written by T Kirk, Nov 2020
Breakfast at the side of the beach was a definite daily highlight, the strong waves pushing against the fishing nets, the lively hubbub of people hoping for a day’s good trading, and the sun bright but caressing rather than beating at this time of day. We were up fairly early as we were due to take part in a congregation at the school next to the pitch we were helping to build. We dressed in clean white shirts, some even braving trousers and made our way. I doubt we will ever forget the scenes whilst walking through the village. Most lived in small huts with no access to running water. It was not uncommon to see children washing from huge dishes, nor to see people carrying as if by magic huge buckets of water delicately placed on their heads. Babies, toddlers and children alike played absentmindedly in the street with whatever would come to hand: used bike tyres, sticks, plastic bottles. On almost every building was sketched a religious image or quote proliferating the mantra of god. It seemed religion played an important function in people’s lives in Kokrobite, but more important was a sense of duty to the family. Everyone had a role to play to ensure that the day’s basic needs were fulfilled. Indeed, it amazed us all how happy everyone seemed, I have never seen such vibrant and honest smiles. Yet, our perception was that they had so little. And here was one of our first grave errors. In our arrogance and naivety we seemed to have adopted the belief that we, having more opportunity, more possessions and material wealth, were in some way, dare I say it ‘better’ than those smiling back at us with wide eyes. This was wrong. It was a lesson we hoped the boys would someday really come to understand. Firstly, what gave us the right to judge others when we ourselves walk imperfectly? And more importantly, the concept of happiness is surely not about getting everything you want, but more about enjoying and making the most of what you have. For at the end of the day, whether it be in Africa or in Europe, the same things are important: family, friends, daily sustenance. Perhaps the people in the village saw this more clearly than we did.
By the time we arrived at the congregation the heat of the day was already challenging. I was amazed at how elegant and smartly dressed everyone was. We were, in fact, underdressed for the occasion and I admit to being slightly embarrassed and hoped that we would not offend the Pastor. However, we were shown a warm welcome and guided towards a section of seats. Not that we needed them, for as soon as we had taken our places we became part of a truly extraordinary service that had the boys clapping, swinging (but thankfully not singing) and exchanging animated looks whilst the congregation sang and danced between snippets of sermon. What we had not bargained for was the length of the service. It was becoming clear that some of the boys, in particular Hugh and Archie, were becoming rather drained, their smiles withering and the faces becoming more pale by the second. The bottles of water we had brought with us had long been eagerly guzzled and I puzzled how we might make a respectful exit before the boys collapsed into a sweaty heap. Certainly, the thought of a bucket shower was like a mirage in the desert. Thankfully, the answer came in the form of Jane who had also noticed that we were flagging, so a hastily arranged handing over of bountiful donations enabled us to wander back to Big Millies and refresh before preparing for our first game of the trip!
We were to play on the old pitch in the village. Upon arrival, it appeared that half of the village had come to see the Oburoni, the name given to white visitors in Ghana. They gathered around all sides of the pitch and there was a definite vibe of anticipation and festivity. Me being me, the first thing I frowned upon was the thought that the white shorts would never be white again: the brown dust mixed with sweat was to cajole into a clay like substance that would accompany us for the whole trip. The players concerned themselves more with some areas of the pitch that seemed to disappear amongst high grass. And was that a chicken? This should have been no surprise as chickens seemed to be everywhere. And we should be reassured. If there was a chicken around, then there was definitely no snakes! However, it all seemed to add to the experience. This was Africa after all, this is what we had come for, this was a challenge that few 12/13 year old boys from England would ever experience.
I cannot remember the end result, as usual such things become irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. What is memorable is the hilarity of our boys trying to play their typical possession based game on a surface that was as far away from the flat and reliable astro turf of Odd Down as could be possible. The ball bobbled, bounced, flew in all directions and even disappeared occasionally in a bush – I even think we lost Archie at some point as he went to take a corner lol. The Ghanaian boys had no trouble however, their touch sublime and dribbling begging belief in such difficult conditions. Pressing was also a no-go. In fact running around at all was in my view out of the question; it was hard enough standing on the side line and moving the odd limb in support, let alone racing around the field trying to catch 11 ‘Boatengs’! Nevertheless, the boys had a great time, their smiles clearly beaming past their dishevelled and filthy appearance (the poor white shorts…). After the game, the boys felt like superstars. Everyone wanted to talk to them, to have photos with them, to touch them and be part of the festivity. Thinking of ‘happiness’, well this was it, and it was another example of the power of football to bring people together.
We sent the boys into the sea to cool off before trekking to the Learning centre for dinner. Here there was also much to be done. Jane has some lovely ladies who help her to prepare much of the food, but we were keen to give the boys as much as responsibility as possible. Whilst their culinary skills may not have improved a great deal, their ability to wash up and eat spicy food certainly did. Of course, there was some apprehension at first to eat some of the dishes that looked and smelled a little different (I think Sam was hoping for pie and chips of some form), but in the end hunger took over and most plates were returned licked clean. Jollof rice was to become a favourite dish for the week, one of the best activities was trying to find meat on the chicken lol! Once again, we watched the stars and listened to the unusual night sounds, whilst also being wary of showing any flesh in case the mosquitoes fancied a meal of their own at our expense! Fortunately, they seemed to enjoy the sweetened flesh of the accompanying parents more than that of the boys!