Bashir guides The Ball through Dakar’s crowded streets, past its sprawling market stalls and the football fields that can be seen lining almost every major street along the coast. Past the peninsula’s beaches where thousands of the super-fit Senegalese do their early morning exercise. Arriving at the football stadium, the West African adventure is truly underway. Update: thanks to Charles Takouet for the new pictures.
There we meet the Special Olympics and DHL staff we are about to spend the next few days with. A convoy is assembled with a sound system at the head, set up on a lop-sided pick-up truck. We’re ready to go.
But hold your horses! There’s a delay. One often hears about “Africa-time” — people say “don’t expect it to run like it does in Europe, Africa is different.” Although this time, we’re delayed waiting for an Englishman to appear.
Visits to two schools for children with special needs are planned — first to Talibou Dabo, then on to Estel & Aminata Mbaye. We’re finally on our way. But hold on! The generator for the sound system is out of fuel. A quick stop at a petrol station and we’re off, on the road again. But hold on! “Where is Phil?” Panic. Have we left him at the gas station? No, there he is, in the thick of the action, hanging off the side of the pick-up truck, camera in hand, grinning from ear to ear.
We have some apprehensions, however. This will be the first time that The Ball is being used as a publicity vehicle for anything or anyone. Both of us feel slightly awkward, not knowing how we, or Special Olympics, will react to the events — nor, indeed whether they will be a success.
The Ball is the guest of honour at both Special Olympics events. The children are excited at each visit: photos with The Ball, more signatures, music, presentations, interviews with media — and football games, of course. The vuvuzela is a real hit.
Our apprehensions evaporate as quickly as the sweat on our brows — it all makes sense now. Special Olympics had assured us that the presence of The Ball would make a real impact on their lives and we now realise that this is indeed true. Yes, our visits to schools and SO sports events are fleeting and our interactions with the children and their teachers and parents short — but there is a much bigger picture here.
We have to step back and consider the thousands of children in Senegal that are ostracised, often stuck in their homes, unable to leave because of the shame that their parents and familes feel about having them. The media attention that The Ball is helping to bring to their cause is considerable and across the board.
Earlier today, we were sitting with the Minister of Sport at a press conference. Two white guys wearing football gear with The Ball in a swarm of top Senegalese dignitaries dressed in their finest at the Ministry of Sport. In front of rolling TV cameras, the Minister of Sport made an emotional call to action that will be aired on national TV tonight.
He asked the Senegalese people to support special needs children. He encouraged parents of intellectually disabled children to enrol their children in Special Olympics’ programmes. Phil speaks pretty good French, and was able to understand the Minister’s speech. Tears were welling up in his eyes as he listened. It was an unforgettable moment.
We know without a shadow of a doubt now that The Ball can be a force for change. And, as we travel, we are increasingly realising how powerful it can be. Next week, The Ball and Special Olympics will be guests of the President and Prime Minister of Mali. As it heads inexorably towards the World Cup, The Ball is going to bring similar issues to the attention of national leaders right across Africa.
The Ball’s reach used to be described as being “from street to stadium.” Now, perhaps we can add “from the people to the palace.”
Written by The Ball on Monday, March 8th, 2010