“Running with the children the other morning… I’ll be touched and remember forever.”
— Steve Montador, a few days after visiting school kids in the Serengeti, June 2007
Steve Montador was a guy who took a lot of punches. He wasn’t the most successful hockey fighter but he was always a willing participant. Willing to stick up for any teammate, willing to drop the mitts at the appropriate time. He would best be considered a middleweight who often fought heavyweight enforcers. He also fought stars, shit disturbers, and grinders. According to hockeyfights.com, in his career “Monty” fought fifty-one different NHLers, nine of them multiple times, and based on the visual evidence, he lost the majority of his fights.
But whether he won or lost at fisticuffs meant little. A hard-working defenseman, he played the game the right way and was cherished by any man wearing the same sweater.
He was also freaking hilarious.
The longest, hardest sustained laughter I have experienced as an adult occurred while listening to Montador tell a story about laser hair removal in a sensitive area of his body, and the interactions with the older woman who was removing it. We were sitting at dinner on the shores of the Indian Ocean, north of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, at a remote resort restaurant with Andrew Ference, his former teammate in Calgary and at the time a Boston Bruins defenceman; as well as Mark Brender, then Canadian Deputy Director of the humanitarian sports organization Right To Play; Patrick Gamere, our videographer from New England Sports Network (NESN); and our local cab driver, whom we invited to sit and join us despite the fact he spoke only Swahili.
The cabbie didn’t need to speak English to know that Monty’s story was outrageously funny. Simply watching Monty’s non-verbal gestures and the rest of us doubled over, the cabbie was laughing, eyes watering, as much as the rest of us.
It was one of the many times the man had us in stitches during a trip that had its fair share of very serious moments. Like when the machine-gun-toting Tanzanian cop decided whether or not he was going to let our van pass through his checkpoint; when we almost stepped on not one, but two, very deadly green mamba snakes in the Serengeti; when some remote villagers may have taken exception to us not buying any of their handmade goods after they had welcomed us like kings; and when we regularly realized just how amazing the local children were, despite the fact they were dealing with crushing poverty, AIDS, and abuse.
Monty was there on a mission with Ference to learn firsthand about the work of Right To Play in East Africa, and to pass that knowledge and experience along to potential supporters back home. I was helping that effort by producing and hosting an hour-long documentary on their almost week-long adventure for NHL Network TV and also a couple of half-hour versions for NESN.
They were long days full of smiles, enlightenment, and inspiration while playing games with Tanzanian children, followed by deeper reflection on a nightly basis. The reality of the kids’ living conditions and lifestyle was humbling and confounding.
Montador actually committed to the trip just a week before it began, after another NHL hockey player, Georges Laraque, then of the Penguins, backed out due to a summer training injury. On day two, Andrew described his appreciation for Monty’s effort.
“It’s pretty cool that a guy can come with six days’ notice for a big trip to Africa, so there’s not too many guys around that would do that but… let alone come with the enthusiasm and understanding in such a short time about what Right To Play is all about. Really kind of just opening his arms to what we’re seeing here, and the culture here, and what we’re all about.”
Right To Play uses games and sports in places like sub-Saharan Africa to expose kids to life lessons they normally wouldn’t get. Not only do children show up to school in greater numbers during these RTP activity days, so do more teachers. Among other things, the activities teach the kids about avoiding malaria, protecting themselves against HIV, and treating others, especially girls and women in this otherwise very patriarchal landscape, with respect.
Ference and Montador flew overnight from London to Dar es Salaam, met us at the Peacock Hotel City Centre, and within an hour were in a van heading to the first venue, an orphanage, or dogo dogo (“little” in Swahili), somewhere in the middle of the city. We had no idea where we were going; we relied on a full-time Tanzanian guide named Leila Sheik, hired by the local Right To Play office to get us everywhere.
She got us past the cop, she made sure our meals and hotel rooms were taken care of, she negotiated with villagers, and she basically saved our asses whenever we were clueless or potentially in trouble. (I was happy to see Leila pop up on Twitter in June 2015. After our trip in 2007, we thought she might literally have been killed off. She was a pretty mouthy, female anti-government activist, who at one point told a hotel manager to “go F himself.”)
