Sunday, June 16, 2024


KEVIN McKernan has said the experience of planting trees in Africa has taught him to value a simpler life. The recently retired former Down captain, who played for his county for 16 years, spent a week in Nairobi and Etane in Kenya in November, where he was part of a group of 50 county players who planted trees to address the climate crisis.

The project was the brainchild of former Galway dual player Alan Kerins. He has a charity called Warriors for Humanity and along with the support of Self Help Africa and Kenyan Olympic medallist and world record holding runner David Rushida, the group of 50 raised Eur500,000 that will go towards planting over a million trees. But while there, Kevin McKernan learnt a valuable lesson. He said: “We had an impact on them, and they had an impact on us, which was grounding. It was very rewarding as well. “It has made me really reflect on our lives. Unfortunately, you can’t change the society that we live in. “This is our life and that is theirs but if we could live a simpler life like they did then we could live a happier life. “I was impressed with the simplicity of their lives. “The life we live here, which is heavy with technology, is something that we have brought upon ourselves. “That brings challenges to our young people. “We went to the schools and there wasn’t a football in sight. They had old ragged footballs, made out of plastic bags that the young ones on the streets were playing with. “You saw the children out there, how little they had but how happy they were. “We went to the schools with the resources that we had. The school I teach at, St Ronan’s Primary School in Newry, they gave us resources to take out.”

The players were there to plant trees first and foremost but they got to see the lives of the children but also the adults, who were also living very happy lives, despite their poverty. Kevin said: “We went to a local farmer. We had been planting trees in his community. We went to visit Former Down player reflects on time in Kenya planting trees to address effect of climate change projects that the charity had done in the area. This guy, within five metres of his house he had four dairy cattle and he had a biomass pit created from the cow manure, that gas was being fed back into his house to get his stove going.” The drive of the project was to plant trees. That was the focus. Kevin had been contacted by Alan Kerins before Covid about taking part in the trip. He had initially agreed to take part, but the trip was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Then earlier this year he was contacted about taking part and he agreed. Kevin said: “It gave me an opportunity to meet a super group of people from all over the country. Hurlers from Limerick and Wexford. Footballers from Mayo and Longford. Mickey Quinn and Aidan O’Shea were on the trip. Lads that I would have played against. Now you are making the journey with them to try to make a small difference to other people’s lives. “It was a super trip and when the opportunity came up I felt it was something that I wanted to throw my energy at. It gave me a good focus to fundraise for it.” Business Development Director at Self Help Africa, Martha Hourican, said that the trip had exceeded all expectations, and that the support provided by the Gaelic players would have a transformational effect for communities in Kenya hard hit by the effects of climate change. “Regions of Kenya have endured four successive years of drought, upwards of two million livestock have been lost this year alone, and crops have failed. “This trip responds to that crisis in a practical way, while also highlighting for people back home across Ireland very real effects of climate change being felt by poor and vulnerable communities in Africa,” she said. Kevin said that he saw firsthand how important the planting of the trees was to the local community. He said: “When we came to plant trees, they were so grateful. “They were grateful to receive avocado plants and other plants that would provide food for the cafeteria. The children in the school will look after and pick the fruits. It was amazing to see how life functions over there and that is how children see their day to day lives. “You look at how happy they are, but they don’t know any different.” The project had actually set out to raise Eur350,000, but they exceeded that and raised over half a million. That means the project, which will be ongoing, will plant over the target of a million trees. Kevin said: “We planted up on 5,000 trees. This is a project that is going to go on for the next year. They will plant over a million trees off the funds that were raised by 50 GAA players. “We wanted to have an effect on the carbon footprint of the world. We wanted to plant trees that would not only help carbon emissions but also to help the livelihoods and support communities.”

Kevin spoke about how the group got to have some amazing experiences. They were able to play a match of football and hurling on African soil. They also got to train with Kenyan athletes in Etane, which is a training area for elite athletes. Kevin said: “We actually ran a 7k run at six in the morning with Kenyan Olympians. That was their rest day. They took us round the tracks that they run. I ran with Conor Meyler and Sam Mulroy from Tyrone and Louth. They were great fellas.” The trip was also important for Kevin because it provided him with a chance to talk about retirement from county football. He recently decided that he would no longer line out for his county. While in Africa, he was able to talk to other players who had retired, such as Brian Carroll from Offaly and Chris Kerr from Antrim. Kevin said: “We spoke about the importance of keeping busy and throwing myself at club football. I am enjoying that. “It is a massive gap in my life not to be playing for Down. I was commentating for Ulster GAA the other night. It was very surreal to see Down playing and not being part of it. I have to say it was a difficult moment seeing it. “I know in my heart, my days with Down have passed on. It is time for a new generation. I am looking forward to seeing this new group of players moving on.” He did say that he would like to do more charity work following his retirement from football.

Kevin said: “Alan has a group of us 50 who have experienced it. When you come away from that experience the emotion is quite high. You feel like you are going to change the world. “But I have done charity work for the hospice in Newry and Third World countries. I hope that in two years’ time the programme would be rolled out again and we could go out and help in some way.”

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