By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — The thread of soccer still weaves through Anders Kelto's life, a continent and a decade removed from elite competition.
Named Mr. Soccer as a senior in 1996 at Traverse City Senior High — meaning he was the best in the state — Kelto was heavily recruited. He attended Brown University, where the discovery and management of a heart condition limited his playing time. His dream of professional soccer withered.
Now living and working in Africa as a radio correspondent, Kelto often taps the universal language of soccer to connect, to play, to compete and laugh.
"I can talk about what's happening in the English premiership or go out and kick a ball," he said. "Soccer is the people's sport."
Hired in May by Public Radio International for its "The World" program, Kelto stood out among a stack of impressive applicants for his experience in Africa. His editor, David Baron, noted that as a freelance reporter, Kelto's initiative already forged connections across the continent. Kelto also knew what he was doing and how to stay safe.
Even with this successful track record, Kelto projects a fresh perspective and enthusiasm that draws in listeners. He tells stories — real stories of heartbreak, dysfunction and despair, hope, generosity and pride --- without cynicism or pity.
Audiences connect, listen and learn about real individuals striving to survive, to improve, to help their children.
"He really brings stories to life in a way that would appeal to Americans," said Baron, "The World" health and science editor.
Fittingly, Kelto's travels as an elite teen soccer midfielder planted a seed of curiosity about the world. Membership on the United States U-17 National team from age 15 meant travels to Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Chile and most of Europe.
After graduating from Brown, Kelto considered law and medical school as he fathomed a future not on a soccer field. The intellectual and writing challenges at Brown had fired his imagination; Kelto had blossomed in college.
"Brown was hugely responsible for development of my writing skills and my critical thinking skills," Kelto said. "It was the first time I was surrounded by friends who were as curious and such critical thinkers."
Growing up steeped in a musical, well-educated and curious family also laid a solid foundation
"I would give a lot of credit to my family," Kelto added. "We have a real desire to understand things."
Kelto teased out a common theme driving his interests: education. Instead of teaching directly in a classroom, however, his mission became to share explorations with a wider audience.
"A journalist is someone who tells stories, who helps people understand the world," said Kelto, who began a Brown men's soccer blog; his first professional radio piece came thanks to connections from blog readers who were college alumni.
For 2013, Kelto will produce six or eight stories for PRI, in-depth slices looking into Africa life. One is on a school in a South African slum and another piece is on family planning.
A lifetime of stories could only scratch the surface of Africa's 54 countries, with a complexity and poverty — coupled with a hope and dignity — unimaginable to most Western minds. Volatile and war torn in many areas, Africa as a whole has a booming economy growing at 5-7 percent annually.
Investment outstrips aid as nations, especially China, tap the continent's natural and human resources. America still has surprising influence but is being overshadowed by the massive presence of Chinese money and manpower.
What leaders and individuals do with this unprecedented growth will shape the future, Kelto noted.
"Will wealth be distributed to education, infrastructure and industry for long-term economic stability?" he asked. "Or will it be the same old economic narrative of a few elites pilfering the coffers at the expense of everyone else?"
Kelto will be in Africa at least through May of 2014; his PRI position is funded until then by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Comfortable not knowing exactly what comes next, Kelto is confident his credentials and clips, mental flexibility and fluid life skills will have him telling more stories.
He does, of course, have a modest transition plan penciled on his calendar: World Cup 2014 kicks off in Brazil on June 12.