Tuesday, June 25, 2013
We did it!!!
One June 22 our Sierra Leone appeal hit our £1000 target, two days ahead of the closing date for donations. This means that we are delighted to say we will be able to send the 40 boys from Sektars Football Club, based in Makeni, to school for one year and also provide them with football coaching and matches for the same period.
Our More Than a Game Sierra Leone appeal was started after volunteering and working together with the Craig Bellamy Foundation and the Collective Sierra Leone in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone. We felt that we needed to do more to help the people of Sierra Leone and, after volunteering in west Africa for two months, decided this appeal was the answer. We want to thank everybody who donated their hard-earned cash to this appeal:
And so, a million thank yous go out to:
Paul Featherstone, Laurent Dathie, Footbaltic, Graham Williams, Kelvin Hooke, Josu Samaniego del Campo, Alexandra Flemming, Gordon Hamilton, Jaime Morris, Ed Russel, Jane Pannell, Atheen Spencer, Shaun Gisbourne, Erika Medene, Rupert Williams, Maureen Robinson, Bernadette Samuels, Neil Mathieson, Alan Davies, John Mottram, Graham Foster, Lindsey Langford, and Michael Finch.
Without all of you, we could not have achieved this. Your efforts will improve the quality of life of a lot of little boys in west Africa.
Saturday, February 23, 2013 (Day 45)
Sierra Leone - England - Albania
Like I said, I feel so spaced out by the time our flight leaves Freetown that I have no sense of leaving Africa. But, something changes over the course of the next couple of hours...
... Blurry eyed, I stare ahead of me at the computer-animated flight route map. Within minutes of our departure we have long since left Sierra Leonean airspace and have already crossed much of neighbouring Guinea. As we begin to overfly Senegal I grab my pen and write down the first individual words that come into my tired head:
Humbling; uplifting; inspiring; upsetting; frustrating; rewarding; enlightening; infuriating;
These are some of the words; a few of the emotions that I felt during my seven weeks in Sierra Leone volunteering with the Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation.
Suddenly, I feel like crying when I remember much of the poverty, and the amputees, and some of those little boys working in the streets. I can say I feel proud of myself for having done this. I am definitely ready to go home but I did 'enjoy' my Salone experience, if 'enjoy' is the correct word to use.
We begin to overfly Mauritania. Gambia Bird is a joke. They are offering me a single bread roll for dinner because, despite assurances from my travel agent and at check in, they don't have any vegetarian meals. The seats don't recline and there is also practically no legroom at all making it very difficult to sleep even if you feel exhausted. Yes, I know my moaning sounds a little out of context after the previous paragraph talked of poverty and despair. But I have written this blog to record my thoughts and emotions; my highs and lows. I hope by telling things the way they really were it has given those who are interested a better sense of what it might be like to volunteer in Africa. I hope also that I have provided a balanced picture of life in Sierra Leone: yes, the country is currently one of the least developed countries in the world but it also has a hell of a lot going for it and, at times, you might end up feeling happier when you are living there, in West Africa, than when you are cocooned in your comfortable life back home in Europe or North America.
We are greeted by the sight of a spectacularly bright red sun as we begin our descent to Gatwick Airport. I think I might have managed to get one hour's sleep.
In London it is flaking with snow and so cold after Africa that I wonder what the shock must be like for an African stepping foot on this continent for the first time. It is only minus three but after seven weeks of sweating all day and all night, England has never ever felt so cold when stepping off a plane.
I cannot remember if I mentioned it before but I am straight off on holiday today. Having arrived at 7am, I check in with British Airways an hour later, a full six hours ahead of my flight to Albania, where I will meet my girlfriend this evening. It means that my journey from Charlie's house in Freetown to the Hotel Nobel in Tirana will have lasted approximately 30 hours.
A holiday in Albania? Well, after living in Sierra Leone for the best part of two months I am not quite ready for the glitz and consumerism of Western Europe. In some senses, Albania is Europe's Sierra leone: underdeveloped and largely unloved by the outside world...but full of beauty and potential.
One picture postcard from Albania perhaps....
