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."
"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.
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 .