Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Sporting Life

You know what would be cool here? I thought to myself as I stood on the wide, cracked concrete veranda of my school administration block, looking at a forlorn corner of the school grounds.  A basketball court!  I mean, what kid doesn’t love basketball, right?  Ghanaian kids, apparently, do not love basketball.  Or any other sport, save one.  There is room for one sport and one sport only in the hearts and minds of the youth of Ghana; football.  And not the gladiatorial blood-sport I was happily brought up with and still love, but, you know, English football. 

But I was not to be deterred.  You see, somehow I had got this idea in my head that if I could get a basketball court built at my school, then coach this rag-tag bunch of high school students into a explosive, dominant basketball barnstorming force, then I could secure for them scholarships at American universities and quite possibly untold riches and fame.  I only had two main obstacles to overcome.  One, we had no money with which to build a basketball court.  Two, the students did not seem to be interested in learning how to play basketball.  Not in the least.  Another issue was that I could not coach, much less play basketball myself.  But this is about the kids!  I could figure all that out later.

Obstacle One (money) was actually sort of a solution to another problem, in a strange way.  And that problem was The Project.  A little known fact – at least to me at the time – about the Peace Corps is that all Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to raise money for, and execute a development project during their service.  For Business Development, Health, and Rural Development volunteers, this project is probably the main focus of their service.  And Education volunteers such as myself are also expected to perform some sort of project, perhaps somewhat smaller in scale, in addition to fulfilling their teaching duties.  All volunteers are expected to go to their site (town, village, etc.), assess what needs to be done, prepare a project plan, raise capital from both local sources and from back home, and execute the project successfully.  Sometimes the hardest part is determining what needs to be done.  In many cases, pretty much everything needs to be done, so it’s a question of prioritizing what can be done in the allotted time and with the amount of money that can be reasonably raised, what the community will get behind and support, and what the volunteer has the expertise to implement.

For example it may be that the volunteer’s village could really benefit from a water treatment plant, sever system, and storm drain system.  Well, yeah, all that stuff would be great!  But it is doubtful that all of that could be designed, funded, and built by a Peace Corps volunteer.  In fact it may be that such a grandiose project is not appropriate for a poor village, even though it would be quite beneficial, because they may not be able to maintain an expensive project after the Peace Corps volunteer is gone and the initial start-up money is gone.  So a reasonable compromise might be a set of latrines or a new well for the village.  I’m going to give a shout out here to Water for People, a top notch organization that is dedicated to providing clean and assessable water to people in developing countries.  My friend Kate works for them and they do wonderful work in South America and all over the world.

Now even in my village, some sort of water or sanitation project may have been a really good idea.  The volunteer who served at my school before me, Mary, raised money to build a science building on campus, and had it stocked with text books and chemistry sets and what not.  This seemed very appropriate and quite frankly a hard act to follow.  Mary built a freaking building, for goodness’ sake.  My wonderful idea?  Oh yeah, basketball court.  I even went around town and drummed up support and got bids on how much it would cost to make a basketball court.  Level the ground, pour the concrete, paint the lines, order and install the poles, backboards, and hoops, and obtain actual basketballs and uniforms.  The total cost came out to about 250,000 cidis.  The exchange rate at the time was about 500 cidis to one dollar.  So we’re talking about $500, total cost.  I could probably get the basketballs and hoops donated from the States.  Most of the cost would be in the concrete and labor.  This, I thought, was totally do-able.

And totally useless.  Yes I was living proof that aid projects can and do go totally wrong, all the time, and for a myriad of reasons.  This project was destined for failure for two reasons:  One, I felt obligated to “do a project,” so I ran with the first thing I thought of, instead of really sitting down with the school staff and thinking of some things that the school might actually need, and Two, well, reason One is probably sufficient.

And really, all I had to do was open my eyes and look around to see several projects that would have been more appropriate.  Here are just a few:  The school classrooms had windows but no screens or blinds or actual glass.  When violent rainstorms blew through the school we literally could not conduct class because the wind and rain would blow everyone’s books and papers all over the place.  And this being tropical Africa, we had more than our fair share of violent rainstorms.  We also couldn’t have class during the storms because of the ear-splitting cacophony of the rain assaulting the metal roofs of the school rooms, but blinds or windows or something would at least protect the school supplies, and potentially even allow the kids to continue to sit and do school work while waiting for the storm to pass. 

Also the kids had to trek about 100 yards up the hill from the school to fetch water from a faucet for the school day.  My town did have running water – most of the time – but there was only one faucet for the school and it was up the hill from the school grounds.  Perhaps a system of pipes to bring the water closer to the school would save the students some time and labor. 

Finally, and this may not seem like a huge deal, but the schoolroom “chalkboards” were actually just rough concrete, painted black.  The rough surface consumed chalk at a prodigious rate, forcing us to spend far more on chalk than we really needed to.  A set of real chalkboards, or even just smoother concrete painted black, would reduce that expense by a great deal and quite possibly improve the legibility of my handwriting, although that last part is debatable and quite frankly wouldn’t make it into any chalkboard replacement proposals.