Friday, February 22, 2013 (Day 44)
Murray Town - Freetown - Kissy
This morning I had (with good intentions) planned to visit the chimpanzee reserve, buy some gifts for my relatives and girlfriend and take the sea cat fast boat to the airport in the afternoon but last night's tomfoolery spelled the end of all that. Now, if I get the passenger ferry this afternoon instead, I can just about get by without changing another 50 euro and I won't end up getting stuck with a load of leones I cannot use or change once I leave the country.
Charlie and Dorset Alex are doing up the new volunteers' house; a task not without problems with a generator needing fixing and a complication with the water system in danger of flooding the basement of the building. They have put in four back-to-back fifteen hour days this week for the Collective Sierra Leone. Consequently, I only manage to see the lads shortly before my departure to say my goodbyes and to wish them well with all their hard work here in Sierra Leone. I really respect the two of them for wanting to improve the lives of others in this country. It is a tough gig to live and work here for two or three years.
It is the inauguration of the Sierra Leonean president, Ernest Koroma, today. My taxi driver isn't sure if this means the Freetown roads will be gridlocked, in lock down or empty. Fortune seems to have favoured me as we make it to the government wharf a full thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled ferry departure time. I doubt if Freetown's roads have been that deserted in years.
"I am sorry sir but the government has commissioned the government ferry. It is not running today. There is a forty five dollar fast boat later."
As I have commented many times: the seemingly impossible here is often achievable, while the straight forward often isn't doable.
"You could try to catch the ferry from Kissy at two."
"Oh, we will never make that sir, it is already one thirty seven," I tell the ferry official.
"I think you should try." My taxi driver nods in the affirmative...
...how on earth my taxi driver has managed to pull this off, I will never know. Thanks to all manner of short cuts and crafty bits of overtaking he has somehow got me across the whole city in 20 minutes flat. Sweating profusely he screeches to a halt near Kissy ferry terminal and tells me we should run.
As we reach the terminal, the gates are being locked so that no more vehicles or people can interrupt the departure of the 2pm ferry. I slip my ten thousand leones ticket money through the gate and almost manage to leg it off without remembering to give my driver his cash. I slip the driver a ten thousand leone tip for getting me to the boat on time and he smiles and shakes my hands like I have just given him the keys to a new house. Clearly his main priority was to get me on this boat to the airport rather than worrying about any extra cash he might make. What an absolute star.
As the ropes anchoring the ferry to the port are released, I sprint along the wharf and, running through ankle-high water, manage to jump on the boat as it is preparing to set sail. Talk about cutting it fine.
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.
Saturday, February 9, 2013 (Day 31)
Text message (number unknown):
“Plz come my house. We have referee problem.”
It is 8am. Remind me never to get tipsy again in this climate. I felt the need to unwind last night after the tragic news about the murdered ocada rider and invested in a bottle of South African red. That went down an absolute treat and the next thing was I ventured out alone in the darkness and found a hut playing hip hop, reggae and calypso that sold cold bottles of stout and Star; I even remember dancing with a big bunch of kids in the street as I necked my Star.
Well, anyway, it is thirty silly degrees and I am absolutely dripping with sweat and my head is pounding. I also happen to be out of credit as I used all of it up last night when I was tipsy and thought it was a brilliant idea to send some friends in Europe drunken text messages from Sierra Leone. And so I cannot call the unknown caller and ask him why he is sending me text messages about referees first thing on a Saturday morning.
I hear Kate get up to make herself a tea and ask her if she will allow me to ring the mystery caller.
“Hi. It is Bob. The referees are on strike. We needed you to referee some matches.”
“Oh, God. I don’t feel too clever mate. What time is kick off?”
“After five minutes. Don’t worry, it is too late now. Alex and I are going to do it.”
I feel rather guilty that it is too late to help the lads out but I think I would be struggling in this heat with this hangover anyway. The referees’ strike also means that I won’t be observing them all later today as I was supposed to for CBF HQ to assess the quality of the individual referees. The referees’ strike, red wine, visit to the calypso bar and spending all my phone credit last night have combined to give me a day off.
23 languages are currently spoken by the 17 tribes in Sierra Leone; an impressive number. But, back in 1850, it is estimated that some 200 were spoken by the 60,000 freed slaves who made Freetown home. It is incredible to think of all those former slaves, from all over Africa, returning to their continent in the nineteenth century and making a new start: all those hopes and dreams.
