November 4, 2007

The Assignment Of A Lifetime

How the trip to Rwanda came to be

My brother Johnny, an avid fisherman, likes to say there's a fine line between fishing and just standing near the water drinking beer. Something similar can be said about being a journalist. A big part of the job is building relationships, maintaining contacts, schmoozing and, most importantly, listening. Sometimes this part of the creative process can appear to be just hanging out shooting the breeze. And sometimes that's all it is. But not always. That's how my trip to Rwanda came to be.

In March of this year I was sitting in a golf cart outside the media tent at the Kraft Nabisco Championship chatting with Renee Powell, whom I have know for years. Renee is a fascinating woman, one of only three African-Americans to play on the LPGA Tour and the daughter of William Powell, the only black man in the world to design, build, own and maintain his own golf course, Clearview GC in East Canton, Ohio. Renee said, "You should talk to Betsy King. She had a life-changing experience in Africa."

Fortunately, Betsy was at the Kraft Nabisco since she was this year's U.S. Solheim Cup team captain and was on hand to scout her potential players. Betsy and I found a quiet spot and she told me the story of Golf Fore Africa, the organization she had created to raise money to help the orphans left by AIDS and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Then she told me she was going to return to Rwanda and wanted to take some LPGA players with her.

When I called Golf World Editor-in-Chief Geoff Russell and told him Betsy King, a Hall-of-Famer and one of the tour's all-time greats, was going to take some LPGA players to Africa his reply was simple. "See if you can go with them," he said. I threw the idea out to Betsy and then waited an agonizingly long five weeks before I found out I would be allowed to accompany them, no doubt while Betsy received the permission needed from World Vision, the Christian relief organization through which Golf Fore Africa donates its money.

Meantime, one morning at the Masters the week after the Kraft Nabisco I ran into Golf Digest photographer Dom Furore while getting coffee about 7 a.m. This is mostly how Dom and I run into each other. He lives in Michigan, I live in Connecticut and we have brief chats over coffee on mornings at the men's majors and then he goes his way to do his job and I go my way to do mine. When I told Dom I might be going to Rwanda and described the story his reply was as quick as Geoff's. "I want to go with you," Dom said.

That was great news for me. Dom is not only one of the best golf photographers in America, he is one of the best photographers. You might remember the shots he did in Golf Digest of Jack Nicklaus and his sons fly-fishing in Russia, or some of the black-and-white golf course shots he has done.

Dom took one of my favorites to run in Golf World, a crowd shot during the U.S. Open at Bethpage in 2002. There is a sea of heads and rising above them all on the left side of the frame is a kid of color about six years old standing on someone's shoulders, hands on hips, his hat covered in player autographs, eyes riveted on the action. That photo perfectly captured the diversity and spirit at Bethpage, the first U.S. Open played on a truly public golf course and held in the shadows of New York City less than a year after Sept. 11.

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to helping children, families and their communities worldwide reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty. It provides services regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender. To find out more about the organization go to worldvision.org Golf Fore Africa is a members' charity initiative of the LPGA, whose goal is to help the orphans of Mudasomwa, Rwanda. Go to worldvision.org/golfforeafrica to learn more about the project or make a donation. You can also e-mail: golforeafrica@gmail.com or write:

Golf Fore Africa

32531 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 105, Box 101

Scottsdale, AZ 85266-1519

This might be a good time for me to tell you about how Dom got to Rwanda. He was leaving from Detroit and I was leaving from New York and our plan was to meet at the Brussels airport and fly together to Kigali, the Rwandan capital. But as we were to find out time and again over the next two weeks, in Africa the best-laid plans don't mean a hill of beans. As Debbie Quesada, the trip coordinator for Golf Fore Africa, was want to say when something went wrong: "TIA — This is Africa."

Renee Powell, Steve Roberts, a retired businessman who is teaching Betsy and Debbie a thing or two abut fundraising for Golf Fore Africa, teaching pro Wendy Posillico and her mother Whitney and I were on the fight from New York. We get to Brussels and no Dom. Turns out someone on his fight had a medical problem and the plane made an emergency landing in New York. He missed his connection.

Now missing a connection is not always a problem, unless you are trying to get to Kigali. There are only three flights a week from Brussels to Kigali — Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This was Saturday so that meant Dom was going to have to wait until Tuesday. Not acceptable. While at the ticket counter trying to sort out the situation he met two professors from the University of Miami in Ohio who were going to Rwanda to study gorillas. This is where the story gets interesting.

The professors were going to be picked up at the airport in Kigali by a driver who would take them to the nature preserve where the gorillas are. They called the driver and he said if they could get a flight in Bujumbura, Burundi he would drive there — about seven hours — and bring them to Kigali. There was a plane to Bujumbura Sunday morning. Sounded like a plan.

So Dom checks into a hotel in Brussels and goes online to learn about this place Burundi only to find the U.S. State Department has it on its list of countries American's should avoid. They suggested that if you are going to Burundi to register with the State Department so if you go missing they will know you are missing. Dom registered.

