Print ESPN.com: At Play In A Land of Death

At Play In A Land of Death

LUSAKA, Zambia -- When speedskater Joey Cheek donated his bonus money from this year's Winter Olympics to the Right To Play charity, his heart and generosity were widely applauded. Personally, I also worried he might wind up donating his kidney if he kept racing, though mostly I wondered why he felt such a need to donate the entire $40,000 he received for winning gold and silver medals. After all, $40,000 doesn't quite cover a year at Princeton, where he'll begin classes in the coming months. Wouldn't half his medal bonus have been enough of a donation?

An unconventional billboard in Lusaka attempts to deliver Zambia's most important message.

I planned to pose this question when I traveled to Zambia with Cheek on a five-day Right To Play tour, but I found my answer before I could ask him, learning it the day our camera crew went looking for a panoramic shot of Lusaka, the nation's capital. ...

We are driving through the streets when we pass an ad painted on a long white wall parallel to the road. A roof without HARVEY TILES can't make your mind free the same as sex with a baby can't cure HIV/AIDS. Wait a second. Did we read that correctly? We pull over for a better look and, sure enough, that's exactly what it says. I don't know about you, but bringing up AIDS and child rape seems an odd way to sell roof tiles. What's next, a jingle about leukemia and linoleum? I'm thinking this might be the least effective slogan in advertising history ... when who should walk up to us but the very man who wrote it, Paul Sakala. He had seen us videotaping the sign and assumed we were impressed. He asks what we think of his slogan, and I tell him it's very distinctive and bold and creative, but ... well, look, is there really a need to bring up sex with babies in an ad for roof tiles?

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"There is a myth some people believe that if you have sex with a virgin, you are bound to be safe from AIDS," he replies. "It's a rumor that started up here about a year ago. And then they started bringing people in to the police because they had been sleeping with babies.

"The slogan is to remind people not to sleep with babies. The owner sells tiles and, at the same time, he educates people."

I no longer wonder why Joey donated all of his $40,000. I only wish he had won more medals.

****

Joey Cheek decided before the 2006 Games that he would donate any bonus to charity, because "if I had the money, I'm just going to blow it on something stupid, so I might as well give it to someone who really needs it." That's his glib response. His deeper answer is that, after winning a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics, he felt somewhat empty. He achieved a goal he had worked toward for nearly a decade, but having done so, it didn't seem nearly enough.

The consequences of the AIDS epidemic are everywhere in Zambia.

"I realized that as big a deal as it is to go to the Olympics, or to go to the Super Bowl and win, or go the World Series and win it, or even do something big in business school, ultimately, we're all going to end up in the same place," he says. "Ultimately, winning a medal doesn't really matter. But if you can do something that has some sort of impact on someone else, and that person can go on and have a better life, even if you never get any public recognition for it, that's something that is much more lasting. That's something that can trickle on throughout history."

Cheek's donation echoed that of his speedskating hero, Johann Olav Koss. At Lillehammer in 1994, Koss donated his performance bonus to Olympic Aid. That was just a beginning for Koss, who wound up traveling the world for UNICEF, seeing firsthand the effects of extreme poverty and war. He noticed when people are dealing with matters of life and death, the children often are neglected and having a soccer field or a volleyball net usually isn't a priority. Yet Koss knew how important sports were in his own development as a person and was distressed these children had no athletic outlet. He decided to change that, and the Right To Play organization was developed out of Olympic Aid. Right To Play goes into poor and war-torn countries, setting up athletic opportunities, providing health education, building confidence, and teaching the residents to be coaches and role models. It has sites in 23 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zambia. The organization's credo -- "Look after yourself, look after one another" -- is so central to its mission that it's printed on their distinctive red soccer balls.

"We're trying to give the children a better life," Koss told me in Torino. "We're trying to help them be healthier and safer. We want to develop children to become great athletes and not become soldiers, rebels and terrorists."

During a lunch with Cheek in Torino's Olympic Village, Koss asked the American to consider donating any bonus money to Right To Play. Cheek not only did so, earmarking it for the organization's work in Darfur, but in his postrace news conference, he challenged corporations to match his donations. Enough have responded that he has raised more than $600,000 for the organization.

