1: @pkmuller (or @NatGeo ) can you help me get in touch with the boy in my shirt? pic.twitter.com/2AodrKSpLA
— Dries Mertens (@dries_mertens14) March 25, 2015
Every now and then we hear a story about how renown professional athletes step outside their circles to do something good for the broader world. Recently, we wrote about Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrihimovic, who plays for the French club Paris St. Germain, and his campaign to shine the spotlight on world hunger. Ibrihimovic is working with the World Food Programme in this endeavor.
A handful of athletes become involved in their community (local or global) through some coincidence. Dries Mertens, who plays for Napoli in Italy's Serie A (First Division) League, happened to be browsing through social-media posts from National Geographic (@NatGeo when he noticed a picture of a primary school classroom in a remote village of Meliandou in the West African country of Guinea. One of the young students happened to be wearing jersey with his name and number on the back. The school had recently reopened after having been closed because of the outbreak of Ebola in the region.
"I was focused on the young children learning French. I barely noticed what they were wearing when I later posted the photo on Instagram," said National Geographic reporter Pete Muller, who arrived in the village in February, a year after the first case was reported in the region.
Mertens, who represented Belgium in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, did notice the photo and got in touch with Muller. "He initially wanted to send him his new jersey. On Friday, we connected with Mertens’s agent, Sam Kerkhofs, and now they hope to do much more to help the community," said Muller.
"Meliandou needs [this assistance]," added Muller. "The virus spread rapidly in Meliandou, now known as ground zero, eventually claiming 24 lives in the village and more than 10,000 across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia."
While Mertens and the young man with the jersey are an important part of the story, there is a broader and more important aspect of the narrative.The impact of the Ebola outbreak is hard to imagine beyond the statistics that we hear in the West. "I found the residents of Meliandou lamenting a lack of food, which they expressed as embarrassment over their inability to customarily offer me a meal," said the National Geographic reporter. "Food wasn’t entirely absent, but severely limited, as the outbreak disrupted last year’s planting season."
And yet, with all the challenges caused by the Ebola outbreak, the community continues to put education for both boys and girls at the top of its priorities. "Despite the current hardship, the adults of Meliandou still allocate the necessary funds for their children to attend school," Muller wrote in the article. "So many do this, in fact, that the benches of Meliandou’s three-room schoolhouse are crowded beyond capacity." Read the full piece in National Geographic.
If the young student had not been wearing that jersey and if Muller had not posted that photograph on Instagram and Twitter, it's unlikely that much-needed assistance would be flowing to the village of Melianndou from an international soccer star. Even more important, we wouldn't have been aware of the resilient spirt of the people of Meliandou.