The continent of Africa has helped me fall more deeply in love this year and I couldn’t possibly set up a romantic Valentine’s dinner without giving a nod to its guttural beauty and spirit. In February I worked with kids in Liberia with Right To Play Canada and then my husband raised money in August for Canada’s first blood cord bank by summiting Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Throughout the year, our kids’ school fundraised to build water wells in South Sudan.
It has been several days since my return from Liberia and I feel as if I am missing a big part of myself. The kids’ faces and gentle touches to my hands are constantly in my thoughts, and the friendships formed with the local Right To Play volunteers and staff are ones I will cherish forever. Conversations with Olympians Clara Hughes and Rosie MacLennan motivated me to become a better human being, and experiencing so much poverty with fellow parent Lori Harasem made me play even harder to generate smiles from the kids.
The adults and teenagers we met had experienced terrible things in their lifetimes with a war that ended very recently. Some had lost parents and raised themselves. Most had a loved one who experienced sexual assault. And every adult associated with Right To Play worked tirelessly to restore hope for the next generation. Every day the same volunteers (many had no employment themselves but chose to devote their days to teaching children through Right To Play activities) emerged into an empty space and performed magic. It was like a slow motion film. The waiting children would all turn, smile and organize themselves into a ‘great big circle’ so they could begin. The rhythms of their responses to the leader of the game formed a percussive music. The empty, litter-filled space had become vibrant and full of life.
Looking back on the experience, there is one thing that resonates: hope. Despite dire circumstances in every community we visited, the smiles, cooperation and respect for one another was extraordinary. I was brought back to the basics of life: drink fresh water, keep your clothes and environment clean to prevent disease, help your neighbour. A young boy bathed meticulously in a large bucket by the side of the road. A woman carrying a huge bundle on her head picked over potato leaves in a market to find the best choices for her family. A twenty year-old on a motorbike saw the Right To Play sign on our van and gave me a huge thumbs-up. It was all about hope.
The new department of women and family in Liberia has made women’s rights a priority and there are billboards against the abuse of women and talking about seeking immediate medical help if you are assaulted. Those were jarring to see. But one sign on the side of the road resonated. This one advertisement was a definition of ‘Mother’: a person who ‘makes something out of nothing’. That is exactly what I witnessed. These women generated a meager income buying bleach in bulk and selling it in small bags, buying a case of water packets and a block of ice and hoping for extreme heat so they may sell a few individual bags of water to quench thirst in their community.
Right To Play has never taken a parent ambassador to a field visit and it was a profound experience. I felt like an Olympian with the amount of interest directed toward me! But I was clearly not nearly as disciplined or accomplished – I wasn’t great at playing the soccer games (I fell flat on my face in front of 300 kids and sprained my hand). As a parent, I felt a powerful connection to the children and parents. Right To Play has everything covered for the children who are able to participate. But the kids whose parents don’t prioritize play are missing out. Many parents keep their children out of school to assist with washing or to take a long walk to wells for water. I felt that not only could I connect with the kids as a parent, but talking to the parents was so important. Their eyes would light up when I talked of my kids or asked for instruction on making a baby wrap out of a piece of towel.
As a mother and publisher, I can make a promise. I will never stop supporting the incredible work done by Right To Play. My kids are now playing the games and I intend to do everything in my power to support the organization because it spreads hope. And it is clear to me from meeting the people of Liberia that hope is all one needs.
The smells of burnt fish and feces are becoming normal. The soles of my feet, after three days, can no longer get clean. There is no pavement – just sand where the kids play their games. It makes it easy for the Right to Play leaders to draw lines to facilitate the games and learning.
Different schools and areas are on a sliding scale of poverty. The little girl who defecated on the wall of her corrugated metal shack this morning. The woman wearing only her bra and a sarong around her waist who wanted my phone number in Canada – versus the school that had a well and children without sores on their faces or distended bellies.
We played with kids at Islamic schools, Christian schools and who knows what kind of schools. It didn’t matter at all. The kids reacted the same. And the group leaders need to seriously come to my house in order to get my kids in line. All they have to do is say ‘Circle’ (pronounced ‘’psy-cow’ in West African dialect) and the kids magically form a circle, joining hands. A huge part of the process is response. The leader says ‘circle’ and kids say ‘circle’ the leader says ‘circle wider’ and everyone jumps backwards as they chant ‘wider’. The rhythm and music that is part of many of the games was compelling.
