'Til Death Do Us Part

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Flag of Rwanda  , Eastern Province,
Thursday, August 22, 2013

It has been quite a long time since I last wrote – probably because I have been so busy, and because I did not want to realize the fact that my time here in Rwink was dwindling. This will be jumbled – a representation of the last month or so out here, but I wouldn't have it any other way.


A lot has happened since I last posted – we instituted a junior coaching program, Patrick has started to take more responsibility as a coach to prepare him to coach alone when I leave, we have received more community interest, we have held 4 big community events, we re-painted the court complete with the Shooting Touch logo, we have turned in all of our paperwork to register as a national NGO in Rwanda, we have installed a water tank strictly for the basketball program and began handing out chupas (water bottles), and we have installed a bi-lingual sign outside the Rwink court detailing the rules of the court and the mission of Shooting Touch.

But first, lets begin with Isa’s last event. A week before my last event, Isa had a HUGE match day in Nyamirambo in Kigali along with our basketball friend Gisho, who runs a basketball program called Rafi’Kids.  I volunteered to help out, but it was so awesome just seeing how awesome the work Isa has done in Kigali.  She is a master networker, is on top of her massive coaching network, and really just gets stuff done.  I think the thing I love about her most though, is her passion, and her non-stop display of the love of the game.  She is always talking ball, always playing ball, always coaching ball – and she loves her kids and it shows.  She didn’t have to run around the week before and make sure all the kids got a cheese sandwich for lunch, but she did.  I am so proud of Isa and so lucky to have her as a partner out here.  She is also basically fluent in Kinyarwanda now and is a local in my eyes.  I spoke with her after the match and told her how cool it was to just sit back and watch Shooting Touch from the outside.  As the grantees, we are constantly in work mode, thinking of the next training, what we have to do next.  It was so nice to withdraw from that mindset and see Shooting Touch through the eyes of a stranger.  I mean, if I didn’t even like basketball, and I walked past Isa’s event, it would have put a smile on my face.

Onto Rwink.  Basketball-wise, we have been playing a lot more 3 on 3 and 5 on 5 and strayed away from the drills.  In addition, I have been teaching the kids more advanced moves, more strategy, and they are picking it up quickly.  Kids are starting to learn that defense is played with your feet, and you don’t play the ball, you play the man.  I have been a stickler about communicating "shot" when a shot goes up, and having them box out.  I have also drilled them 20 minutes a day in ball screen, and they are using it and really starting to understand when to turn the corner and when to give it up.  Their jumpshots are starting to look better and the scud missiles have become less frequent, which is nice, not only for my eyes, but for the well-being of the backboards (I used to joke that one of their scud missile jump shots will break the glass backboard before a kid throws a stone and shatters it). 

On the life skills front, I have continued to do leadership lessons and “group chats” where we talk about what they conceptualize as leadership, or when I point out a specific point in practice where someone exhibited honesty or respect in a significant way, and the kids really enjoy this and usually always have an “ah hah!” moment.  Although simulations of HIV and disease prevention sometimes work, I feel that, especially when working with the secondary kids, conversations about sex, and talking honestly about it is something that really works and resonates with the kids.  I don’t know the extent to which they talk about these things in school, but I can venture to guess they never talk it as openly as we do on the court.

On the girls participation front – ever since school started back up, girls numbers have been down, and I do not know why.  So, I decided to change things up, and I announced at girls day that on the next competition day (which turned out to be a 3 v. 3 tournament) that the girls would have their own tournament, and I mentioned to them that they now have their own exclusive team.  Their eyes lit up and from that point on, we had a consistent group of 10-12 girls that came every day.  I also realized (and admittedly, a little too late), that girls only wear skirts.  Two boys – Oliver and Ben – sons of people who were visiting Rwink, spent 2 weeks in Rwink and played some ball with us, and were generous enough to donate a good amount of shorts and jerseys for the kids, and I decided to give all the shorts to girls so that they would feel more comfortable doing stretches and not having to hold up their long skirts when trying to dribble through their legs.  Side note: the girls actually became really good at coordinating these two actions – pulling up on their super long skirts a bit to let the ball through and dribbling through their legs at the same time).  The girls really have improved a lot since they started coming more, and tend to be more mature than the boys and pick up the fundamentals a lot more quickly than the guys did.

