Once the funeral ceremony that we witness in a small village on the road to Tely comes to a close, we have just enough time before we head onwards to organise a quick game of football in the street with some of the Dogon children.
As is so often the case, it is the local children who warm most quickly to The Ball. We try and explain as best we can that The Ball is heading for the World Cup in South Africa — as usual, this brings big smiles to everyone’s faces.
Every kick takes The Ball a little further towards its goal. Every person who kicks it gives The Ball added momentum. And every place The Ball passes through receives some memory of that moment. This may be a game — but it is most definitely not a zero-sum game.
We jump in Moussa’s right-hand drive Toyota Landcruiser and head for Dogon Country. Our first stop is a real surprise and a real treat. Moussa leads us into a tiny village where we are fortunate enough to witness the funeral ceremony for the village’s much respected leader.
As cultural outsiders, we’re not sure what’s going on in the ceremony, so the best we can do is to show you some pictures and let them speak for themselves.
Football may indeed be a universal language, but it is times like this that make us wish we had a common spoken language to help us understand other cultures better than we do.
Mac drops us at the bus station and our names are the first on the list for the bush taxi to Bandiagara. Bush taxis and buses in Mali don’t have a set time schedule. They leave when they are full and full in Mali has a very different meaning than we might be used to. Full in Mali means packed like a tin of sardines.
We prepare ourselves for a long wait. It’s 8:45am and the sun is already getting hot. Phil takes advantage of some free time in the shade of the bus shelter to finish off securing The Ball’s net on to Andrew’s backpack.
Back in 2002, Christian and Phil carried The Ball in this net to the World Cup in Korea & Japan. It helps to keep The Ball safe and reduces the stress of those “Where is The Ball?” moments that happen nearly every day. Those moments of panic can be done without.
Two hours later and the minibus is full with 16 people, including three children, and we are ready to cram ourselves in. Our gear is strapped on the roof.
We take it upon ourselves to tell our fellow passengers about The Ball and one of them is so taken by it that he decides he must kiss it.
We arrive in Bandiagara and head to Hotel la Falaise to meet Mousa, our guide for the Dogon Country, and plan our solitary night in the region with him. Mousa is born and bred Dogon, and he suggests we spend our night in his village, Teli.
Phil sniffs out a game of football across the road from Mac’s. It’s semi final night of a local youth league.
The locals respond warmly to his approach and soon the teams are using The Ball in their game. As the sun sets it is more of a case of “dustball” than football.
As usual, we expect the unusual… during the game a donkey and cart cross the field but play continues uninterrupted.
With the light fading fast, play continues as the sun sets in spectacular fashion.
We are dropped off at our accommodation, Mac’s Refuge on the outskirts of Sévaré. It’s been quite a day thus far. Djenné had been all we hoped it would be and more. We’d even found transport and had fun travelling with 11 people and loads of luggage in a 1980s Peugeot station wagon. We have made new friends and they are happy to drop us off: door to door service!
Another bonus: we are sleeping outside under the stars on the roof tonight, with only a mosquito net separating us from the bright stars and the huge, clear African sky. Mac’s Refuge is not just any place. This little oasis in the blazing Malian bush is serving authentic Indian curry for dinner with ice cream for dessert. And tomorrow morning, pancakes with maple syrup, real muesli and home-made yogurt are on the menu. What a treat. And, Mac’s has wi-fi too. Here we are out in the middle of nowhere with all of the luxuries of home. Yes, we’re really roughing it out here in the Malian wilderness.
Mac is both an American and a Malian. Born to American missionary parents in Sanga, Mali in 1941, Mac spent his first 14 years growing up in Mali’s beautiful and famous Dogon region. After going back to the US for high school and university, Mac returned to Mali and has been here ever since. He’s a fascinating character and has a wealth of local knowledge, speaking two local languages like a native — well, in fact, he is a native. If you are vsiting the Dogon Country, we highly recommend that you stop off at Mac’s Refuge, tap into his local knowledge and enjoy the cuisine. But don’t be late to the dinner table, dinner is served at 7 o’clock if you are there or not. Don’t keep Mac waiting!
We waited a few hours for the next one out of town. Our luxury liner was an eighties-style station wagon crammed with 11 people inside, including Phil in between the middle row and the front row, and one person with loads of bags and a motorbike wrapped in foam on the roof.
We were told the best way to see the mosque is from a vantage point in the early morning as the sun rises. Our alarm rings at 5:30 but Phil is already awake. We get our gear ready and head off to check out the view. Imagine someone banging on your door at 5:45am, asking to go up on your roof. What might you say to them? Well, our banging certainly wakes someone up. But this young man is more than happy for us to tramp through his house and on to his roof. And what a view awaits us!
Non muslims have been banned from the mosque for years, after one tourist ran amok with cameras. Despite being offered tours by various guides, we decide not to break the law.
Instead, we organise a meeting with a Marabout, a person whose role somewhere between Islamic teacher, Sufi mystic and a pre-Islamic shaman. We explain to him what The Ball is about. He quickly understands its mission.