After three days it is hard to be stoic. A little girl today followed me everywhere and the attention I paid her may be more than she has gotten in weeks. Yesterday children of Clara Town flocked around us and followed like geese. They all want to be in photos, and seeing the shot afterwards on the digital display thrills them to no end. They make crazy poses – perhaps thinking they are rock stars and models (one man of about 21 begged me for his photo and posed like Beckham). Sometimes the camera equipment scares them. I made two little ones cry today and could have died. It was like I had zapped them with a tazer. They have much to cry about and my Nikon was the thing that did it. I have never felt so horrible. You absolutely must ask prior to photographing adults. Many in more impoverished areas feel like the rich North Americans with their expensive equipment are coming to take pictures for profit out of their hardship. We got a few scowls, but mostly warmth. The women are so beautiful. I could photograph them endlessly.
I had the opportunity to work with many older kids – 10 to 14 and the games were more advanced. In one, 4 areas were designated as ‘agree’ ‘disagree’ ‘I don’t know’ and ‘maybe’. The leader would pose a question and we would run to the quadrant that best fit our thoughts. We then had to justify why we ran there. In one instance, the statement was ‘Only girls should play with dolls’. Half of us (including me and the Olympians) ran to ‘Disagree’ and half of the girls ran to ‘Agree’. A heated debate ensued. In Liberian culture only women care for children, therefore only girls should play with dolls. The girls in our quarter countered that if a man has a baby he needs to know how to hold it. The facilitator stood between and reminded us often that we could move if we changed our minds. Clara Hughes piped up and said that at one time some people thought that only men could to do sports but now both sexes excel. My non-confrontational self was uncomfortable. And shocked at the cultural disparity. But amazed that some of the girls were really thinking for themselves – on all sides of the argument. They were certainly less nervous orators than me. I kind of wished we could do a touchy/feely hugging game afterwards though. Right To Play has lots of those, and gets people comfortable with their bodies and appropriate physical contact.
Looking out my desk window in the hotel room at the moment. It’s teeming with rain and I listen to Handel (Watermusik.. chuckle.) as I write. My view looks like ivy or trellis. But it’s electrical cords and barbed wire. Surreal.
After hours of games – in one spot 40 kids had been selected to participate and over 300 showed up – I was able to really see the theories behind Right To Play. It is genius and the youth of Claratown, Monrovia, Liberia showed me the learning and laughter produced by Right To Play. I keep thinking of the parallels it has to the theatre sports of my youth and university years, teaching attention to detail, conversational abilities, control of the body and leadership. After every game (not a soccer match, but a shorter activity such as ‘What time is it Mr. Wolf’ or ‘Find the person in the circle who is leading the activity’ or ‘find whose hand the stone is hidden in’ – there is a very deep discussion about the lessons learned. Some games invite you to state your name proudly as you go around the circle. I did that one in theatre school continually. Others ask you to say the name of a country or boy’s name in a metronome-like tempo – the trick being you can’t repeat one said already. Bails of laughter resounded when I hesitated and shouted ‘Britney’ for a girl’s name. They all thought I was perfect, as I was white. But no. You should have seen their faces when they had to mimic an action and I chose the Gangam Style jumps!
There are also other games that I played like Mosquito Tag that teach about issues pertaining to the local culture: sleep under a mosquito net, reduce garbage and don’t leave water standing. In others, we talked about the meaning of discrimination, segregation and equality. With the smaller kids we worked on left and right, body parts, physicality and focus as well as healthy eating (the fruit salad game!).
It was so special to have the opportunity to speak with locals. They think we have no problems in North America. I explained the homeless in Vancouver, the sexual assault, poverty and murders throughout our country. They were shocked. I talked about food banks and violence and they realized that perhaps we are not as shiny as we may seem. I watched them cook and set up individual businesses buying bleach or grain in bulk and selling it in small packets for a profit. This was not only a poverty-stricken society, but almost operated as if it were 1800 – the cell phone charging stations aside.
After two vigourous play sessions, I attended a two and a half- hour forum on drugs and youth. It was lengthy and – wow – the West African accents are hard to understand! But I was floored. These youth leaders – from teens to mid-thirties – arranged this event with guests. Our Canadian group of 7 were special attendees. But the mayor and governor of the region also attended. And two representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency. I hadn’t been in such a formal atmosphere since student government days at Queen’s. The Queen’s students had nothing on these statesmen. Points were discussed, debated, restated and analyzed.
