My father never made it back to Tanzania to visit his mother’s grave. As a child, he promised to bring me here and I used to dream of making the pilgrimage to Africa with him. But it was not to be: when I was 18, on the verge of becoming an adult, he died of the cancer that had afflicted him for the previous few years. But today I am here in Arusha, two pilgrimages merging into one.
The ever-reliable Alliy has organised a car and driver for us to head out of town in. Andrew and I jump in, and off we go to look for my grandmother Katarzyna’s grave. It is quite an adventure in itself finding the graveyard, tucked away as it is away from the main road behind various agricultural institutes in the small settlement of Tengeru.
Why then is she buried here? Well, as you might guess, it’s a long story. Others have probably told the story with more historical accuracy, but all I can do at this point is tell it as I understand it right here and now.
My grandfather Bronilaw had migrated to eastern Europe from his birthplace in the US — Providence, Rhode Island — some time in the inter-war years. He married Katarzyna, who was from a region which is now in Slovakia, and my father was born in a small village in what was then south-eastern Poland but is now north-western Ukraine. Confused? Yeah, so was I.
Fast-forward to the outbreak of World War 2. The Nazi-Soviet Pact splits Poland in two and the Russians start moving whole populations out of Poland. My grandfather ended up stationed with the Polish army in Uzbekistan, where, in 1942, he died. Sixty years later, on the very first journey of The Ball to the World Cup in Korea and Japan, I found his grave in the small town of Kanimech.
My grandma, father and uncle were separately taken to a Siberian labour camp, where they were to stay for the next two years. At some point, it seems that the Polish government-in-exile came to an agreement with Stalin that they (and many others like them) would be given passage out of Russia. And so began a terrible journey south.
From Siberia by train through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan to Pakistan. So many died, lost to the cold, hunger and disease. And yet many made it all the way to the Pakistani port of Karachi, where they were put on a ship and brought to Mombasa, then transported here to Tengeru, in the shadow of Kilimanjaro.
Despite suffering from the effects of a recent earthquake, which caused many of the fragrant frangipani trees to collapse, I am pleased to see that many are still standing and that the graveyard looks well cared for. The caretaker claims that he has not received his salary from the Polish government for four months. Whether this is true, or whether it is his story to extract sympathetic donations from visitors at an emotional moment, remains to be seen. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I slip him a bundle of shillings.
And anyway, more important matters are foremost in my thoughts. Where is the grave I’ve been waiting so long to see? It doesn’t take long to spot it. The caretaker hands me some “flowers” that my cousin Julia left to decorate the grave. So then, here is the end of two roads — for my grandma Katarznya and for my pilgrimage to see her final resting place.
It’s odd, the only thing that I didn’t expect was this: for so many years, it has been in my mind to visit Tengeru, and now that I have, there are two contradictory feelings. On the one hand, a weight has been lifted from, my shoulders – I have fulfilled my internal promise to my father to go and visit the grave… both for myself and for him.
On the other hand is a kind of mourning, not specifically for Katarzyna, whom of course I never knew, but, strangely, for the passing of the need to make a pilgrimage. I no longer have this to look forward to, whether as reality or aspiration. It’s liberating and sad at one and the same time. But perhaps it also frees me to stop looking back for answers to family mysteries — and look forward to vital family realities when I return.
Postscript: a curious narrative collision. Karin, my mum, tells me that, shortly after Katarzyna’s funeral, my father was seriously shamed by the Polish community elders for playing football. I think he might relish the thought that we played keepie-uppie just a few feet from the graveyard gate.
We aren’t doing the “please pose for photos” thing, like most tourists would probably tend to do with the Maasai. They seemed to be quite intrigued by The Ball and why we’re filming it in all kinds of crazy locations. There is often a real conflict here generated by the tourist thing that people do — trundling in with their cameras, have the locals pose for pictures and then trundling off again.
We weren’t expecting them to warm to us as they have done. The first day we were here in Longido, the Maasai kept their distance. It was the locals who were playing with us. The Maasai appear to be cautious people. But we can understand their caution. Perhaps they saw that we are here to have fun. And they understand this. We are not parachuting in and trying to come to terms with and understand their culture in a matter of hours. That is simply not possible. We don’t have the time to do a proper ethnography or cultural study. And this is not our mission anyway.
We have brought something tangible, something unique and something magical to them. They took their time in the first few days of our visit. They sussed us and our strange ball out. It has been a lovely introduction to Tanzania. This has been really special arriving here incognito. And still the spirit of The Ball shines through.
The more I think about it. The more respect I have for the Maasai. They have greeted us with friendship and not with “one picture 10 dollars, come on my tour.” They have just invited us into their homes and invited us to play football with them and helped us to kick The Ball onwards to South Africa and done so with a real spirit. The Spirit of Football perhaps.
Kalyibu, from the Maasai Boma tribe invites us to visit his village, just outside of Longido.