I have spent much of my day off reading up about Sierra Leone’s history. Between 1668 and 1807, 50,000 slaves were shipped to the new world from these shores. As well as those who were sent to Europe and America others were sold to other tribes to be used in African witchcraft ceremonies. Freetown might have been established to show that the days of slavery were over but the practice of slavery was effectively only abolished in 1928, 150 years after the creation of Freetown. I still feel a great sense of shame as a white person about what was done to the Africans. I wonder if that is why a lot of us are here volunteering; trying to clean up some of the mess caused by the death of empire.
Sierra Leone became independent of Britain in 1961. But not before 17,000 Sierra Leonean soldiers fought for Britain in world war two. Today this country receives more UK aid per head than any other country in the world. And, God, how it needs that aid! After the 11-year-long civil war and decades of corruption Sierra Leone is now one of the poorest countries on earth.
The average GDP is $347. Many of my mates earn more than that in a day. Even when adjusted to the cost of living, Sierra Leone’s PPP is just $846. If I told you there isn’t a single traffic light in this country of six million; nor a single international ATM; and that one in five kids will never reach the age of five, you might start to build a clearer picture of the scale of work that needs to be done.
Perhaps there is something you can do to help. Maybe volunteering in Sierra Leone might help make a difference: it is a two-way relationship that brings its own personal rewards. And if volunteering isn’t for you then maybe you can help in some other way. Even visiting this country and spending some tourist dollars at the bars and restaurants by its astonishing beaches will help Sierra Leone to develop in the future.
For those of you who might be interested in volunteering in Sierra Leone, check out the collective’s website below. They have plenty of placements available with organisations that could use your help:
Want to volunteer with The Collective Sierra Leone? Find out how here.
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.
Monday, January 29, 2013 (Day 19)
John Obey - Craig Bellamy Foundation Academy - Waterloo
A witchcraft ceremony will settle who is responsible for some things going missing in the local community. Somebody has been stealing and, as the village elders cannot find the culprit, the matter will now be dealt with through magic.
I am back at the CBF academy, meeting Tim for a discussion about what I can and cannot attempt to achieve while I am in Sierra Leone. As with almost everything in life it comes down to money and resources. Clearly there are many ideas and suggestions that I would have made that would now be pointless to utter. We work through a list of possible mini-projects that I can work through in my remaining 3-4 weeks but I cannot help but feel rather flat that I won't be able to achieve more from my time here. Yes, I will depart having improved the league in direct and indirect ways but I was hoping to leave more of a positive tangible legacy from my time here.
Feeling rather deflated I find a share taxi by the main road in Tombo. Two thousand Leones gets me a ride to Waterloo, where I will try to find another taxi to get me back to my base at Makeni. The moment I get in the car I am regretting it. This geezer has got five crammed in the back and I am sardined in the front left-hand passenger seat with another passenger. For all I know the front door could fly open and there is almost nothing I could do about it. I absolutely detest being in the front seat of a car without a seatbelt. "Small small please sir!" I plead with the driver, who isn't driving especially fast but still too fast for my liking.
And then! Horror! A scraggy dog has strolled out into the middle of the road and plonked itself down directly in front of us. My mind instantly does several calculations: 1) If the driver attempts to swerve and avoid the dog we will either have a head on crash with the car coming the other way or skid off into the bush. Either way a load of us could die. 2) If the driver doesn't swerve to avoid the dog...
...we cut the dog in two. It doesn't die instantly. There is time to hear its horrific screams. There is time to make out the screaming, shouting and crying of some children who have witnessed the event. As for me, I am not even thinking about that poor dog. It was him or us. If I had been driving, I might have been foolish enough to try and avoid the hound and ended up killing us all. There again, I wouldn't drive a car full of human sardines at 70km/h. But, anyway, I; we are lucky.
Thursday, January 24, 2013 (Day 15)
Less than one hour after arriving at Dorset Alex's very European house in Murray Town, the two of us are sat in the front of Doctor Jack's company 4x4 on our way to an out-of-town pool party. Jack was working down at one of the slums today, giving advice to pregnant women and treating kids with early symptoms of malaria. "It is shocking down there. The rubbish is collecting by the waterfront and they are just building straight on top of it."