I came to a realization. This conversation and articulation was the next logical phase of the Right to Play programs in which I was participating. After being kids, people become youth leaders and then full-on volunteers who run groups all over Monrovia. In Westpoint there were 9 circles of at least 40 kids. The leaders were better than most counselors I have had in my life (don’t make me tell you how many). And they were jobless. They volunteer their time because they realize that if they don’t, their community will implode once these kids reach a certain age.
At the meeting, six-time Olympian Clara Hughes spoke for our group about her drug use as a teen. A pin could have dropped. These topics are not discussed in West Africa. There are trucks that sell shoe polish to ensure appearances are tidy and yet there is no affordable way to go to the bathroom. She then talked about determination and the blessings she received by having leaders, coaches and trainers. And how, despite her difficult past, went to to win Olympic medals for Canada during both the summer and winter games.
History was made at this meeting. I kept thinking of the French Revolution. Seeing fourty people who have been through a recent war, and whose brothers and parents now suffer the effects of cocaine and marijuana, I could feel change bubbling within the room. And these people all experienced Right To Play programs after being through a horrific war. I would argue that my children cannot articulate in public the way the children involved in Right To Play programs had as we ‘played’. And at the meeting? I wish I could hire the whole lot of them to negotiate for me and run my company.
After the discussions we were blessed with African drumming and dance of some local children outside the building. There was a 3 year old who couldn’t control herself and followed along. The hope extended from inside to out.
In case you missed the first travel article focused on West Point it is archived here.
I walked into my Right To Play circle and felt insecure. And then a little boy looked at me. His name was George. George Washington. Seriously. This is Liberia. And we held hands and he showed me what to do. I couldn’t really understand the thick accent of the group leader and I kept doing everything wrong. I started to relax and got into it after one of the kids squeezed my hand. I had just come into one of the poorest slums in the world on a slow road with people everywhere. West Point, Monrovia. I had No Idea. It smelled of fish and feces. Fruit was carried in buckets on heads and babies on backs. And I hadn’t really regrouped yet. After 36 hours of travel, I landed in the dark in an unknown country. My family was worried for my safety (Google Liberia and you see only images of the recent war). I didn’t really know what to expect. But I trusted Right To Play. And so I should have.
We played short games that I could only relate to my many years of theatre (which everyone joked was a form of therapy). The games taught trust, learning and self-revelation. In one we were a team acting as a dragon. With arms around the waist of the person in front, the head of the dragon had to catch the tail. Many of us ended in the sand but before falling, we moved as a group, anticipating the collective movement. In another – I think we call it ‘telephone’ in North America – a phrase was passed around the circle and the final person announced what it ended up being. We talked about discrimination and judgement.
After the final game we did an au revoir, kind of like ballet class when you thank the teacher and your peers. Clap clap head bend, clap clap head bend, clap clap, blow kisses! (In a fab rhythm of course). Giggles and laughter all around.
Walking out of the games area we went into the harsh reality of these kids’ lives. The uniforms always make people look so wealthy. (But I did notice a tear in the back of George’s shirt that needed mending.) I saw a pile of other kids not enrolled in school who were not participating in the Right To Play programs that day. (There are special play days for all the children in the community including those who do not go to school). They wouldn’t make eye contact and were yearning to be a part of the action. The games. The learning. Very different from the kids who just told me the definition of discrimination with confidence and big voices. My heart broke.
We past corrugated tin houses down the 3 foot-wide dirt pathways. To visit the school. The whole thing was the size of one Vancouver classroom, but with 6 classrooms, grades K-6 plus the principal’s office (all labeled with cardboard). The kids were packed like chickens (but still grinning) and Right To Play is currently raising money for a new school. These are the lucky kids. Many of their teachers are Right To Play leaders as well, using the curriculum for the phys-ed portion of the day. Boys, and girls were all hankering to get into my photos. And to, of course, see the result shown on my fancy SLR screen.
We then wandered through more alleyways to the beach. En route I was offered some local fare. Manioc. Crisped beans. Porridge. Fish from the boats off the beach. You see, there is no power here. No water. Fish is the staple (thank goodness for boat launches from the beach) and it is caught and dried. Huge barrels burn with wood to cook and preserve the treats from the ocean. This was the first smell.
