Updated: Jul 14, 2022
"Do it. Take the plunge. You won’t regret it"
A few weeks back, a group of Millwall supporters, staff and volunteers made their way to Kenya, representing the Millwall Community Trust and helped with a number of local initiatives in the African country. For this article, we sit down with MSC Committee Member and Millwall Lionesses' Assistant Manager, Alex Russell as he shares some of those life changing moments with us.
1. Alex, some great experiences and fantastic to see your work out in Africa. Tell us, though, what did you think when you first saw the appeal to get people to fly out there?
My first impressions were, “Millwall are going global!” haha. I have never been fortunate enough to see the beauty of anywhere in Africa, so when the opportunity arose, regardless of the fantastic opportunities to teach, coach and renovate, it was a no-brainier! Even if I did originally sign up three years ago!
2. What drew you to going out to Kenya to help?
A few things drew my attention to go on an African Adventure to Kenya. Any LEDC is a fantastic place to explore as a Mzungu (white western person) and to name a few were:
- The national parks/safari journeys available.
- The incredibly varied community - there are a number of languages spoken in Kenya. We were there for long enough to pick up some Swahili, though English is largely spoken where we visited.
- In truth, it was a bit of a wake up call. Things have been “tough” at times in the UK, but, I would say I probably didn’t really know the meaning of the word until I disembarked a Qatari airline flight on Kenyan soil. It was truly eye-opening at times and I knew I’d see and experience things that’ll stay with me for life.
3. The pandemic and other logistics meant the trip was postponed a few times. How did it feel boarding the plane when you finally had the trip confirmed?
The trip on a personal level couldn’t have come at a better time. The Lionesses were in their off-season so I wasn’t missing any valuable time with them, I had quit my job so I had nothing to stress about back home and I knew I was surrounded by a phenomenal group of people - even if I didn’t speak to Shauni until eight hours into our first flight and even that was to ask to borrow her pen! But, I knew I was in safe hands and that we all brought something unique to the party. In truth, the whole “leaving my job” thing only happened the week prior to departing, so I had an incredibly rushed three day period where I had to apply for my visa, book my jabs and get some malaria tablets and upload my covid vaccination status. Eventually getting on the plane was a bit of a relief, and a mark that I was actually on the way to creating some fantastic memories and there was no turning back. Mind you, the 27+ hour flights were a bit of a struggle at times.
4. What was you most apprehensive about before you went out to Kenya? Also, what was you looking forward to the most?
I wasn’t really apprehensive about anything in truth. It might sound silly, but I’m a bit of a fussy eater, so perhaps that was semi on my mind, but I’m not stupid. I knew where I was going to I was in a fortunate position to even have food in the first place. So I certainly wasn’t going to make a fuss of a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch when there are children that were in a far less fortunate position than our crew.
I was probably most looking forward to coaching and seeing how football was played in Kenya. John Scarborough officiated the Kenyan Champions League, where my team won. I took Jack Clarke’s side to penalties and I had the Kenyan future No.1 in goal, so that was something ticked off of my bucket list. But, knowing that in their eyes somebody has come all the way from the west, I was keen to get stuck in and see what was on offer - it didn’t disappoint.
5. How did it feel when you landed, what were your first thoughts?
When we first landed, we were greeted by our tour hosts for the first time. Fred is genuinely one of the happiest souls I’ve ever met - it’s Fred’s world and we’re all living in it. He was like that uncle/great uncle you only really see at Christmas, so you get the best side of him. But, we got the best side of him for ten whole days and I do genuinely hope to see him again one day. We were promptly escorted to our first residence as we stayed the night in Nairobi, the capital, before we made a five hour journey the next day to Nakuru. The place we stayed on was on one of the bumpiest, muddiest roads I have ever seen. It was at this point that I realised what we were truly in for.
6. Seeing some of the photos you put online of the work in the schools was inspiring, but describe what it was like for you when you first visited the school, the pupils and staff?
