Nine U16 Solwezi town boys, preparing to shake up the world, dodging stray crocodiles at their Kalumbila, Zambia training camp
On December 1, 2020, this photo and the details below posted to Concept2’s Instagram:
“Nine U16 Solwezi town boys, preparing to shake up the world, dodging stray crocodiles at their Kalumbila, Zambia training camp. These athletes row with gear sporting the message ‘Spread the Love’. From North Western Zambia to you, spread the love today with each meter you complete!”
The spirit behind the post is pure Stevo, also known as Reverend James X. Stephenson in the Church of England, and “The Rev” in school communities in England and New Zealand, where James has served as chaplain, mentor, teacher, renegade and rowing coach. Behind this bit of social media is a deep story of networks and belief in the power of sport as a stand-alone form of values-based education.
To understand the significance of establishing a rowing program in Zambia’s North Western Province, it helps to have a little orientation to the geography in this part of Africa. Zambia is a landlocked country in Central Africa bordered by eight other nations. Taking a clockwise spin from Solwezi: look north, and you’ll see the ominous and vast expanse of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); shift your gaze slightly northeast, and you’ll find Tanzania; look directly east toward Malawi and in a south easterly direction to see Mozambique; shift the binocs directly south to find Zimbabwe and Botswana; focus in a south westerly direction to find Namibia; and take a final gaze to the west where you’ll see the sun set over Angola. If you’ve surmised that the logistics of moving people and boats around this part of the world are a bit complicated, then take a long breath and get ready for the straight story.
(If you zoom in on the lake here, you can see crews out on the water.)
James’s commitment to developing the Kansanshi Sports Foundation in Zambia serves as the second chapter of his family’s mission-driven adventures in Africa, work that would not have materialized without the equal commitment of Abbie Stephenson (née Chapman), the other leader of Team Stevo, a family of four. The first chapter began in 2013 when Phillip Pascal, CEO of First Quantum Minerals (FQM), a Canada-based company that trades publically on the Toronto and London Stock Exchanges, asked his nephew, who is a teacher, to establish a few schools in the North Western Province of Zambia where the company digs for copper and gold.
Given the harsh living conditions, there weren’t many teachers interested in the complexities of lessons in bushland sites while proper school buildings were constructed. Belinda Whittall, Pascal’s niece and a long time friend of James Stephenson, knew immediately that he and Abbie were the “mugs for the job!”
In July of 2013, Abbie and James packed up house in their postcard-perfect Oxfordshire village and took Theo, five years old at the time, and Maisie, who was four, on a flight from London to Lusaka, followed by a twelve hour drive to Solwezi, where they helped with the nitty-gritty work of establishing Trident College, the second FQM funded school in the region. Arranging for shipment of any supplies into Solwezi requires patience, long lead times, and more patience.
When the first shipping container finally arrived at the building site, Abbie was eager to unload the goods. As she carefully examined boxes against the inventory list held on her clipboard, she realized that a bunch of hooligans were unloading boxes from the other side of the container – for themselves! The school was eventually fitted with furniture, books, and other basics, but unsurprisingly, the project took a bit longer than expected.
During 2013 and 2014 James also ran the local Anglican Church on Sundays and was licensed to the Anglican Church of Central Africa. The local Archbishop wasn’t involved in bringing James to Africa, but given the needs of the people, he seemed happy to have him on the ground. Once, a man walked 15km with his son on his back to see the minister, since this father wanted a proper burial in town for a son who had died of malaria.
James also remembers, “those who came to church presented live chickens and bags of concrete” as their Sunday offerings. “Initially, I thought they were trying to get my attention, but the same offerings continued for two years. On Mondays I would often see many of the congregation speaking with the local witch doctor, but I tried not to take these conversations as abject failure on my part.”
Chapter two of Team Stevo’s adventures in Zambia began in April 2018 when Dave DeVries, an Australian, and the general manager of FQM’s Kansanshi Mine, made a call to James who was back home in England at the time. He pitched that FQM wanted someone to galvanize sport in Solwezi, while also identifying and providing for some of the most desperate needs of the local population. Abbie and James viewed this compassionate extension of FQM’s corporate and social responsibility strategy as a massive opportunity to make a real difference to a community they already knew well.
Mathilda, who likes holding James’s hand whenever he visits her orphanage.
Malaria, HIV, TB, cholera and other infectious diseases have ravaged the Zambian population so that the average age is 17, lower in some provinces. Tribes are peaceful, friendly, and averse to violent crime. National Parks have preserved native animals in the North Western Province but are disappearing in other parts of the country due to elephant poaching and trophy hunting. While still an appealing safari destination, Zambia is off the beaten path and has taken longer to develop its tourism industry, partly because of the country’s on-going struggle with extreme poverty and social inequality.
Zambia is rich in hydropower and minerals, functioning as Africa’s second largest copper producing nation and a reliable source of emeralds. Major power stations exist at Victoria Falls, near Livingstone in the south; at Lake Kariba in the middle of the country; and at the Kafue Gorge, south of Lusaka. While efforts to expand the national power grid remain a national priority, most Zambians living in rural areas rely on wood and coal for their domestic energy needs.
