Our time in West Africa evaporated in a flash.
We saw and did so much...met so many people...played so many games, and now, just like that, we're gone.
As the world champion ambassadors of Right To Play
, Perdita Felicien and Adam van Koeverden made their exit from Liberia, I couldn't help but sense their reflective mood concerning what they'd been able to accomplish in six short days in the field.
"Until you see the children's faces, until you meet the people in this place, it's hard to understand and present to Canadians what's happening in West Africa," Felicien said. "It's a reality that I'll take back home."
That reality is stark.
Children in both countries we visited, Benin and Liberia, are learning to survive and perhaps flourish with sport as the vehicle but their access to one of life's great joys is still extremely limited. In rural communities which have no electricity or running water and in urban slums where violence and filth are rife, the concept of play is, sadly, still a luxury.
"Kids grow up way too quickly here," figured van Koeverden. "They have little time to play and smile."
And yet, there is evidence that things are getting better. Part of it comes naturally because children have an instinct to run, compete and generally test themselves no matter where they come from. We saw this unfold through games of soccer and a version of baseball called kickball which is played exclusively by women and with the feet. We also witnessed children running races, rolling tires and throwing rocks in informal settings.
Right To Play is however, trying to bring some structure to sport and the life lessons it can teach on this gigantic field of play called Africa. So it is that gender equity was stressed in soccer. Child protection rights became the catalyst for a running relay. A simple game of tag doubled as a reminder that youngsters must protect themselves against malaria.
School principal Ebeneezer Koffa, who is also a Right To Play coach, begins each learning day with a circle gathering and a joyous song. "Wash your hands with soap and water," the children chant. "...soap and water. If you don't do it you will get sick."
In a place where life expectancy hovers around fifty years of age there are so many reminders that sport has the power to teach young people not only how to survive but also how to aspire to a longer and more fulfilling existence.
"Sport has allowed me to see the world, make a living and live my dream," Felicien noted. "But in the end who cares about winning medals and making money? Here sport is helping the children of West Africa fight a life and death battle."
The soldiers in this battle are not just the athlete ambassadors like Felicien and van Koeverden but, perhaps more importantly, the local coaches and volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that Right To Play can someday gain a foothold against the odds.
People like Patrick Weah, a magnetic and driven character who led the session we saw amidst the devastation of the slum at New Kru Town on the outskirts of Liberia's capital city of Monrovia.
"I want Right To Play to empower us," Weah said, wide eyed. "I want it to happen so that we can spread a message against child abuse throughout the World."
Then there's Marie Josephine Kora Thama, who left her family behind in Benin to head up a seemingly greater struggle in Liberia where children would face a dire future if Right To Play wasn't attempting to work wonders.
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"When you go into the communities you sometimes feel that hope is far from here," she admitted. "But you have to continue to give the children hope. We are trying to bring peace into our communities."
And so the athlete ambassadors got a startling reminder over the course of this journey that while they have known victories and glory on their own fields of play, there are more ways than one to be a real winner.
"I've received more than my fair share from a life in sport," van Koeverden said. "There are two meanings for the word champion. On the one hand it's a person who competes, rises to the occasion, and scores a victory. But a champion is also someone who embraces a cause."
For her part, Felicien was humbled by her experience in Benin and Liberia. It was her second field visit for Right To Play and a confirmation that while she's an important symbol for the children here, there are superstars who live much closer to the action.
"I'm here to see what happens. But I will get on a plane and go home," she concluded. "I will spread the word of Right To Play enthusiastically but I'm not the one on the front lines. The coaches, administrators and volunteers are the real heroes in this story."
When we left our last activity not far from the tiny and dilapidated international airport in Monrovia, it struck me that van Koeverden and Felicien couldn't have been more correct in their observations. They had come to fully understand the role they had to assume on this aspiring team.
It hit home when we closed the van door and shut out a waving throng of children who had reached out us. We bathed our hands in sanitizing liquid and hoped not to be afflicted by the dangers of West Africa. And then, after landing here for a fleeting second in time, we flew away.
Meantime we left it up to the heroes who remained behind to continue the heavy lifting and protect a child's right to play.