While his fellow teammates were in training for the Leinster football final against Meath, Dublin footballer and county hurler Ciarán Kilkenny was in Africa preparing for a very different big event. Earlier this year Ciarán was appointed as a special ambassador for Edmund Rice Development and in September he will speak in front of hundreds of people at the ‘Big Match Dinner’ in Croke Park over the weekend of the All-Ireland final - but the topic won’t be football.
In March this year, Ciarán ruptured a cruciate tendon in his knee while playing a league match for Dublin against Kildare. The operation was a success but put him out of competitive sport for the rest of the season. Keen to use his recovery time well, last week Ciarán visited Mazabuka and Kabwe in Zambia to meet the children and young people in the schools and youth projects run by Edmund Rice missionaries and the local communities.
With his tall frame and unmistakable Irish looks Ciarán was mobbed by the children everywhere he went, and no moment more so than in Changa Changa where he arrived during football practice and was immediately drawn in to a friendly game of catch. Changa Changa primary school in Mazabuka is a school that was established by the very poor local community in partnership with Christian Brother missionaries. Receiving grant aid for the construction from Edmund Rice Development and Irish development organisation, Misean Cara, over 530 vulnerable children from 5-14 years of age now attend the school and have access to quality primary education.
With ambitions to become a teacher himself, Ciarán took to teaching a couple of classes at the school like a natural and as a fluent Irish-speaker particularly enjoyed teaching the children thecúpla focail. Speaking in Zambia, Ciarán said of the experience. “I met one extremely bright boy, Regan, who had ambitions to become a pilot. We visited his home and met his family who were rightly very proud of their son who is thriving in school. Despite Regan’s very poor circumstances, he is a very driven eleven year old. I advised him to stay focused, to always believe in himself and to never let go of his dreams. I fully expect Regan to be flying the plane I’m travelling in some day, maybe he’ll even spare me a few free tickets!”
In his time in Zambia Ciarán also visited the Edmund Rice Youth Services Project in Kabwe. A town in Zambia’s copperbelt, Kabwe suffers from high unemployment and poverty – it can be very difficult for young people to find the fees to attend college and get work, and despair and criminal activity are common. The youth centre was built by a partnership of the local community and Zambian Christian Brothers with funding from Misean Cara and a number of Irish schools who volunteer at the project each year. It offers the young people a vibrant football league, a space for community gatherings, a library, training in computer skills and an agricultural programme.
In Kabwe, Ciarán met with brothers Enock and Harold – aged 21 and 23 years. One of the more amusing moments of the trip happened when the fiercely competitive Irish sportsman was beaten in a chess game – twice. “He absolutely destroyed me in chess,” said Ciarán. “Harold volunteers in the centre here and works to keep the kids off the streets. He told me that if they weren’t here that those kids would most likely be involved in drugs, crime or prostitution, at risk from HIV and AIDs. Instead, they’re here playing football, chess and other games.”
While in Kabwe, the difference in Enock and Harold’s situation to Ciaran’s hit the GAA man hard. “The two lads are the same age as me, and when I was walking with them it was just like chatting to a few of my friends at home – they have the same interests and hobbies, the same hopes for the future,” he said. “The difference is that I can afford to go on to college and there will be job opportunities available to me when I finish. These two very smart men don’t have the opportunities I have. This is why these services are so important. This experience has taught me to appreciate what I have and not to take anything for granted.”
When asked to sum up his feelings about his first ever trip to Africa, Ciarán said it was “ceann de na ócháidí is fearr i mo shaol” – one of the best occasions of his life. At only 21 years of age, for the young man who the people of Zambia took to their hearts, it will no doubt be the first of many.
The Edmund Rice Development Big Match Dinner will take place on Friday 19th September, Croke Park in aid of the Edmund Rice missions. Special guests include Ciarán Kilkenny, Mícheál ó Muircheartaigh and ‘Big Match’ expert panel Colm Cooper, Colm O’Rourke, Barney Rock and Ciarán Whelan.
Tables of ten €1,000, Tickets €100 now available from www.edmundricedevelopment.org Tel: 01 8196782