Despite the 22-hour trip, Joey Cheek, right, and Jenny Thompson had no time for jet lag.

Cheek's donation was impressive -- top speedskaters make about $50,000 in non-Olympic years -- but equally impressive is his reaction when he and swimmer Jenny Thompson reach Zambia. They have flown 22 hours, counting a refueling stop in Senegal and a change of planes in Johannesburg, and when they finally clear customs in Lusaka, they learn their luggage has been lost. Cheek hasn't been in bed for two days (he took a red-eye from Utah to New York the night before the flight to Africa); he has to wear his same Right To Play T-shirt another day; there's no guarantee he'll ever see his suitcase again; and, on top of that, he doesn't have any deodorant. This would provide 30 minutes of rage for "Around the Horn," yet neither he nor Thompson shows the slightest irritation. Instead, they happily greet strangers and record their arrival on video. When a Right To Play organizer asks whether they should start the next morning at 7 o'clock as scheduled, or later to give them a chance to sleep, Cheek responds enthusiastically, "Let's start at 7."

I don't think this is how Terrell Owens would have responded. Or myself, for that matter.

Getty ImagesKenneth Kaunda, the George Washington of Zambia.

If Zambia were a basketball program, it would be at the bottom of the Sagarin ratings.

How little do most of us know about the country? On the flight to Lusaka, our producer, Nik, was having a pleasant conversation with an older gentleman who was in a row ahead of him. The gentleman asked Nik what he did for a living; Nik told him, then returned the question. "Why, I'm Kenneth Kaunda," the man said. "I was president of Zambia for 27 years." Nice. Kaunda is the George Washington of the country and Nik not only didn't recognize him, it's a wonder he didn't ask him for more peanuts and a pillow. But why should Nik be any different from the typical geographically-challenged American? Victoria Falls is about twice as high and twice as wide as Niagara, it's one of the seven natural wonders of the world, I had longed to visit the falls for years -- and yet I didn't know it was in Zambia until I picked up a travel guide for our trip.

Surrounded by eight countries in south central Africa, Zambia is home to 11.5 million residents, an unemployment rate of 50 percent and a currency, the kwacha, that is practically worthless. The exchange rate is about 3,200 to one U.S. dollar and when I trade $300 at the hotel desk, I receive such a wad of cash that I feel like Bill Gates. I suspect, however, Bill would have a better handle on converting the figures -- I get so confused that I hand the bellman 60,000 kwacha, only later realizing I gave him $19 for bringing one bag to my room. That's the equivalent of almost three weeks wages in Zambia, where the average annual income is about $400.

According to a United Nations estimate, the life expectancy has dropped from 60 to 37 over the past 15 years because of AIDS. Thirty-seven years. If Brett Favre had been born in Zambia, he would not have been contemplating retirement. He would be arranging his funeral.

Amid all the death and devastation, joy can still be found on a makeshift soccer field.

AIDS has so ravaged southern Africa that both Nelson Mandela and Kaunda lost children to the virus. The HIV rate in Zambia generally is estimated at one case for every six people, although, as one researcher says, no one really knows because relatively few people have been tested. Whatever the precise figure, it's way, way too high, particularly in the 25-45 age group, which seems to have almost disappeared. "Where is the middle age?" asks John Saini Phiri, a Zambian who has started a school in his Lusaka community. "The middle group has been taken away."

AIDS not only has wiped out the best of a generation but also has orphaned the next generation.

"We've got a good number of street kids here, a lot of orphans," says Right To Play coach Ernest Banda, while watching Cheek and Thompson play with a group of children at a Lusaka field. "There are 8,000 children in the program here, and I'd say 75 percent of the children are double orphans. From here, some will go home to their parents, some will go to their guardians. Others will go to a drop-in center. Others will go sleep on the streets."

Because of AIDS, much of Right To Play's effort in Africa is directed toward HIV awareness. Coaches teach the children, who range in age from 10 to 16, about AIDS through a series of games.

In one, the children gather in a circle and a coach tries, unsuccessfully, to push some over. Then, they stand on one leg and he does it again. Children laugh as they topple over easily. This, the coaches tell them, shows the effect of HIV on the body: It's like making the body's immune system stand on one leg.