Dom and the two professors land in Bujumbura, hook up with their driver and ask him what time they will get to Kigali. The driver explains it is much too dangerous to drive the road through the countryside at night and that they need to get a hotel room in Bujumbura and drive up Monday morning. Dom checks into a hotel and along with his room key is handed a mosquito net.

Monday morning, off goes our intrepid photographer, snapping pictures along the way. As it turns out they were merely practice shots. When he gets to the border, Burundi soldiers take his camera and go through it merrily deleting virtually every shot. Finally, Monday afternoon Dom arrives at the Serena Hotel in Kigali wanting nothing more than to crash on a bed — and without a mosquito net. Turns out the hotel gave away Dom's room when he didn't show up on Saturday. My bad for not checking.

After a few phone calls we find a room for Dom in the Hotel des Milles Collines, just five minutes from the Serena. A relieved Dom sighs, "Perfect." That's when I ask Dom if he knows what the Milles Collines is. When he doesn't answer, no doubt wondering what further curveball can be thrown at him, I say: "It's the Hotel Rwanda." Never flinching he calmly replied, "The story just keeps getting better."

It was exactly that kind of roll-with-the-punches attitude that was going to be needed on this trip. Fortunately, we got Dom back into the Serena Hotel a couple of days later. One thing is for certain, next time Dom is out for a few beers with a bunch of photographers and they complain about the working conditions at the Ryder Cup he has a story to top them. He can also tell them about when the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, nailed him with a golf ball while he was shooting her getting a lesson.

Let me tell you about the boys club in Rwanda. The six golfers at the core of the trip were Betsy King, Renee Powell, Juli Inkster, Katherine Hull, Reilley Rankin and Wendy Posillico. Also along were Inkster's two teenage daughters, Hayley and Cori, Rankin's aunt, Diane Reilley, Posillico's mother, Whitney, and Debbie Quesada. Throw in World Vision organizer Kathryn Compton and long-time AIDS activist and former Clinton Administration staffer Sandy Thurman and there was an overwhelming female presence.

The boys were Dom and I, World Vision organizer Rowin Floth, Steve Roberts and rotating local World Vision staffers, primarily Ananais Stentozi, who was with us every day. Roberts is a man of deep faith who as watching TV one night and saw a report about AIDS orphans in Africa and decided to start an organization called Golf for AIDS to raise money to help. Then, at a charity dinner a short while later, Steve ran into Betsy King, who told him about Golf Fore Africa.

"Some would call it coincidence," Steve says, "but I call it divine intervention." Steve immediately folded his organization into Golf Fore Africa and less than a week after returning from Rwanda to his home outside Philadelphia was on his way to Scottsdale, Ariz., to brainstorm with King and Quesada about how to grow the charity.

Let's talk about spaghetti Bolognese. Food was an issue in Rwanda. You had to be careful what you ate. Even in the best hotel in the country it was wise to brush your teeth with bottled water and it was smart to stay away from salad or other foods that might be washed in water. Meat and dairy was also wise to avoid, as Betsy found out when she opted for the kabobs one night and was down for the count all the next day.

At the Credo Hotel in Butare (another establishment where the rooms have mosquito nets — people do die from malaria in Rwanda) the management laid out a buffet for us one night for diner. I filled my plate then sat down next to Inkster. Looking at my food selection of potatoes, rice, noodles and bread she asked, "Planning on running a marathon? Nice carbo loading." Oh, the Hotel Credo doesn't take credit cards. That's sure to generate an email exchange between me and the people who audit my expense report.

By the way, how cool was it for Juli to bring her daughters with her on this trip? And I can't tell you how impressed I was with how enthusiastically Hayley, 17, and Cori, 13, embraced the experience. I did have to laugh when Cori came down to breakfast one morning with about a five-pound bag of Cheerios. She had her food backstop. That's OK; I had my power bars — and spaghetti Bolognese, which was pretty much what I had for lunch and dinner anytime we ate in the Hotel Serena.

Let me tell you about the player on the trip you probably know the least about. Wendy Posillico teaches golf in both New York and Arizona and had a cup of coffee on the Duramed Future's Tour. But here's what is remarkable: She didn't play golf until she was 29 years old. Wendy, now 36, was one of the greatest lacrosse players at the University of Vermont and is among the career leaders in both goals and assists. She is a remarkable athlete and, as a former special education teacher, a remarkable instructor of golf.

Finally, let's talk about the LPGA. Dom rarely shoots women's golf and on several occasions I said to him, "Do you see why I love covering this tour?" The spirit among these six players was truly admirable under sometimes trying conditions. There were no whiners in the group, and there were things about which an overly self-focused person could whine.

What these six did in undertaking this trip to call attention to the plight of the 1.3 million orphans in Rwanda provides a model for other professional athletes. There is a world out there, and getting involved in it is a good thing.

King and Inkster are Hall-of-Fame players, and they are Hall of Fame people. Powell is a pioneer and remains so. Rankin and Hull are young players whose goodness raises hope for the emerging generation of stars in golf. And Posillico was an equal to her more accomplished companions in the size of her heart. They were amazing, Rwanda was amazing, and World Vision is doing amazing things there. Dom and I were fortunate to be along for the ride. It was the assignment of a lifetime. Next time we skip the Burundi part.