We bid farewell to Blaise and get on the bus, heading out of Dar es Salaam. It’s not just any bus though, it’s a Chinese special. No-one has told us that in order to fit on this bus we’ll have to cut our legs off at the knees. Andrew’s legs don’t fit into the tiny space at all and, with no saw in sight, he takes the aisle seat and stretches out as best he can.
14 hours later and we arrive in Kyela, within touching distance of the Malawian border. At the border, many locals have heard about The Ball and we’re allowed to film The Ball being stamped out of Tanzania and kicked across the bridge that separates these two nations.
We’re expecting a friendly reception in Malawi, which touts itself in tourist brochures as “the friendly heart of Africa.” Our first experiences are, however, don’t match this cosy image. At immigration, we’re told, in no uncertain terms, to stop filming immediately. A visa stamp for The Ball is refused and there are no smiles whatsoever at the immigration desk.
We explain time and again that The Ball has been stamped in and out of every country in sub-Saharan Africa. We even show pictures of The Ball being stamped out of Tanzania just a few minutes earlier. But the Malawian customs officials aren’t persuaded. Not in the slightest.
“If you don’t give The Ball a visa stamp then it can’t come into Malawi” Andrew says.
“Are you sure that you want Malawi to be the only country not to give The Ball a visa?” asks Christian before he lists off the countries that have given The Ball a visa.
Finally, the customs boss relents and stamps The Ball, perhaps thinking that this might be the only way to get rid of these strange guys, but there is no way we’re going to film the stamping.
Borders are a strange concept, particularly so here in Africa where, some time ago, some men sat down somewhere (perhaps in London) with sharp pencils, long rulers and lots of tea and divided this continent up. Border posts followed — and with them border guards, who we affectionately call the linesmen. Thankfully, the linesmen haven’t flagged us offside yet.
The Ball takes a light-hearted poke at the strange concept of borders and nations as it makes its way to the World Cup, paradoxically a tournament that celebrates and sometimes even shapes perceptions of nationhood. The Ball, we think, is about making connections between people regardless of their nationality. In fact, we’d take that one step further and say as we always do… One Ball. One World!
It’s the grand finale to The Ball’s presence in Tanzania — a seven-a-side tournament of Unified Football for children drawn from schools all over Dar es Salaam. Transport is paid for, there will be prizes of footballs donated by the Brazilian embassy and everyone will get a square meal at the end of the event. It’s an irresistible prospect.
It is mayhem in the stadium. The children are running about playing football, jumping around gleefully on the bouncy castle and dancing wildly to the Congolese music blaring from the cavalcade truck. Blaise, Christian and Andrew join in the fun, while assorted dignitaries look on with barely concealed delight. For children who, by-and-large, live lives deprived of such simple pleasures, this event is like sunshine on a rainy day.
“This kind of thing has never happened before,” Sunday from the TFF says to Blaise. For Christian and Andrew, it’s one of the most encouraging moments of the trip when Sunday then suggests that this event become a monthly fixture.
When people use the presence of The Ball to bring people, companies, football federations and NGOs together, it seems that “the unlikely” becomes “the possible.”
When we met up with Francisco Carlos Soares Luz, the Brazilian Ambassador to Tanzania, in his office in Dar es Salaam, we asked him to say a few words about the Spirit of Football. He didn’t want to answer immediately. For a Brazilian this question goes right to the heart of the national obsession.
Three day later, he arrives in his kit, ready to play for the EU Flames against Albino United. He’s brought along 20 Brazilian balls. But not just any balls. These balls are made by prisoners and donated to schools. Each of these “social” balls is stitched by an inmate, who gets one day off their prison sentence for each ball produced.
“I am ready to tell you about the spirit of football” says Francisco. “I remember, a small story from 5 years ago when Brazil played against Haiti. We had just taken the lead in the UN peacekeeping force in that country. We concluded, that the only fun, the only happiness, the Haitian people would have was if we would take the Brazilian national team to play against them.”