The Maasai here have upheld their traditional beliefs: They wear their traditional clothes, pierce their ears as they have for centuries (ear lobes are so large they can wrap them around the tops of their ears) and they still live very simply in thatched huts surrounded by their animals.
As we move towards the Boma we meet many Maasai who are eager to touch The Ball. The Maasai appear to be a tribe full of goalkeepers as they are very keen to throw The Ball around and not so good on the ground.
After a few yellow cards are dealt out by Christian for handball, perhaps realising that they are on the brink of being sent off, they begin to pass The Ball around with their feet and relish this new experience. Eventually we arrive at the village and its time for a game of football. It’s suggested that the cows, goats and donkeys can play too but they seem quite shy.
Andrew fires The Ball past the Maasai goalkeeper at the entrance (goal) to the village and everyone enters. The Ball is kicked into a hut, where a stew is on the boil.
The Ball seems to hold an almost mystical value to the tribes’ people: children and adults alike want to touch it and kick it and every single one of them signs it. As we leave the village, we have forgotten something very special. The Ball!! They run after us and hand The Ball back.
We feel honoured to have been guests of Maasai. We’ve won again and The Ball rolls ever on.
I’ve supported Liverpool my whole life. Angie, my mum, grew up on Anfield Road in Liverpool. How could I support any other team? And in my childhood Liverpool were the kings of Europe and utterly dominant in the old English First Division with Kevin Keegan, King Kenny and (the now mind-blowingly dull) Alan Hansen. But we’ve not won the league for 20 years and our arch rivals have dominated. Like most Liverpool fans, I am expecting us to win the first Europa League title as we settle down in front of the big screen in Longido, Tanzania to watch the semi-final live from Anfield.
As I’ve travelled with The Ball (Tanzania being the 24th country en route to the World Cup) I’ve met hundreds of Liverpool fans. And, unfortunately, many more Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea fans. Africans love their Premiership football. Just about everybody wears a fake jersey of the club team in England that they follow passionately and the first question is almost always “which English team do you support?”. And, to our amazement, we’ve stumbled across live Premiership and European club football in some of the most out of the way places. Longido is a prime example.
We are the only Europeans in town. The locals are mixed between the indiginous Maasai and new arrivals from the rest of Tanzania. The population numbers a few thousand. Football, once more, is a unifying force. Live football in Longido means one place: a bar with a projector, a large screen, a mixed crowd and Kilimanjaro beer. We’ve won again. Last night we watched Inter hang on against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Julio Cesar, who signed The Ball in February, was once again the star of the game. And tonight, the locals are hungry to see more live football. And so am I. Its another huge European night at Anfield. Come on Liverpool!
Ahhh, its not to be our night. Babel misfires. Gerrard is a shadow of his former self and Benitez confuses once more with his strange substitutions. I am left frustrated. My team is out. The club goes deeper into crisis. But life goes on even though in the moment I can’t imagine it. Liverpool is out.
Tonight, in Longido, I am walking alone.
Alliy invites us to join his football training session. They are preparing for their big May-day football game at the weekend. Andrew joins in while Christian juggles on the sidelines with kids too young/small to play in the game.
The Ball is played with for the first 10 minutes but it is deemed too flat and is traded for another football.
The other football pops after striking a thorn on the sidelines and The Ball is called back into action.
The practice session lasts long past the point where it’s possible to see the ball, but no-one seems to mind.
The Mondo Challenge Foundation crew whizz into town: They are on a mission. Their uniforms, bright yellow polo shirts, are the first thing that we see. Mondo’s Director, Anthony Lunch takes charge: ordering food, sending a messenger running to find Mr. Alliy and organising a kick-about on the street with locals from a Maasai tribe. It’s a feverish pace.
We are glad to see how motivated Mondo’s Directors are and we find out about the projects they are funding. Anthony tells us about Mondo’s hectic schedule — meetings this morning in Longido, this afternoon and tomorrow in Arusha and the following days in Moshi at the foot of Kilimanjaro… then back to the UK. A whirlwind tour. They have no time to waste and are incredibly precise about the money they invest and the return on that investment in terms of quality of help. And before we can blink (or even snap a photo of them) they are off again.
Alliy Mwako arrives, beaming a huge smile, and makes us feel most welcome. He immediately understands what The Ball is about and begins to suggest an itinerary. We’ll stay in his guest house and play football this evening. The biggest bonus for Andrew -– Alliy’s a fervent Liverpool fan too.
All this action is foreign to this sleepy, out of the way corner of the world, tucked in at the foot of idyllic, tree-covered Mt Longido, not far from the Kenyan border. The view of the more distant Mt Meru is spectacular.
Unusually, the people here leave us alone. We’re not being inundated with requests. No one is trying to sell us paintings or phone cards or children’s shoes or even shoe polish. Instead, we are looked at, stared at even… who are these guys? What about that ball full of signatures? Perhaps suspicions have been aroused. We are keen to find out more about this town.
“You won’t get a better reception in all of Kenya,” Tish Pearson of the Robert Grace Foundation tells Christian before he heads off for Nairobi. The St Paul’s Orphanage, just outside Nairobi, is supported by the foundation. “We’d be delighted if The Ball could visit the children there.”
