Sunday, February 10, 2013 (Day 32)
There must be almost fifty white faces in this bar. It feels very odd and I am not sure I like it very much, if you know what I mean.
I am in ‘the Clubhouse’ in Makeni watching England grind out a professional performance to gain victory for the first time against Ireland in Dublin in a decade. The Six Nations rugby has drawn in a right old combination of Europeans and North Americans. If there are four dozen whites in here then I reckon I saw 20, tops, during my previous five weeks in Makeni. It is good news though for the excellent charity Street Child which operates this cosy, friendly restaurant and uses the profits to help run their charity. You’d struggle to get this many expats together in Riga or Vilnius – European capital cities.
There are a load of sixth form kids from Merseyside that are here to help at one of the schools. Then there are a load of slightly too loud English blokes – almost certainly miners – who are singing ‘Sweet Chariot’ aloud and sound like football blokes trying to pretend they like rugby. And there is also more than half a dozen twenty-something English public school girls who are out here working for the various NGOs operating in Makeni. I get chatting to Thomas, a French lad, who is working at St. Francis. He drove to Sierra Leone from Senegal where he was working prior to here. His adventurous journey took him through Guinea Bissau and Guinea; thirty hours of it on the back of a peanut truck. Thomas says he didn’t experience one single negative incident during the journey through ‘dangerous Guinea’, or during his time living in Senegal: “When I lived in Brussels I was attacked with knives on three separate occasions.”
Thomas’ excellent company aside I feel rather keen to escape this white enclave. This feels like some conscious bolt hole away from Africa. With only two weeks remaining in Sierra Leone this isn’t the kind of place I feel like hanging around in and I am not sure British school kids (as nice as they are) or miners or young public school girls (as nice as they are) are the kind of people I am going to have an awful lot in common with, despite coming from the same country as them. I am dreaming of Yeane’s and the final of the 2013 African Nations Cup.
This is more like it: there must be close on 200 African lads and a sprinkling of ladies sat with eyes glued to the two monitors in Yeane’s. Many are fans of Nigeria but others, like me, have been won over by the excellent football of Burkina Faso. I have really enjoyed nights like this; cold bottles of Star, sweat dripping down my forehead, watching the African Nations Cup in Yeane’s with a crowd of friendly, football-mad Sierra Leoneans.
Nigeria are just too good for Burkina Faso. Once they take a 1-0 lead thanks to a brilliant strike, they just close up shop and strangle Burkina Faso’s midfield. As is often the case with finals, the game doesn’t live up to expectations. Nigeria and their 170 million fans badly want to win this cup for the first time in 19 years and they don’t mind doing it by killing the game in midfield. Bance is having a disappointing final. Petroipa can’t do it all on his own. Nigeria are deservedly champions of Africa.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013 (Day 28)
It is like all my Christmases have come at once: a cold Star, a whirling fan above my head, a pub full of football-crazed Africans and two television screens: one showing the African Nations Cup semi-final between Ghana and Burkina Faso; the other broadcasting live action from Wembley of England v Brazil.
Burkina Faso have been the most exciting team of this tournament by a distance. Their front three are superb and the boys Bance and Petroipa a complete revelation. They have thrown everything bar the kitchen sink at Ghana and somehow they cannot score. Worse still a blatant penalty in the final minutes is not given and the referee instead sends off the attacker, Petroipa, for ‘diving’. It is one of the most shocking refereeing decisions you are ever likely to see. But Burkina Faso appear to have a very special spirit and despite everything going against them they manage to win through to Sunday’s final against Nigeria on penalties, sending the bar I am in crazy with celebrations and cheering. I am so engrossed in this exciting African encounter that I only give England v Brazil half of my attention. Well done Joe Hart for that double penalty save. And respect to Frank Lampard for the brilliant winning goal which once again shows he has a part to play in England’s campaign to qualify for Brazil 2014.
As it is late and completely pitch dark, Bob kindly walks me back to the house which is a good mile or more away from Yeane’s, where we watched the match. Strolling through the pot-holed darkness all the chat I can hear from the roadside and from the yards of houses is about the Burkina Faso match and how they were robbed of a penalty: “Such a thing could only happen in Africa!”; “The referee was clearly paid off,” are some of the comments I hear in the darkness.
They really do eat, drink and sleep football in Africa.
Sunday, February 3, 2013 (Day 25)
I was absolutely in pieces when I got home from coaching and playing football yesterday with Real Stars FC. It was probably 35 degrees when we played and when I got home I could barely eat my dinner. I must have drunk five bags of packet water before bed. And so I am thanking my lucky stars that I can have my first long lie in today; with the girls absent and Sunday being Famarta’s day off from the kitchen. I get up most mornings at 6.45 so back to bed with a cup of tea at nine o’clock seems positively sloth-like.
Sadly, Area Best got knocked out of the regional play offs on damn penalties. Had they won the shoot-out, they would have travelled down to Freetown next week for the play off final and the right to play in the Sierra Leone Premier League next season. The differences between success and failure in football are often so fine: a whole season and a club’s future decided by one footballer hitting the outside rather than the inside of the post in a penalty shoot-out. The same applies to some of the young lads I’ve seen playing in the Makeni league. Are all the lads at the academy in Tombo so much better than them? Possibly not. It often depends upon how you played the day the scouts came to watch you perform. A couple of the boys from Real Stars under 12s would definitely get into my academy team.
In the late afternoon, I meet up with all of the coordinators from the CBF to brainstorm some ideas for the upcoming community projects. The subjects are: Child & universal rights (February); Women & disability (March); Health (April); Sanitation & hygiene (May); Environment & ecology (June). After an hour or two of discussion and debate there is just time for me to catch some of the day’s second African Nations quarter final between Togo and Burkina Faso. Nigeria knocked out tournament hosts Ivory Coast earlier in the day. Drogba and his boys looked pretty laboured throughout the tournament and certainly would not have deserved to make the final four.
Dusk settles as I walk home along the Azzolini Highway; lorries coughing out diesel fumes as they pass; motor bikes beeping to warn pedestrians not to step out into the road; acrid smoke filling the air along one section of tarmac as locals burn plastic cartons and bags on a compost heap. Makeni is quite a spectacle at this time of the day. I feel like the bit part in an award-winning foreign film, praised for its stunning cinematography and realism. Ladies carry huge weights on their heads; other local women sit by the roadside trying to sell bunches of bananas and sweet potatoes. Human traffic is moving in every direction; mechanical traffic is moving in every direction. It is quite a scene.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.