Naas RFC Mini Rugby coach David Mckeown recently travelled to Tanzania for 10 days with Irish charity, Playing For Life, to work at a community centre near the town of Arusha. He recalls his adventure for us.
Somebody said that the white man (mzungo) lands in Africa and is immediately afraid. Afraid of the sun, afraid of the insects, afraid of the food and the water.
Judging by the nervous expressions on the faces of my fellow volunteers, I think terrified would be a better description.
We were standing in an alley outside a new hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, at 10pm on a Saturday night, just as 4,000 miles away, Ulster were beating Leinster in the Magners League.
The hotel was actually much better than I expected, and the manager told us not to worry about mosquitoes. They had had no rain for five months, and so the malaria-bearing mosquitoes had nowhere to lay their eggs.
Everyone in the group was on a very mild, friendly malaria tablet, apart from me.
My relaxed South African doctor had prescribed Lariam for me, which has a string of side effects as long as a politician’s expenses claim. Psychotic episodes, depression, hallucinations and possible death are just some of the things I can look forward to.
When we left the hotel to go to the Palotti Parish Centre where we would be based, we were all shocked by the dramatic drop in living standards once we left the main street.
Our ‘dala dala’ (mini bus) bounced through the drain at the side of the road and then took us along the dirt road to the community centre.
Father Mike Sullivan, who has been based in Africa for many years, was there to welcome us, and the team there fed us every lunchtime.
Four stunning Tanzanian women worked for the community under the control of lovely Stella who was impressed by my general size and hairiness. If only Irish women could be so discerning!
I coached rugby every day with two Tanzanian international players and a Ugandan. Obviously the Ugandan was known as Idi, after the only other famous Ugandan. The two Tanzanians were Juma and Ema, and together they have been coaching street kids for six months now.
We worked on a football pitch near the community centre and I confess I was extremely nervous as I walked down for the first time. My experience as a coach up to then was exclusively with kids in Ireland, and I had barely been out of Europe before.
But kids are kids, and they seemed to enjoy all my rugby-based warm-up games as much as Irish kids do. It is heartbreaking to see these kids playing games in their bare feet, and one tiny boy even played with a piece of towel tied round his foot where he had been hurt. Some kids had made sandals out of an old car tyre. Not so much Nike as Michelin.
Every morning around 25 boys would join us to play, as they had no school to go to. Initially I thought they were around 13 or 14, but it turns out that the oldest boys were 17.
I found out later in the week that if a child does not get proper nutrition in the first five years, their growth can be impaired for life. All the kids were very small.
Many of the kids called me ‘baba’ or father, but the smallest boys called me ‘babu’ or grandfather, since my 42 years would make me an old man in a country with a life-expectancy of 50.
The boys were all very well behaved as they are brought up to respect and obey their elders. They are also keen to learn anything, so they were a pleasure to coach.
As well as coaching in Palotti Parish, I spent an afternoon at St. Constantine’s School, working with their Australian PE teacher. The chairman of the Tanzanian Rugby Board brought in some kids from the up-market Braeburn School, and the interestingly named Tanzanian Flowers team also turned up for a great afternoon.
I was very keen to work with some coaches there, so we spent an afternoon at the TGT club, where the Arusha Rhinos adult team play.
They have the only rugby posts in Northern Tanzania, and even had a scrum machine, so we had a great session on how to coach scrummaging.
A great week, which included meetings with local families and HIV groups and memorable church services, drew to a close as we drove to the airport, and caught sight of Kilimanjaro as we rounded a corner on the Arusha to Moshi road. Indescribable and unforgettable.
Did the boys learn more from me, or did I learn more from them? I think I know the answer.