She was a long way from her laid-back beach lifestyle in Southern California, literally and figuratively, but U.S. forward Abby Wambach wanted to take a step out of her comfort zone. And “comfortable” was the last word she would use to describe her trip to Africa last November. But that was okay, because “life-changing,” “mind-blowing,” and “eye-opening” was what she was looking for…she got that, and more. You think it takes a long time to get to Guangzhou, China, where the USA is currently playing in the Four Nations Tournament? Try Kigali, Rwanda.
Abby Wambach sat in the back of a Land Cruiser and watched the Rwandan landscape roll by.
The hilly countryside (Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousands Hills) was bathed in green, but a myriad of crops featuring colors from every ring of the rainbow fanned out across the horizon. Some of those crops were being cultivated on slopes that angled as much as 30-40 degrees. Everywhere she looked, there were people working, many balancing precipitously, as they tended to their fields.
They have to work the land like that. Rwanda is the most densely populated piece of land in East Africa. Space is valued highly, so is food. There is not enough of either.
It was a bumpy ride (it seems that all the roads in Rwanda are bumpy), hot and decidedly foreign, but the U.S. forward had not traveled around the world on vacation.
She was here to help.
Wambach was in Africa on behalf of “Right to Play,” an athlete-driven international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play as a tool for developing youth in the most disadvantaged areas of the world.
“This is something I am really passionate about,” said Wambach, who has 50 career goals in her 64 caps after scoring against Norway in the USA’s 3-1 win to open the Four Nations Tournament. “Helping kids who haven’t had the kind of opportunity afforded to people who grow up and live in the USA. It’s also one of my passions in that I feel I will do this kind of work in my life past soccer, helping and being involved with children and youth because my experiences in sports growing up have helped me in so many ways.”
To get to Africa, she traveled from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Nairobi, Kenya, and finally to Kigali, Rwanda. It took her 35 hours. She spent part of Thanksgiving Day in the Nairboi Airport and had a Gatorade bar as her dinner. It was somehow appropriate as she was traveling to a land where the have-nots greatly outnumber the haves.
The 25-year-old from upstate New York became the first U.S. Women’s National Team player to travel to Africa for humanitarian reasons, making a first stop in Kigali for five days, before traveling to Mbarara, Uganda, for three days and finally Kampala, Uganda for two days.
As an ambassador for “Right to Play,” the Olympic gold medal winner spoke to children and played soccer with them in two countries where conflict and strife are unfortunately intertwined with their histories.
“Being a part of ‘Right to Play’ and having the experience of being able to talk first-hand with the affected people of these countries was very eye-opening and humbling,” said Wambach. “The amazing thing is that even for as little as they have, the joy for life is something I think most people living outside of Africa wish they had.”
“Right to Play” promotes opportunities for development, health and peace in an attempt to encourage the healthy physical, social and emotional development of the world’s most disadvantaged children. The organization works to have an increasingly positive impact on refugee children, children in conflict zones and young people at risk or orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Wambach was shocked at the lack of education and knowledge of HIV/AIDs among the youth and even the adults of Rwanda and Uganda.
“We just can’t point a finger and blame these people, because they have no other opportunities,” said Wambach. “They don’t have the opportunity to educate themselves. All they’ve known is war and all they’ve learned is how to survive. So here I am presented with an opportunity to help them learn about the seriousness of this disease. We all could use a little help, right?”
The organization uses two types of programs to reach the children, dubbed SportsHealth and SportsWorks. One is based on education and one is more directed towards sports, the latter in an attempt to teach children how to deal with conflict – a daily part of their lives -- in positive ways.
Part of that was a six-on-six street soccer tournament that featured three girls and three boys on each team. Only the girls could score. Wambach got a first-hand glimpse at why so many talented players come out of Africa. If these kids can play soccer on bumpy, concrete streets in worn-out cleats and shoes, just think what they can do on a nice grass field?
The educational games feature a true-false quiz to combat the astounding lack of understanding of the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Wambach feels she helped make some progress, but the challenge is no doubt daunting, with more than 25 million people infected in sub-Saharan Africa.
The emotional toll that affects the people she met profoundly impacted Wambach, who also visited a memorial in Kigali to 250,000 that died during the genocide from May-July, 1994. It is estimated that almost one million people were killed in just 100 days.
“The people that are involved with ‘Right to Play’ are by far some of the best people I’ve come across in my life,” said Wambach. “It’s important for me to be a part of something I believe in, and what better to believe in than people who go to such great effort to help others.”
She also visited a massive refugee camp in Mbarara that spanned 200 kilometers and housed refugees from six different countries. It was so vast that they traveled from section to section by car.
It was there that she ate a lunch cooked by the refugees. It consisted of rice, beans, goat meat, a nice helping of cabbage, and something that sounded to Wambach like “mtoki,” a banana-based carbohydrate that is cooked so long it tastes like potatoes.
“It was one of best lunches I’ve had in my life, obviously because of the experience attached to it,” said Wambach. “And sitting and eating, talking, laughing with refugees from Rwanda that fled their country during the genocide was something I will never forget.”
Wambach knew the trip would perhaps change the way she looked at things, but she had no idea how. When she returned, she brought with her some new perspective.
“My perception of what is important and what is unimportant has become more clear,” said Wambach. “I find that the issues like HIV/AIDS that they face over there lessened my self-centeredness and I’ve been humbled in the best way.”
The U.S. Women’s National Team has never played a match in Africa, but has played Nigeria three times, all in world championship events. Wambach is the first to understand the logistical, cultural and political hurdles to playing a match in Africa, perhaps in Ghana or Nigeria, Africa’s two women’s soccer powers. Nonetheless, she would embrace the chance to bring something special to a continent that produces talented female players, but few opportunities for them to play.
“The opportunity to expand the U.S. Women’s National Team to these countries would benefit us individually, as a team and promotionally,” she said. “But to give the people of Africa something to see as far outside themselves as I saw when I went there, would be the best gift of all. We would get massive crowds. It would be wild.”
And perhaps then, the U.S. team could share a big bowl of mtoki.
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