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Zach Sudfeld Decompresses ... in Africa

Posted Feb 26, 2014

Jets TE and Twin Brother Work for a Week with Assist International in Uganda

While much of Jets Nation was shivering through a polar vortex last month, Zach Sudfeld was sweating under the African sun.

Of course, Zach didn’t fly to Uganda simply for a change of climate. Rather, he and his twin brother, Matt, traveled halfway across the world for a week’s worth of charitable endeavors.

Working on behalf of their grandfather’s organization, Assist International, the Sudfelds helped to distribute 500 manually operated bicycles that pump fresh water from underground (known as Rainmakers) through Project 41.

Seven out of 10 Ugandans make their living as farmers, and during the many droughts and dry seasons in Africa, water can often be hard to come by. The Rainmakers provide a sustainable source of food and income by making farming possible year-round.

But the bikes were just the start of the Sudfelds’ Tour de Uganda. They also assisted the ladies of Women First, who earn their living by making a wide variety of items. The packaging that the Rainmaker parts were shipped in, for instance, were transformed and then sold as baskets for food.

“Nothing goes to waste,” Zach said. “Every little thing is used somehow. There’s so much ingenuity out there.”

They also spent much of their time hanging with kids — or perhaps more accurately, with kids who were hanging on them.

“It was crazy because all these kids would just start jumping on us, just so excited,” he said. “I was like a jungle gym. They thought it was the funniest thing when I would lift them up, so there’d be like eight kids hanging on my arms and I’d just be holding them up and swinging them. My shirts were all ripped. It was a workout.”

Playing football, soccer and other activities with dozens of children throughout Uganda became daily events for Zach and Matt.

One day, they even gave in to a little peer pressure from the children and ended up drifting out on a less-than-safe canoe ride.

“All the kids are like, 'Get in, get in, Mzungu [white man],” Zach said. “So my brother and I were like, ‘All right, whatever, we’ll go.’ They start shoving us out and all hop in the boat. There were kids everywhere, and I’m sitting in this thing that’s literally an inch out of the water. They start rowing us out in the lake, and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, we’re going in.’ ”

Their canoes stayed afloat, which was fortunate because one of the African men informed them of the plentiful snakes and crocodiles in the lake when they got back to land.

Since it was Zach’s first trip to Africa, he followed Matt’s lead on how to assimilate into the culture. That often resulted in a journey outside of his comfort zone.

“In their culture, men wear pants all the time,” Zach said. “So I’m rocking these long pants the whole time, just sweating like crazy. It was hot and it was warm, but it was beautiful.”

As for the food? Well, he typically stocked up on protein bars from his hotel after eating a couple of hard-boiled eggs in the morning. Once they were out in the villages, though, things were a bit different, especially after Matt pointed Zach out as the “guest of honor.”

“The village elder then brings me over a plate with chicken guts and gizzards that I’m supposed to eat as the guest of honor,“ Zach said. “My brother’s like, ‘Dude, you'd better eat that. Otherwise we’re going to get run out of here.’ We wouldn’t have, but yeah, I got after it. It was sketchy, and I didn’t want to know all that was in it. I was just like, ‘Mmm, good!’ ”

There would have been a photo of that honorable meal if not for something that happened on their last day of the trip. Zach and Matt were heading to a huge countrywide celebration with tens of thousands of people, including Uganda's president and prime minister. They were planning on going straight from the event to the airport and had thus left their luggage in the car.

“Apparently someone had followed us in, bumped the lock, and taken all of our bags,” Zach said. “Fortunately, for some reason they didn’t want some stuff and dropped off a backpack at a church about an hour away with things, including our identification. We lost iPads, iPhones, cameras, got cleaned out pretty good. It was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, maybe not the safest place to be,’ but it was part of the experience and it was awesome. In the end, it’s just stuff.”

In fact, Sudfeld plans on returning next offseason to do it all over again.

“It’s a really cool way to decompress," he said back in the U.S. "When you’re here, football becomes such a big part of your life. You just spend all day thinking about it, watching it, doing it, so much so that I don’t even have time to read the newspaper. Then all of a sudden you get out and you realize there’s so much going on, so it’s a great way to gain perspective.

“The kids out there, they have so much fun with things as simple as water bottles, or the one soccer ball that we took out. They’re just so happy to have something and have so much joy with whatever’s going on. It’s remarkable because here, it’s like you don’t have your iPad and you’re struggling.

"The whole experience, just to see a different culture, to see the world, it stays with you. I just feel so fortunate to have been able to go out there with Assist International and take part of it. It was just an awesome experience.”

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