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Berkeley soccer player Anna Key, a "self-proclaimed healer of people" (according to her admiring coach), found she could contribute to the work of nurturing dozens of Malawian orphans just by spending time among them and their communal caregivers. Key hopes to return to Malawi after graduation.

Berkeley's goodwill goalie
On a visit to impoverished Malawi, a Cal soccer player encounters 'the happiest people I ever met'

| 09 November 2005

Surveying the landscape, Anna Key saw malnourished orphans walking the streets barefoot. Garbage was everywhere. Water came out of pumps in the ground. Most people just sat around, cleaned their huts, or tended to the sick. Few had anything to do but survive and find happiness where they could.

This was life in Malawi, a landlocked nation between Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia in southeast Africa.

Followup
Remembering Malawi from afar: Delivering on Anna Key's promise to the Amai Achifundo Orphan Care Centre
Malawi Nation, July 21, 2006

Key, a junior goalkeeper on the California women's soccer team, spent three weeks in Malawi this past summer to bring gifts from her Golden Bear team - and to deliver messages of hope. The Oakland native planned the trip after taking South African linguistics and Swahili from Sam Mchombo, an associate professor of linguistics who is a Malawi native.

"I always had this crazy fantasy in my head to visit Africa," said Key, a Peace and Conflict studies major whose mother, Dutch Key, served in the Peace Corps in Kenya after graduating from Berkeley in 1968. "Obviously, these people need help, and I wanted to help. I told Sam my idea, and he helped me put together a trip with a purpose."

Cal women's soccer head coach Kevin Boyd is familiar with Key's altruistic side. "She's a self-proclaimed healer of people," Boyd said. "She has felt for a long time that she is meant to help people. This trip opened her eyes to many things."

On May 21, Key embarked on her life-changing experience, lugging along a huge Cal soccer duffel bag with a full set of jerseys, soccer balls, cleats, shorts, and socks. For the last several years, the men's and women's soccer teams have sent soccer gear with Mchombo on his visits to his homeland, but this time Key served as a personal university ambassador.

It took her about two days to reach her final destination: first a flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam, then another flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, and finally a jaunt from Nairobi to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

Mchombo's son, David, met Key at the airport - one landing strip and a little hut - and welcomed her with a few days of hospitality in his town. Key then spent three weeks touring various towns and villages.

The towns, with sporadic electrical service, are more developed than the villages, which have no electricity at all. Key devoted time in towns to developing women's soccer by meeting with soccer officials and Malawi's national team, and by going to elementary schools. She also visited soccer fields to talk to kids about the importance of staying in school and being involved with athletics.

"They have a women's national team, but the challenges they're facing are all just basic," said Key, who played with that team during her visit. "While I expected them to be a lot worse than they were, they can't play anyone because they have no money for transportation. They have no jerseys or soccer balls."

While soccer is popular in Malawi, modern-day fields don't exist. Most often, a dirt clearing with two posts sticking out of the ground to represent a goal is all they have. Kids will wind scraps of plastic tightly over and over to make a soccer ball and play the international pastime barefoot.

"The first time I saw this I thought, 'I've got to give these kids a ball,'" Key said. "I need to go back and get my ball and give it to them. After I had seen it a hundred times, I was like, 'Oh, that's just how it is.'"

Despite the privations Key witnessed, she was impressed with the hospitality and the positive nature of the citizens.

"They were so happy to have me, so warm and friendly," Key said. "The thing that was amazing to me was that these people have nothing, absolutely nothing. They eat maybe every couple of days. They eat insema, a porridge of water and flour. They have no blankets. No clothing. They pretty much just walk around in rags. And yet they are the happiest people I've ever met."

Key spent a fair amount of time at an orphan-care center that serves 29 small villages that, combined, are home to some 900 orphans. Women in the villages have united to care for these children; most of the men have left in search of mining jobs in South Africa, or else have died of AIDS, which has hit Malawi particularly hard. "A lot of kids are orphaned that way - or else by poverty and a lack of food," said Key. Lacking a medical background, Key provided basic nurturing for the babies.

"People were so taken aback that I was even there," says Key. "I was the first white person they had ever seen, the first American. I was the first person from the outside that had ever showed interest in helping them.

"A lot of people came up to me and [through an interpreter] told me their problems and what they needed. They would say to me, 'I am as you see me.' They kept saying that. I asked, 'What does that mean?' That's everything they have, everything they are. No clothes, no food, no parents, no anything."

Key came home a few weeks earlier than she anticipated because she realized that what she really needed to do was raise money for Malawi.

"When I look back and think about what I did on a daily basis, it was unbelievable," Key recalled. "When you witness that type of poverty and that type of misery every day, it's overwhelming. I remember thinking, 'God, these people are actually dying in front of me.'

"It's made me appreciate what we have so much. The fact that I can turn on a faucet and water comes out makes me so happy. I saw a lot of horrible things, but I came out of it with a really great appreciation for the life I was given."

Key plans to raise money for Malawi over the next two years, to provide relief for the orphans and structural help for the women's soccer officials she met with there. She plans to write letters to everyone she knows; to corporations she thinks might be interested in providing assistance; and to all of the soccer coaches in the Pac-10. And she hopes to return after she graduates, to see if her efforts have made a difference. When she does, it might be as a professional in public or international policy - perhaps with the United Nations, or an organization like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.

"I knew she would see and experience the world differently after she went to Malawi," said Anna's mother, Dutch. "It's one thing to read about places, but quite another to see those places firsthand. In fact, she did have a mindblowing experience, which will motivate her to stay active and committed to making the world a better place."