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.
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.
"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."
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.