Leaving Andrew back at base, Christian goes off to visit the orphanage with Joe Mutua, Regional Director of Special Olympics. The Ball is warmly received — although, to Christian’s surprise, few of the children are actually football enthusiasts. Nevertheless, everyone kicks and signs The Ball and laughs and smiles are everywhere.
Joe talks at length to Margaret, the “mother” of the orphanage. He discovers that 15 of the children at the home are intellectually disabled. He immediately arranges for them to take part in Special Olympics sporting events in the future (SO do sports other than football, of course) and suggests that two of the older residents, James and Carol, be trained by Special Olympics to offer sports coaching locally.
Joe also puts Margaret in touch with Alive & Kicking, who made The Ball here in Nairobi, and tells her that this will almost certainly result in the donation of footballs to the home. He also promises to make sure that Margaret is put in contact with MYSA, who also offer sporting activities and other social support locally.
It seems to be an innate feature of The Ball that it makes connections wherever it goes, whether between people or between organisations. And today, it seems that the connection that has been made with Joe at Special Olympics will result in some real, tangible and lasting benefits for the children of St Pauls.
“It’s called Score Against Substance Abuse,” Wario says. Behind him, on the touchline, two kids are sniffing glue from plastic bags. Andrew starts to warm up for a game. We look down. The football field appears to be covered in glass. A shiver goes down Andrew’s spine.
Wario Donne has been in contact with us since before The Ball left England. He’s been extolling the virtues of football in his work with youngsters in one of Nairobi’s largest and most notorious slums. His mission is to offer them a vision of life that offers them more than the attractions of drugs and crime. And he wants us to see how well it works. We go along with a contingent from Special Olympics Kenya who are keen to link up with SASA.
Can’t you clear the pitch of that glass?” we ask Wario. “Not really, the field is glass,” he replies. “We’d have to dig down six inches before we find anything other than glass.” No sliding tackles today then, Andrew thinks to himself. As Andrew carefully avoids going to ground on the field, Christian watches the action unfold from the touchline.
“What’s going on?” a bystander asks him.
“It’s Unified Football,” Christian explains, “people with intellectual disabilities and people without play in the same team.”
“Which ones are disabled?”
A pause. Christian smiles. A light goes on in the guy’s head.
“Thank you,” he says, “I understand now.”
You can’t stop kids sniffing glue. But you can offer them an alternative. Wario is engaging young people in playing football. He’s offering them the chance to join a team, make friends and compete in regular tournaments. And maybe the light will go on in the heads of those young people. Like it did with the guy Christian met on the touchline.
An early roll-call at Nairobi University today for the main Special Olympics event in Kenya. Athletes, parents, supporters and players are already assembled as we pile out of the DHL van with The Ball.
A parade around the pitch is followed by Unified Football. Sides run on to the pitch and, unusually, the captains meet at the centre-spot to decide the length of time they will play for. On this sweltering cloudless day, they opt for shorter halves than perhaps they would otherwise. “Thirty minute halves” comes the opening bid. The other captain looks up at the sky and the blazing sun and with sweat already forming on his forearms he replies: “15 minutes each way”. Every good haggle results in a compromise and twenty minutes each way is settled on. The result is fast and furious action, enjoyed by players and spectators alike.
And so to the main event — a team of Kenyan footballing legends takes the field to warm up for a game against a unified team of local Special Olympians and travelling football crews. Their team sheet reads like a who’s who of Kenyan football: Aggrey Lukoye, Josephat Murila, Tobias Ochola, Austin Oduor and Elly Adero are all in the starting line-up. Andrew is joined by Lorrie and Brian from Kickabout and two coaches from Arsenal, who have just arrived from Vietnam to give football training sessions with local NGOs.
It is a closely fought game, neither side giving an inch. Andrew scores a goal with a flying header, scuffing up his knees quite severely in the process. But it’s worth it — goal of the game, no doubt about it. The final score? It didn’t matter — the handshakes, the smiles, the memories were what this day was all about.
But the highlight of the event for us? Seeing everyone given a proper meal after the game, the Special Olympics athletes first in line, just as they should be.
Africa is feared for its viruses, but we weren’t expecting to succumb to the digital kind. But that’s exactly what has befallen us here in Kenya. We have a laptop running Windows XP which has just died of its infection.
Christian sits there, holding his head in his hands, staring at the machine. He’s wishing he had been more decisive and installed Ubuntu on the thing the moment he saw it was running Windows. And now the viruses have gone and corrupted the only copy of the Ubuntu installer. He can’t decide whether to laugh, cry or scream.
“Oh well,” he thinks to himself, “at least Andrew’s volunteered to carry it until it can be fixed!”
FLASH FORWARD: its just been fixed here in Lusaka, running a shiny new version of Ubuntu, which rocks. Perhaps we now stand a chance of catching up on this blog before we reach South Africa.