In another game, a form of tag, the children chase each other, only in this version you aren't "it" when tagged if you can name an effective way to protect yourself from HIV. "Abstinence!" shouts one. "Be faithful to your partner," says another. "Condoms!" yells a third.

Limbo, a game of elimination, is used to teach the kids about the alarmingly diminished life expectancy in their country.

"You cannot talk to them about HIV in general society," says Right To Play coach Sambo Lubasi. "But you can do it through sports. They do understand it when you teach them that way."

Coaches say they know the kids are taking their lessons home because they hear from parents and guardians complaining about the children being taught about condoms. Perhaps just as important, the children are having fun, smiling and laughing and running around and being kids. One girl, about 14, is an absolute terror at netball, a court sport similar to basketball, only without backboards (which apparently cost too much money). She displays the drive of Sheryl Swoopes and the "You're dead to me" glare of Pat Summitt when an opponent dares to get in her path. She also shows the vulnerability of her age, breaking down in tears when told she has to go to the sideline so someone else can play.

Several children present Jenny and Joey with handmade soccer balls, painstakingly fashioned from scraps of leather, upholstery, fabric and twine. They aren't so much pieces of sports equipment as exquisite works of art. "It was so gracious of them to give us gifts when they have so little," Jenny says, deeply touched by the gesture. "When I started with Right To Play a couple of years ago, I really believed in the movement. But now, actually being here in the field, it's so much more powerful to me."

Examining a couple less elaborate handmade balls, I see they are made from dozens of old plastic shopping bags, each tightly wrapped around another like the layers of an onion. I wonder whether there can be any more desperate method to equip oneself for a game.

Then Nik shows me an old Frisbee that had broken in half but has been carefully stitched back together with thread.

"We take play for granted in the U.S. because anybody who wants to can get a soccer ball, or anyone in most cases can afford the bare essentials to compete," Cheek says. "It's not necessarily true everywhere. For me, Right To Play is not just three easy words to say anymore. It's a legitimate necessity for children. It's crucial to their development."

Even a broken Frisbee is too valuable to throw away.

We drive back to the hotel through one of Lusaka's shanty towns, or "compounds." The narrow roads, most of them dirt, are lined with people selling goods from little shacks. Telephone cards are a popular item, as are jugs of cooking oil and cigarettes. The most popular item is charcoal, which men carry into the city on laden-down bicycles and women sell for fuel from 3-foot piles. On one lane, a video store stands out conspicuously between two of these charcoal sellers, a poster of Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby" on its door.

We pass the hulk of a van parked 10 or so yards from the road. A large sign above it reads: "LOW PRICED COFFINS SOLD HERE." We stop to inspect the van, which has been stripped bare of wheels, bumpers and every reusable piece of equipment. It's empty except for two cheap coffins in the back, along with a sheet of paper listing four phone numbers to place an order.

This van is parked 50 yards from a Ministry of Health clinic.

Children from the Right To Play site wave to us as they walk by on their way home. Or wherever it is they'll spend the night.

Chikumbi is an agricultural community about 20 miles north of Lusaka's outskirts, but given that walking is the only mode of travel available to most villagers, it might as well be 200 miles. The dirt roads here are so rough and pitted that we pass a truck stuck in one of the potholes. The road slows our SUV journey to an hourlong crawl, which we fill with the kind of conversation necessary to distract yourself on a trip of this sort.

These hippos might look cuddly, but they're more deadly than the black mamba.

"People talk about lions and crocodiles, but the hippo is the No. 1 killer in Africa," says our cameraman, Graham. "If you get between an adult and its babies, it will crush you."

"I was there when someone was attacked by an elephant," says our driver, Kelvin. "They put his body in a tomato crate."

"There are deadlier snakes, but I believe the black mamba is the only one that is territorial," Graham says. "It's the fastest snake in the world, and it will chase after you, brother. It can grow to five meters and travels on the last third of its tail. One chased a mate of mine while he was in his truck, and it reared up and attacked the windshield. The black mamba is a nasty, nasty thing."

"I drove over a black mamba once," Kelvin says. "It sounded like a tire exploding."

