Story
 

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.

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