The pupils of Jubilee Academy were, and are, adorable; each and every single one of them in their own way. I know it’s probably cliché, but genuinely the littlest of things was enough to make their day. Whether that be five mins of football in the playground, skipping with them, singing and teaching nursery rhymes, or even just letting them climb on you. Little John, who I called John McGinn (he wore an Aston Villa jacket to school) played with the Memoji app on my watch and told everybody he was watching cartoons. It genuinely blew their mind, and it was little things like that that really opened my eyes to how fortunate we are. The tournament was fantastic, the welcome song we received every morning from all of the students in the playground, their efforts in classroom, but one of my favourite moments involving the students was when we all chipped in to treat the whole school to KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken, not Kenyan Fried Chicken) and watching the children queue up, express their gratitude, watch them take it back to the classroom and say grace over a piece of chicken and some chapattis. Something about that really touched me and will stay with me for a while. Some of the children were playing football bare foot, crunching each other, getting up with stones and mud on their head and dusting themselves down and sprinting after the ball. No complaints, no moaning, they just got on with it. We were there to teach, but I think that was a lesson I’ll never soon forget.
The staff, in fact every single person we encountered, were genuinely so happy and loving. Every member of staff was incredibly hospitable and made us feel very welcome. But, as I say on a whole, every single person we came across was genuinely just so loving - no ulterior motives and nothing was expected of us. People were just genuinely happy to see us and make us feel so incredibly welcome. Everywhere we drove people waved at us on the bus, if we were driving slow enough they’d engage in a brief conversation through the windows and it really was a living representation of “if you can be anything in the world; be nice”.
The staff gave us free reign and large amounts of responsibility when on site, if ever I returned to Kenya, I would snatch at the chance to revisit Jubilee Academy.
7. You didn’t just help with the school while you were out there, but you also went to a few locations which really put how we live in perspective. Can you explain some of the people and towns that you visited?
We visited five homes of students and brought care packages. Shona (Groves) was at the heart of organising that, and I still don’t think she’s let us pay her back for funding five whole families worth of care packages - that shows what a soul she is. Some of the living conditions were quite difficult to witness and an example would be one of the homes was a single mother with three children and one child on the way. They all lived in a home genuinely the size of my bedroom, yet they were oozing with happiness and content with the world. What is upsetting, is that people living in some of those harsh conditions just don’t know any better, so they are so incredibly humble and value everything that they own. A lesson I think we can all learn from.
Another location was The Walk (not work, Jack) Centre. When we arrived, I genuinely felt like how Justin Beiber or Harry Styles would feel at one of their concerts. All attention was on us and we all felt like celebrities. The story behind the Walk Centre is truly an incredible one. To summarise it shortly, Alex and Fred from African Adventures would provide food and water to encourage children to leave the slum areas of the dump throughout the day, where in reality their lives are probably at risk, to provide shelter and education for young people. It first started with just one child that Alex was able to nurture - the word spread and what felt like hundreds of students were there in attendance. Some were studying towards exams to go onto college/uni, some just there to keep them out of harms way. But, all were happy and off of the streets.
Again, I joined in with a penalty shoot-out with a few boys and girls. The ball they used had a slit down the side, so that after one kick you’d have to put your hand in to push the sphere walls from the inside to make it back into a round shape. Yet, it was one of the most fun games in recent times for them. It truly was the little things I’d take away. One student said I had beautiful hair, one liked my sunglasses and the rest just seemed happy that an adult was there to have a conversation with them, let alone compliment them back. If you’d like to see and read more about the Walk Centre, here is a link: https://thewalkchildrencentre.com
Another location we visit was as previously mentioned, the dump/Slums. This was inhabited by up to 4,000 people at any one time. The government could in theory make any of them move at any given moment, so people lived in shacks and temporary accommodation and would try to salvage plastics and metals from the dump to fund their living costs. 10kg of plastic bottles would equate to 10 Kenyan shillings, that is very roughly 1/15 of a British Pound, so you can imagine how much sifting through rubbish was done on a daily basis by the residents of this area. I’ll attach some pictures, because I cannot do it justice with just words.
8. The trip will have left some life long memories for you, what will you take from your time in Africa?
Firstly, I’d like to give a little mention to each of my fellow tour mates. I’m sure they won’t mind me giving each of them a shout out.
First, and most importantly, there’s the Dad of the group - Big John Scarborough. I think we all grew close to John whilst out there, but all for our own reasons. John was in his element, he really took the lead with the prep for painting the African Adventures Wall, which turned out to be fantastic. He even rolled back the years and play centre half in a training match against a local Kenyan side. We won, so he can stick that in the CV. But, John was cracking and I feel as though we’ve all made a friend for life there.