Descending on the beach, after running into a woman cleaning up garbage (since Right To Play began, some community members have formed a volunteer group to make the area more habitable), I looked at the extraordinary view, white sand and clear water. I only found one shell. It was like the beaches of the Bahamas. And then I realized what the second smell was about. I saw a few dark spots and got warned about where I stepped. My head was spinning. And then there was a young boy. Probably 6, he pulled his trousers down as he squatted. And then there were three boys doing the same. Their families couldn’t afford the 5 Liberian dollars for the use of the new latrines (ones on stilts that dump into the ocean). Many women are pregnant here and families on average (I would guess) for the area – 4 kids, 2 adults. That’s about $1US per day to use a toilet with privacy. And the average income? $1.25. Beach it is I guess. I walked through the latrine runoff in order to get back to our vehicle as I watched many kids play in the water. These people need a well.
The women carried babies on their backs – a feat I was astounded about. One used a towel. We go back Thursday and I am getting up the confidence for a lesson. The men hung in groups, a few manned stores and many scowled at my camera. (Understandably many feel that I am about to exploit their plight to make money in the West by taking a photo with my expensive SLR).
And that was only the morning. We drove out – 6 of us, silent. The cockroaches and malfunctioning AC in the hotel room seem pretty good right now. I want to play with the kids again.
I am packed. The technology is charged (and needs its own bag). My sneakers are ready to go. And there is only 1 pair of wedges in the suitcase (I couldn’t go cold turkey). To have been given this opportunity is astounding. In a few days I will participate in an all-female Liberian kick-ball tournament, meet representatives of other organizations that support Right To Play’s efforts in Liberia and chat with families and children in more than 5 communities in Monrovia.
The mayor of West Vancouver has sent a letter and dozens of pins and my communities are brimming with support and well wishes. Facebook. Email. Phone calls. Twitter. Personal hugs. I am humbled and overwhelmed. A few short months ago, I knew so little about the development of communities, including my own. I’m actually quite a shy person and can be reluctant to share and truly know people.
This campaign to raise awareness for Right To Play made me realize not only the incredible things that come out of play, but how a community can truly come together for a cause. I have bonded with people who were once strangers by mentioning my involvement with Right To Play. Eyes light up and all of a sudden I realize that a parent at the school lived in Africa, the passport picture photographer used to volunteer teaching sports to inner-city children and my doctor donates to Right To Play. Advice is rampant. Everyone wants to know how they can donate, and for the first time since I last performed in the theatre, I feel part of something much bigger and more impactful than I can even imagine.
Play teaches determination, leadership, how to be a part of a team, how to balance sport and school and discipline. Gender equality and sportsmanship are enhanced. Laughter abounds. And Right To Play has already truly taught me to be part of my own community. I am bursting to see the programs in action!
My final task is to pick the boys up from school and do a bit of shopping. Very exciting shopping. (Not that my heart doesn’t usually skip a beat when I see a store.) This task, however, will be a selfless one. It will be an exciting excursion for my kids when I hand them a few bills at the dollar store and ask them to choose whatever they think the children of Liberia would love. How amazing as a parent to see what my children will think kids in Africa would want!
My heart is so full and my head may explode with the lessons I have already learned. I can’t even imagine what is waiting for me in West Africa.
Let the games begin! I am ready to play and can’t wait to share the journey with you all.
At UrbanMommies some of our most popular articles focus on ‘energy busters for toddlers’, ‘top fun and educational iPad apps for kids’ and ‘games to play at the beach’. In North America, we place an incredibly high value on playtime and as parents, we are taught to spend at least 30 minutes per day on the floor with our kids, building lego, throwing a ball or stacking blocks.
The other day, my 5 year old and I waited for my older son to finish his tae kwon do class at our local community centre. While we waited, we… blush.. played tag in the lobby. This boisterous disruption would typically be frowned upon in another atmosphere, but his giggles incited smiles on faces of all of the other parents. I felt like a rockstar. Best Mom Ever. (Little do they know…) And my child was happy, active and connected. The approving looks from other moms only reinforced that in our society, we value play pretty highly.
Skills learned from sport teach our kids determination, leadership abilities, fairness, equality, how to be a part of a team, how to balance play and school, drive, and discipline.