Life skill wise – in the last 2 months, we have really been forming an identity in Rwink, and this identity would be summed up by the phrase “turi kumwe” – which directly translates to “we are together.”  Just to be clear, you don’t just say turi kumwe to any person, you say it to people that are special to you, friends that you care about beyond the level of an acquaintanceship.  I have been trying to get the kids to understand a type of “one for all, all for one” mentality by being a stickler on all things related to turi kumwe.  If the kids are running sprints and one kid doesn’t touch the line, I explain that we weren’t all together “there was no TURI KUMWE!” and we must run the sprint again.  After the paint job, two boys decided to write their name on the court, and we had to have a talk about how the court belongs to everyone, and it was selfish of them to go behind everyone’s back, and if everyone’s name can’t be on the court, then theirs shouldn’t, because it violates the code of TURI KUMWE.  If kids start getting rowdy and rough and push, everyone runs because if one person is acting disrespectfully, it reflects badly on all of us, and after all, TURI KUMWE.  Lastly, when we bring it all together at the end of practice to do 1, 2, 3 “shooting touch” or “icyinubupfura” (respect) “itumanaho” (communication) or “equip” (team), some ball hawking kids try to leave the circle early before breaking it up.  If everyone doesn’t do it together, Patrick and I make everyone do it over again.  I have been an absolute stickler on this, but I finally won them over when the kids started holding each other responsible when people violate the code of TURI KUMWE. Basically I did this to get them to peer pressure each other in a positive way, and to see the bigger picture. I think them embracing this ideology was my biggest victory in Rwink – it makes them feel a part of a team, and holds everyone responsible to each other. 

Painting the court – about two Saturdays ago, I, along with some people I hired, painted the court with Epoxy – the paint that is used on the bottom of swimming pools – so TAKE THAT RAINY SEASON.  I’m not gonna lie, it looks freaking awesome.  The center court is a pretty nice, to-scale version of the Shooting Touch logo, and has our four pillars of gender equality, health and fitness, disease prevention, and education and leadership coming off each side in both English and Kinyarwanda.  The court painting day was special, because I told the kids they had to let the paint dry, and they still just wanted to be out there and watch the paint job.  Kazungu (a quiet, but really bright kid that really improved and really grew on me in the last 2 months) held up my reference board for me for the entire hour that I painted center court.  I was so happy to see the kids recognize that this was important, and to see them respect the court and not play on it until the drying time was up

About a month before I left, I realized that I needed to be more of a peer and not just a simple coach to the kids, so I made (and thankfully so) an effort to play with them.  In every 3 on 3 match, I tried to get in a couple of possessions and play like a Bo Ryan-coached robot and play the most fundamentally sound as possible, boxing out on every shot, communicating everything, setting good screens, and being positive, a hyper example, and the kids loved it and I think benefited from it.  Also, on a personal note, really got my confidence in my post game up consistently schooling 11 and 12-year olds.  After most of the training days were over, I would shoot and show the kids some moves, and they would mimic me.  I think this was my favorite part of the day because the kids would really try to soak up everything I taught them, and I got to play with them and get amped and joke around with them.  It was fun for me to see a different side of them too.  This is when I really starting to fall in love with Rwinkwavu, as if I wasn’t already in love before with the whole valley-and-mountain-biking-and-weather-and-people thing.  After playing, I would walk home to my new place of living (in the same village where most of my players live) and the kids would ride my bike home as Brad and I walked home and talked with them.  Some of these walks, tripping into huge cracks in the mud roads and giggling, singing songs that the kids had learned in music, learning about them and their families, and joking around, were some of my favorite times.

All of this basketball eventually lead up to our last huge event, held on the 17th.  Brad and I decided to combine our programs – his music and dance program, and my basketball program – to showcase to the community all the of hard work their kids have been doing, and to form a stronger bond between Shooting Touch and the community.  We set a schedule, and worked very hard in the last two weeks to prepare our kids for the big show.  We hadn’t had much success getting the local parents involved in the kids’ projects, so we decided to take matters into our own hands, and the day before the event, we canvassed through 3 separate little villages with the kids that live in each village guiding us.  It is crazy that in such a small place, some of the villages can be so different.  Although it was incredibly hot and we don’t speak much Kinyarwanda (actually nevermind, Brad speaks good Kinya, I don’t much beyond basketball words), with the help of our AWESOME kids who really stepped up and guided us around to different parents’ houses, we met almost every participants parents and personally invited them to the event.  I think this was one of my favorite days in my entire experience - walking into the people’s houses, and seeing what they do during the day, because we really have never seen it before.  They were all so welcoming and always offered us a seat in their house, but we had to decline to continue to the next house.  At the end of the day, Brad and I sat in the house and just had a “wow” moment.  I will never forget at one point, we literally had 30 little kids following us around the neighborhood while we invited people to the event, and actually had to tell some of them to “go murugo!”  because we didn’t want to make a scene. 