Sue - I’ve never met somebody so up for a laugh who literally came away without knowing anybody. Some of the stories she’d share (that aren’t you for repeating) over a game of cards in the evening. Someone who took it upon herself to carry out the washing up after every single meal when out, she even had Jack Clarke on strings on a couple of occasions. I also found out she has the nickname “Sue Moo” because she once played a cow in Jack & the Beanstalk on stage at a theatre. But, there genuinely was never a task too much, or too demanding, for our Sue.
Joobin - What a boy! I’d never actually met Joobin, despite both working for Millwall in some capacity, until the Friday before we flew. I’m not sure where he’d been kept from me, but I’m glad I’ve met him. He’s been to Thailand, in case you didn’t know. But, he was just on the same wavelength to us all and will have provided me with one of the best Ken cameos I’ve ever seen. He turned up in some rascal clobber and wore it with pride. Joobs probably came home with more paint on him thenon the classroom walls, but was happy to get stuck in and amongst it. Again, another friend made for life.
Shauni - What a diamond! I think I speak on behalf of the group when I say that she provided us with one of the funniest moments ever, which will live rent-free in Joobin’s head for life. She gave her best Pterodactyl impression at full blast whilst Joobin was catching up on some sleep, and I think to this day Joobin still sleeps with one eye open. Shauni was my painting partner and we got a real system going. So much so, we considered starting our own painting and DIY firm when we got back to the UK haha. I got pelters for not saying much to Shauni on the first day. She went above and beyond to make an effort though, and I’m glad she did. I’m a shy person, but I had no reason to be, because we had a barrel of laughs in attendance in the way of Shauni. I’m sure she won’t mind me saying, but Shauni’s life has changed a lot since she initially signed up for her African Adventure, so it posed its challenges in it's own unique way. But, I think her grandad would be, and she should be, very proud. Many people would kill to be able to go through all she has and still have a smile that pretty. She was also the short, funny one on Take Me Out - that came with its own hilarious stories, but all jokes aside, I’m glad Shauni came. Just don’t play her at UNO - I’m still convinced she was palming cards.
Jack Clarke - Eating a KFC in Kenya is exactly what he loves to do on the weekend. Jack took a lot of stick at times, sometimes deserved and sometimes on a windup; but, he took it all in good spirits. At any given moment he’d break out into song, and that was something the Kenyan culture relished. Jack was, and is, one of the most organised people I’ve met - he checked us in online when flying home, don’t you know? But, all jokes aside, he kept us on our toes and was up for getting involved with almost anything. He was one of two others that ventured down the base of the waterfall with myself, something I’m not sure will be topped for a little while in sights that I’ve seen. Jack was evening entertainment secretary and kept us busy with many a card game.
Shona - Who I look at like my older little sister haha. Kenya aside, I’m sure any Millwall fan will know (or not know) just how much she actually does. How kind and caring she can be to our fanbase, that aren’t easy to deal with at times, but how nothing is too much to ask of her. Shona was the group leader, which can be a difficult task at times, but, I’ve returned to the UK with no regrets or things not done that I wanted to do, and that goes down to her efforts and organisation. So we all have her to thank on that front.
And finally, Tusker Ted - how he hasn’t returned to the UK with a brand deal, I’ll never know! I’m sure he was in commission at one point! But all jokes aside, Ted was class. He wouldn’t mention it, but he tipped a family at the dump site after they kindly invited him into what they called their home. That was a truly lovely moment to witness and if you can put up with 10 days with Tusker Ted, you can do anything. Ted was a target man in one of our football practices. Something he’s probably never been called in his life.
But those are friendships I’ll take away from Kenya beyond the many life lessons, times we were humbled and things we’ve learnt about ourselves.
9. How did it feel to represent Milwall as a club, Community Trust and as a fan base?
It always is incredible to represent the football club. I’m in a fortunate enough position where I get to represent the club in a regular basis, but never quite as worldwide as Kenya. The Millwall Community Trust are renowned for their incredible work in the community, but that doesn’t just have to be in your doorstep. That can be any community in any walk of life and we have since kept in touch with the teachers of Jubilee and received pictures and stories. We have left a lasting effect on some of those children and that’s something we can all be proud of.
10. Finally, what message do you have for those who would consider signing up to a similar scheme in the future?
Do it. Take the plunge. You won’t regret it. We were such a varied group of people but we all complimented each others attributes and got the most out of an incredible adventure. You’ll make memories that’ll last & that’s something money cannot buy.