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.
Monday, February 4, 2013 (Day 26)
One of my greatest joys in Sierra Leone is walking to work passing by hundreds of kids on their way to school each morning. Quite how their parents keep them all looking so immaculately clean is beyond me in this heat and dust and with the lack of resources at their disposal. Girls wear pleated skirts and boys, some of them as old as 18, smart shorts. Because of the civil war, some school kids are as old as 21. The old-school school uniforms put me in mind of when I went to school as a young kid in the 70s.
Mercifully, primary education is now free in Sierra Leone with an estimated 70% of kids attending. For secondary education this drops to around 30% with this figure as low as 10% in rural areas. For this reason the CBF league deserves to be proud of its secondary school attendance rates of well above 90%. It is all a far cry from the mid-nineteenth century when the good people of this country were better educated than almost anywhere else in the world. In 1860 it is said that 22% of Sierra Leoneans were educated. In England, at that time, the figure was a pathetic 13%. In the pre-civil war days, Sierra Leonean university graduates were in demand all over Africa and beyond. It just shows how much the fortunes of a country can change. The beginning of the civil war in 1991 really was a ‘year zero’ for this nation. Participation in education can lead this country on the road to redevelopment.
Bob, Alex and I meet to prepare a letter asking a number of schools to allow us to run the homework club for the two coming weekends. I plan to host these homework clubs during the coming Fridays and Sundays and hope my participation will encourage other link teachers to join me, thus kick-starting the clubs.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013 (Day 21)
David Beckham stayed in Makeni once. Seems hard to believe but it is true. The former England football captain visited this town when he was working for UNICEF and is said to have ordered his driver to stop the car at one point so that he could indulge in a kick around with some local boys he spotted playing in the street. He did some very good work here and raised a lot of awareness for the people of Sierra Leone. Beckham stayed at MJ's motel across the street from Flamingo's night club. I thought about that today as I strolled past in the scorching sun and saw the club advertising its upcoming reggae night. The hotel was looted and vandalised during the civil war, in the days when Makeni became a stronghold of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The hotel reopened three years after the end of the civil war; Beckham visited three years later and now I am here, five years after Beckham, thinking about dropping in and asking whether I can take a photo of the room he stayed in for More Than a Game.
"Justin! How are you? Where have you been? The coach was asking why you haven't been back to training." Moses asks me, spotting me outside MJ's. I had intended to join the lads for training this morning but when I woke up feeling like I'd spent a night in the Gobi, I knew I just wasn't up to it. The lads have their playoff match tomorrow evening and Moses has invited me to join up with his team to watch it.
It has been a funny old day for me. Touch wood, I haven't been sick once during my time in Sierra Leone; not as much as a stomach ache or an emergency dash to the toilets. But somehow today I find myself quite blatantly dehydrated. My three-day-old habit of drinking a small bottle of fizzy drink (ginger beer/lemon Fanta/orange parrot) every morning and evening doesn't help; it quenches your thirst but in truth all of that sugar is doing you no favours. I never ever touch fizzy drinks back home. And so I find myself drinking and sweating like a Saharan lorry driver. Fortunately, I thought to pack some rehydration salts but, after a solid morning in the office, it is clear I need to get myself home at lunchtime for a kip and an afternoon session of trying to get my head back together after Monday's events.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013 (Day 13)
We now have the local Education Ministry on board with what we are doing in Makeni. We met the director of schools for Northern Sierra Leone and presented her with lots of material about the Craig Bellamy Foundation; its aims and motives. With Madam Kanu's support we can now call on the expertise of the ministry for future community projects. We also hope that they will provide some resources for our 'homework clubs', which are another way in which we encourage the local schoolboys and schoolgirls to improve their education. Participation in these extra classes can lead to your football team being awarded bonus points in the CBF league.
On the way home I watch Ivory Coast steal a victory from Togo in a small (packed) restaurant in the St. Mary’s area of town; reading some reports from former volunteers during the low points of the match.
Back at the house, I munch through a huge tasty plate of rice and beans and begin to fight off the advances of the mosquito battalions. I lie on the floor of the veranda just before the sun goes down observing everybody going about their lives. There is so much positive energy in the air; so much...life. You can always hear laughter filling the air.
I am so tired that I am not even going to bother asking Alsaund to put the generator on for fear that I will fall asleep and fail to bring the expensive contraption back into the house. I am in bed for 7.30!
