Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Slum spurs player to act

Volunteer work in Kenya was an eye-opener for Michael Hobbs, writes Patrick McKendry.
Michael Hobbs admits he was shocked by living conditions the first couple of times he walked through Nairobi's Kibera slum but he was also amazed at how happy the people were despite having so little.
Michael Hobbs admits he was shocked by living conditions the first couple of times he walked through Nairobi's Kibera slum but he was also amazed at how happy the people were despite having so little.

As much as former Blues player Michael Hobbs experienced during a professional rugby career which also saw him play for the Highlanders and more recently in Japan, few things were as rewarding as a recent stint in Nairobi volunteering at a school in the biggest urban slum in Africa.

Hobbs, 28, the son of the late former All Black captain and New Zealand Rugby chairman Jock, has always been interested in charity work.

A shoulder operation, which cut short his season at the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan, offered him a window to do just that, which is how he found himself at the Blessed Hope primary school in Kibera, home to an estimated million people.

Hobbs spent a month at the school, which has a role of 143 children aged from two to nine. Having just returned to New Zealand, Hobbs is researching his next charity mission while still raising money for Blessed Hope.

Meanwhile, he is also preparing for his studies at Stanford University in California - he has been accepted for a two-year MBA business course which starts in September.

The contrast between the two places could hardly be more stark, and for Hobbs, it was important to try to make a difference for children he said were unfailingly happy despite living in unremitting poverty.

"The most amazing thing for me was seeing how happy the kids were," he said. "They always had a smile on their faces. They love going to school because it provides structure to their lives and gives them something to do."

Hobbs, who taught maths and sport at the school, packed several rugby balls in his luggage but only the girls were interested in them. For the boys there was only one game - football.

In class, the children were polite and eager to learn despite living in appalling conditions which sees most families squeeze into small mud shacks. Corrugated iron is a relative luxury and running water non-existent.

Michael Hobbs spent a month teaching maths and sport at Blessed Hope School.
Michael Hobbs spent a month teaching maths and sport at Blessed Hope School.

In Hobbs' summary on his Give a Little fundraising page, he outlined the priorities of the kids in his standard three maths class: "As I was setting homework, one of my students asked me if I could give a prize to the student who scores the highest. I said to him that I'd collate the weekly homework results and then give a prize to whoever had the best overall performance. I asked him what he wanted the prize to be - Lollies? Snacks? Things a typical 9-year-old child might want. He replied, 'a pencil'.

Much of the money raised by Hobbs will be spent on stationary and upgrading a school with dirt floors in many classrooms.

Despite preparing himself as best he could, Hobbs said he was shocked by the living conditions in the Kibera slum. Living in a volunteer house outside it, his first day was an eye-opener.

"For the most part, we had electricity, and some days, we had running water, but when we turned up, there was a power outage and no running water. You start to think 'what have I got myself into?'

"The first couple of times I walked through Kibera, it was so eye-opening and shocking really; shocking that people live in conditions like that and live on so little. It was tough to comprehend, coming from New Zealand.

"It was really tough saying goodbye to director Elsa and the other teachers at the school. I'd become extremely close to them. The kids and the teachers motivated me so much to try to raise as much money as I can.

"The standard two and three kids who I had been teaching wrote me letters which I read once I'd left the school and that was when more of the emotions struck. I had definitely built a strong a strong bond with the people while I was there.

"They had a huge appreciation for life, which was the biggest thing I took out of it."

Hobbs, a first or second five-eighth, said playing in the new USA pro league while he is at Stanford was a possibility.

"I'll probably wait and see how I'm coping with the academic load at Stanford before I make any serious inquiries about playing next year or the year after."

To donate to the Blessed Hope school, go to Hobbs' Give a Little page: givealittle.co.nz/cause/blessedhope

- Herald on Sunday

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