Over 60% of the population derives its livelihood from agriculture, with maize as its staple crop and other farms producing cotton, soybeans, tobacco, paprika, wheat, rice, sunflower seeds, coffee, as well as sugar, fruits, vegetables and flowers. Expanding agriculture and investing in sustainable farming is one of the solutions to Zambia’s poverty, but in the meantime the economy is driven by exports of copper, cobalt, hydropower, tobacco, cotton and flowers; light industry; construction and services.
Still, Solwezi is woefully under resourced, and the socioeconomic, cultural and health issues form a very harsh landscape. There is no rain for seven months of the year, while dust and heat rule; then the rains arrive with Biblical thunder and lightning, turning everything to mud.
“During our first stay, a visit to the orphanages of Solwezi made it clear that most of the children would never reach adulthood,” James admits sombrely. “Now, there is some sustainable farming; more access to clean water from boreholes and pumps; and weekly visits by a medical officer. Now, they just might make it.”
Children collect water from a borehole at one of the orphanages.
An orphan boy using the solar water pump gifted to the local community by two New Zealand students who raised funds for the purchase.
Abbie is breathtakingly effective in this environment. Despite the challenges associated with daily life, she loves Africa and teaches English with passion and humility at the now well-established Trident College, where Maisie and Theo are also students. Abbie studied Classics at Oxford, and has taught her subject, as well as English, at some very good schools in England. As an 18 year-old fresher, she coxed the Oxford men’s Blue Boat in the 1995 Boat Race, then went on to cox the Oxford women’s Blue Boat and served as OUWBC President during her final year as an undergraduate.
Seeing young Zambians on the water, full immersed in the fun of moving boats, she feels “great joy, as the excitement, pure delight and pride they feel when rowing is written all over their faces.” Abbie also admits “to feeling huge pride in James, as he is literally the only person in the world who could have brought this program to fruition – not just from a coaching perspective, but because his relentless positivity and energy have made the seemingly impossible happen. The obstacles put in his path are Herculean, yet he always, somehow, finds a solution. And he always does so with a smile on his face!”
To assemble a fleet of boats, James employed a variety of creative strategies. He took a Concept2 Dynamic ergometer to the Zambian/DRC border and rowed one million meters to raise funds for a boat trailer, a manageable feat for a former GB lightweight sculler, World Champion triathlete, and Isis-Goldie Race victor for Oxford. He then drove that trailer around the South African National Schools Regatta and asked to purchase old boats that school teams might be finished with. After collecting a few relic singles and a quad, he towed them a few thousand kilometres north to set up rowing on a dammed portion of the Zambezi River, near Solwezi.
Erging at the boat shed
Local youth began rowing these boats as James placed orders for new equipment. John Waugh Racing Boats, a South African manufacturer that operates with a #justaddwater hash tag, provided good deals on new boats, and Concept2 was also generous in sorting the complexities of shipping oars and sculls to this start-from-scratch rowing program in Central Africa.
The Kansanshi Rowing Club at the Kansanshi Recreational Dam
Now, athletes are boated in two eights, a smart quad and two doubles, in addition to the original used sculling boats. World Rowing contributed four static ergometers, and eight additional rowing machines were purchased new from Concept2. James estimates the investment in equipment roughly totals $120,000. The construction of a boat shed and docks was a much-anticipated project for a crew from the Kansanshi Mine.
Working with head teachers, the equivalent of school principals in North America, has been key in explaining the Kansanshi Sport Foundation programs to students and their parents. Athletics, cycling, rowing and swimming are currently the sports on offer. Transport to the rowing dam, which is 8km from town, is a hurdle, but schools are helping with the logistics.
Girls double on the water
Girls quad launching
Word-of-mouth promotion for rowing is also taking hold as people learn that being tall can help in the sport. Lupe, a young girl from town who is over six feet tall, just walked herself to the rowing dam one day. She says, “At rowing, I feel like I can express myself like never before. I feel free and happy.”
Bedias, left, a member of the Kansanshi Cycling Team, and James, right, deliver fish caught at the rowing dam to local families.
Almost two years into the project, every step in the expansion of KSF’s programming still requires “careful negotiation, friendship forming, patience, and humility.” Recent history and the lasting realities of colonization have a hold on local memory, so winning trust as a white man is not always a given for James. In a place where there are scores of tribal dialects, persuasive communication is dependent on good humour and creativity.
James offers these insights into bridging the language gaps with KSF athletes:
“The main two dialects spoken are Bemba, from the Bemba tribe that came here from the East, and Kikaunde, from the Kaunde tribe that are considered the native people in this area. I attempt to speak Kikaunde. All the students’ English is far better than my Kikaunde! Communication skills range from exquisite English to stringing together enough words to understand what is happening. Yet these gaps do not seem to affect how they learn to row in the early stages – I row in each boat as beginners learn. The language barrier provides more opportunities for smiling and laughter, which seems the absolute best way of communicating. One of our top three cyclists is deaf, and I communicate more effectively with him than with most people!”
