Sunday, February 17, 2013 (Day 39)
I am scrambling up Wusum Hill on all fours. It's not a pretty sight. I had no idea the climb would be this difficult. Wusum Hill looms above Makeni like a miniature Ayers Rock. There is something remarkably ancient about this large hill that completely dominates the terrain. Half way up and I tell Alasand I don't fancy going any further. I suffer from vertigo and the gradient of this climb is frightening the hell out of me. The hill is covered in the burnt carcasses of some plant which Alasand says is used in soups. Once the season is over the locals burn all of the plants so that they grow again the following year. We are using these charred remains as footholds. My record altitude was nearly 5500 metres in Tajikistan and here I am giving up the ghost at 400 metres above sea level in Sierra Leone.
Alasand and I stop and admire the view of Makeni below. I can make out the dusty street leading to our house, the elegant nearby mosque, the green patch of astro-turf that is Wusum Field, and at least half a dozen of the local primary schools I have become accustomed to. The smoke from cooking fires and rubbish pyres sits just above the city. Makeni, it has been a pleasure knowing you.
I ask Alasand what his future plans are. He tells me he wants to finish his studies and then concentrate on IT. "Will you leave Makeni?"
"Only if God wants it," he says, pointing to heaven with one finger. "If God wants I will leave Makeni and maybe even move to Freetown. Maybe one day I may even get the chance to visit one of my good friends like you in England."
Later in the day I get to do a lot of the things I had planned to get done yesterday like meet the local CBF coordintors and some of the refs and chat to a few of the girls who will play in the girls' league, which will begin in March. I catch up with the coach and the girls from Rising Queens FC just ahead of one of their training sessions. The girls will compete against Malimba Queens, Suba FC, Teko Soccer Queens, Nurse Queens, and Police Barracks, with three more teams possibly joining the competition.
"What do you find is the main difference between boys and girls football?" I ask Rising Queens coach, Mohammad C Kamara:
"Attendance for training is more problematic with the girls as their parents are not as supportive of their participation as they tend to be with the local boys in Makeni."
"I think the girls are particularly good defensively if you want to compare their style of play with that of the boys. Myself and the girls are sure of victory this season and winning the league."
Afterwards, I speak with Club captain, Isata M Tholley.
"What position do you play?"
"How long have you played football and why do you enjoy the game?"
"I have been playing since I was eight years old. I like playing; it is fun and a great opportunity to interact with others."
"Which team do you support? And what is your prognosis for this season?"
"Manchester United. I believe we are going to make it this season: both Rising Queens and Manchester United.
...I wake up in the middle of the night to hear dogs going mental near our house. Larium makes you paranoid so at 2am in the pitch dark it is easy for the mind to convince you that a bunch of psychos are about to try and break into the house. I don't know why but for the past couple of days I have felt convinced that the house is about to get done over.
I get up to make sure the girls have locked the front door and I cannot get back to sleep for two hours, lying awake with an awful fear.
Saturday, February 16, 2013 (Day 38)
This is what i have learnt about Africa:
Things that seem impossible are usually possible. Anything seemingly straight forward and achievable usually isn't. The homework club didn't get the green light. Plans to watch one of the girls' teams today have been scrapped. Famarta is late for the first time since I moved in and breakfast is at 8.30 rather than 7, meaning that Alasand and me have had to postpone our early morning climb of Wusum Hill.
I am determined to achieve something with my day so I decide to spend five hours online pushing the charity fund I have set up, mostly through Facebook. Michael Finch, a good mate of mine that I met in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup is the first person to donate to the fund. He is quickly followed by my very close friend of many years, Graham Foster, who has done plenty of fundraising himself over the past couple of years to raise cash for a cerebral palsy charity. In my head I made a bet that the first person to donate would be Graham or Michael. The third person to donate is Lindsey Younger, a girl I went to school with and haven't seen in nearly two decades, making it all the more amazing that she should so kindly choose to help me help these kids.
After an hour or two of uploading blogs that I can post early next week and posting photos of Africa to raise awareness, I suddenly get two fantastic emails in the space of ten minutes. The first is from a close family friend, John Mottram, who donates a whopping £50. Thank you John!
Then I do a double take as I read my email from GivenGain telling me Alan Davies has donated £100. The last time I saw Alan was in 2003 when he came to stay with me in Kofu, Japan, where I was teaching English. Alan was on cloud nine when I met him that day because he had just discovered that he was to be a father. I remember us getting very very drunk and when I put Alan back on the train to Tokyo, where he lived at that time, we were both quite a state. I get straight on to Facebook to send letters of thanks to all of the above and Alan almost immediately replies from the United States, where he now lives. He tells me has been following my blog closely and "It is the least I could do." We then briefly catch up on what is going on in our lives and I discover Alan has two kids as well as ten thousand bees! It is incredible to think that my old school friend is chatting to me in Sierra Leone from the USA. We both remark about the differing directions our lives have taken. I hope to see Alan when he visits the UK in late spring.
