Canadian speed skater Arne Dankers visits Rwanda for Right To Play

Article by Jolanda Abbes - After a good season that may have surprised himself more than anyone, Olympic silver-medalist speed skater Arne Dankers visited Rwanda early May as an Athlete Ambassador for Right To Play. Back home after this impressive experience, Dankers talks about this trip and the dancing skills he picked up while being there.

Arne Dankers looks back on a good speed skating season. After several top 10 finishes at the Fall World Cups and some good races at the Canadian Single Distances Championships in December, he was able to conclude the season with top 4 finishes in the 5k and the 10k and a silver medal in the Team Pursuit at the World Single Distances Championships in Salt Lake City. After this season’s end he traveled to Rwanda to see Right To Play's work first-hand and to take part in activities and games with the children in several schools and orphanages.

As part of the ‘Rwanda Challenge’ Dankers visited Rwanda with fellow speed skater and Olympic double silver-medalist Kristina Groves. On this trip, which took place May 1-8, they were joined by Hayley Wickenheiser (two-time Olympic gold-medalist, hockey) and Jennifer Heil (Olympic gold-medalist, moguls). Together, the four athletes traveled approximately 100,000 kilometres on their round-trip journey. For the ‘Rwanda Challenge’, a national fundraising campaign, they are now challenging Canadian individuals and corporations to raise $1 for every kilometre they traveled, in support of children in Right To Play programs in Rwanda and in 21 other countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The entire campaign will last 100 days, concluding in late July.

In the words of Mark Brender, Deputy Director for Right To Play Canada, Right To Play's mission is “to improve the lives of children in the most disadvantaged areas of the world by using the power of sport and play to promote development, health and peace. We believe that through sport and play, children can become happier and healthier, and we can help build safer, more peaceful communities.” Knowing this, it is easy to see that Right To Play can make a huge difference for the young people in Rwanda. After the genocide of 1994 the country is now trying to rebuild and redefine itself, and encounters many difficulties in doing so. Brender explains how Right To Play can be of help: “The knowledge, attitudes and practice of Rwandese surrounding HIV and AIDS put adolescents and youths at serious risk of contracting the disease, and this is exacerbated by the loss of many qualified teachers through the genocide of 1994. Through our sport and play programs, and in particular our Live Safe, Play Safe module, we can encourage HIV/AIDS awareness, behaviour change and promote the prevention of HIV/AIDS among Rwandan children and youth. Right To Play is also collaborating with UNICEF on a project to enhance the quality of education in 50 schools and in other locations through teacher training, infrastructure improvements and other initiatives.”

As Brender explains, there is reason why the Athlete Ambassadors of Right To Play visit the countries in which the organization is trying to make a difference: “The goal of these trips is to provide an opportunity for our Athlete Ambassadors to see the impact of our work, and to allow them to put some joy into the children's lives by interacting with them. As a result, athletes are that much more educated and empowered to promote Right To Play in Canada, and to speak authoritatively about the humanitarian potential of sport. The smiles on the children's faces speak volumes about what we're able to accomplish.”

Even though Dankers has only really been involved for a year now, he first heard about Right To Play quite some time ago: “I went to a talk that Johann Olav Koss gave about the Olympic truce when I was 13 or 14. I had heard of his program, but didn't really know what it was. Later that day he gave a talk about team building which was also incredible. Anyways, that's when I heard about what Koss was doing. I thought it was very good, but I didn't think that I would ever have the chance to be a part of it. Many years later, I was still skating, and he started his organization Right To Play. Then I took the chance that I thought that I would never have.”

When asked about his first Right To Play trip, Dankers states that it made a great impression on him. Even though the athletes were in Rwanda for only 4.5 days, they managed to do and see a lot. They visited a different school each day, four schools in total. “At the first school we got to see for the first time the Right To Play games in action. I was mostly struck about the importance of inclusion in the games. Everybody was included. I think that this is such an important thing. Even in our schools here shy kids or kids that are somehow different often get left out. But in a country like Rwanda, with the history that it has, I found it especially powerful. At the end of recess the kids put on a dance show for us. The people in Rwanda seem like they love to dance; everywhere we went they put on a dance show for us. The kids are awesome at dancing.”

