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Alan Kerins brings hope to a forgotten corner of Zambia

ALAN KERINS has won an All-Ireland medal with his native Galway, and has played both hurling and football in front of huge crowds in the magnificent Croke Park stadium, but none of these achievements has made as much impression on the 28-year-old as the three months he spent early this year helping an Irish nun in Zambia.

From Clarinbridge, Alan qualified as a chartered physiotherapist three years ago, and he is kept busy between his work in Merlin Park hospital and his dedication to his sport. Hurling was always the Number One sport at home, yet he made the breakthrough to All-Ireland glory at football.

“I never played football until I went to Trinity College,” he says. But then Galway manager John O’Mahony was impressed, added him to his panel, and Alan was a proud member of the team which won the All-Ireland in 2001.

This year he is concentrating on hurling, and hoping to become one of that rare breed in the GAA who possess both football and hurling All-Ireland medals. And Galway stand a better chance this year, as the championship format has been amended to their favour.

In the past, Galway teams, with no opposition in Connacht, came into the All-Ireland series at a disadvantage. They were faced by teams who had come through hard Munster or Leinster campaigns. However, this year, Galway go into a four-team group of the early losers, they will get three good games, and should then be in good shape for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. It could be their year.

Alan, meanwhile, can’t get his mind off Zambia, and especially that small corner of it in the Western Province near the Kalahari Desert called Mongu. It was there he had a life-changing experience.

He admits that it was his basic Christianity which drove him, but quickly reminds you that he is “no Holy Joe”. “It was seeing the effects of famine in Africa on TV that prompted me to want to go and do a bit. I wanted to see what it was like and I felt I had the skills to help people.

“I’m a physio at the moment, and before I build a house and set up a business, I thought it was now or never. I just decided to get up and go and do it.

“I have always wanted to do something like that, but in the end it came about by chance. I had approached some of the big agencies, but each time it fell through – the timing was wrong or there was some other problem.

“Then I happened to be going to London for a weekend with the boys and one of my good friends was a teacher, and the chaplain of his school was a Capuchin, Fr Dan Joe O’Mahony from Cork. He was involved in a lot of things – he was always on the go and chatting to me he said ‘would you work with AIDS victims and lepers in Zambia?’ I said I would and he wrote to Fr Declan O’Callaghan, who is an uncle of Sportsfile photographer Damien Eagers, and from Clare.

“He knew I was a physio and he’s been in Mongu for 30 years and worked with Sr Cathy Crawford, a Presentation sister from Laois in a Cheshire Home for physically handicapped children – and that’s how I ended up there. It’s the only facility for physically handicapped children in the Western Province, which is two and a half times the size of Ireland.”

Before he left for Mongu, Alan, who was accompanied by Damien, did some fund-raising. “I thought we might raise seven grand, but we got nearly 25 grand in three weeks before Christmas, and 15 grand worth of sports gear from PF Sports in Galway.” On the day I spoke to Alan he had just wired a cheque for eight thousand Euro to Sr Cathy for food.

Alan’s eyes were opened when he arrived in Mongu. “My own living conditions in the Cheshire Home were okay, but outside the people were living in grass huts with no water or electricity. There was no industry, no jobs, no Government support. The people’s whole thought is about surviving today and they think about tomorrow when it comes.

“They have nothing. Their life expectancy is 34 and the devastation caused by AIDS is terrible. Every home has AIDS orphans, with grandparents bringing up young children.”

Alan admits that he was so affected by his experience in Mongu that “once you see it over there you can’t stop. You feel you have to do something to help.”

He has started a fund (see details below) and is preparing a brochue to send to all his donors. “You never know where it will lead to,” he says.

One thing he is sure of – the money will be well spent. “Over there Sr Cathy’s main thing is rehabilitation of children and she puts most of the cash to buying prosthetic limbs for them.

“But they are on the edge of the Kalahari and the crops failed, so Sr Cathy has 300 to 400 families on her books and she’s feeding them with the money we raised.

“We also have a blockmaking project which has a twofold purpose – 1 to help build cheap houses, and 2 as an income-generating project.”

Alan has other plans. “I want to set up a scheme to drill bore holes for an irrigation project. It’s in my head to do it so as to provide a more regular supply of water for their crops.”

During his three months in Mongu, Alan was on the go full-time. “From eight in the morning to 12.30 I did physio with the children and in the evening I was on the tractor drawing water from the bore holes, shovelling sand, and a great variety of other jobs.”

On his return home, Alan found it hard to adjust to his more comfortable life. “The first morning, I heard the radio, and that was freaky. Then I went into town and saw the price of clothes and that freaked me out also, because I couldn’t help thinking that for six Euro would feed a family for a month in Mongu. That sic Euro would buy a bag of mealie-meal (milled maize) and keep a family from starving.”

Alan Kerins is a much admired hurler and footballer, but his hopes and plans for Mongu will earn him even more admiration – and no doubt help improve conditions for the neglected people of that region.

© Seán Ryan, 2005

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