The fear was palpable.
Kenyon Coleman was in Africa and on the way to meet Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza. The talk of a couple of people in the Explorer focused mainly on rebel fighting and the half dozen assassination attempts on Nkurunziza's life.
It wasn't quite the conversation you want to hear when you're part of a four-car caravan being moved 130 miles to an unknown location in one of the world's poorest nations.
"Man, what am I doing out here?"
That's the question Coleman asked himself, and he didn't exactly feel more comfortable when his group stopped in a village and 400 people surrounded the cars. If the situation went awry, Coleman said there were six "young dudes" equipped with AK-47s who were there to protect the group of nine, which included Kenyon's wife, Katie.
"Everyone was thinking everything was over, and then we hit this dirt road," he said.
But soon the group saw vineyards, and as they exited their automobiles, they were stunned by the people around them. Coleman estimated there were thousands but was drawn to a man in the field.
"We go up to meet the President and he's planting avocado seeds and trees, he has a hoe in his hand, he has a big ol' machete and he's just going to town," Coleman said of Nkurunziza. "My idea of meeting the President was not that and I just thought it was so awesome that he was out there working and amongst the people."
The 6'6", 295-pound Coleman, a defensive end entering his sixth professional season, rolled up his sleeves, got down and dug with Nkurunziza. Later that day, Coleman's group, which was led by Tribal Praise Ministry president Dr. Juan Lopez and the Commissioner for Africa for the Latin University of Theology, Dr. Clyde Rivers, presented the Burundi president with a $24,000 check.
Nkurunziza, who regularly is on the move, will be able to use the donation on school roofs, school supplies, desks and soccer balls. Young locals responded to the occasion with joy and dance.
"As I was leaving Burundi, I was just trying to soak in the whole experience. This mom had her baby and she was about 9 months old. She just kept looking at me and waving and she motioned at me with the baby," Coleman said. "So I waved to the baby and the baby just started smiling. I was probably like 10 feet away from her and the baby reached out for my hand and I just put my finger out there. That was powerful."
On to Uganda
Coleman and his wife, Katie, would also be moved on part two of their African trip. In Uganda, they met up with the wife of that country's president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
"We presented her a check for $36,000 and I spoke to her and she was just so graceful," Coleman said. "She said that this would actually build a children's wing of a hospital — not only that but make the hospital where they'll be able to separate the guys and the girls."
They also visited a pair of orphanages in Kampala, Uganda. While encouraged by the spirit of the youth in a country where 51 percent of the population falls under the age 14, Coleman was disheartened that many young kids eat just one meal a day and cannot get simple things like clean water. They view education as a blessing and visit these orphanages not only for nourishment but for the opportunity to learn math, reading and writing.
"We want to buy them uniforms, we want to get them three meals a day and we want to get them transportation so more kids can come to school," he said.
Coleman was amazed when he saw a 3-year-old child walking barefoot to the orphanage with no parent in sight. His group noticed that most children didn't have anything on their feet, so they put their money together and got shoes for the children.
"We pitched in $100 and there was like 170 kids," he said. "They announced we were doing that and they erupted."
Now back in the United States, Coleman is talking of a February return to those two orphanages. The man, who has helped create a youth motivation curriculum titled Raising Expectations Standards & Honor 180 (RESH 180), is determined to help children on two continents.
"I don't want to say we have a monetary goal. We just want to get to a point where we have a constant cash flow and we can just knock off these projects bam-bam-bam," he says. "These are what I would say are the baby steps."
Kenyon and Katie have a couple of young ones at home. Their son, Kaleb, knows his dad provides to much more than his own children.
"My son's already 2 and he goes, 'Kenyon, are you going to see your kids?' When he thinks of Africa, he thinks of Daddy's kids," Coleman said. "I'm like, 'No, you guys are my kids.' "
Kaliah Coleman, 4, looks at her parents as Santa Claus-like figures. But Kenyon is teaching her the difference between need and want.
"She asks if I'm helping my kids get presents," he says. "I'm like, 'Kaliah, they don't need presents — they need food.' "
So Many "Starfish"
In a world that seems increasingly unsettled, there are millions of people across the globe who lack the basic things necessary to live. Coleman knows he can't help everyone, but he's going to reach as many people as he possibly can.
"It's like the story of the starfish," he explained. "There is this man and there are thousands of starfish on the beach and if they just stay there, they die. There is just one guy picking up starfish and flinging them.
"And another man asks, 'What are you doing? Do you know how many starfish there are? How are you supposed to help? Do you think it really matters?'
"And the first man picks up a starfish and says, 'It matters to this one,' and he throws it into the sea."
Coleman walks the beach and sees so many fish struggling to survive. He's going to grab as many as he can because they have inspired him and they continue to do so. He recalls the memories of a pair of girls at the orphanage.
"Here was this 3-year-old girl whose hips were moving and she was just so joyful," he said. "She had a pink shirt on and she just epitomized joy and contentment. She was just happy barefoot.
"And another one of the girls at the orphanage actually saw her dad cut her mom's head off and then kill himself," he said. "That girl and the girl in the pink were dancing and they kind of came out and did a solo together. You would have never thought that this little girl had seen that."
Both were absent of fear and full of life. And the only thing palpable for Kenyon Coleman was awe.