Monday, January 21, 2013 (Day 12)
Perspective. I think of my Western life with clean running water, regular refuse collection, a fully functioning sewerage system and 24-7 electricity. Imagine if you never had those things as a given again. Little hope of employment and no national health service. And no petrol at the local BP station. Imagine if you had to queue up for three hours just to get a couple of litres of petrol and those litres of fuel cost the equivalent of a day's salary. And fearing that the ache in your stomach is cholera and, if it is, you cannot afford to do anything about it. How would you feel if you knew that your wife only had a one in seven chance of surviving child birth? Or that your life expectancy is 47. Yes, 47. Or that the unrest in the neighbouring country could lead to unrest in your homeland and civil society might break down and the devil would suddenly be lurking in the bushes; by the roadside; in the street where you live.
Today is the most tired I have felt since my first day in Sierra Leone. The culprit? Last night's football match. Charlie phones me from Freetown and tells me he will be up in Makeni on Wednesday to meet me and discuss how my time here is going.
Africa time has played havoc with my day. Things have been achieved but productivity levels have been low. The kids who presented the anti-violence play in front of school assembly on Sunday put in another brilliant performance in the minutes leading up to the Makeni Senior Secondary cup final. With the two teams lined up in front of the crowd and match officials, the children from the Craig Bellamy Foundation tell the two sets of players that there should be no fighting after the match between the two schools. The way the little boys present this to the two teams reminds me a little of the All Blacks doing the Haka, except these boys are all aged around 11 and the 'boys' playing in the final are nearly all in their early twenties.
The final ends 2-1 to the better team and, mercifully, a mass brawl is avoided despite the best efforts of a bunch of rough-edged girls to incite a fight. The half dozen problem-females remind me of rough UK council estate girls. The efforts of the young CBF boys, their coach and the other local CBF staff involved almost certainly prevented a mass brawl between the two schools. This event proves that involving the boys in community projects often leads to positive change in their local community.
Sunday, January 20, 2013 (Day 11)
Despite the 5pm Kick Off it is still roasting up at the Makeni stadium ahead of our football match between the Craig Bellamy Foundation coaches and staff. I am playing centre-forward for the staff against a coaches' backline which is mostly made up of police and army men. It is only five minutes in to the match that I realise that I need to walk around rather than jog when the ball is nowhere close, otherwise I might collapse through heat exhaustion before too long.
In the warm up these lads looked like the most fit and skilful bunch of players I have ever stepped onto a football pitch with but once the game gets going I realise that the style of play is mostly individual flair and much less team work. Playing up front with Alex I balloon an early effort from the edge of the box so high and wide that I hear a couple of the kids watching the match laughing aloud. It makes me feel like a bit of a clown.
The first half turns into a goal feast and we go in at the break trailing the coaches 3-4. There are probably around 150 spectators watching the match and if it wasn't for the fact that Manchester United are playing Spurs live on TV at the same time, we might have had 500 in here watching us. You have to laugh.
I was expecting to be a spent force in the second half but I actually seem to be fitter than a lot of the lads and finally manage to get my Sierra Leone goal scoring account off the mark. It is Bob who crosses deep from the left and I steal in at the far post and volley the ball into the top of the net. Scoring a goal in a stadium in Sierra Leone - it is a great feeling. One to tell the Grandkids as they say.
I am struck by how fast some of the lads are. I like to drop out onto the flanks where there is lots of open space. On two occasions I buy myself more than 20 yards of open grass but the defenders are so fast that they close me down in a couple of seconds and force me to pass the ball to teammates rather than suicidally trying to dribble past them.
As the sun begins to set some of the boys are completely knackered and lots of mistakes are being made. In the final moments I cross long from the right wing and Bob comes racing in at the back post to equalise with an excellent volley that is the goal of the match and makes it 7-7. An elderly gentleman behind the goal tells me: "Excellent cross; very good quality football sir,"
I am buzzing from playing at the Makeni stadium if not a little frustrated by the style of football at times. I love players expressing themselves but I also like footballers doing the basics and making the simple pass when it is available. A couple of the lads suggest we settle the match with penalties but I insist we pencil in a rematch before I leave Sierra Leone.
Walking home instead of the locals shouting out 'Oporto!' (white man), many of them now shout 'Bellamy!' This is my high point since I have been here, strolling back through my suburb, feeling like it is my home and that I am now accepted by many of the locals. I buy a couple of cold beers from my usual kiosk and stop off at the football cinema for the second half of Mali v Niger which is settled with a goal from Keita.
Predictably enough I cannot sleep for ages as I replay my goal over and over again in my head and fantasize about a cameo performance in the Sierra Leone Premier League.
Sunday, January 20, 2013 (Day 11)
It is still dark when I get up. The air is wonderfully cool and fresh, and the roads are almost deserted aside from the odd lone okada rider, still beeping their horns regardless of the lack of human traffic on the streets. I am in the office for 7.15.
