Using Athletics To Bridge The Cultural Gap

Photo Gallery | Video of Happny on Her Experience

By James Greene
Special to

For athletes who participate in fall sports, the summer is an important time for training and practice. It would seem that athletic responsibilities would preclude an opportunity to study overseas. However, senior field hockey player Nora Happny knew when she came to Holy Cross she would play for a coach who understood the importance of volunteering, even if it meant a month away from the team. "[Head coach] Ali [Hawk] luckily did Appalachia while she was here, and she was so supportive of having us volunteer and be involved in that way," she said.

Happny visited the Study Abroad office at Holy Cross and discovered a brand new program that would immerse 12 students in Nairobi, Kenya for 30 days. "I found out about it just through word of mouth by going to Study Abroad and asking what programs were being offered," she said. After sitting in for an information session, she made her decision. "It just sounded like the right thing for me to do."

Because it is the first program of its kind at Holy Cross, there were hurdles to overcome and risks to consider, according to Happny. "Part of the difficulty with this program is Nairobi is a dangerous place," she said. "We were working in a slum."

The slum she references is Kibera, home to an estimated one million people in the center of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, and the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. The area is still healing from the election violence that tore through there in 2007, and today the nation remains on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list.

Happny explained that Holy Cross had to make sure serious agreements were in place to ensure the safety of the students going abroad. "When it was dark we needed to be back in the building we were staying in," she recollected. "We needed to be chaperoned when we were walking around the slums."

The majority of the students' days were spent participating in an internship with a local association. Happny volunteered with Carolina for Kibera (CFK), a non-governmental organization based in Nairobi and affiliated with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Center for Global Initiatives. Begun in 2001, CFK "fights abject poverty and helps prevent violence through community-based development in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya and beyond," according to its official website.

Happny worked with CFK's Youth Sports Association, which uses sports to promote cooperation amongst Kenya's many different cultures. The country hosts approximately 40 different ethnicities.

"When I read through the list, CFK just struck me," Happny said. "I've done athletics all my life. Just the idea of a sports program specifically trying to build a better community really interested me.  I find that some of the best ways to get to know people internationally is through sports." In order to foster teamwork and cooperation, CFK only allows soccer teams to participate in its tournaments if the squad's members come from at least three different ethnicities. "The fact that a little soccer program is breaking that huge barrier is really an important thing in the community," she said.

In the spirit of cooperation that CFK fosters, the trip featured help from another sports program at Holy Cross. Aided by women's assistant soccer coach Heather Lipp, Happny trekked to Kenya with three duffel bags filled with Holy Cross soccer gear. "I actually got to personally give it to some of the older girls we were playing with, girls in their 20s," Happny said. "They were so thrilled to get this new equipment.  I'm so thankful Coach Lipp was willing to donate that stuff. Everyone there was so grateful for all the gear." Some of the uniforms will even be worn during tournaments, she said.

In addition to soccer, CFK also promotes community service. On weekends when tournaments are not being played, the athletes work on cleaning up the slum. "They rake up some of the debris and trash that is clogging the drains," she said. "To see these kids cleaning their own community is a really important step for the people of Kibera. In talking to a good number of those boys, they enjoy doing it, they feel like they're giving back, and they feel like it's become a part of their experience with playing soccer."

Besides volunteering, Happny and her fellow students engrossed themselves in Kenyan culture. They spent two hours every morning learning Kiswahili, the county's official language. They also attended daily lectures given by local political and cultural figures.

"We talked about environmental issues, women's issues, political issues," she said. "We talked about election violence and what's going on in the slums, and on and on. What I took away most is I think the United Nations does a lot of great things, but within Kenya and Africa, I'm a strong believer that what we're doing and the aid we're giving is not working like it should. I think there are other aspects that need to be pursued and other things that need to happen."

Specifically, Happny believes a better job could have been done with new housing constructed by the United Nations for Kibera's residents. "The idea is they would move a certain amount of people into the housing complex, tear down the slums and rebuild the area," she said. "That was four years ago, and no one's living there. The houses are not built for the people who are meant to live there. They are more money than they can afford." She explains the multi-room dwellings are ill-equipped to satisfy the needs of Kibera's people, who are accustomed to small one-room houses furnished simply with a charcoal or wood stove for cooking.

One of the biggest hurdles for residents in Kibera is employment. Many of them are well-educated, Happny pointed out. "There are people there with PhDs," she said. "Most of the kids I worked with had gone to college, and they still didn't have jobs. There are just no jobs for them anywhere."

"For me this program that was mostly in Nairobi was really important to understanding a larger picture and getting to know people," she said. "It's not until you go in for 25 days that you really understand more of what's going on. I think that experience for anyone at this school would really be a great way for them to get more out of what Holy Cross is asking us to take away."

It's obvious the experience has left an indelible mark on the senior. Happny said she left Kibera knowing the people there are grateful of the aid they receive, but they also communicated an important message to her. "Everybody kept telling us, ‘We know we have problems here, but we know you also have a lot of problems in your country'," she said. "‘As much as we appreciate your help, we want you to go and fix your own country first.' I think that is very important for what's going on right now."

With one more year to go on Mount St. James, Happny is thinking about her future. Her month-long visit to Kibera has inspired her to do more both at home and also abroad. "It's made me think a lot more about how I can help change the things that are going wrong," she said. Her perspective has changed "now that I've gone abroad. There's things that I just see differently going on in this country that were going on before."

The experience had such a profound impact on Happny that she has undertaken efforts to raise money for CFK as she prepares for her final season at Holy Cross. Photographs she took during the trip are currently on display at Ceres Bakery in her hometown of Portsmouth, N.H. through August. She also hopes to sell photographs and raise $1,000 for CFK by Christmas.