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.
"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."
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."
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."