Don’t you think it’s odd that only 5% of Canadians surveyed in a 2012 Ipsos Reid poll believed that play is important in developing countries? Read: Play is a luxury only when healthcare, conflicts, education and other problems are dealt with. I’d love to try and explain that to my 5 year old. “Sorry dear. We can’t play ball. We need to debate health care reform and do something about gun control first. Maybe when you’re older.”
Don’t the lessons learned through play work towards resolving all of these big issues?
This is what Leveling The Field with Right To Play is about. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, play nourishes every aspect of children’s development – it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Play paves the way for learning.
And then there was the week that I didn’t really sleep. Olympian Kaylyn Kyle and I were behind in votes. I called in a ton of favours and spread the message in creative (and largely annoying) ways. Friends knew how important Liberia was to me and would ask daily about vote count. As I had an emotional drop-off of one of my kids at school, a mom embraced me and encouraged me to share about my children and my life. During our conversation I shared about “Level The Field” and her eyes lit up. She had worked for the Swedish Olympic team for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and is very familiar with the organization and the benefit of sports for kids. Rocking her newborn in the stroller, she mentioned that she had a few friends in the sports field (that was a pun..) and would reach out to them to help our cause for Health in Liberia.
Fast forward. Several days after the contest closed I was practicing square breathing and coaxing myself to carry on with life. My friends and colleagues didn’t want to ask too much. I was clearly distracted. I got the email indicating I would go to Liberia while headed to the gym and became one of those people on her phone during an hour of cardio I hadn’t really noticed. (I joked with Kaylyn that if we were to travel together she’d put my abs to shame). Could it be true? Could Liberia have won – when George Weah, one of Liberia’s most famous humanitarian athletes was a footballer as well? Liberia needs so much support after recent years of civil war. 200,000 people have died and it ranks amongst the poorest nations on the planet. Inequality. Sexual crimes. Disease. The women, children and the handicapped youth need the teachings of inclusiveness that Right To Play can offer.
A few days later I was on a press trip to Ottawa and was about to tour the Canadian Parliament Buildings when I got another email announcing the voter who had won the chance to accompany the group on our expedition. Her name is Lori Harasem and she lives in Alberta. With three kids she finds time to work as the Recreation and Culture Development Manager for the City of Lethbridge and volunteers too.
Apparently Lori and I had a mutual friend. Could it be? I sent a covert text to my friend from my sons’ school to see if she knew Lori. Apparently they were childhood friends and Lori was described as an extremely special, caring and loyal woman with a true believe and love of sport and play. I tingled head to toe. And then I toured the crucible of Canadian law and government feeling the importance of community, integrity and outreach. The stately building made me realize even further that our position as Canadians allows us to help other nations – other children. I am so honoured to be an ambassador for Right To Play. To represent my country and to help children smile. Somehow my kids’ Christmas lists don’t seem very pressing.
As I expressed to the other parent ambassadors when we were simultaneously told the news, I have been humbled just to be chosen to participate in the Level The Field program. The prestigious group of parents who participated did a stellar job, and I still marvel at the work put in and the exposure that was given to the organization. The true winners are the kids that we will be able to support through awareness and future donations. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all 6 West African nations could have oodles of funds flowing in? I know that Right To Play is dear to all of our hearts now and hopefully in time we will all be able to help all of the 6 countries. In the Level The Field program and the 20 countries Right To Play works in across the world.
I told my schoolyard mom friend the news and the next day she cornered me as we waited for the bell. Her son wants to start raising money to send soccer balls with me to Liberia. He has a plan. He’s 7. And clearly very special.
Let the journey begin!
And then she learned the cha cha. Kaylyn Kyle isn’t lacking for much. A bronze medal in soccer for Canada’s National team in the 2012 London Olympic Games. A coveted spot with the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. The honour of being a Right To Play Athlete Ambassador. The ability to make others smile with her amazing savvy social media interactions. (And of course the long blond hair and being named multiple times as one of the most eligible women in Canada.) Kaylyn is currently learning the cha cha for a Saskatchewan charity gala similar to ‘Dancing With The Stars’.
What is a luxury? Louis Vuitton, of course. And silk pajamas. A suite at the Four Seasons. Truffles are at the top of my list. This is fun. I like this game. But what about less obvious facets of life like health and education? Are sport and play a luxury? Life skills? Are the notions of co-operation, teamwork and fairness luxuries too?