Eventually, we come to a small village of clay huts with thatched roofs -- National Geographic come to life. The children are playing in a field Right To Play and the villagers cleared of trees and leveled by hand because no one would lend them the machinery. Until Right To Play arrived here, there was nowhere for these children to play sports, nothing fun for them to do in the village. Now, there are 15 other Right To Play sites scattered within 10 miles, allowing 1,800 children to participate in weekly soccer, volleyball and netball leagues.

Ten miles doesn't sound like much ... unless you don't have a car. Kelvin Phiri is a Chikumbi coach, and he relies on a bicycle he received from Right To Play to travel between sites. That is, he relies on it when he hasn't lent it to another coach. Just getting an equipment bag from one coach to another several miles away is a major challenge when you don't have a minivan. (And you can forget about orange slices at halftime. We were instructed by the Lusaka Right To Play coordinator not to eat at any of the playfields because many of the children might not have eaten all day.)

Sometimes, Phiri says, traveling between Right To Play sites takes him so long he winds up spending the night at one of them. His wife, Beatrice, used to complain that he spent more time with the Right To Play children than with his own. "But she has seen the magnitude of the work, and she has joined. She is one of the coaches now. She has come to understand."

Writer Jim Caple made plenty of new friends by leading calisthenics in the village of Chikumbi.

Squeals and laughter fill the air as Cheek and Thompson play with the children in Chikumbi. They don't know that Joey is a champion speedskater, nor that Jenny is the most decorated Olympian in U.S. history. They are just happy to be playing with someone. When I walk through the village, a girl in a sundress that would put the old Astros jerseys to shame slips her hand in mine. She and a half-dozen other boys and girls follow me until I lead them in calisthenics, their faces lighting up with delight as we do jumping jacks.

"The HIV rate is very high here, and all these children have experienced a death due to AIDS," Phiri says. "It is real. If I want my brother to have a better future, to marry a good wife, not to have AIDS, I must look after these children. It is very important. That's why I have decided to devote all my time to this."

Born into other circumstances, Phiri probably would be running the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan and saving his town from Mr. Potter. He grew up here, though, and has never traveled farther than Lusaka. When asked what Chikumbi was like when he was a child, he begins to respond, then turns away for a moment to cry.

"I must say, growing up in this community, I never had role models -- it was a very difficult life," Phiri says, apologizing for his tears. "We didn't have the type of opportunities that the children have now. It was very hard for us. We didn't have anything to do, just stay at home. There used to be one soccer team, but we could only go play there once in a while because it was very far away. I'm very happy that I'm doing something to change the situation and improve the lives of these children."

Coach Kelvin Phiri spends as much time with the Right To Play kids as his own.

Phiri says he knows Right To Play is making a difference because several people asked whether there could be HIV testing during a recent tournament. He says that 50 people were tested and that, so far, five have acknowledged they are HIV-positive.

"But now that they were tested, there is no way to follow up, to give them anti-retroviral drugs," he says. "There are no drugs to give them. They cannot get good food, or drugs, or treated mosquito nets. I'm watching them helplessly.

"The children are being affected very much because they are losing the breadwinners of the family. Due to the death of parents, the children are living miserable lives because most of them are orphaned and the social safeness which used to be there can no longer cope because you'll find grandmothers keeping 10, eight, six orphans."

The kids don't know about Cheek's Olympic medals -- only his big heart.

It's getting late in the afternoon. Joey, Jenny and the Right To Play people have left in their van. The African sun has burned Nik's face so red that he looks like the Arizona State mascot. Hungry and very thirsty, we ask Phiri whether there is any place our video crew can stop for a cold beer on our way to drop him off at his village. He says there is a safari lodge close by. We return to the potholes on the dirt road and further diversionary tales of Zambian animal life. The strangest of these stories is when Kelvin the driver insists some Zambians produce a powerful form of marijuana called kokoko by starving a goat for a week, setting it free in a field of cannabis, then drying the resulting manure and smoking it.

"I don't know about smoking it," Graham, says dubiously, "but I'm telling you, brother, eating a field of marijuana after being starved for a week, that goat would be flying out of his head."

We've been driving over the heavily rutted road about half an hour when we ask Phiri how much farther it is to the lodge. "We're close," he says.

"You said we were 'nearly there' 10 minutes ago," Nik complains with a grin. "And now you're saying, 'We're close.' It sounds like we're getting farther away."