Remarkably, KSF’s development efforts have established a vibrant rowing program for youth. James is at the rowing dam every day, and 30-40 athletes of varying ability come to training every day. Since the Kansanshi Rowing Club team is comprised of 30 boys and 35 girls, all students from multiple schools, the team trains four times per week. For beginners, training days are allocated to individual schools.
All beginners have swim tests, and those new athletes who cannot swim, which are most, are given swimming lessons. When the youngsters have learned to swim a bit, they practice holding on to a boat in deep water and staying afloat without assistance for five minutes. James also ensures that novice swimmers row in larger team boats until their confidence grows and to avoid capsizing.
When asked what the greatest reward is, James responds enthusiastically: “seeing children smile and laugh”, but he also admits that the absolute highlight to date was “watching the entire club spontaneously break into song, belting out the Zambian national anthem as the U-16 boys boated the first Central African eight.”
Abbie reflects on the lasting impacts of the team sport experiences for the Zambians connected to the Kanshanshi Sport Foundation: “James has changed lives wherever he has worked in the world, but here the changes are even more significant and far-reaching.”
Looking ahead, James is eager to train up African coaches who will contribute to the expansion and sustainability of the Kansanshi Rowing Club. Toward that end, Bartholomew is already involved as an assistant coach, learning more about the fundamentals of rowing and contributing to the joy youngsters experience when they are on the water. Bartholomew joined the rowing program as a 16 year old in 2019 and quickly became one of the top athletes.
Bartholomew inside the boat shed at the Kansanshi Recreational Dam
His coaching salary is generously funded by Kafue Consultants, Tim Cook’s business. Tim was crucially involved in the first RowZambezi expeditions. He continues to manage the RowZambezi Sculling Club and is the father of Oli Cook, GB oarsman, and James, his younger Boat Race winning brother. Now that Bartholomew is established in his role, James hopes that Lupe will begin training as an apprentice coach, since he believes in the value of having women on any coaching team. For Lupe to take up this new opportunity, a few cultural hurdles must be navigated. Her family is finding it hard to imagine that “their girl” could be a coach in a power-based sport such as rowing.
The Kansanshi Rowing Club now has a four-event racing schedule: the Zambian National Championships, launched in February 2020 and hosted in Solwezi; the Zimbabwe National Schools Regatta; the South African National Schools Regatta; and the Livingstone Sports Festival, an event that James hopes to shape into an international schools regatta with an outreach theme in years to come.
The competition schedule is ambitious because travel across the region presents extraordinary challenges. Most of the athletes have never left Solwezi and do not have passports, so while patiently navigating all protocols to secure passports, James recounts the team’s journeys to race in Zimbabwe and South Africa last year:
“We secured official Government clearance and permits to travel that stood in lieu of passports; however, athletes with these documents in hand were still unable to board the flight to Harare, even after the team had driven ten hours in great excitement to Lusaka, the capital city.
“When part of the team was denied access to the plane, a friend messaged me saying TIA – This Is Africa. I messaged back saying TIS – This Is Stevo, and all athletes will be racing in Zim!”
“Abbie flew with the athletes who did have passports, along with our small children, while I rushed the others to the hot and dusty Lusaka bus station. Thankfully, I had enough cash in my wallet and bought us all a ‘no questions asked’ overnight bus ride across the border into Zimbabwe.
“We took a smaller team to Pretoria for the 2020 South African National Schools Regatta, because of the expense,” James recounts. “I lost them all once we had cleared customs. They were all in the lift (elevator), because they had never seen one!”
Perhaps the best litmus test for how effective the Kansanshi Sport Foundation has been on implementing its mission of providing “Opportunities Through Sport” is the recent news that Mark Kakomo, a 6’1″ natural sculler and eager student, will take up a place at Radley College in September of 2021. According to Abbie Stephenson, “Mark is so switched on and such a sorted boy. He will be great at Radley.”
Mark Kakomo racing the single in Roodeplaat, Pretoria.
In the middle of the world, in a place that is a mere pin-prick on a map, where finding a loaf of bread, a glass of milk or functional electricity often present as fruitless searches, young Africans are learning to love sport, so much so that they asked to race with the legendary motto ‘Spread the Love’ on the sides of their caps and visors.
As director of the Kansanshi Sport Foundation, James Stephenson leads a program that focuses on wellbeing and functions according to the values of compassion, kindness, and joy. He asks each sport team to take on the additional responsibility of establishing agreed upon guiding principles for all members, a novel task for these young Zambians. Ultimately, KSF hopes to springboard young people into employment and lives as better mothers, fathers, partners and friends. James sums up the ambition in this way:
“As our team looks out and sympathizes with a world so severely impacted by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter political epoch, we aim to ensure these athletes understand that their lives matter.” Has there ever been a more striking example in our sport of “if you build it, they will come”? **
** The actual line from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe is, “If you build it, he will come”, which is also delivered in Field of Dreams, a 1989 movie about baseball, belief, communication, family. The line is often misquoted as it appears above.
Boys with medals
James, Abbie, Maisie and Theo Stephenson, with Bumble, the most-travelled Corgi on the planet.