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Your jerseys bring hope to kids in despair; FROM SCOTLAND TO THE SLUMS OF NAIROBI.

Byline: BOB SHIELDS in Africa

THE great travel writers who have made pilgrimages here say there is nothing brighter in the world than an East Africa dawn.

They have a point. Here in Kenya - right on the Equator - the rising sun races left and right into each hemisphere like a spilled tin of crimson paint.

But the great travel writers have still got it wrong.

What could possibly outshine the smile on the face of a desperate African orphan?

It's a brightness in a dark world of disease and poverty that you cannot measure in candle power.

Now, I'm not exactly known for being a soft touch. You could engage a decent-sized plant hire firm and still not move me.

But yesterday, in a Nairobi slum called Lunga Lunga, I was handed tiny Bridgit.

In her little six-year life, the last thing she was given by a white person was her first name - after the nun who attended to her pregnant mother. Her only clothes are the ones she stands up in. On wash day, she'll be wrapped in a torn blanket until the sun dries her tiny dress and cardigan.

When I handed her a football jersey - a simple yellow top donated by a Scots boys' club, her face lit up. She waved it like a trophy for the approval of her excited little friends.

Handing over a jersey was easy. Handing back Bridgit to a life of hunger if she's lucky - disease and prostitution if she isn't - was the hard bit.

Charlie, a local social worker and my guide, could sense my emotion. "I know what you're thinking..." he consoled me. How could he?

I was thinking why the hell hadn't I also brought a pair of shoes for the muddy little feet I could hold in the palm of one hand?

Our Save The Jerseys campaign trail had started three months ago back in Scotland where jerseys like Bridgit's are a multi-million pound business.

From football stars like Rangers captain Barry Ferguson to Scotland's most northerly school in Orkney - but mostly from generous readers - the jerseys had rolled in by the thousands.

Then there was the fun day we had at Hampden laying them out on the pitch for a historic photograph.

But the trail ends here in Lunga Lunga where the streets are no wider than the Hampden tunnel. And the children play side-by-side in streets with cholera and typhoid lurking in the raw sewage under their feet.

At night, families of eight children and more sleep in wooden shacks half the size of a Hampden car parking space.

The jerseys you gave may not change lives. But they certainly brightened the hearts - and the streets and the playgrounds - of every single place we managed to visit.

"It's just a jersey to us, but it's Christmas Day for them," said Theresa Strain, the British Airways stewardess from Alloa who founded the Children of Mukuru charity for Nairobi's slum kids.

"We are talking about wee ones for whom half a pencil is like a PlayStation. Something bright and new to wear is a joy for them. They may be poor, but they are very proud of their clothes."

We took a box of jerseys to one of the Mukuru project's schools, St Catherine's, run by the Sisters of Mercy. The school team were due to line up against Kayaaba, a rival slum school whose team they hadn't beaten for two seasons.

Team jerseys are unheard of here. So imagine the boys' faces when we unpacked a set of tangerine and black tops, numbered two to 16, donated by Hill of Beath Boys' Club.

The matching shorts had disappeared into one of a hundred cardboard boxes. So we found a set of black ones donated by Dunfermline Football Club.

The visiting Kayaaba lads were given T-shirts by British Airways, Theresa's employer and generous benefactors of Mukuru.

They had no shorts - so we scrambled a set of blue ones mostly from St Johnstone FC.

The boys trooped out with hearts bigger than the lions that roam the bush outside Nairobi.

The school was given the afternoon off to watch the big match and they sat round the pitch covered with sun baked earth, tufts of weed and stones.

Half the lads had no boots, but they played on the rocky ground as though they were running on air.

St Catherine's, Hill of Beath and Dunfermline United beat British Airways and St Johnstone Rovers 3-1.

Overjoyed, the other pupils invaded the pitch in a cloud of red dust. I had never seen anything like it.

And afterwards they celebrated their new jerseys and thanked us in the only way they knew how - by forming a line and singing for us.

A short journey across the city at St Elizabeth Primary School, our boxes of jerseys got an army escort to their final destination.

Scots squaddies Richard Morpheu, 22, of Paisley, Daz Doyle, 26, of Kilbirnie and Bruce Traynor, 22, of Angus, heard the Daily Record was in town and gave up their leave to drive us around.

We wanted to give every child in the school a jersey but Agnes, the headteacher urged caution.

The kids here are taught that nothing is for nothing. The jerseys must be seen as some kind of reward.

So 10 pupils from every class were chosen on merit. Not all the cleverest children, but some who perhaps have worked in the adversity of bereavement, were regular attenders or just good at helping others.

The line of 200 excited pupils snaked among the corrugated iron classrooms.

We did our best to find jerseys to fit every boy and girl - but no-one seemed to care what size they were sent away with.

One lad leapt for joy when he pulled on a red top with the badge "Carluke Boys Club".

One youngster was even pleased to be given a Kilmarnock jersey. But hey, it's for charity, isn't it?

Then we kitted out their school team in Scotland international jerseys. But none of the strapping lads appeared to have a Scots granny that manager Craig Brown might find useful.

Amid all the joy, however, the harsh reality all around us was impossible to ignore.

Agnes explained that some of her pupils have just one meal a day, the school lunch of maize meal. And even then, some little ones hide bits of food in scraps of paper to take home to little brothers and sisters still going hungry.

Across the street, teams of very organised builders were erecting some very professional looking "shacks".

Agnes explained that proposed new laws could mean land rights for those who live in the slums. So wealthy businessmen were quickly erecting instant slums in the hope they could cheat their way to some free land. And my heart sank when told that some of the children would have the jerseys taken by their fathers and sold on the streets for alcohol or glue. I saw the squaddies bristle with anger when they heard this ... but some things were just out of our control.

In a mad-dash 48 hours, with the help of RAF man Mich Schuel, one of Theresa Strain's closest friends and helpers, and the RAF man in Nairobi Dave Jarvis, we distributed over 5000 jerseys in the slums, in schools and to boys' clubs.

And more boxes have still to come from Scotland in a second consignment. But we set up a system to make sure they would go to the right people when they arrived by RAF transport plane later this summer.

We had done all we could, but faced with such extreme deprivation, it can never be enough. Writing this report before departure, on flights courtesy of British Airways, Theresa spotted me deep in thought.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "I'm looking for the words to tell our readers of the success of Save The Jerseys," I told her.

Theresa fumbled the crucifix around her neck and thought for a moment before saying, "Tell them they've blessed thousands of African children and the children bless them in return."

I didn't need any words after that.

Daily Record Save the Jerseys appeal team: Bob Shields, Gary Ralston, Annie Brown, Gordon Jack and Tony Nicoletti.

The Save The Jerseys appeal was generously assisted by: Sports Connection, Lynx, McCleland's Transport, The Scottish Premier League, The Scottish Football League, British Airways and The Royal Air Force.

Please send donations to: Children of Mukuru Charity, PO Box 24455, London, W5 5RP.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 7, 2001
Previous Article:Secret shyness of comic genius; This Is Stanley Baxter BBC1, 10.35pm.

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