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Angela in Africa

When most people were shopping for Christmas presents, Angela Hucles was in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa, near Swaziland. While in China for the 2008 Four Nations Tournament, sat down with the U.S. midfielder to find out how her holiday plans took her a lot further than the mall.

For most Americans, the early part of December is usually filled with shopping, spending time spent with family and gorging on an abundance of food and sweets.

U.S. midfielder Angela Hucles went to South Africa.

Hucles made her first trip to the continent on behalf of Triad Trust, a humanitarian group dedicated to promoting awareness and education for AIDS and HIV. She flew from Boston to Johannesburg and drove seven hours east to the border of Swaziland where she and her group worked with local kids in a small village for five days.

“Basically, I was down there to help use soccer and sport to raise awareness and education for AIDS and HIV,” said Hucles. “I’ve always done things in my own community in the States, whether in Virginia Beach or Boston where I live, but this was special because I was going to a different culture, a different country and meeting people who basically can only rely on outside help. It’s difficult for them to find help within their own communities.”

Hucles’ group included two emergency medicine doctors, one former NBA employee, 6-foot-5 Ruth Riley of the San Antonio Silver Stars (WNBA), who was certainly popular with the locals, the founder of Triad Trust, Brooke Wurst (who is a professional tutor), and one of her former students who is in the process of getting her Master’s.

But it was Hucles’ vocation that struck a cord with the people they met in the country that will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first-ever in Africa.

“Brooke did intros wherever we went, and I was with all these accomplished people with great experience in their fields,” said Hucles. “Then she would mention that I was on the World Cup team for the USA and I got the biggest cheer. If there are two words that mean the same to everyone on the planet, it’s World Cup. The fans in 2010 will be great.”

Hucles and her crew stayed in large grass huts that from the outside looked very rustic, but, built for tourists, on the inside they were comfortable and hotel-like.

“Let’s just say we weren’t really roughing it,” said Hucles of her accommodations. “It’s not like I’ve been in a lot of huts, but these were the nicest huts I’ve ever seen.”

The chief of the village where she stayed had two wives, a first wife with 10 kids and a second wife with 15. The entire family and village were warm and friendly, leaving Hucles with a fresh perspective on Africa. At night, they would sit around a fire, talk and laugh, communicating even though not all spoke the same language.

“I basically prepared myself for the absolutely most extreme experience, whether it was poverty or sickness,” said Hucles. “A lot of time the media portrays African culture in a certain way, starving kids or terrible civil war, and of course this is reality, but it’s only part of what’s going on in Africa. I saw other human beings who have some of the same passions as I do, sport and soccer, working within their community to help people. I met coaches and leaders trying to help kids and show them a better way of life through sports and other activities.”

In addition to her status as a soccer player, Hucles also achieved a certain “social” status not bestowed on the rest of her party. It seems that one of the chief’s sons, a young man named Mpopo, took a liking to Hucles after giving them a tour of the village. For some reason, he gave her the name Astrid (she still has no idea why, although he gave everyone in the group funny names … apparently this Mpopo was quite a character) and explained that in the traditional culture, a man offers cows to the family of the bride as a dowry of sorts. Bride? Cows? Whoa, things move quickly in South Africa! Apparently, Hucles was worth 30 cows, and Mpopo offered to throw in a lion and an elephant (he was joking about the lion and elephant…she thinks).

Considering that Hucles’ mom and dad have no room for 30 cows in their modest Virginia Beach house, she was forced to turn Mpopo down, thus there went what most likely will be her only chance at African royalty.

For the rest of the trip, whenever a guy started chatting her up, her colleagues would ask, “How many cows are you going to give her? We start the bidding at 30.”

While Hucles made new friends and experienced a new culture, the shock of how much work needs to be done in Africa resonated with her, as did the fact that the most booming business in South Africa is funeral homes.

“There are 10-year-olds raising their five-year-old brother because their parents died of AIDS,” said Hucles. “We worked with a community center that had programs for the kids to better themselves through sports, photography, journalism and such, so kids and adults share a place to go that is safe and nurturing. Through those existing programs, we help educate about HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of misinformation out there and they are more likely to trust an American than their own people.”

Of course, Hucles got to play soccer with the children. In Africa, any open patch of dirt and a few sticks for goals more than qualifies as a soccer pitch. It wasn’t the plush fields of The Home Depot Center, but perhaps, in some way, it was better. Soccer at its most grassroots level, even when there was no grass.

“All the kids were fantastic,” said Hucles. “They are courageous. They played without equipment, without shoes, socks and shin-guards. They are running around on horrible fields filled with cow manure and yet they still ran around that field with so much happiness and passion for the game, wanting to win and compete. And they were good players, very skilled players. The coaches told me that the goal of the community is to send at least one of their own to the South African National Team one day.”

When the 2010 World Cup does roll around, Hucles may have a new team to root for after the United States. While the kids she played with are too young to represent the Bfana Bfana in three years time, she’ll know first-hand the environment from which many of the World Cup players came.

“It was very special to go to Africa and to a country I’ve never been before,” said Hucles. “To see a different lifestyle and the way people live. It wasn’t through a TV program or how we view it from afar. It was right there in my face.”

Speaking of in her face, after saying her goodbyes and leaving the village the group went on a safari in the Kruger National Park, where she had a little trouble with an African elephant. Seems he wasn’t too keen on Hucles taking his picture, or anyone getting too close to his family. Needless to say, the group hopped back into the SUV and sped away before the big fella could make his charge. The leopard, wildebeest, rhinos, hippos, giraffes and zebras she saw were a little more willing to share their park, but let it be known, South African elephants, unlike the people, don’t care if you were on a World Cup team.

In the end, Hucles hopes that the message left with the adults in the villages will go a long way in bettering the lives of the children.

“Basically, we wanted to let them know how important the coaches are in the community as they are role models for kids who often have no other adults to look up to,” said Hucles. “They need to be able to answer questions about sex, HIV and AIDS prevention. They can help these kids grow up healthy and accomplish their dreams.”

Accomplishing dreams is something Hucles has already done. Now, she wants to help others do the same. Even if it takes her all the way to Africa.