And so I leave the MJ Hotel on top of the world at the news that i have already raised £230 in the first 48 hours, and that is from just five friends. Amazing. If you are reading this, please help us to hit that £1000 target and pay for forty kids to go to school for one year as well as to play football in the super Craig Bellamy Foundation league.
Friday, February 15, 2013 (Day 37)
I cannot wait to see my girlfriend. It will have been 70 days since I last saw her when we meet in Tirana next Saturday. Far too long and one of the reasons I have often felt home sick here, despite hugely enjoying much of my time in Sierra Leone.
We couldn’t get the go ahead from the education ministry in time for today’s homework club at SLMB school so I decide to take advantage of the couple of free hours I didn’t expect to have by beginning my packing and cleaning out my bedroom at the house.
I don’t know why it is the case but today has been shocking for people asking me for money. On the whole kids only occasionally ask you for food. Maybe one kid in an entire day asks you to help them with cash. This Friday I must have been asked by more than a dozen kids as well as three adults. As much as I’d like to slip these kids a few leones it just isn’t appropriate. If I give them money then they might think it is the norm to ask foreigners for financial help and end up begging on a regular basis. This can’t be allowed to happen.
Today I set up my More Than a Game fundraising appeal on GivenGain. The target is to raise £1000; enough to send 40 kids to school for a year and guarantee one under 12s and that same team’s under 14s side football for a whole season. In other words, every person who donates £25 is sponsoring one child for an entire year. I am determined to raise this cash in the next 90 days and I hope some of you who follow this blog will follow the link below and consider donating something to help these Sierra Leonean school kids improve the quality of their lives and give them the education that will enable them to build a future for themselves.
Read about the More Than a Game Sierra Leone Appeal here
Friday, February 15, 2013 (Day 37)
It kicked off last night with my housemates. It was inevitable really. It is lucky the girls are off down south to the beaches for a couple of days otherwise the atmosphere would suffocate all three of us today. I say inevitable because putting a bunch of strangers together in a foreign land in sometimes testing circumstances is bound to reach snapping point at some stage, particularly if a bloke aged forty two lives with two girls in their early twenties.
The row started because the girls did not lock the house the other night. You wouldn't leave your front door open in England so I am not sure why you might think it ok to do it here in Sierra Leone. I was furious when I got up in the morning and found the front door unlocked and unbolted. Any Tom, Dick or Alimamy could have wandered into the house.
The subject is discussed in the evening and predictably leads to mention of other multiple irritations in our cohabitation. It is pretty apparent that my house mates will breath a sigh of relief when I depart Makeni next week. As nice as the girls are I will also be pleased to get out of their hair.
I try to change the subject to: 'Did you hear about the meteorite impact in the Urals? What would you do if they suddenly announced that that massive asteroid passing close to the earth tonight was due to hit the earth?'
"Don't know, probably go to the beach."
"I'm not sure the taxi drivers would fancy running you down to the peninsula if the world was about to come to an end. Wouldn't you try to survive? I would climb Wusum Hill and look for some caves."
"When your time is up, it's up." Charlotte remarks in a monotone voice.
Clearly it was time for me to call it a night.
Thursday, February 14, 2013 (Day 36)
Over spicy breakfast omelette baguettes Charlie and I discuss what has been achieved during my time in Sierra Leone with the Collective and the CBF. There have been plenty of frustrations but I feel happy overall with what I have achieved here and can leave satisfied.
I will be the last Collective volunteer to work with the CBF. After my departure the CBF will use their own volunteer to fully manage Makeni. The Collective, meanwhile, will continue to place overseas volunteers with NGOs across Sierra Leone who are looking to improve the lives of the people here and to boost the economy and the quality of life in this developing country. They are doing some very very good work here.
I made the mistake of telling too many people about the good quality free Wi-Fi at MJ Motel and increasingly other NGO volunteers pop in here, for the odd hour or two, to get vital work done that they might struggle with on the usual slower connections. Predictably, as a result, the hotel now wants non-guests to pay per hour for Wi-Fi. It works out at about two Star beers per hour in terms of leones. I leave next week so I just thank my lucky stars I had this place all to myself for the last couple of weeks.
It is an absolute scorcher today; the hottest day so far by my reckoning. It feels like it must be 40. Bob and Alex ask me to referee the 4 o’clock match but I purposely swerve them until 4.30 knowing that my body just couldn’t cope with an hour refereeing in this heat. And so instead I find myself broadening my horizons by becoming a linesman for the second inter-school cup match of the day. I have given linesmen a fair bit of stick over the years watching League one and two matches with Northampton Town back in England. Today I have got a bunch of kids giving me hell on the touch line. It is all in good humour but I do sense that linesman karma is coming back to haunt me.
There are a couple of occasions where I am about to flag in one direction or the other for a throw and, for a split second, my mind gets muddled with which way the two teams are kicking. I hope my tenure as a linesman is short lived. I don’t think I am cut out for this.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 (Day 35)
Wusum stadium, Makeni
How the hell did my life reach this point? There’s a mini pitch invasion with around thirty kids going wild all around me: hugging, jumping for joy and rolling around on the football pitch, some of them doing cart wheels. I can’t help roaring aloud. You see I am referee of the match between SLMB and Our Lady Primary School at Makeni Stadium. There are 688 paying spectators in here – more than you often get for Scottish First Division matches - and another three or four hundred kids and adults have swelled the crowd in the second half after the gate people stopped collecting tickets. Yes, I find myself refereeing a Sierra Leonean football match with a crowd of one thousand roaring on the two sides. Brilliant. I am never going to forget this experience.
I think I managed to get through that without any real clangers. SLMB have run out 3-1 winners but I did have to book three of their players in the closing minutes: one for blatant time wasting (pretending he was injured when he wasn’t); the second boy for an awful tackle from behind; and the third yellow for one of the players in the wall running at the Our Lady free kick taker and deflecting the ball away. As the floodlights are switched on, I remind their captain that the game is already won and if any of the boys are red carded they will miss the next couple of matches in the tournament.
I enjoyed that but I am glad it is out of the way. I feared making some terribly bad decision that ended up breaking the hearts of several hundred school kids and being ever remembered in Makeni as ‘Justin the refereeing clown’.
Leaving 'the stadium of light', the high-five and shaking hands count must stretch into the hundreds on my walk home. I have also made friends with a group of young boys who are all holding on to me with dear life and don’t want me to leave them.
“Well done Sir! Good, fair performance!” One passing gentleman tells me. What a day!
Back at the house, I lie on the floor of the veranda chatting to Charlie, who has come up from Freetown to visit his Collective volunteers and bring the cash for rent and meals. I feel exhausted from my amazing day: national radio, meetings, coaching and refereeing.
Cheers and roars are coming from every corner of the pitch dark bush.
“Seems like United have just taken the lead against Real Madrid”
Charlie checks his phone and yes Welbeck has put United 1-0 up; thousands of football fans all over Makeni celebrating in unison as they watch the match at the dozens and dozens of football cinemas across the city.
The Real Madrid equalizer is a whimper in comparison but is still audible across the bush. A fitting end to a remarkable day.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 (Day 35)
It is a jam-packed day. The CBF HQ people have driven all the way up from Freetown and I get the opportunity to present my report detailing my observations and recommendations from my time with the Craig Bellamy Foundation League in Makeni. All four of the overseas staff read through my report and tell me that they agree with most of my points raised. Let’s hope that the CEO of the CBF in Tombo will now action some of those recommendations, which I believe will lead to the league running even better than it does now.
There is also the opportunity for me to observe the CBF’s coach give an excellent hour-long coaching presentation to a half dozen of the Makeni coaches about ball possession. I believe that you are forever learning as a football coach. There are always new skills and ideas to be picked up from watching other coaches working. I think that applies to somebody like me, with a couple of seasons coaching experience, or even the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, with decades of football at the very highest level.
Afterwards, the coach kindly joins me as the two of us present a refereeing workshop to the local league’s referees. From what I have seen of the guys, they are excellent in general but we just need to brush up on some small interpretations of the game and some of the latest changes to the rules of the game by FIFA over the last year or two. Coloured cones represent attackers, midfielders and defenders as we work through various possible match day scenarios and what the referee should do in each situation.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 (Day 35)
I am live across Sierra Leone on national radio. This is one of those nice head spins you will always remember and occasionally chuckle to yourself about in the years to come.
Alex and I have joined a gentleman from the education ministry and a football journalist for an hour-long chat show and phone in on Radio Maria which is going out live across Makeni, Bo, Kenema and the capital city.
We are here to plug the inter-primary school cup and the work of the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Makeni and across the nation. We go on air in the station’s sound-proofed recording studio at 8.30am and I get my first question from the programme’s host fifteen minutes in. Alex has prompted me that my first question will simply be about why I have chosen to work in Sierra Leone so when the host asks: “Please Justin, tell us about the relationship between the Craig Bellamy Foundation and Makeni.” My mind goes blank with panic for a second. Like a politician I find myself buying time with a few fluffy sentences while I get my head together and actually answer the question. Once that panic has passed I manage to get my game together for the remainder of the hour-long show.