Our efforts did not go unnoticed as we saw around 20-30 parents show up to our event!  It was so awesome, and really could be the turning point in the library and all the programs going along with it (basketball and music) being a true force in the community.  Kelsey, a Shooting Touch intern and friend from the U.S. who is awesome and energetic and laughs at basically anything I say or do or do not do, arrived with Isaura and her Kigali coaches and our first friends in Kigali Ngabo and Paulin, and all the kids surrounded them and welcomed them.  Isa became kind of a mysterious celebrity in Rwink, because she would come out sometimes and play ball and help coach, so it was always exciting for the kids when they got to see her.  From 1:00 pm – 6:00, the kids displayed their talents in basketball – there was a primary match, a girl’s 3 on 3 match, and a secondary match to end the day.  All of these basketball events were separated by music blasting from a DJ., traditional dancing, and traditional drumming.  Shooting Touch even got a shout out in an original song that the kids performed!  Some highlights from the day included a girl hitting a pair of long-range jump shots, primary Patrick hitting 2 threes about 3 posessions apart, Passi going coast to coast and converting an awesome finish (video is on the blog), and the secondary kids really making some smart passes and playing smart basketball.

            After that, we brought the kids back to the outdoor theatre where we had set up a video screen and speakers.  I gave the 11 secondary students who had helped out with primary practice for 2 straight weeks when school was off – their hard/earned junior coaching certificates as well as a DVD of the English/Kinyarwanda  instructional DVDs.

Link here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abAzj8T4wsI

   After, I presented the kids with a huge collage of their pictures playing ball with the Shooting Touch logo, with the phrase “Turi kumwe buri gihe” (We are together forever).  I made two copies and had them sign their names by their pictures.  This will be hanging in my room for the rest of my life.  Then I gave a speech as Issa Kamatari, our legal representative and basically awesome advisor and always-on-top-of-everything guy translated.  It was so hard to not have my voice crack, and this was the first time all week that I realized I had to leave, so it wasn’t full waterfall status for me (Denison teammates you know what that is), but it was on its way.  Then, the fun began and I showed the kids their highlight video that I made them.  They went ABSOBLUTELY nuts when the slow-motion parts came on, and kept on screaming the person’s names who made the shot.

  Link here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DJcdGD5MpI
 
  They felt like all-stars, and they deserved it, because they really are.  In all, the day was a complete success and it was so awesome to see the “village kids” have a real city experience with a bunch of loud music and non-stop events.  Even the muzungu community in Rwink came out to support the extravaganza (thanks guys at PIH and stuff).  I think it is safe to say that Shooting Touch left its mark on Rwink.

            Now time for thank yous…

To any and all people who influenced me to become intensely passionate about basketball - my mom and dad, my brother and sister, the coaches throughout the years (I'm forgetting some):  Bond, McIntyre, Macheski, Dewolf, Stanczak, Muchnick, Ghiloni.  To my teammates throughout the years who have a bond with me that is not matched in any other facet of my life.  You were all part of this in some way.

To those who had helped me shape my fundamental worldview that even allowed me to pursue a project like this in the first place, those who made me see the world as capable of being better, and showed me that we have so far to go - namely Vicki Shields, Lisa Doster (that was her name when she was my teacher), all my profs at Denison, and my parents.

Jean Marie – this is probably the nicest guy anyone will ever come into contact with, always smiling and happy to help me with translating during youth conflicts, and he has seriously been there for all 20+ community match nights, helping set up stereos, the big screen, and the projector. 

Issa Kamatari – Shooting Touch’s legal representative – for always being on top of his game and being absolutely INSTRUMENTAL in helping us take steps toward NGO registration.  In fact, he stayed in Kigali over night to turn in paperwork.  Also, for always translating my fliers and any other things I need.  He is truly a great guy and we are lucky to have him on our team.

