How Mark Rohan’s journey to heart of Africa became journey of self-discovery
Paralympic champion gained fresh perspective on life and career on Zambia charity trip
Double Paralympic gold medalist Mark Rohan talking to locals in Zambia during his trip there with Alan Kerins’s Discovery charity.
In a bare-bones classroom by the flood plains of western Zambia last month, Mark Rohan suddenly caught himself off-guard.
He and a party of six others were a few days into the latest of Alan Kerins’s Discovery trips, a 10-day visit to some of the projects supported by the former Galway dual player’s charity. He’d thought he’d known a little of what to expect but really he knew nothing.
That was the point of it, really.
Each day featured a workshop with Gerry Hussey, the life coach/guru/all-round sensei who has been moulding the minds of the Irish amateur boxing team for the past decade or so.
This particular exercise he called Vision Board. You took yourself and your thoughts and a marker pen and tried to spill the ink of how you saw your life.
“You write down what you think your motto in life would be,” says Rohan. “Your aims, your core beliefs which you won’t defer from. Like, it could be airy-fairy in the wrong atmosphere but you buy into it while you’re there. You did it up and then you looked around you at what the others were writing.”
It was then he realised what effect the trip was having on him and how removed he was from life as he knew it. He looked over to see what the other people in the group had written and one of them had outlined that his great ambition was to travel. He wanted to go to South America. He wanted to go to Rio.
A bell chimed in Rohan’s head. Rio! He hadn’t so much as mentioned it. Less than two years out from the Paralympic games where he will aim to defend his two gold medals won in London, and it had slipped his mind. “I was going, ‘Jesus, I better not let the Sports Council see this!’”
Broadened the scopeAfrica
“You just had so much time to think. Every night we sat around a campfire and talked about the day. Simple stuff – what we did, what we took from it. And Gerry did simple workshops with us as we went along. What do you want to do with your life? Who’s important to you? It was very different but very productive.
“I would recommend it for anybody. It would be great for somebody who was thinking of a career change. It definitely gives you clarity. I had already committed to spending the next two years at university in San Francisco but something like that reinforced that decision.
“The lesson of it all was that what you do really isn’t important. How you do it is very important. And then why you do it most important. So I came away knowing that I’m doing the right thing in going to the States for two years. Any doubts I had disappeared in Zambia. The idea then is to come back and start a business in Portugal, a sports performance unit. And to stay involved with the school for disabled kids out in Zambia along the way.”
It all came about by chance. He did a Paralympic press event at the swanky Marker Hotel in Dublin back in June and one of the reporters pointing a microphone at him that day was Diarmuid Lyng from Newstalk. Lyng was more or less straight off the plane from Zambia and wore the faraway eyes of someone who’d just had a life experience.
When he mentioned a visit to a school for disabled children, Rohan knew he had to go. Within a couple of days, Kerins was on the phone inviting him out.
“The first morning, we got up to see the sun rise over the Zambezi river. There were hippos there and crocodiles and elephants going through the camp. You were just in nature, you know. You’re in the heart of Africa. You just appreciate the simple things in life from doing that, from getting up early and looking around you.
The Kerins projects are a wonder. The first thing they did when they got to Zambia was to visit an orphanage run by an Irish nun, Sister Molly. Reality came to visit almost immediately. “The day we arrived at the orphanage, a man had walked six-and-a-half hours to hand over his one-and-a-half-week-old child for adoption. The man’s wife had died giving birth in the bush.
“That’s pretty common out there. You’re in the middle of nowhere – we drove 400km to get there. Sometimes the road disappears and you just keep driving until you find tarmac again. I couldn’t get this image out of my head – that man having to walk six hours to hand over his child.
“The kids at that orphanage, they were the happiest kids I’ve ever met. They were all together as well. If somebody handed one of them a packet of sweets, the kid shared them around between everyone at the table. It was a phenomenal experience.
Locals are empowered
All the while, the sense of detachment from his everyday life hummed away and gave him an acute sense of freedom. Freedom to think, to feel, to be. The beauty of Kerins’s charity dawned on him – he was getting as much out of it as the people they were helping.
“It’s amazing what you take for granted. I was just spitballing with the kids one day and I mentioned the Olympics. They had no idea what I was talking about. They’d never heard of Usain Bolt, they didn’t know who Tiger Woods was. They knew Messi and Ronaldo. But anything else – the Olympics, anything, just didn’t register.
“There were about 150 kids there at one stage but it’s down to about 34 or 35 now.
That’s a success story because it means that the place has become more sustainable and the locals are able to look after the kids now instead of them needing Sister Molly to do it.”
They moved on to Mongu, where the school for disabled kids was run by another Presentation nun, Sister Cathy. He knew in advance it would have a special resonance for him. It blew him away all the same.
“That was just a phenomenal experience. The kids have nothing. The wheelchairs they have are patio chairs with wheels on the bottom. All the tyres are flat. But again, these kids are just so happy.
“The same thing, there’s such unity between them. One guy would be blind, one guy would be paralysed, another would push the wheelchair for the lad who was paralysed. They did everything together and helped each other. That really stuck with me.
“But they had a great set-up there. They have a physio, a nurse with 24-hour care. And they have one section where they bring the mothers in and teach them how to look after kids with disabilities. Because they would be very marginalised out there. If you have a disability in the bush in Zambia, you could be in big trouble. But when you get in there, you have the best support possible.”
School for disabled kids
“I learned a lot from the kids. We had one lad there who sang a couple of songs and then we sang a couple of songs. And all the kids there, no matter what their disability, danced in whatever way they could. They were just enjoying life.
“There’s definitely a lesson there – way too often we give a shit about what somebody else thinks. And you’re looking at these guys who you think have nothing but they probably have more than the rest of us.”
He came home with the next few chapters sketched out. He’ll have Christmas at home before heading for San Francicso on December 27th. He’ll be based there for the two years of his course, training and sweating in the hills around San Jose in preparation for Rio. Next summer brings two World Cup events in May and the World Championships in Switzerland in July.
Life will go on. And Zambia will be with him as it does.