Sure, all of this seems obvious to me now, but at the time I was just, you know, used to it.  It was difficult to remove myself from the situation and realize what could be changed to make things better.  Kids carrying 30 pound buckets of water on their heads?  Hey, that’s quaint!  Looks like real Africa, take a picture!  Can’t teach because of the tropical deluge?  Wow, revel in the majestic power of Nature!  It wasn’t that I was being callous; the point I’m trying to make is that I was adapting quite well to my surroundings, which was good in some ways because it kept me somewhat happy and sane on a day-to-day basis.  I was handling it.  Except that my surroundings could, you know, be improved somewhat without too much effort from me.  Handling it was good, nothing wrong there, many Peace Corps volunteers never make it to handling it.  So jolly good there.  But improving it is even better.  And apparently improving it in my mind meant putting up a basketball court.  Sounds silly at first blush, but in my defense I thought that it would be nice to offer the students something fun to do at school.  They were all interested in life in the United States and I’m sure most of them would jump at the chance to live in America.  If I told my students that by playing basketball they could come to America and become wealthy, they by gosh they would have lined up to do it.  So the court represented something totally new and exciting.  And, truth be told, it was a little slice of home for yours truly.  I think it was easier for me to see what was totally missing than what could be improved.

Problem Two.  Desire.  I can still picture the scene now, going on 20 years after the fact.  I was going to convince the students that a basketball court would be fun.  I had this whole argument lined up and everything.  I think the conversation went something like this:

Me:  “Hey students; I’m thinking about putting up a basketball court at the school, what do you think?” 

Students:  “But master (teachers are called masters there), none of us have ever played basketball.”   
I was prepared for that answer.

Me:  “Well have you heard of basketball?   Michael Jordon?  Dikembe Mutombo?  He’s from Africa, even!”

Students:  “Yes we know about Michael Jordon.”   

Me:  “And Dikembe?”

Students:  (insert pause here)  

Not good.  My whole argument had just gone off the rails. 

Me:  “Dikembe Mutombo?!  He is a huge basketball star!  And from Africa, right?  You know, with the finger-wag and all the blocked shots and all that?  No?  What about when the Denver Nuggets won that playoff game, and Dikembe fell on the floor and cried and clutched the ball and cried some more?  Nothing?  This was, only like the greatest moment in sports history or something.  I mean, Dikembe wept tears of joy, and all of Africa wept with him!  Well Zaire wept tears of joy, I just know it.  Ok so Dikembe is not from Ghana.  Zaire, Ghana, Ghana, Zaire, weren’t you happy that an African player was doing so well in the United States?  And if he can do it, why not you?”


Students:  “But master, if you please; we don’t know who Dikembe Mutombo is.”

Me:  “Fine.  You don’t know Dikembe.  What if I told you if we built a basketball court, then Dikembe Mutumbo would come and visit you?”


Me: “Michael Jordon?  What if I told you Michael Jordon would come visit?  Would that be cool?”  
Oh my god I’m saying “cool” to a room full of high school students.  I just made ‘cool’ un-cool.

(Uncomfortable silence.  They don’t believe I can get Michael Jordon, and now they think I am an un-cool liar.  They are, of course, correct.  On all counts.)

“Fine: Well, I’m going to build the basketball court, and teach you all how to play basketball.  Would that be fun?”

Students:  “Yes, but would we have to miss football?”

And now we get to the heart of the matter.  Football.  They love football.  They don’t even like anything else.  I immediately grasped the difficulty of my situation as the basketball coach.  All the most athletic students would continue to play football.  I would have my pick of some of the kids that a) were not good enough for the school football team, and b) had no interest in watching the school football team.  This left we with probably 2 or 3 kids, maximum, who would be willing to spend their free time learning and playing basketball. 
But it could turn into one of those inspirational 80s movie montages!  First, just me and one or two kids.  They’re learning how to dribble.  They can’t make the lay-up.  Then they get a little better.  A couple more kids join in.  They're making a free-throw now.  Several more leave the football field and come over.  Next thing you know, Jimi Jamison is hitting the high notes and that same kid who couldn’t make the lay-up is executing a 360 tomahawk jam in slow motion over the head of the blond Russian kid, while Dikembe and I exchange a high-five on the sideline – well, a low-five for Dikembe, probably – and the politburo walks out in disgust.

How did the Soviets get in there?  Anyway, there would be no Dikembe, no basketball court.  I ended up not building the court, you can probably understand why.  I would like to think that if I stayed longer I would have sorted this out at some point and got to work on something more meaningful.  As you’ll see, thankfully for all involved -- except for the guy who makes the concrete -- I was never to realize my feverish dream of installing a basketball court because I did not stay to the end of my two-year term at the school.  But that’s for another day. 

And of course if you know anything about Dikembe Mutumbo, you know that he is an absolute saint when it comes to charity work in Africa.  He speaks nine languages (while I’m struggling with one and a half in Ghana), has started a charity foundation that has built hospitals and funded other development projects in the Congo (formerly Zaire), and yea, was a heck of a basketball player for many years, some with my local Denver Nuggets.  And according to the Onion, he is now a Senator.

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