Coach Patrick and all the other coaches – for always showing up ready to work, for providing me new ideas, and for being an absolute sponge.  He is already a good coach, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will become a great coach and take over Shooting Touch’s Rwinkwavu program.  Ngabo, Paulin, Jean Claude (Rwink), and everyone else in Kigali as well for all buying into Shooting Touch’s mission and being great team members.  Also my junior coaches, who really showed up on most days and tried their hardest to be leaders.  They learned basketball late in their lives, but are really playing catch up nicely, and its evident that they love the game.

My Rwinkwavu family – Cory, Matt, and Brada.  These guys had me over for dinner and chilling literally 6 days per week when they didn’t have to, and never asked for a single dime.  It was 5-star food every single night.  More importantly though, they were my best friends in Rwink, and were always there to chill with whenever.  Especially in this last month, where I lived alone with Brad, we basically became obsessed with Rwink – it was all we could talk about.  Which kid got a new shirt?  Which kid was doing well?  Which kid is shy but has amazing English?  Which kid is a brother of which kid?  The kids became our entertainment tonight – we were absolute, shameless gossip queens.

My real family – for always checking in, and being involved in this project a good amount. 

Justin, Lindsey, Kelsey, the board, and all the Shooting Touch supporters out there – obviously, this program would not exist without you.  This whole project that Isa and I did is much deeper than a one man show, there are so many people doing so many things every day to make something special like this work.  Isa and I are only role-players on this team.  Justin and Lindsey especially deserve a huge shout-out for being so damn ballsy – I don’t know many people who would write a $25,000 check to a college graduate and basically say “we trust you, do your thing” – so thank you guys.  You basically gave Isa and I more than a college scholarship because we learned so much.  We honestly can never re-pay you. 

My Co-coach/seesta/’Saura/ Isaura Guzman – through the thick and thin you were always there, and no one will ever have our experience.  Countless inside jokes, countless good times together, countless stories.  From the days when we were sleeping on foam pads in Gikondo, to doing Shooting Drills just the two of us, to trekking all over East Africa, you were awesome.  You are my friend for life seesta and I was so lucky to have you.  
 
Lastly and most importantly, the kids – these boys and girls brought it every single day.  These are the kids I live with, who work their tails off chasing goats and still come to basketball and play until the sun goes down and even afterwards.  Seeing the passion for the game and for each other grow right before my eyes was maybe the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I am so lucky to have been able to witness it.

            Now, onto the sappy stuff.  After the event Saturday night, Brad and I had people over for a goodbye party, and it was a pretty good time, but the whole night I knew that eventually I would have to fully realize that I do not know when I will come back to here, and it really made me think of how much Rwinkwavu and Shooting Touch have affected me and changed me in the past year. On Sunday morning, I took Kelsey to Akagera and we had an amazing time – a herd of elephants charged our car, we saw hippos, monkeys, topis, impalas, zebras, and giraffes, it was so cool.  Kelsey was like a kid in a candy store and would not stop making Lion King references (such a muzungu move).  Anyways, when our driver, Emmy, dropped us back at Brad and I’s place, Eric, a primary kid, one of 7 children, was waiting on our street with an envelope.  I have a special relationship with Eric – he has such great leadership qualities, but sometimes has episodes of discipline problems – so many times we have personal meetings with him and Issa.  When Matt – the director of the library, and my good friend met with his mother and learned that he was not in school in order to pick minerals to give the family money, we sent him to school.  I know it is not right to choose favorites, but I know what this kid is capable of, and simply could not sleep at night.  He wrote me a huge long letter thanking me for coaching him, and although I didn’t cry in front of him, the second I got in the house, I lost it.  It must have taken him 2 hours to write those two paragraphs in (damaged, yet not completely broken) English, but I knew he was proud of what he wrote.  For a kid his age to understand the importance of education and the importance of being appreciative made me so happy.  That afternoon, Kelsey and I played ball with the kids until sundown, playing 3 on 3 and joking around, dancing, walking on our hands.  Our team actually had to sit a couple of games because we lost once or twice.