Leila referred to Andrew and Steve, these athlete ambassadors, as “her stars.” “Whatever my stars want, my stars get.”
On day one they got a dose of reality. The dogo dogo was a part-time school, part-time recreation centre, and a housing facility, full of abused kids and AIDS orphans. The country has millions of them. Half of the population lives below the poverty line; most adults earn the equivalent of about $200 US dollars a year.
Issac, literally the first kid we met, was wearing a white t-shirt with a photograph on the front of Steve Yzerman hoisting the Stanley Cup after the Detroit Red Wings won it in 1997. Isaac didn’t know Steve Yzerman’s name, nor would he know Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe. He wouldn’t know a hockey puck if it hit him in the head. He had no idea what the shirt meant, it was just a nifty article of clothing from America.
I’m thinking: pretty freaking cool, this kid is wearing a Red Wings t-shirt. Even more freaking cool was that a donation dropped in a box somewhere in North America reached its intended target, a kid in Africa who needed clothes.
The children held our hands and guided us through a shantytown to a clearing they used as a soccer field. It was a mix of grass and dirt and littered with old tires, which the kids used in inventive ways as toys. The soccer ball was made up of torn pieces of t-shirt sewn tightly around a couple more balled up shirts. Andrew and Monty watched the informal match, played with the children who weren’t involved with the soccer game, and listened to them sing. They hugged the kids, they high-fived, they ran around and laughed.
“You go in and you kind of get their bio, they’re orphaned by AIDS, running away from abusive families, they’re young kids with only other orphans as family,” explained Ference. “So if you kind of go in with that and guess what you’re going to run into, you’d think, ah, kids fallen on hard times. But what we ran into were sharp kids… studying during their vacation time… really doing whatever they could to better themselves with whatever available resources they had.”
“Another thing that is remarkable is the fact that a lot of them come from impoverished areas and very challenging circumstances,” added Montador, “and yet they have hope in their eyes and they’re happy and they’re enjoying themselves with the things that they do. Their feet are so tough to be running on uneven grass mixed with dirt fields, kicking soccer balls, bumping into each other and getting up with a scrape and just continuing on. I mean, they’re tough.”
That afternoon we went to another dogo dogo, this one on the northern outskirts of the city. A group of eight eighteen-year-old orphan boys, in their final year in the program (as the director stated, “they will leave to decide their own fates”), put on a musical performance for us. High-energy interpretive dance and singing accompanied drumming on eight individual drums the teenagers had made themselves from wood and animal hides. The music included anti-war and anti-genocide messages and also focused on the natural beauty of their country. Aside from the artistic element, there was a practical side to the effort. They sold each drum for the equivalent of eight US dollars.
“That’s another thing that these schools do in such a great way,” Monty said. “There are songs and dance that talk about being free and staying resilient through war and tough times.”
It was the first day of a week dominated by smiles. Genuine, beaming African smiles that make you laugh from smiling. For all of day one, day two at a primary school, two days in the Serengeti, another primary school in a remote village, meeting a family in their compound literally in the middle of nowhere—smiles as sincere as you’ll see your entire life.
“Their lives are filled with, compared to North American kids, a lot of hardships,” Andrew pointed out. “You would never guess that by their attitudes. They’re the first ones to run out in the street and wave to the mzungu (white skin) and hold your hand. Just very affectionate and happy and real, nothing pretentious about it.”
By day two our eyes and minds had adjusted to our surroundings. The utter novelty wore off and we gradually acclimated to the social environment and the mission. Monty, the late addition, was all in—a chance to play more games and a chance to shake his booty.
“Music and dance are a part of this culture like no other culture that I’ve been around, and it’s nice because I can dance around with these kids, and though I know I suck, it doesn’t matter, ha ha,” Monty said on day two. “Because it’s just having a good time and shaking your hips and expressing yourself that way. Music and dance are just such a great expression of the culture here and it’s awesome to see 200 kids or 100 kids dancing in unison or singing in unison. It’s just quite remarkable.”