Letters from Africa: Coaching hoops, life

Editor's Note: In this space, Penn teammates Dau Jok and Zack Rosen will provide a series of blog updates on their trip to Africa and Dau's work to start up the Dut Jok Youth Foundation to help his native Sudan. For more on the tragic yet inspiring reasons behind Dau's mission, read Dana O'Neil's story here. Also make sure to check out previous entries in Dau and Zack's blog journal.

From Zack: AGAHOZO-SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda -- The language of basketball is international. While we might not know how to speak Kinyarwanda and they might not be able to communicate in English fluently, we all speak the language of basketball. The team here trains outside on a concrete court with rims that have no nets. Rain or shine, they practice. The coach is phenomenal and the kids really love the game.

On Saturday, Dau and I coached the team here at ASYV and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it. We taught them defense, from 1-on-1 up to 5-on-5. We showed them the proper principles and the correct positioning for a solid man-to-man defense and they were greatly appreciative. “You teach us things we do not know. Thank you,” said one of the youth.

On Sunday, they divided up into two teams. Dau and I coached, and two other volunteers -- Max and Brian -- jumped in as we scrimmaged for about two hours. There are some kids here that can really, really play. While they don't keep score, the match was competitive and both sides were really eager to learn. When I substituted my big guy out of the game, he came right up to me and questioned, “Coach, what can I correct?”

Thus far, basketball has been the easiest way for us to connect with the people here. When the language barrier is problematic, we can communicate by physically showing what we mean and they really understand. They are thankful that we are helping them and their eagerness to learn the game and be shown different aspects of basketball is both impressive and refreshing. I'm grateful for the springboard that basketball has been able to provide in the effort to connect.

As the slogan goes: I love this game.

From Dau: I have felt right at home in the Village, however, I am struggling with the idea of getting closer to the kids because I know that in less than a week, I will be leaving. Connecting with these people takes no effort for me because I feel as though I am one of them and they feel the same.

Yet the reality is that I am leaving and I worry that if I become emotionally attached to them it will add to the sense of betrayal with which they have so much experience. One of them asked me the following question: “When the group leaves, are you staying?” I had no answer for him.

I love the company of these kids; they are extremely bright young people. The most exciting part of my experience thus far was when I asked one of the boys to sit with me in a place he normally would not sit. He was uncomfortable at first, but we ended up having a blast. I made him realize that to be a leader means to meet different kinds of people and be exposed to all sorts of environments. Diversity and exploration are key elements of leadership and this was the way I was able to teach them.

I believe being around these kids with so much joy, love, aspirations, hope, humbleness and respect has changed me for the better, and I think it will do the same for the group.

On Sunday, we took a seven-mile hike to Lake Mugesara, at the bottom of the valley where the magnificent ASYV stands. It started raining minutes after departure and Narsis, one of the youth Village's guards and our hike guide, politely kept waiting for whoever was falling behind. As we walked, the kids from the local villages stared and waved, fascinated by the “muzungus” (white person in Swahili and Kinyarwanda).

The villages these kids live in around ASYV are exceptional in their own rights. Farming is the main occupation of the locals and the staple crops are banana, sweet potato, sugarcane, sorghum, and various fruits. Unlike Southern Sudan where I lived, Rwanda is very hilly and the walk down was slippery, but relatively quiet because it was raining. The walk back, however, drew more and more kids, especially since many members of the group held digital cameras. For me, the hike was emotional, peaceful, reflective, quiet and full of memories.

The houses and farms reminded me of my childhood and it was as if I was reliving a part of my old life. The sounds of birds, cows and goats was refreshing. Kids were playing with balloon soccer balls or cars made out of wood. There were little kids everywhere and Zack, Brian, Elisheva, Erica and Max were awesome with them. Bikes transported people, bananas, water and banana beer from place to place. Pushing a bike uphill is probably one of the harder physical exercises I have ever performed.

On the way back I first got to help push a bike with two cases of banana beer on each side. Then I surprised two guys and helped them push a bike loaded with bananas up a very steep hill (they didn't think I could do it, but I did!). Later, I ran into a shirtless young boy and thought of coach Allen (Penn's Jerome Allen). Coach had given his hooded sweatshirt to a man at a homeless shelter we visited during the season. As soon as I saw the boy, I immediately took off my shirt and handed it to him. The smile on his face was indescribable. Thanks, Coach.

And thank you again to Brett Edgerton, Dana O'Neil and Coach Leibovitz. Special shout-out to everyone following the blog and all those who have sent their well-wishes. They are very much appreciated. Thank you all!

Peace and Love from ASYV,

Zack and Dau