            Later that night, two of Brada and I’s prospective youth leaders (who we refer to the “future mayors of Rwink”) – Prince and Kababa, came over to say goodbye to me.  They were looking quite sad, and were honestly silent with their heads down on the couch, and eventually said “I will never forget you.” They wrote me notes, and even gave me a string to tie my sunglasses around my neck – so thoughtful.  I walked them home, squeeze hugged them for a good 10 seconds, and told them I loved them. Every kid in Rwink is great, but those two in particular really have a bright future. The next morning, about 10 of my players stood at the end of the driveway to say goodbye, and ran alongside the car as I dropped some final donated basketball books (thanks Aunt Pat and Uncle Bruce!) off at the library, and to pay Patrick for the next month before Kevin and Priscilla get to Rwink.  We shot around, and laughed and played a bit, but it was kind of a somber time.  Brad drove Kelsey and I out of the driveway, and it was so hard to say goodbye to those kids.  Through all of this, I can’t believe how appreciative kids in Rwink are – I simply could not imagine little (spoiled) American kids visiting a coach before he left – writing letters at the age of 11, and not being afraid to cry in front of an adult.  It made me fall in love with Rwink that much more.  And this love runs deep within me – Brada and I talk all the time about how it is now impossible for us to move on with our lives and not be connected to Rwink in some way – to not see how its progressing or be involved in its progression – to not wonder about these awesome kids who are so happy and so energetic every single day. 

Its funny how I was sent here to be the teacher, and at the end of 10+ months, I found myself to be the student.  I have learned so much from this place, the kids I have worked with, and the Shooting Touch system overall and I feel like I could write a book on it, but here are the lessons/realizations in short (K and P listen up):

- its 10 times more rewarding to give yourself to a project or a community than to expect a community to do something for you.

- anything can happen if you work hard and smart enough – all it takes is a little toughness and resourcefulness.

- always play by the rules in the country you are in, no matter how you try to make the new community comfortable to you, you will always have to be the one to change.

- (warning: typical life lesson learned amongst muzungus in Africa) – be more friendly to people even if you don’t know them.  Never assume the worst.

- Work as hard as possible, but don’t have any expectations. If stuff doesn’t work out  don’t get frustrated, just keep on working

- Poverty/hardship does not automatically equal displeasure in life – these are the hardest working kids I have ever been around, and they don't get much back out of it in terms of money or resources.  But they are undeniably the happiest kids I have ever been around..  They are up before sunset doing work, they go to school, and then the play basketball well beyond sundown, the whole time with a smile on their face.  A lesson a learned from my parents - that work is a blessing and you are lucky to have work - is personified by these kids.  
 
- Shooting Touch actually WORKS.  I can say that I saw a huge change in my kids in two aspects - 1. the basketball aspect – providing a common place to play basketball and interact with one another, a place to form a team, and beyond that, going from dribbling with their noses to the ground to freaking reverse layups in traffic.

 2. In mindset – holding each other accountable, becoming young leaders, practicing turi kumwe, and taking responsibility of their actions.  Beyond the explicit goals of Shooting Touch, the basic premise of the program allows for tremendous growth in cultural appreciation.  I’m not going to lie, coming to Rwanda was not easy for the first month or so, but then you just give yourself to the country and its customs, throw away your stubbornness, and then it becomes paradise in an instant.  The world becomes so small and so intimate because of this program.

- This experience has been so humbling. Seeing my kids balance housework, schoolwork, delivering milk, herding goats, transporting stuff on their bikes, along with basketball, all while (most of them) they were living in (what Westerner’s would perceive as) poverty, really made me realize what “work” truly was.  I will never forget the joy they brought to the court every single day, the way they truly cared about one another, and all of their laughs. 

I’ll be honest, and you can ask Kelsey and Brad this, I cried about 5 separate times over the weekend.  For a good 48 hours, I wanted to throw a BF (#whitechicks) and just scream “WHY DOES IT HAVE TO END!!??”  But that is how the program works.  Kevin and Priscilla will come here, and they will build on and make Shooting Touch bigger and better, and it is my time to step back.  I’m going to miss the kids laughter, the way they shake their fingers at each other when they get fouled, the way they try to sneak back into a game of knockout and get caught, the way they are there in the morning 1-2 hours before the first training starts.  No one in my life will ever make me feel the way Rwink did, and it is so sad it has to end.  But its not over for Rwink and I, its see you later.  I never thought I’d get married at such a young age, but for Rwink and I, its “'Til Death Do Us Part.”  I guess the best way to look at it is that I won the lottery, but then it ended, and I should be thankful that I lived for 1 year as the luckiest man in the world.  And so that’s how I end this blog, with a broad thank you, a thank you to everyone and anyone who ever gave me a chance, because chances are best used when they are not only reciprocated, but paid forward, and I think if you were to sum up what this whole process meant to me and my kids in Rwink, that was it.  Shooting Touch gave me a chance so I could give others a chance, and the cycle continues....

Turi kumwe buri gihe,  (we are forever together),

Casey Sweeney Stockton
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