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A volunteer’s diary

BPF volunteer coach, Iolo James, shares experiences from his time with the Pride in Africa

Iolo James joined BPF’s 2020 sports coaching expedition in Nairobi in February, volunteering with ‘the Pride’ in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania before the entire event was suspended – and ultimately cancelled – due to the coronavirus pandemic. A journalist and producer, Iolo took a sabbatical from the newsroom to join the Pride as a coach, documenting his time on the continent in his diary. In this entry, the first in a series being published on the charity’s Pride Stories website blog, Iolo reflects on the people he met, the places he encountered and, most importantly, the children he coached.

Through locally delivered sports and education programs, one of BPF’s goals is to establish NGOs in each country and build on the huge strides being made in Malawi, where a new community centre is nearing completion in rural Lilongwe. The project here sees BPF realising a dream of providing life-changing opportunities for communities it’s been working alongside since 2012.

Part 1 | 18th March 2020

“It’s 6.30 a.m. I’m standing outside one of Heathrow’s arrival terminals. There’s a chill in the air and drab clouds spitting. I lift my hood to cover my head. My once grey jumper now a dust-tinged shade of orange.

It’s almost 24 hours since I left Kilimanjaro airport and the travel has taken its toll. I’m exhausted. For the last six weeks I’ve been travelling through east Africa as part of an international team of volunteers working with Bhubesi Pride Foundation.

I close my eyes and see the beaming smiles of some of the children we coached. It’s enough to lift the spirits of this weary traveller on this damp March day. But the exhaustion is coming from a different place.

For the past three days the team and I scrambled to get flights out of Tanzania. With Covid-19’s grip on the world tightening and the first cases being reported in the country, we had little choice but to return home, albeit prematurely. Given the severity of the situation, we knew it was the right call.

Just a couple of days ago, we had seen the alarm on the faces of some of the locals in a busy Arusha café; arms crossed, frowned gazes glued to a news channel as they listened intently. There was a collective worry, not least given the looming danger of a global pandemic, but also of the potential havoc an outbreak could wreak on countries with struggling health systems. With a population of 56 million, Tanzania has only 60 ventilators. The UK has around 11,000.

So, here I am, back on home soil. The other volunteers would be on their return journeys too, to Scotland and Canada, West Yorkshire and Chile. The Pride had returned to their natural habitats but we had taken our first African footsteps. We had camped near the source of the Nile, side-stepped cows as we played and coached rugby with locals and travelled 1,450km across three mesmerising countries.”

Thanks to Tommy Hatwell for providing some of the photographs

Uniting, empowering & inspiring with Pride

Iolo and his fellow 'Pride' volunteers encapsulating what it means to be a coach with BPF, embodying the values of the charity and engaging with community stakeholders in Africa.

Part 2 | 9th – 13th February 2020

“Jambo!”

“We’re greeted at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport by this year’s BPF expedition leader. In his shades and khaki gear Tim Brear has the look of someone who’s been in this part of the world before. The friendly former Army Captain had himself been a volunteer coach in 2016 and within a few minutes he had our excitement levels peaking with details of what lay ahead.

We’re travelling in the ‘Bhubesi bus’ and with Tim’s musings forming a soundtrack to the journey, I sit back and slide open one of the windows, close my eyes and feel the warm Nairobi air stroke my face.

***

Within a few days of landing in Kenya’s capital, the expedition was in full swing. We had driven 300km north to Eldoret, spending a couple of days in Turi on the way, in the heart of the Rift Valley. Standing at one of the Valley’s vantage points we marvelled at the vastness of the plain. If ever there was an image to back up the continent’s claim to being the cradle of life, this was it.

For many of us, it’s our first taste of rural Africa. We’re humbled by the smiles of the people as we pass through village after village, town after town. There’s so much life here, from the street sellers in their stone shacks nestled in thick green growth, to the sound of children laughing, some kicking makeshift footballs, some hoop rolling along dirt tracks… and mastering the art.

The Pride is eleven-strong at this point of the journey, a jumble of accents and ages from seven countries. There’s a teacher from Malawi, a Canadian gymnast and a rugby-crazy Chilean with a knack for reeling off memorable commentaries of past matches. We’re not hard to miss either, criss-crossing the land in the Bhubesi bus. She’s called Nala and her bright orange coat does little to blend in with Kenya’s rustic expanse!

A day earlier I had awoken early, a misty silence lingering around the St. Andrew’s school campus, our stopover in Turi. It was a hush that was to be felt across the whole country as Kenyans mourned the passing of former President, Daniel arap Moi, who had died a week earlier. There would be no coaching today but with the school’s carpet green playing fields teasing us, we played some touch rugby against the teachers. Within minutes, our unacclimatised lungs were burning in the high altitude. First blood to the staff… but we would be back in a few weeks for another encounter.

Eldoret sits 7,000ft above sea level, one of a number of reasons why this part of the country is famed for its conveyor belt of elite distance runners. Eliud Kipchoge, who became the first person to break the two-hour marathon barrier in a once-inconceivable feat, grew up a few miles from here. Brigid Kosgei became the fastest female marathoner ever in 2019, smashing Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year world record by 81 seconds. It’s no surprise Kosgei has lived and trained in this part of Kenya all her life.

As we roll out of Eldoret the following morning, we pass a huddle of around 50 runners, tip-tapping the tarmac in the fresh February drizzle. I marvel at their frighteningly quick pace. They marvel at our frighteningly orange bus…

***

After a 300km journey and a lengthy wait at the immigration office the Pride bids a “kwaheri” to Kenya as we roll into Jinja, our base for the next three weeks. The city sits along the northern shores of Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake, covering a staggering 60,000 square kilometres. It’s an epic setting where over the coming weeks we’ll coach hundreds of children and we’re itching to get started.

We park up at our camp and disembark Nala, stiff from the long drive. I notice the beaming smile on Damian’s face. ‘Damo’ is the charity’s lead driver and he’s happy because he’s home, but there’s another reason for his elation and I don’t think we’re quite prepared for it.

A mesmerising sunset over the Nile. A view to rival all others.

Jambo Uganda!”

Journeying west to Uganda

Iolo re-lives this enchanting expedition leg as the Pride departs bustling Nairobi and continues on in search of Jinja at the 'source of the Nile'.

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