The second day the athletes went to see the Genocide Memorial and visited an orphanage which is run by Charles Nkazamyampi, an Olympian from Burundi, called the Foundation of Sport and Culture for Peace. “Again they put on a dance show for us. The orphanage is run by people who are trained in the Right To Play games: red ball child play or RBCP. Each of the different colors of balls represents a different aspect of health: mind, body, peace and cooperation, health, spirit.” An example of such a game is a version of British bulldog. One child stands in the middle of the field, and is labelled HIV/AIDS. The rest of the children are divided into three groups: abstinence, condoms, and fidelity; they all stand on one end of the field. When the child in the middle calls out a group, that group tries to run across the field without getting caught by the child in the middle (i.e. infected by HIV). “Afterwards the teacher, or coach, talks about the game, and has the kids talk about the game. For example, one kid might say: ‘It was hard to cross the field when there were lots of people infected.’ In this way the teacher leads a discussion about the game that applies to life, and the problems that the kids face in their everyday lives.”

On the third day the athletes went to Butare and visited the national museum of Rwanda. “We learned lots about Rwanda and its history there. Then we visited a school that is managed by CPAJ. This school was also an orphanage for street kids. Again we played some RBCP games, and afterwards some soccer. The coaches at all these schools are incredible people, and full of energy. Often they use dancing and clapping in the warm-up to get the kids excited to play the games. It was fun to be a part of that.”

The fourth day was a play day at a SOS school/boarding house. At this school orphaned children are organized into ‘family’ groups of ten, with a mom and an aunt for each family of ten. The mom and the aunt look after their family until the children are married. “It was very interesting to see the differences in all the different aid organizations and their approaches, and all the different schools, and the kids within these schools.”

On the last day the athletes visited Green Hills Academy before they got on their plane to leave. The Green Hills Academy is a private school for upper-class children. “The school was set up by a Canadian couple, and they wanted to set up a school in Rwanda with a very high level of quality. The kids in the school are part of the International Baccalaureate program, which is a well-respected high school diploma around the world. Again, it was interesting to see the differences in this school compared to the others.”

Because his brother had traveled through Rwanda the year before and had shared his pictures and stories with him, Dankers thought he more or less knew what to expect for this trip. However, not all was how he had expected it to be beforehand. “What was different from what I expected was how important a role Right To Play plays in the development and education of the kids. I think that people learn the best when they are having fun, which is what the RBCP program does. These kids face so many challenges in their lives that we can't even imagine, like living on the street, being an orphan, child prostitution, dealing with the after effects/trauma of the genocide, poverty, HIV/AIDS, et cetera. I think that to empower these kids with tools for managing their situation – emotionally, physically and spiritually – and to empower them through education and awareness, to teach them skills that apply to their everyday life, is a very noble cause, and a very important one. I also did not expect to see so much dancing, and to be dancing so much myself!”

The Rwanda trip of Groves and Dankers has not gone unnoticed. “With their double silver-medal performances in Turin, Kristina Groves and Arne Dankers proved that they are among the best speed skaters in the world,” said Johann Olav Koss, President and CEO of Right To Play. “By traveling to Rwanda to see our programs, they also showed their dedication and passion for Right To Play and the children we serve. I know Kristina and Arne will continue to be inspirational role models for Canadian children by sharing their experiences from the trip, and by being such strong advocates for the power of sport to improve children’s lives.”

All in all, Dankers looks back on a trip that made a huge impression on him. “It was a very eye-opening experience, and I have learned a lot about life and about the world by going there.” On top of that he has seen in what ways an organization like Right To Play can make a true difference in the lives of children in countries like Rwanda. “I don’t think I was able to make much of a difference personally, besides maybe by making the kids laugh with my horrible dancing, but I do believe that Right To Play is making a huge difference in the quality of the kids’ lives, and in their ability to deal with their surroundings.”

Individuals and corporations interested in donating money to the ‘Rwanda Challenge’ can do so online through a special ‘Right To Play Rwanda Challenge’ fundraising page at www.righttoplay.com/rwandachallenge. The campaign will conclude in late July. Donations to the ‘Rwanda Challenge’ can also be made by sending a cheque made out to Right To Play, with ‘Rwanda Challenge’ in the subject line, to: Right To Play, 468 Queen St. E., LL1, Toronto, ON, M5A 1T7.