“There were more or less 500,000 people in the streets to greet the Brazilian team and they were on the top of a military tank on the way from the airport to the stadium. The result of the match, was the least important thing, the happiness that those people had in that moment is the spirit of football.”
“The pitch we booked at the Gymkhana is waterlogged,” says Tim Clarke, head of the EU delegation in Tanzania. “We’ve got a match planned between a team of ambassadors and a team of albinos and now we’ve nowhere to play. Can we work together?”
Albinos, Tim tells us, are one of the most discriminated-against groups in Tanzania — so much so that they are often killed in ritual sacrifices because it is considered by many to be good luck to have a piece of an albino in the family home. Shuddering at this thought, Blaise offers the pitch at the Uhuru Stadium as a substitute venue for the game.
Albino United, dressed in an all white strip, take to the pitch. Facing them is the team of ambassadors, looking less than confident — there’s no diplomatic immunity on the football field — but still up for the challenge.
Straight from the kick-off, it’s clear that the diplomats are outclassed on the pitch, and the crowd cheer overwhelmingly for Albino United. But the ambassadors are honourable in their attitude to their inevitable defeat. Today is not about them, but about their opposition, who match the diplomats with their grace in victory.
Maximo was right. It’s 7am on Saturday morning and children from all over Dar es Salaam are assembling at the Tanzanian Football Federation’s artificial turf pitch. Children from as young as six and up to twelve arrive carrying their boots and water bottles, ready for a morning training session.
TFF trainers start working with the older children, Christian heads off to play keepie-uppie with the youngest, while Blaise and Andrew jump in with corner practice for the rest. Blaise’s goalkeeping prowess is soon receiving plenty of praise and the children ask him if he’s a professional. It’s hard for him to conceal his pride at the very thought of this.
Blaise seems genuinely touched by the passion and commitment of the children and, as the session comes to close, asks whether the children can join us at the Uhuru Stadium for the seven-a-side tournament that has been organised for local schoolkids. It’s a deal — they will all be coming along.
The first of our visits to the Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam is for a game of Unified Football that will be the curtain-raiser for a friendly clash between the Ngorongoro Stars (the Tanzanian Under-20 team) and league high-fliers Azam United.
Uhuru Stadium lies in the shadow of the much larger National Stadium which has recently (and unsurprisingly) been built by the Chinese. But it’s no slouch of a place, fitted as it is with artificial turf and a decent stand.
By now we’re pretty used to the way these events pan out and dive in to our respective roles. Andrew gets ready to play. Christian schmoozes with the dignitaries and films what he can.
Although Special Olympics put the emphasis on participation over competition, this does not mean that the players are any less passionate about the game. It’s a good match, properly contested, good to watch.
Top of the bill is the game between the Tanzanian Under-20 team, fondly referred to as the Ngorongoro Stars, and Azam United, a professional team which, like so many in Africa, is a company team — in this case drinks manufacturer Azam.
During the game, we spot Maximo, the charismatic and popular Brazilian coach of the senior national side. He volunteers to kick and sign The Ball and then tells us with pride how he has changed the way the whole country plays the beautiful game.
Tanzanians used to play an English-style long ball game. Maximo reasoned that Tanzanians weren’t really physically suited to that style and immediately told his team to keep the ball on the ground. His instruction seems to have filtered through to every level of the game and he is now an iconic figure in Tanzania, the third most recognised person in the country.
As he leaves, Maximo tells us that we really must come along to the Tanzanian Football Federation’s training ground early on Saturday morning to see the young children who make their way there, often on their own, fro all over the city — football boots slung over the shoulder and water bottle in hand. “Then you’ll understand the passion for football in this country,” he says.
Deputy Minister of Sport Joel Bendera coached the Tanzanian national football team for 10 years. He is the only coach to have taken Tanzania to the Africa Cup of Nations, and was himself a former professional footballer. He officially welcomes The Ball to Tanzania and recognises immediately what The Ball is all about.
