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.
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.
Thursday, January 31, 2013 (Day 22)
Bob and Alex meet me and we draw up a schedule for my remaining time with them and the Craig Bellamy Foundation league: meet all the co-ordinators on Sunday; host the homework club for two weekends; try to get our inter-primary school cup pilot scheme off the ground; meet NGOs and try to involve them more in the kids’ community projects; give coaching sessions to the teams that still don’t have sponsors for this season and promote them on the blog; try to raise cash for one of the teams for the 2013 season etc. etc.
Moses’ team – Area Best – make it through their first qualifying play-off for the Sierra Leone premier league. Wusum stadium is buzzing with expectation throughout, helped by the loud shouts and opinions of the MC who excitedly commentates on the whole match with the aid of a loud speaker.
I would love to stay and watch all the play offs but, as continues to be the case, I am still struggling with the climate here. It is the days when the humidity is ninety plus that do me. I sweat myself silly and then I begin to feel a combination of unbelievably tired and unbelievably thirsty. Luckily for me it is one of Famarta’s signature dishes for dinner: mashed potato and groundnut soup. It might not sound appealing but it is damn tasty. After finishing it off – sweat pouring out of me - Kate, Charlotte and I sit out until late discussing all manner of connected and unconnected subjects starting with human rights issues; Kate’s extra teaching job she bagged today with some local Catholic nuns; and ending up with the merits of hot lime juice in the tropics.
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.
Monday, January 14, 2013 (Day 5)
They say the road from Freetown is good all the way up-country until you get to within 200 metres of Makeni because it is the President's hometown and the local population would vote for him here regardless of whether they have roads or not. On first impressions Makeni is rather more dusty and chaotic than I had envisaged from the descriptions of others. On one particularly dusty stretch of road our car stalls and cannot be restarted. All of us jump out to push it down the road, helped by a crowd of bystanders. God, it is hot. Shockingly hot.
After rice and omelette at a streetside restaurant, Dorset Alex drives us to the place that will be house and home for the next six weeks or so for me, two weeks for Jayne and three months for Kate. I can't say I have ever resided for more than a handful of days at any one time in a suburb of a city that looks quite like this before but it does feel safe and the house, I must admit, is far better than what I had expected. It is inside an unguarded mini-compound which, although it wouldn't exactly hold back an invading army, is reasonably difficult to get into without alerting many of the people who live close by. Some employees of the Africa Mining company live just up the road and the New London Mosque is also only 200 metres away, suggesting there shouldn't be too many scallywags hanging around this part of town.
Makeni Alex and Bob come to welcome me at the house. They are two local lads who will be my main men during my time here working with the Craig Bellamy Foundation. During our first conversation I only understand about thirty percent of what they are saying to me, that is how strong their dialect is. I don't tell them this, hoping I am going to quickly work it out in the coming days.
The boys take me up to the Wusumi Sports stadium where a super nice artificial pitch was put down about a year ago, financed by FIFA. We have a brief kick about amongst ourselves before one of the local teams comes on to train. I am already fantisizing about training on here with a local team once per week if it is possible. This was always the home pitch of the Wasum Stars but apparently they have fallen on bad times and a London Mining sponsored team is now the top team in town.
Many of the roads in Makeni are a mess in that rural African way, with some of them only just fully recovering from the rainy season. I have to say though that many of the local population live in pretty decent houses; a far cry from the corrugated shanty towns Africa is sometimes notorious for. Quite a few of these homes are actually more decent than the dilapidated terraced houses in some deprived parts of the UK.
Dorset Alex walks Jayne, Ben, Kate and I up to some street bars by the main road, opposite the petrol station, where the arrival of two huge Total tankers is causing quite a stir of excitement. This appears to suggest the fuel crisis is over.
Necking a cold Guinness while the others natter, I suddenly endure a mini panic attack. I am desperately struggling with the heat, dust, noise, darkness and chaos and am fleetingly taken by the feeling that I have absolutely no desire at all to be here. It goes something like: Oh my God, what the hell are you doing here Justin?
I know all this will pass and I bet myself twenty quid I will somehow end up loving the place but, when I hear young, impressionable Kate so amazingly excited by all of it - when for me much of it seems quite testing - I start to question whether I am too old or too something else for all of this. You have to laugh because right on cue a street fight breaks out on the road in front of us. Dorset Alex says it is only the second such fight he has ever seen. I believe him but it doesn't help my spinning head. And then some bloke makes our acquaintance and starts complaining about the sins of the colonial British and how everybody now speaks English instead of Temne. I know he's got a point and if my head wasn't spinning so much or he wasn't so obviously drunk I'd have the little chat he wants.
Instead, we swiftly pile in a taxi home where I cannot sleep for hours and hours. All I can hear inside my ultra-humid mosquito net are lizzards slurping, dogs barking, local kids laughing, my housemates weeing, mosquitos buzzing and mobile phones ringing.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a two-month voluntary placement in January 2013.