May 15, 2012

To Africa, with kit and a message

Cricket Without Boundaries is a UK initiative that takes cricket, and a message of AIDS awareness, to an entire continent

Ed Williams, Andy Hobbs and Chris Kangis spent seven months in as many African countries, taught over 3000 children to play cricket, and trained 175 others to become coaches. They carried kit from Kenya to Namibia, via Tanzania and Zambia, on a two-day train journey. They stayed everywhere from seedy hotels to the home of a one-legged British Defence attaché. They played football on a beach in Malawi, taught in schools in Zimbabwe, became better acquainted with the terrain of Africa than most people who live on the continent, and then had an experience that would become Williams' most treasured memory.

In a slum in one of Kenya's industrial towns, Thika, they met a group of young girls in the final stages of AIDS. One of them, Eva, was too frail to get out of bed and rarely played with the other children. The day Williams met her, she was able to join in, and not only did she take part in the match, Eva also hit the winning runs. "That image has been on the homepage of my phone for the last six years," Williams says.

Travelling into the heart of Africa had been in Williams' plans since he was 15 years old. "I wanted to do a Cairo to Cape Town trip ever since I watched former Monty Python Michael Palin do it in his Pole to Pole television show."

Playing cricket and teaching others to play it was also part of his plans. "My passion for cricket comes from a lifetime of playing it and later coaching it," Williams, who describes himself as a pretty average schoolboy cricketer who went on to play village cricket in Sussex and eventually for a University team, says. "I love the way in which cricket forces teams to work together in more subtle and personally interactive ways than say rugby."

In Hobbs, Williams met someone whose plans seemed similar to his own. The pair played for the same University of Nottingham team, and both played league cricket. Together they discussed growing the game, having a positive social impact, and seeking out an adventure. Africa was the ideal place to do all three.

They found work in Zimbabwe, coaching cricket and teaching at two schools, but something did not feel quite right. "It was fun but a very private school, and we were not exactly making a difference," Williams said. It was while playing football in a local village game on the shores of Malawi that they made up their minds to focus on those with lesser opportunities.

Noble as that intention was, it would take an inordinate amount of planning to make it a reality. Both had professions to get back to in the United Kingdom. Williams was a barrister, and Hobbs worked for the ECB in Berkshire. Kangis, a corporate lawyer friend of theirs, turned out to be keen on their idea.

It was during that phase that they discovered how unavoidable the problem of HIV/AIDS was. Sub-Saharan Africa is the most infected region in the world, with an estimated 22.9 million people carrying the virus - nearly equal to the population of Mozambique. The three decided that AIDS awareness was going to have to be part of their message.

Williams and Kangis had to quit their jobs to go on the first trip, in 2006, a sacrifice they decided was worth it. They called their mission Cricket Without Boundaries (CWB) and in a symbolic gesture, set off from Lord's. It would be a journey Williams calls the biggest adventure of his life and "probably one of the things I am most proud of".

"My favourite country was Uganda. It was like Sussex but with no one cutting the lawns, and lots more banana trees. They are mighty impressive at cricket too, with a really strong development angle, particularly with girls"
Ed Williams, co-founder of Cricket Without Boundaries

Egypt and South Africa would be among the seven countries they visited. They donated equipment, which CWB had flown out to them at various stages of their trip, in four countries, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya and Namibia. "In addition to bags of kit, we carried the rest of our stuff in a backpack. So we had lots of long bus journeys with far too much stuff," Williams remembers.

He recalls using means of transport they would normally have avoided as too precarious, and staying in some "pretty awful" places. But what far outweighs all of that is the thought of what they achieved. "We genuinely did what we set out to do," Williams says.

"My favourite country was Uganda. It was like Sussex but with no one cutting the lawns, and lots more banana trees. Perhaps it was because English was their main language, but I fell in love with the place and the people. They are mighty impressive at cricket too, with a really strong development angle, particularly with girls." Uganda has proved Williams right recently, with impressive showings in events such as the World T20 qualifiers and World Cricket League tournaments.

In their short time in Africa, the three men built what they consider the platform for a legacy. Although real life summoned them once they reached the United Kingdom, they did not want to let CWB disappear. The organisation expanded to become a full-fledged charity.

CWB goes on four visits to Africa a year, taking volunteers along. People interested in making the trip are interviewed (for five years some of these interviews took place at The Oval, but they had to move to the BBC World Service headquarters this year because of costs) and have to fund their own trips. First-time volunteers raise £750 to cover the cost of the project, and also pay for their flights. Returning volunteers pay £500 but only travel for a week. The money is used for equipment, transport and accommodation on the tour.

Each mission consists of at least eight people, who spend two weeks on tour. Once in a country, the plan is two-fold. Cricket coaching - the group includes an ECB Level 3 tutor - is done in co-ordination with the country's cricket association, and if possible the national team, such as in Rwanda. Along with teaching children how to play the game, CWB also trains adults to become coaches, a qualification that is endorsed by the ICC. The hope is that the coaches will be able to continue growing cricket in the country once CWB leaves.

"Our core is to use cricket as an enabler," Dave Terrace, a CWB volunteer, says. In addition, the sport facilitates the campaign for AIDS awareness. "We teach the ABC: Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom. There are also other messages like knowing your status and inclusiveness [boys and girls playing together] that we use," Terrace says.

CWB are aware that most of the countries they visit will never play cricket at the highest level, but they are content simply spreading the game and waiting for success. "The goal is to have at least one national team player in each of our partner countries to have been through a CWB programme as a coach or player," Terrace says. So far, CWB has coached 35,000 children on the continent and trained 2000 coaches.

Williams, Hobbs and Kangis still oversee the activities of CWB and lend a hand in between. For Williams, the best reward has already been bestowed upon them. A year after they returned from their African adventure, the British High Commission visited Thika. They found a few children playing cricket, including one who Williams had hoped would still be there.

"They sent me a picture of a smiling, much chubbier little girl who was Eva," Williams said. "I am not sure if she is still alive but we understood she got anti-retrovirals shortly after playing cricket with us on that day. We like to think we helped her get better in some small way by giving her the incentive to get out of bed and come and play."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent