Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (Day 41)
I knock out some match reports and an interview for CBF headquarters, post half a dozen blogs and smile as I see that my mum and sister as well as my good friend Neil Mathieson have all donated to my Sierra Leone fund.
They have only gone and double booked the pitch again and so there is to be no send off match for me tonight. I am gutted. I fancied a hat trick tonight and all joking aside it was my chance to say goodbye to two dozen friends most of whom I won't get the chance to see now before I leave tomorrow.
Bob can see I am itching for a game of football on my last night in Makeni and suggests I ask African Minerals if I can join their training session. This is the richest club in the region with big ambitions for the Premier League in coming seasons. I have never had the nerve to ask them if I can join them but as this is my last evening I pluck up the courage.
Five minutes later I am labouring through ten back-to-back shuttle runs from the goal line to the edge of the penalty box. That is basically 360 metres of sprinting. I feel relieved to complete the sprints without having a heart attack or being left two shuttles behind.
"Now sprint as fast as you can between the six yard box and the goal line"
These shuttles seems to go on forever and I feel like my lungs are going to explode.
Only half of the squad is here tonight as the other lads have been excused and are en route to some of the several dozen football cinemas in town for Arsenal v Bayern Munich.
We end up playing an 8-a-side match at the 'stadium of light'. The standard is high and the fitness levels even higher. Football is like an art form with these lads and when I find myself as the last defender against two oncoming forwards I blast the ball up pitch to clear the danger. "Have it!"
"Why you do that?" one lad asks me gesticulating that I could have instead controlled the ball, flicked it over one of the lads, shimmied the other and chipped the ball to him twenty yards away.
The session is hugely enjoyable. "See you tomorrow; the same time" the coach tells me, patting me on the back.
"I'd love to but I'm leaving tomorrow. I fly to England on Friday."
"Well as soon as you get back from your trip home come down here and join us again."
Oh, no. I am gutted. If only I'd asked to train with these lads six weeks ago; I could have played every evening under the lights with this classy outfit.
I grab a team photo with the African Minerals lads and leave Wusum field for the final time, strolling some of the way with John, a young talented footballer who plays in the Craig Bellamy Foundation league. John is one of the best young talents in Makeni but sadly missed out on a place at the academy at Tombo despite being invited to the trials. John is naturally two-footed and has the class and composure of a seasoned veteran. He is also a leader off the pitch: I remember a stirring performance by him in one of the anti-violence community projects in January.
"Just keep playing the way you do with both feet and make sure you continue enjoying your football. I think you are a very talented player John. Just keep believing in yourself.
"Thank you Justin. I hope you return to Makeni one day."
At Yeane's it seems like half of the male population of Makeni is watching Arsenal (the best supported team in the city) stutter and fall apart against Bayern. It is impossible to get inside the bar so I sit on the gravel outside in my football kit, with a cold Star, taking in the scene. It is one of those goose bump moments: witnessing the pleasure that the game of football gives to Africans. There must be fifty of us sat in the street peering in at the TV; many of them little boys who sadly spend their lives hawking groundnuts, cigarettes and packet water instead of going to school; boys who are united and equal with the rest of us for a few minutes in their love of the game of football. Twenty yards further on the scene is the same at Suburban bar. I am going to miss this. Watching Sky Sports down the pub in England is never going to feel quite the same again.
Monday, February 18, 2013 (Day 40)
Makeni - Kabala
The sense of the rural over the urban is almost immediate. It is purely and simply a subsistence existence and once you are just 10 kilometres out of the city the schools no longer seem to exist and the only kids you see are hawking, carrying insanely heavy loads on their heads or helping their parents...to exist.
I am on my way to Kabala for the day. We pass a huge handsome cotton tree, almost as if it has been left as a memorial to the majestic trees that once covered much of this land. Soon afterwards we cross a brand new rail line, built from scratch for African Minerals. The line runs to our left and you can just make out the plush HQ with its brand new living quarters and monstrous air con units. It shows what can be achieved when big money wants things to get done.
Further up-country almost everybody lives in thatched mud huts and the bush is far wilder than in other parts of Sierra Leone I have so far witnessed.
The bus arrives in Kabala, near the Guinea border, where it feels even hotter than in Makeni. I ask a smart-looking man in the street if he knows where the Sengbeh Guesthouse is and we end up chatting for some minutes. Bu recently returned from army service in Iraq. A proud man of 22 years military service, he dreams of setting up his own private security company here in Kabala but is hampered by the large amount of start up capital that is required.
Kabala's compact centre is full of character. There is a colourful market, a beautiful central mosque and its trading streets are home to a number of buildings that evoke the American Wild West of the gold rush days; sheer mountain faces overhanging the city.
Sengbeh Guesthouse is, I guess, a 3-kilometre walk. 60,000 leones (£9) gets me a double en suite with electricity (7pm-midnight), TV and balcony. I even get breakfast although as I need to be at the bus station for 6.30 that doesnt seem very realistic.
Sajid Toure is a man who looks more like a Saharan African with his long torn, dusty tunic. I am not sure whether he is the hotel manager or just the odd job man but either way he is one hell of a character. He tells me the town has had its first tourists in recent years, inquisitive about this relatively unknown and beautiful corner of the world, close to Guinea.
The guesthouse's cook is the complete bipolar opposite of Sajid: a firey babushka of a woman who makes me feel afraid to even ask for a bottle of beer never mind try to order a vegetarian meal. And so, for the second night running, I skip my evening meal and make do with a couple of cold beers instead.
The TV works but only has one channel showing one of those rather culturally disturbing African soap operas which intermingles Christianity, Islam and traditional beliefs into something rather complicated and impossible for the outsider to understand. Secret societies are a hugely significant part of Sierra Leonean life. Outsiders know very little about what goes on as members of these societies often face pain of death if they reveal concrete information about their rituals and initiation ceremonies. It is said that 95% of Sierra Leonean women are initiated. In other words, virtually all the women in this country are witches; be it Christian or Muslim or neither. The secret societies are, on the whole, a taboo subject. It can be very uncomfortable speaking to anybody about the civil war but you tend to completely leave alone the secret society topic.
Enjoying the views of the Wara Wara mountains and the peace and solitude of my temporary residence in Kabala, I do a couple of hours of work for CBF HQ then retire to my double bed with the luxury of a fan. The temperature here drops below 25 at night so I find myself having the best sleep since I was at the coast a few weeks ago.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.