Bob meets me at Restless Development and walks me down to some out-buildings just outside the SLMB School where a dozen or so of the CBF boys are preparing a quick play and speech in front of school assembly. The morning light is particularly gorgeous today with sand sparkling like magic dust inside the beams of sunlight. The school head speaks about the importance of the kids practicing English, French and Arabic when they are outside of the school gates, and then introduces us to all of the kids.
The young CBF lads give a brilliant performance in front of hundreds of kids. They make the kids chuckle with their mock fight and individually give speeches about non-violence between schools that are well received. One boy with freckles puts in a particularly rousing performance. The link teacher tells me that he will ask him to join in the anti-violence community project radio discussion they have planned for next week. Back at the office I write everything up, sort out my paper work and upload all the photos I have thus far collected.
Saturday, January 19, 2013 (Day 10)
I almost make it all the way to the New London mosque before I get my first recognition of 'aporto' ('White man!'); on this occasion care of a little girl with a big genuine smile who has her hair covered by a veil and looks like the sweetest little thing you have ever seen in your entire life. It is 7.45am on a Saturday morning and not only am I on my way to work but I am going to work in Sierra Leone. I read that sentence back in my mind and conclude it sounds absurd.
I make it in to the office at 8 as agreed with the lads but there is no sign of anybody. Africa time strikes again. This isn't a purely an African phenomenon though - I've got a very good Russian mate called Nikolai - God bless him - who is often far worse with his timekeeping. 'Yes, mate, I will be there after twenty minutes,' he will tell you and arrive 90 minutes later, blaming the traffic.
We are observing Craig Bellamy Foundation league matches today. What Bob doesn't tell me until we reach the gravel pitch is that a few of the CBF staff think it would be an excellent idea if I referee the first match. The referee who was originally due to officiate this match gives me his little notebook with the teams inside so that I can scribble down the names of the goal scorers and any players who receive yellow or red cards. I've even got a couple of pocket-sized yellow and red cards ready to flash. The damaging irony is that there is a bigger crowd watching me referee than has ever watched me actually play a game of football.
The first match is extremely competitive with the players fully committed in every challenge. I warn a couple of the boys about mistimed challenges and then pull out my first yellow card. A further two yellow cards follow for off-the-ball incidents. High Mountain under 12s run out 1-0 winners. The main things I had to pull up for during the match were foul throws and off-the-ball retaliation. It is astounding how good the boys' ball control is on the gravel pitch.
I am feeling pleased with myself; job well done and no shocking decisions to blacken my name. "So please Justin, referee the second match for the under 14s."
Damn. High Mountain under 14s are as good a young boys' football team as I can ever remember seeing. They pass and move; retain possession and make the beautiful game look even more beautiful. There is no silly speculative shooting from thirty yards out; no try-to-beat-five-men-dribbles. This side plays football the way it should be played. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-0. It is half-time and the hot sun is taking its toll on me more than it is on the boys. I feel like I have been playing rather than refereeing.
And then, in the second half, when everything was going so well...High Mountain are attacking down the right wing. To avoid getting in the way of the pacey right winger I jog backwards on my heels to the touchline. But the touchline has a concrete divot on it which sends me stumbling backwards. Unfortunately, a little boy is stood spectating by the touchline with his bicycle. I fall on top of the boy and the two of us tumble to the ground. The incident is the kind of comedy moment that would instantly get half a million hits on YouTube if somebody were to video it and post it. But it is not funny because the unfortunate little boy has got a huge gash just above his left ankle where me and his bike landed on top of him. He looks shocked by what has happened.
Fortunately, I am able to blow the final whistle a couple of minutes later. High Mountain played the second half in third gear which is reflected by the final score of 5-1. My main concern is finding the little boy and getting his wound cleaned up.
I manage to track him down and Bob cleans up his nasty deep cut and puts a plaster on it. The fall also took a chunk out of my wrist so I am keen to get it properly cleaned up before it gets infected. I am absolutely caked in dust and sand which quickly finds its way inside the cut. I feel so guilty about the little boy's injury and insist that he reports to his link teacher at SLMB tomorrow to make sure his cut hasn't been infected with germs.
Thursday, January 17, 2013 (Day 8)
I enjoy the cool temperatures and peace of the Restless Development office first thing in the morning. Originally, we had a 7.20am meeting scheduled at the nearby Muslim school but Bob texted me late last night to inform me that has been put back until tomorrow. Instead Bob, Alex and I have a meeting about the link teachers we use to work directly between the Craig Bellamy Foundation league and the schools. How can they be best motivated? Which are the different ways in which they can be more involved with the CBF? It is an excellent meeting and I feel that I have not only learned much about how things work here but we have also brainstormed a lot of ideas for how things can be improved.