Contrary to mainstream Islamic doctrine, in Mali, these Marabouts pretty much rely on donations in order to live. So we tip him accordingly and The Ball is ceremoniously handed over. The Marabout seeks out the inflation hole where the pump goes in and quietly, solemnly delivers a benediction.
We are surprised by our heart-felt appreciation of this simple performance. Sometimes, just sometimes, when neither drowns the other out, words and actions can become a harmonious whole.
We arrive in Djenné as the sun is going down, after a gruelling 14 hour bus ride from Bamako.
Djenné is basically an island surrounded by the Bani river, a tributary of the Niger. To access Djenné, one needs to take a short ferrry ride across the Bani and then a meadering dirt-road into town. The town is a wonderfully close-knit collection of fantasy mud buildings. The central element in this deeply religious muslim community is the world’s largest mud building — the Grand Mosquée. As the sun rapidly and vertically descends, we enter town through a tiny windy road and the side streets look perfect for a pied-piper style kickabout. We are beaming. What potential! Tomorrow awaits.
Our Dutch bus pulls up in the main square, immediately in front of the Grand Mosquée. We have been dreaming about visiting this place for years. Yet just a few days ago it was looking like we wouldn’t have the opportunity after all. Special Olympics, overwhelmed with enthusiasm for The Ball’s arrival, had planned a schedule so full of events that we were going to have to skip it. Christian put his foot down: “You guys are going to Djenné. If you don’t go it’s like visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Or going to London and not watching a Hammers game.” How dare we not visit Djenné!
We clamber out of the bus and are immediately surrounded by a swarm of people. Some want to sell us food, others are tour guides for Djenné and the Dogon Country trying to hook us, others are hungry children begging for money. The scene is a familiar one, but what follows is not. The Ball is in its net on Andrew’s back. It is the net that Phil carried The Ball in in 2002 and modified in Bamako to fit Andrew’s backpack. Andrew decides to take The Ball out and pass it to some of the kids. This has been the usual case in Mali.
But this time there is a misunderstanding. The kids assume that The Ball is a gift. In no time, about thirty of them are fighting tooth and nail for it. A dust cloud envelops us all. The locals are watching on with interest. It is getting nasty. There are pushes here and even punches there. Andrew, realising his error, goes in after The Ball. And eventually recovers it. But no without a fight…
We soon discover that the children here are actually used to being gifted balls by foreigners. It seems that many of the tourist guidebooks recommend giving a football to a child. Mali, like the rest of Africa, is football mad, but these kids are too poor to buy their own footballs. We decide that, in future, before The Ball is unveiled, we must first attempt to explain what The Ball is all about.
Long journeys, desert dust and open sewers have left The Ball feeling and smelling terrible. It is now dirty — very dirty — and it gets a thorough clean in Djenné. It scrubs up well after its recent ordeals.
This is the deciding game of the Kayes High School Football Championship. It is Wednesday evening and that means Champions League football. The two teams come running out on to the field wearing replica strips. The yellow team is Arsenal, sponsored by O2. The blue and black stripes, well those are world famous: Inter Milan.
The main stand of Kayes biggest stadium Stade Abdoulaye Maccoro Sisoko is almost full. It is split right down the middle and packed mostly with screaming, singing, cheering teenage girls dancing to the beat of drums and vigorously supporting their own school.
The game is a nail-biter, end-to-end stuff, but 0-0 at half time. In the second half, after a stern talking to from Arsene Wenger at half time, Arsenal step up a gear and dominate, creating half a dozen great chances. Even though half of the players are playing in plastic sandals, the quality of football is superb. The teams can’t be separated and the game goes to penalties.
Inter win on penalities, the Arsenal crumble under the pressure with weak penalties — how typically English. Wild celebrations follow. Inter are the champions of Kayes.
Phil has been referring to Mali as the hottest place on earth since he saw it on a French weather channel a few days ago. And Kayes (pronounced “Kai”) is one of the hottest places in Mali, five degrees warmer than the capital Bamako, where it has been well over 40 degrees recently. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” we agree.
So now we’re on our way to Kayes in an old Spanish bus. The driver slept up on the roof under the stars last night. But now a mountain of bags, car tyres, boxes full of products, even a few chinese mopeds are somehow loaded up there. Inside is crammed full of people and their belongings. All interior lights are broken, the AC doesn’t work and the windows are just about falling out of their frames. The front windscreen doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
We are the last on the bus and are ushered to the last two remaining free places on the back seat. We squeeze in and are soon underway. The prospect of a 12 hour journey in this heat in this overcrowded, overheated bus isn’t exactly making us smile and it doesn’t take us long to realise that the engine is directly under our seats. Lovely. The excruciating heat is soon being amplified. Eggs (both proverbial and real) would fry quite easily under our feet.
To make matters worse, Andrew is feeling decidedly unwell. He’s had a nasty cough since his time in the extreme dampness that was Morocco and is hoping to see a doctor in Kayes to help him get rid of the infection. Travel, we agree, amplifies both the highs and the lows, in equal measure.