“I’d like to take this opportunity on behalf of the government to welcome you Andrew and your colleague (hmm, that would be Christian) to Tanzania. We feel proud and actually everyone is happy that you are giving us this opportunity to bring this ball to Tanzania. We really appreciate your job and praise God for you coming to Tanzania.”
He goes on to pledge support Special Olympics Tanzania long after The Ball has gone. Responding to Andrew’s challenge, he also pledges that Tanzania will have more signatures on The Ball than any other country. He finishes by saying: “One Ball. One World.”
The Tanzanian Daily News (amongst many others) has a full report of the event, but here’s an exclusive for you, our dearly beloved readers…
“The spirit of the game of football, especially in Tanzania, has made all Tanzanian’s to be one. We may have a lot of difficulties and problems, but when it comes to football everybody has a passion, a love. It has made us to be one as a nation. When it comes to togetherness, friendship, brotherhood, football has done it.”
“The bigger issue that football has done is for people to be happy. Most young people in Tanzania have a passion for football. So they are healthy. They play from morning to evening, after school classes, they really enjoy it. It has made us love this game more than any other.”
Blaise de Souza, Managing Director of DHL Tanzania, has taken our partnership with DHL to a whole new level. An energetic, witty and (frankly speaking) highly motivated man, he has assembled a formidable team. Blaise gets things done by encouraging people to use their own initiative.
DHL’s part in The Ball’s journey has been to organise logistics in Sub-Saharan Africa (by whatever means), provide immigration assistance, bubble-wrap The Ball’s carriers, allow them access to DHL computers and to send video footage back to production partner Africa 10 in Los Angeles. DHL has been a fantastic partner and its staff have often gone above and beyond what is required — but Blaise lifts the bar a notch higher:
Together with Vanessa from ICAL, Blaise has taken control of “Operation Ball” in Tanzania. Sponsors have been acquired: Precision Air, Zantel, Azam, the Tanzanian Football Federation — each plays their role in one of the most ambitious set of events thus far. From airport reception and street cavalcade to stadium tournaments, Blaise has the interests of the most important people at heart — the children of Dar es Salaam.
The legacy of The Ball in Tanzania is that Blaise, Vanessa, the Tanzanian Football Federation and corporate partners will work to support underprivileged and marginalised children through grassroots football initiatives. The Ball keeps rolling, and its impact lives on.
No sign of Kilimanjaro. The famous mountain is out of view for the duration of our stay in Tanzania. This is common here in May. It’s winter time and visibility is poor. The Ball is here, but Kilimanjaro doesn’t appear to be.
One last chance… we board the Precision Air sponsored flight to Dar es Salaam via Zanzibar at Kilimanjaro International Airport. Will we win again? We hope so. Alas, even miles above ground, there is no sight of Africa’s highest peak. We’re just surrounded by cloud.
Anyway, thoughts turn elsewhere during the flight. Andrew hasn’t seen his girlfriend for months and she’s come to visit The Ball for the Tanzanian leg. Christian’s excited for other reasons – he’s looking forward to his first cavalcade with The Ball and what looks like being one of most outrageous series of events planned for The Ball yet.
DHL’s Managing Director Blaise de Souza is there to greet The Ball on the runway and a scrum of media are there too. We’re led through to a waiting crowd. It sounds like pandemonium out there. Andrew and his girlfriend Jessica embrace.
Tanzanian poet and musical superstar Mpoto greets The Ball at the airport. A large crowd outside of the terminal is entertained by drummers beating out rhythms of life while dancers shake their booty in true African style to some outrageously good Congolese tunes. The Ball is led to a truck endowed with a massive “The Ball is Here” sign in the green and white of sponsor Zantel.
Christian and Andrew climb on board as the truck is led off by 6 DHL motorcycle outriders and followed closely behind by baton-wielding policemen in a 4×4 with sirens blaring. People lining the streets recognise Mpoto, who is known for his socially conscious poetry. Some look at us confused or smile in amusement, others wave frantically, some dance wildly.
Christian can hardly believe his eyes and ears — this isn’t anything like previous trips that The Ball has made.
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.