Later in the day we visit both SLMB and St. Francis. Saint Francis School currently has 129 kids playing in the CBF league; almost a fifth of the total for Makeni. While we visit the various classrooms, checking on school attendance, a school employee patrols the school yard with a cane, sending all the boys lurking outside scuttling off into their various classrooms in panic. Another boy is whacked on the wrist for wearing a bangle to school. He immediately removes it and gives it to the school head. When I grew up in England the cane was still in use in some schools. Although I am totally against it in principle I do wonder when I think about how out of control many kids now are in the UK, with a total disrespect for authority. There is an order and a sense of authority to the schools in Sierra Leone that is totally, totally lacking in the United Kingdom.
After our school visits I pay a visit to the 'St. Mary's' and 'Adnans' supermarkets. This is the first time I have stepped foot inside a supermarket in Sierra Leone. Both stores are Lebanese-owned and remarkably well stocked by African standards. A box of breakfast cereal costs £5; a tin of corn is £3. A chocolate fix care of a Snickers will set you back £1.10; a tin of beans £1.20 and the cheapest bottle of South African wine is £5. A small tin of Nescafe instant coffee is a whopping £4. Clearly I won't be shopping in here too often during my time in Sierra Leone and clearly the average local would never ever dream of setting foot inside these air conditioned doors (the only air conditioned environment I have so far experienced). I treat myself to a cold ginger beer that tastes like the best ginger beer in history, some instant Nescafe for breakfast and a bag of awful gone off Lebanese nachos that I instantly regret eating.
I successfully manage to walk back to the Restless Development office alone for the first time using the various schools I have visited as my geographical points of reference. Back in the office I write up my notes from the day and finish last Friday and Saturday's blogs but I am flagging badly by 2pm. I spend the latter half of the day trying to read up and educate myself about the history, geography and people of Sierra Leone.
Back at home I have to cool myself down with a cold bucket shower. Jayne, meanwhile, manages to lock herself out of her room, leaving Alasund to try and break the door down with the handle of a machete. Dinner is a delicious ground nut soup that is not unlike a spicy curry when added to rice. Famarta tells Jayne she wishes she had white skin like hers while Jayne tells her that in the UK people are obsessed with trying to turn their skin darker. You always want what you can't get, they say.
Alasund has managed to buy a litre or two of oil and fuel so we can have some electricity after dinner. He shows me how to switch off the generator so that he doesn't have to hang around in the evenings. Alasund tells me that on Monday certain street stalls will be outlawed in the capital. It seems like madness on the face of it. What will all of those people do to make a living? Surely there will be multiple incidents where the police forcedly evict traders that will lead to clashes?
My day ends in the back yard where I switch the noisy, smelly generator off and carry it into the house. This experience is certainly making me appreciate having a regular electricity supply when living in Europe.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 (Day 7)
By four I am just about ready to go home and chill. I hate the whole idea of working 9-5 because I feel that it has nothing to do with productivity and everything to do with satisfying staying in one particular place for a certain number of hours. It has been a very productive day (8.30-3.50) and I can begin the walk home in the sun feeling like I have achieved something with my time; achievements that have nothing to do with furthering my material wealth. Ric, the CBF overseas volunteer, calls me and we discuss possible areas of improvement for the CBF league; one of the most important certainly being the lack of an under 17s league for the under 14s to aspire to.
The girls come home half an hour after me and we end up sitting out on the veranda as the light fades drinking and putting the world to rights. You've got to love Kate's boundless enthusiasm for everything and Jayne's focused ability to dust herself down and to start again, whatever life throws at her.
I join our young-and-always-friendly house manager, Alasund, at the local 'football cinema' for the first half of Arsenal versus Swansea. It costs 1000 (about 15 pence) to get in. They have live English commentary and 35 minutes later, Manchester United's FA cup replay with West Ham kicks off on a second screen. There must be close to 60 or 70 lads in here on this small side street, a few yards from the New London mosque. Bob reckons there are 300 of these football cinemas in Makeni alone. Imagine how many pairs of eyes across Africa are watching these games.
I am feeling agitated when I get home because there is no oil for the generator and it makes me feel like I am participating in some kind of physical and mental endurance test. I am here to work hard and to try and unwind in the evenings and having no electricity isn’t helping my mental state. I am also feeling irritable because when I go to the pitch black toilet I bump into a huge spider and then, when I go to bed, a particularly nasty insect appears to be smiling at me, having taken up residence inside of my mosquito net.
Yes, I can see the pattern of my moods clearly now: Positive and upbeat during the hours of light; feeling trapped at home once darkness invades everything.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.