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Children with an Alive & Kicking ball

Category: Mali

Fetishmen bless The Ball

We are invited into the home of a very respected local fetishman, a marabout of the animist tradition. A small mud building in the middle of Teli awaits out presence. We are welcomed and Phil presents The Ball to him.

Phil presents The Ball to the fetishmanPhil presents The Ball to the fetishman

Our Dogon guides translate as Phil explains about The Ball. The fetishman holds, examines and feels The Ball — then he cleans and places a mat onto the dusty floor in front of him. The plaited mat is like a map and, as he places it on the floor, he draws lines and symbols in the dusty ground around it.

Cowrie shells tell The Ball's fortuneThe fetishman throws down shells and interprets their meaning

He throws cowrie shells on to the mat and interprets their meaning based on where they come to rest. This mat and these shells form relationships beyond our comprehension. After several rounds of throws and much speaking to himself, he is ready to speak to us all.

“There will be a happy and a good end to the tour. It will finish well. You will make it to Johannesburg and it will be a happy time.”

The fetishman outside his homeStanding in front of his home, the fetishman wishes us well

Later, another animist, a local hunter, rolls The Ball up and down his ceremonial totem polls, lingering over the chest areas of each female statue – almost as if he is listening to them, perhaps using The Ball as a medium.

Animist hunter and The BallAnimist hunter and The Ball

“The Ball is special” he says.

“Fun” is part of “funeral”

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.

Dogon children get a kick out of The BallDogon children get a kick out of The Ball

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.

A child kicks The Ball along the touchlineA child kicks The Ball along the “touchline”

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.

Andrew overwhelmed by childrenAndrew is overwhelmed by the children’s enthusiasm

A funeral ceremony in Djiguibombo

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.

Start of the funeral paradeStart of the parade through the village
A vantage point for the localsVantage points for villagers to watch the ceremony
The Ball watches tooThe Ball watches on
Carlos Tevez spotted in the crowdCarlos Tevez contemplating why he left Man Utd for Man City
Ceremony comes to an endThe ceremony comes to an end

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.

Bush Taxi to Bandiagara

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.

Phil fixes a net for The Ball to Andrew's backpackPhil fixes a net for The Ball 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.

The bags on the bus go on the roofThe bags on the bus go on the roof
Our fellow passengersOur fellow passengers

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.

The Ball gets a big old kissThe Ball gets a big old kiss

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.

Sévaré Dust Ball

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.

Sevare dust ballSevare dust ball

As usual, we expect the unusual… during the game a donkey and cart cross the field but play continues uninterrupted.

A donkey and cart cross the pitchA donkey and cart cross the pitch

With the light fading fast, play continues as the sun sets in spectacular fashion.

Play continues as the sun setsPlay continues as the sun sets
All eyes are still on The Ball as night approachesAll eyes are still on The Ball as night approaches

Mac’s Refuge

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!

Mac's Refuge in Sevare, MaliThe entrance to Mac’s Refuge in Sévaré

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 of Mac's Refuge with The BallMac, the founder of Mac’s Refuge

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!

Bus Ball: room for a ball?

Leaving Djenné, the bus is too fullMini-bus out of Djenné. This one was too full for The Ball.

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.

The Ball at the Grande Mosquée in Djenné

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!

Andrew and The Ball in front of the Grand MosquéeRoof with a view. Andrew in front of the Grande Mosquée at first light.

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.

A sign says no entry for non-muslimsNo entry for non-muslims

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.

A marabout blesses The BallMarabout blesses The Ball outside Grand Mosquée.

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.

Phil, Andrew and a marabout in DjennéPost-benediction: Phil, Marabout, Andrew and The Ball

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.

The Ball at the mud mosque in Djenne

Arrival in Djenné

We arrive in Djenné as the sun is going down, after a gruelling 14 hour bus ride from Bamako.

The ferry across to DjennéThe Ball arrives in Djenné… The ferry crossing.

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!

Phil fixes a net for The Ball to Andrew's backpackPhil fixes a net for The Ball to Andrew’s backpack

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…

The Ball is almost lost at the mosqueThe Ball held high in the air after a football riot in front of the mosque.

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.

The Ball gets a cleanCleaning The Ball

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.

The champions of Kayes

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.

Some of the crowd at the stadium in KayesSome of the crowd at the stadium in Kayes
Drummers at the gameDrummers at the game
Wild dancing in the standsWild dancing in the stands

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.

The Ball 2018 left England on 25th March 2018 and travelled to the World Cup in Russia.

The Ball 2014 kicked off from England on 9th Jan 2014 and headed to the World Cup in Brazil.

The Ball 2010 left England on 24th Jan 2010 headed to the Opening Ceremony in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Ball 2006 travelled from London to the Opening Ceremony in Munich, Germany.

The Ball 2002 was carried 7000 miles across Europe and Asia to the World Cup finals in Korea & Japan.