grass dusty and unkempt. Children raced to school, but didn’t have much to do once classes ended.
All that changed thanks to Jean Fontayne. The primary school teacher knew the advantages of teaching the village children to play rugby. His idea: create a cultural exchange between France and Bolivia through sport. “Everyone works together in rugby, and there are no ‘stars’ on the team,” Jean says. “Some of the key things you learn: confidence in your teammates, compromise, responsibility, even honor.”
As an educator born in Bolivia but raised in France, Jean had come to this altiplano village in 2016 to discover his roots. During his lengthy visit, he realized he could make a difference in the lives of the village children. Though kids under 17 years old make up over half of Santiago de Machaca’s population, there were no after-school or weekend activities for them. Searching for the best way to create change, Jean contacted a French association working to improve the living conditions of local families in Bolivia.
Afterward, Jean etched out a humanitarian project for the village. Plans included a new socio-cultural center and after-school projects such as music, painting and cooking. As someone who’d played rugby since he was 5 years old, Jean added rugby into the mix, knowing regular practices and tournaments would allow the village’s boys and girls to build their self-confidence and make new friends from other regions.
Along the way, Jean’s project has found an outpouring of support. The HEC Paris MBA donated 100 rugby shirts specifically made for the village teams. The Rugby Club of Versailles, with the support of the national French Rugby Federation, provided all the equipment – from balls to shin guards – needed to create a rugby school. Jean’s legally registered nonprofit association, Anatañani, is working in France to raise money and bring volunteers for cultural exchanges between the two countries.
The results have been remarkable. Jean’s first rugby tournament, organized in May 2017, marks the first-ever tournament in Bolivia for children under 13 years old. Teams from Catacora and La Paz travelled to Santiago de Machaca to play. In total, 80 boys and girls participated. And although the village teams didn’t win the tournament, a love of the sport took hold.
Since then, Jean has organized two more tournaments in the country. As a result, many of the villagers have travelled to La Paz, the capital, for the first time. Families from different Bolivian towns met each other, swapping stories around a traditional shared feast called an Apthapi. The village children are undoubtedly getting better at the sport, even beating the Franco-Bolivian Lycée’s teams from La Paz in the last tournament.
Through the Anatañani association, volunteers are helping out in Santiago de Machaca. One recent gathering had French volunteers and Bolivian villagers singing each other’s songs, tasting each other’s traditional recipes and learning words from the other’s languages. Jean is encouraging young rugby players from the two countries to write letters to each other, expanding their views of the world.
As Jean explains, “There’s really no better spirit to meet new people than in the spirit that surrounds sport.”