We drive out past ‘posh’ Aberdeen and Lumley Beach in the West End and hit a section of open road before Goderich. The clue to where we are going for our party is in the second part of the name: i.e. 'rich'. We pull up in a cloud of dust at the guarded entrance to a huge compound. Once inside I realise that I have left Africa behind and been transported all the way to...Malaga. My head is spinning. I am swimming in a pool surrounded by tens of millions of dollar’s worth of property. The pool party is being hosted by some affluent Argentines and Lebanese. I am told that a one-bedroom apartment here will set you back $30,000 per year in rent. It all seems so very out of place; a tiny microcosm of expat Spain transported thousands of miles from southern Europe to West Africa. To be honest though, I am as happy as a pig in muck. After spending two weeks feeling like an oven-baked pasty in Makeni, paddling around in this pool - beer in hand - with a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean, feels like a little slice of paradise.
Not long after it's dark I say farewell to the lovely Edna - a smart middle-class Ugandan girl I’ve been chatting to for an hour - and set off into the darkness with Jack and Alex in search of Leones. Before I came out to Sierra Leone I never would have believed you if you'd told me I would be parked up in the pitch dark, by the side of a busy Freetown roundabout, window wound down, exchanging a twenty quid note for leones with a lad in the street. But that is how things are done here. And yes it is safe and trustworthy otherwise these lads would earn themselves a bad reputation and lose the trade.
We are changing up money because we have decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the brand new Chinese restaurant on the edge of Murray Town. An hour or two of air-con is justification enough for me. What is it though with the Chinese and the concept of Vegetarianism? I specifically request the Chinese manager and ask him to please not cook or put any meat or fish of any creed or colour in my 'noodles and vegetables'. He assures me that it will be so. My vegetarian noodles come served with pork and prawn heads. The manager appears surprised to discover that pork is not a vegetable. I must also mention that the 'Chinese wine' we order with our meal is the hands down winner of the 'world's most awful (no, rancid) alcoholic drink I have ever tasted'. The three of us do have a bloody good laugh though. Fortunately, Alex has a bottle of twelve-year-old Scotch at home that more than compensates for the Chinese debacle. We end up sitting up into the early hours discussing the past and present until far too much good quality whiskey has been consumed and it is clearly time for us both to crash.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013 (Day 14)
My legs are like lead and I couldn't have got more than three hours sleep last night. So much for playing football every morning; no chance I could even complete a couple of warm-up laps of the pitch with how I feel today. It was a particularly silly night of dreams on the Larium including one about The Collective being sold for $14 billion and another particularly absurd one where I get to hear, through a friend, that the insects have been plotting to storm my mosquito net. In the dream I prepare a second inner mosquito net to protect me ahead of their attack.
So there is no football training for me plus Charlie is coming up to visit today so I would like to get all of my stuff together ahead of his arrival. I write up my first bi-weekly progress report and prepare my own personal report listing my observations and recommendations for how the CBF league can be improved. I love what the CBF is doing but I think we can take it to a much higher level.
Charlie's car breaks down on the edge of Makeni, meaning we end up meeting at 2.30 rather than 1pm. His parents are visiting him in Sierra Leone for the first time and have driven up with him, his girlfriend Steph, and the new CBF volunteer for Makeni, Charlotte (who is replacing the departing Jayne). We steal a few minutes to go through everything. For me, my meeting with CBF headquarters next week is vital in deciding how I will spend the remainder of my time (roughly four weeks) in Sierra Leone.
Charlie's mum, Steph and I enjoy an afternoon drink at the Wusum Hotel on the edge of town. This place cost millions to build and will set you back upwards of $150 per night for a double room. The resident guests are nearly always foreign miners working in the region; money being no object to their bosses. Oh my God! They have air conditioning! I am tempted to sneak upstairs and break into one of the rooms where I could happily sleep for a week.
With the new girl introduced to her new colleagues at the Micro-Finance office, Charlie and his father take the car to be repaired by Danish Jesper, who is the local 'quick fit' man in town. Luckily for Charlie's family the job is completed in enough time for them to drop me back in town and for them to set off before dark to reach the cashew nut plantation where they are spending the night.
Drifting off to sleep I hear what I think might be intruders in the house. It turns out to be Alasund bringing the second of our new housemates into the building. I shout something along the lines of: Who the hell are you? And what are you doing? That would strike the fear of God into anybody. The new girl, whose name I didn't catch, looks rather startled by my opening greeting.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.