On a mission to help children, the Rangers star comes away with inspiration he didn’t expect.
BY MATS ZUCCARELLO
Arriving in Tanzania two years ago, I found a country with crumbling roads and broken down schools, towns with little or no electricity, a place overall confronting constant waves of crime, hunger and disease.
But that’s not what I took away from my time there. I remember the children, how little they have — few clothes or books and barely enough space to sleep — and yet how they live with joy for the simple things. I think less about what I gave to them and more about what they taught me.
It’s a big part of why I’m returning next summer.
Going from town to town and village to village, I danced in circles with the children, rode bikes with them, and kicked a soccer ball around on a dirt field. We didn’t share a language, but it didn’t matter. We laughed together, and they embraced me as if I were an old friend.
I was in Tanzania as part of a group from Right To Play, an international organization that raises money to improve education for impoverished children. We came from Norway, my country, with a larger message — to help the teachers see their job in a different way. To help them teach through fun.
That may sound overly simple, but after you’ve watched 150 children crammed into a small, shabby classroom, you begin to understand the wisdom behind this idea.
Grabbing Their Attention
I didn’t get it at first. After landing in the capital city of Dar es Salaam, I spent the first night at a nice hotel and strolled along the beach. I thought to myself, this isn’t so bad. But the next day, we traveled six hours into the villages, and quickly I got it.
In Tanzania, children do not have to go to school, and so they show up when they want, or when they don’t have to work to help their families. Many of the young people turn to crime. So when they do come to school, it is important to somehow capture their attention and make them want to come back the next day and the next.
I watched a teacher show the students a glass of water, a rock and a feather. If I put these in the water, which one will sink, the teacher asked. The students stared straight ahead and said nothing. They didn’t know the answer.
They were shown a map and could identify nothing. They were shown Norway on the map while we were there, and to them, it was like a foreign planet.
As I traveled from place to place, I began to understand how difficult their lives are. So many of them are forced to work long hours to earn money. Without electricity, they have no chance to read at night. Everything becomes dark.
So we tried something. To help along a lesson about disease, we played a game. To prevent disease, they had to keep balls from going into a ring. Each ball was a disease, and as we played, we said that to prevent a disease, these are the medicines you need and the precautions you need to take. The lessons were sinking in without anyone having to lecture them or force them to learn.
If you think about it, this is true for most of us. If I run for an hour on the treadmill, and I’m looking at my watch, I might burn off a thousand calories. But give me a ball or a puck, and I’ll exercise without ever looking at my watch. And I’ll burn off even more. Take the roteness out of the work, and it becomes easier.
Up On The Hill
I was nervous when I first arrived in Tanzania. I was unsure what I would find. I felt a bit guilty, too, I have so much and am so privileged. But in the week that I was there, other feelings came over me.
When we got up into the mountains, I went for a morning run, and I saw the women coming down with large boxes of fruit and vegetables balanced on their heads. I saw how easily they smiled. They seemed at peace. They have just so much, and still they enjoy life.
I felt sorry for their hardships, but I was inspired by them. I admired them. A part of me envied them. Next summer, I am going back, and I can’t wait to see their faces again.
One day, about seven hours from the capital, we came to a poor town. The school’s concrete classrooms were falling apart. We had brought 50 hockey sticks from Norway to give to the kids.
I remember clearly standing on top of a hill. I was able to look out over the village and take it all in. It was so beautiful. I looked down at the kids, and I’ve never seen children so happy to be playing with hockey sticks. As I stood on that hill, I found a quietness in myself. I have never had such a feeling.
I can’t wait to see the children again when I return next summer. I can’t wait to have that feeling again.
Mats Zuccarello is about to begin his eighth season with the Rangers.
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