Actually, I am enjoying this. As well as being incredibly surreal it is also rather good fun. One caller phones in to discuss the Sierra Leone Premier League play off finals; while another caller asks what we think the starting line-ups will be for tonight’s Real Madrid versus Manchester United match. We discuss the merits of promoting education through football as well as the pitfalls and frustrations of scouting young players for academy football.
“Hello to Justin and Alex from the twin sisters in New London” is one of the text messages read out on air. I just know that is Bob trying to make Alex and I laugh.
The programme ends with our individual predictions for tonight’s Champions League matches. There is indignation and laughter that an Englishman could possibly think Real Madrid will beat Man U.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 (Day 34)
My bed collapsed in the early hours. It gave me a hell of a fright as I ended up on the floor in the middle of the night. I think it was caused by the build-up of sweat from thirty days of sleeping in it. I nip home at lunch time for a cold beer, respite from the scorching sun and the chance to move out the broken bed and replace it with another one.
Later on we have meetings about the cup preparation, tomorrow’s visit from CBF HQ staff, and we also carefully plan my time for my remaining days with the local CBF team.
I enjoy Famarta’s ‘Crain Crain’, which is rather reminiscent of spinach. I think my house mates are a little fussier than me when it comes to our evening meals. I cringe when I see loads of food going to waste. For me, wasting food is a sin, especially in Africa where the majority go to bed hungry.
Monday, February 11, 2013 (Day 33)
Ever since the girls and I moved in to this house in Makeni we have shared the compound with a group of young Sierra Leonean builders. The lads are friendly (although their vocodered mobile telephone downloaded songs at 3am in the morning do raise the occasional tut) - always saying Good Morning and Good Evening and using a tiny space outside our veranda to say their prayers at various times of the day. And over the weeks we have watched as they have rapidly built walls and balustrades around the neighbouring house. Enjoying my marmite & laughing cow and the cool morning breeze I nearly drop my baguette on the ground: the wall they have been building and painting these past weeks is now a pile of rubble in the yard. One of the builders drove into it with their van when he came home during the night. Someone is for the high jump today.
I mentioned the lads praying. It is refreshing to see Muslims and Christians living happily side by side here in Makeni. The further upcountry you travel, the greater the influence of Islam tends to be with Guinea beyond these borders and Mali still further north. Overall, Sierra Leone is around 60% Muslim and 30% Christian, although traditional beliefs seem to intermingle with both religions. So, in other words, a Sierra Leonean Christian and a Sierra Leonean Muslim might both typically believe in bush witchcraft and the omnipresent influence of the devil on day to day life. Both religions are happy to inter-marry and it is not unusual for a Muslim to convert to Christianity and a Christian to Islam. The Christians seem to fall in to two groups: one being traditional Methodists and the second the American-style Praise-be-to-Jesus evangelist types, who like Sunday service to drag on for four or five hours. Aside from the beautiful central mosque in the afternoon, you can barely hear the call to prayer at all; especially not first thing in the morning, before sunrise. And aside from some smartly dressed older gentlemen and some uniformed school girls, who simply cover their hair, you cannot readily identify the Muslim members of the community from their dress.
I have been sweating now for the best part of five weeks. I mean you never ever really stop sweating in Sierra Leone unless you are fortunate enough to have air con in your life. I sweat most of the night in bed; perspiration starts to trickle down my forehead when I eat my breakfast at 7; if I gulp down a packet water during the day, more often than not the water comes straight out of my pores; and after eating my evening meal my clothes are almost instantly drenched. The dry season here runs from November to May; the wet season from June to October. Sierra Leone gets an incredible 5000mm of rain per year, with some mountainous areas being dumped with up to 7000mm. When you consider it has only rained for five minutes during these past 33 days I have been here you can appreciate just how wet the wet season is. If you check the annual precipitation figures for Freetown you will quickly appreciate that only a handful of cities in the entire world can compete with the Salone capital in terms of wetness. But, like I said, the dry season is anything but dry because all you ever do is sweat: Sierra Leone has a wet season and a sweat season, some people say.
Plans are firmly in place for Wednesday’s inter-school cup tournament and I am busily finishing off the last of my tasks before I leave. This is my final week working in Makeni and I must admit I feel sad about leaving behind so many down-to-earth, charming Africans. There is no bullshit with these people.
Our house cook, Famarta, is promising to cook me a different African dish for each of my remaining evenings in Makeni: Crain Crain, cassava, potato leaves and foo foo are some of the delights that will be on offer. She is an excellent chef and I will certainly miss her tasty evening meals and straight no-nonsense chat. I think she likes me because I never ever leave any of my dinner and I always tell her how damn tasty it all is. It is always a good idea to stay on good terms with the person who cooks your meals.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.