"In our culture, we must walk long distances, so we don't like to discourage people," Phiri explains. "If someone asks for directions and wonders how far he has to go, you don't say, 'It's a long way.' You always say, 'You're almost there.' Even if he is a long way away."

So how much longer until we get there?

Right To Play's motto is found on each of its distinctive red soccer balls: "Look after yourself, look after one another."

"We're almost there."

As it turns out, we are indeed very close, and when we arrive the lodge proves worth the long drive. We enjoy a fine meal of chicken and burgers while relaxing under a thatched veranda with kudu grazing in the field before us. It's a sublime evening. A mosquito buzzes by, and I'm reminded that, for all the talk about hippos, crocodiles, lions and snakes, the deadliest creature in Africa by far is this little insect that spreads the malaria and yellow fever that kill at least a million of people a year on the continent. A million people. That's like losing the population of Salt Lake City every year. I take out my insect repellent, lather it on like George Hamilton oiling up at Cannes and offer some to Phiri. He politely declines, saying it would not be fair for him to be protected here when his three children at home are not.

We order a last round of beers for the road while Phiri, who does not drink, asks for a container of orange juice to take home to his children. The sun has set as we hit the dirt road again to drop Phiri off in his village. Graham and our soundman, Tony, are discussing the antidote for a black mamba bite -- "You need to bring in the snake's head as proof you were bitten by a black mamba because if you weren't, the antidote will kill you" -- when Phiri tells us to pull over by a small group of houses: "This is where I live."

He thanks us for the dinner, and we assure him that it was nothing, that he's the one who should be thanked for his time and his openness and all that he is doing for the community. We shake hands, wave goodbye and are just about to drive away when Nik asks offhandedly, "How close is your home anyway, Kelvin?"

"Not far," he replies. "Just seven kilometers."

Seven kilometers? Damn. He's almost there.

We tell Phiri to get back in the truck, and we drive him the rest of the way, the light of a nearly full moon illuminating dozens of people walking.

****

The loneliest list in the world.

Name Status Age/Sex Mnewa Phiri Double orphan 6/FM Patrick Zulu Double orphan 6/M Chapansi Single orphan 10/FM Lusape Double orphan 9/M Alides Double orphan 14/F

We're reading a register at the Immanuel's Project drop-in center for children where the staff prepares daily lunches for 50 or so children deemed vulnerable because they are orphans or HIV-positive ... or both. It's located in a tidy, single-level house in Lusaka. Low tables are set in the front room as a dining area. Out back, an older woman stirs a pot of nshima (the national staple, it's a bland starch that is rolled into a ball and eaten with whatever sauce or stew is being served).

"For some of the children, it's their only meal," says Caroline Mulenga Phiri, the center's director. "Some children don't even know breakfast."

Phiri herself is HIV positive. Her office is a side room about 8 feet by 8 feet. There is a photo on the wall of a young girl who was a regular here until she died of tuberculosis and AIDS. "I took her death like my own child," says Phiri.

As she takes our video crew on a tour through the neighborhood, we pass a woman who could be anywhere from 55 to 80 sitting on a stool by the road and breaking a large pile of fist-sized rocks into smaller rocks with a hammer. She will try to sell the rocks for spreading over the muddy paths during the rainy season. We pass a girl wearing a dirty Pittsburgh Steelers sweater, boys playing soccer, young men playing chess, a shack where cigarettes are sold and a house filled with Pentecostals shouting in tongues. Zambians don't know the Steelers won the Super Bowl -- only that this used sweater provides protection against the elements.

We pass worn concrete-and-cinder-block houses with corrugated tin roofs held in place by rocks the size of shoe boxes. The homes are about as big as an American living room. Many of the doors have heavy chains to protect their owners' few possessions.

Finally, we reach a crumbling shack. An old woman greets us with a huge smile, apologizing for the thatched roof that has partially collapsed. "The rain broke my house," she says with a laugh and a shrug.

The woman introduces us to her great-grandson, Patrick. He stands shyly by the doorway in his bare feet. "We got him a new pair of shoes recently," Caroline Phiri explains. "But someone stole them. He went home crying, and he was so disappointed. He needs shoes.''

Patrick is a 9-year-old, orphaned when his mother died of AIDS. He is sick with HIV and living in a shack where the rainy season knocked down the roof. And someone stole his shoes.

Without a backboard, missed shots in netball can quickly disappear.

After each day of touring the Right To Play sites, we return to our four-star hotel, with its swimming pool, aerobics center, air conditioning, Internet service, free breakfast buffets of fruit, cereals, meats and eggs, and a concierge bar on the top floor that serves free drinks during happy hour. After sharing several beers and many laughs with our crew, I leave the lounge and walk to my room, feeling an enormous sense of guilt about how unfair it all is, about how I have so much and the kids here have so little.

The natural reaction to the guilt, I'm afraid, is to push all that aside and go back to life as normal. Why, just checking out of the hotel, I find myself getting into the face of the desk clerk over the phone bill. And the thing is, it isn't even my money I'm arguing about, it's the company's.

"I hope this visit is not a one-off thing," Cheek says in our last interview. "I hope it's not come to Zambia, be inspired, go home and become an investment banker. I want it to be a thing that is more ingrained in my life. I want to be able to come back with my girlfriend or, if she becomes my wife, I want to be able to come back with her and take my children places so they can see how people live in other places.

"And when I go back home, I want to spread the message that we can do some things without a huge time or monetary commitment. It's not like there is no hope on this continent and we should let everything fall to pieces."

It's interesting. By giving away all his medal money, Joey might receive more in return. His agent says Cheek's corporate speaking rate is $20,000 and that he has had close to 20 gigs since the Olympics. He would have done much of that anyway simply for winning a gold medal, but all the attention didn't hurt. The payoff has enriched far more than his bank account, though.

"A number of people have said that to me, and if that is the case and even if you want to be a total cynic about that being the reason to give to a charity, more power to them. If every Olympian does that, then a lot of people will be getting helped."

I remember Koss' words to me in Torino: "I don't wonder now if I have a meaning in life."

Cheek and Thompson experienced a different feeling of victory in Africa.

"I want to be able to come back and put things into perspective," Cheek says. "The people I've met here have been genuinely happy in a way that you don't always see when you walk down in a street in the U.S. in a big city, where you see people with stone faces and eyes forward, marching on to the next meeting and the next event. You're able to accomplish great things when you set your mind to it, able to build great buildings and able to build a great society. But we don't have a lock on happiness."

He's right. Despite having every right to be miserable, the Zambians are about the friendliest people I've ever met (apart from some drunk Australians). Traveling with Right To Play, you hear infinitely more laughs than tears (and it has nothing to do with kokoko).

There are people doing wonderful, heroic work, dedicating as much time and energy to others as they do to their own families. There is much to do, but, because of them, there is also hope. As Kelvin Phiri might say of the Zambian AIDS fight, they're almost there.

As I finish this story, I'm thinking of the e-mails I've received from Caroline Phiri at the Immanuel's Project, where she worries about funding. I think of her and of all the people we met and the stories they told us.

"Jim, I would like to find out about the tape and when will the program be shown on ESPN. We only hope people from the USA will be able to help the project. ... We are planning to start keeping some of those children."

I think of her and of all the people we met and the stories they told us.

Abel Musonda , an HIV-positive coach for Right To Play, has lost almost everything, except hope.

I think of Patience Chomebal, a young man who followed me around in Chikumbi, explaining how there is only one school for the entire community, how children have to walk two hours each way and how he is determined to get a school built closer to the village. He handed me his hand-written résumé and asked me repeatedly to write something that will help.

I think of Kelvin Phiri telling us about the coffin makers who come into the Lusaka hospitals and clinics "marketing their business." And how he says his most pressing challenge in Chikumbi is transportation, that it would help his Right To Play work a great deal if he had a motorbike and his coaches had bicycles.

Then I think of Abel Musonda, a Right To Play coach with HIV. His wife has left him, taking their two children with her. He says he has given up a life of drinking and that his outlet now is coaching: "If I have Right To Play, I'll always be happy."

Musonda sat during his interview, because he was feeling sick and hadn't eaten for a day. Yet he smiled most of the time and, as we finished, he looked into my eyes and said, in his raspy, accented voice, these simple, haunting words:

"Don't forget me."

To make a donation or get more information on Right To Play, go to righttoplay.com .