Another day, another DHL cargo flight — this time a short hop lasting just 30 minutes from Benin to Lagos, Nigeria.
The Ball and Andrew arrive in Lagos. Nigeria is the 20th country en route to Johannesburg. What awaits them in Nigeria? Andrew is slighty worried as Nigeria has been in the news recently for the kidnapping of foreign nationals. The Ball is relaxed as ever.
As carriers of The Ball, we realize that we have a huge responsibility to ensure that this one ball makes it all the way to South Africa. Imagine, The Ball is lost or stolen, what are we going to do? The Ball has 6000 unique signatures on it and about one hundred stamps from the 18 countries visited so far. We MUST get this one ball safely to the World Cup.
Starting in Togo, securing The Ball and its carriers became a priority for our partners and even a matter of national pride. “God forbid if anything happens to The Ball in our country”, might aptly describe what our hosts were thinking. This was especially understandable in Togo, where the nation had recently suffered the national tragedy of a terrorist attack on the Togolese national football team in Angola. Benin seems to have gone one step further.
Crossing into Benin we find out that two national guard policemen have been assigned to protect The Ball and that The Ball requires a police escort at all times.
Andrew’s dad used to give him a great piece of advice regarding being in possession of a ball in a dangerous situation — “If in doubt, kick it out”, he used to say. There isn’t much chance of that happening in Benin.
“Pomp and pageantry will welcome you in Lome tomorrow and we need to create some magic around The Ball”, says DHL’s PR guru Sammy Duodu. The Ball is going to meet the Togolese Minister of Sport in an official ceremony at the border. Sammy sources a polystyrene box and decorates it with DHL tape, a DHL sticker and lines it with comfortable yellow silk material to provide extra comfort.
Amazing, (yes, his real name!), is a freelance media expert hired by DHL to help out in Ghana. He assists with filming, logistics and setting up lots of TV appearances. The Ball is all over the press in Ghana and we find out that Ghanaians are mad about football and very interested in The Ball.
The Ball was injured and rushed to hospital in the Ivory Coast. In the intensive care station it received a bandage and a telling off and it was told in no uncertain terms to rest. But rest is one thing that this ball cannot do. The Ball MUST be played in countless games of football all the way to South Africa. It cannot stay in bed. The referees will be waving play on until we get to Nairobi, where The Ball will be re-stitched in the same place it was hand stitched in January by Bernard at Alive and Kicking’s stitching centre.
Let The Ball roll.
Kweku Obeng Lartey is a Ghanaian and a good friend of mine. We both studied our masters in Public Policy at the now named Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany.
Kweku, the organiser in his year, was constantly coming up with ideas for interaction and throwing himself totally into the university community. It is no overstatement to say that nearly everyone on campus knew and liked Kweku. He is one of those people who never has a bad word to say about anyone, who always has a smile on his face and whose positive attitude to life brings out the best in the people he meets.
Kweku, a highly talented and skilled young Ghanaian, graduated with a Masters degree in Public Policy but he didn’t want to stay in Germany, he didn’t want to remain in Europe: No. Kweku, like the countless number of educated Africans we are meeting on our journey to South Africa, was always intent to take his education and head back home to give back to his community and to be with his people. And Accra, his home city, is a great place to be.
There are thousands of educated young Africans who, like Kweku, are coming back to Africa with a top quality education and international networks and investing their futures here, when they could easily remain in Europe or America or Australasia. Kweku represents the future of this continent. He has the know-how, the skills and the desire to lead Africa into the future.
The last time I saw Kweku was in September 2008. He was leaving Erfurt with his MPP. I bought him and his fellow classmate Eneda lunch. We said our goodbyes. More than a year and a half later and Kweku and I are meeting up in Accra. In early 2007 we first talked about The Ball’s journey to the World Cup. Phil and Christian were in Erfurt for a planning session. Christian and I were offering an undergraduate seminar called Spirit of Football and about 20 students were integrated into the planning. We were discussing West Africa. Kweku became our West Africa consultant. He was adamant that the West Africa itinerary was doable and necessary. “You can’t travel to the World Cup without visiting Ghana”, he said.
He was right. And here I am, staying in his family home in Accra: meeting his parents, his bible study group and introducing The Ball to his undergraduate philosophy class at the University of Accra — seeing his world and loving it.
Kweku, thanks for sharing an insight into your life with me and The Ball… and thanks for becoming part of our journey of discovery in Africa.
Phil has gone, his flight left at 2am this morning. Now I am all alone, just me and The Ball. It is going to be hard trying to take care of everything now: filming, taking photos, writing, organizing… and trying to keep the German taxman off my back.
There is so much to do on such a journey that there is often little time for anything else. In fact, on the whole trip thus far, we have not had one big night out on the town. And you are talking about 3 lads that enjoy good old-fashioned knees up and are unlikely to ever turn down an opportunity. The Ball dictates this hard schedule but it is worth it.
It is time to bid farewell to you, Phil. You have been on the trip since meeting The Ball at the airport in Casablanca. You need to get back to your little boy Jasper and your lovely wife Sophie in Brighton. Wow, your third journey – following up on 2002 and 2006. You have been a fantastic travel companion Phil, it is going to be a hard slog without you. I’m going to have to wear all of the hats now. But hey, what a time we have had!
West Africa will always be with us: That mad arrival in Dakar and Richie’s bag of tricks, you showing that professional team how to warm-up on the beach, your Remi Gaillard kick of The Ball onto the DHL cargo flight, your, ahem, “crappy experience” at the Grand Mosquee in Djenne, the amazing sequence of events from the Dogon Country to Ouagadougou where public transport Africa style was phenomenal, 46 hour tropical train ride to Abidjan to the cavalcade massive [check out the next blog entry to see Phil’s trip swan song]. Welcome to Africa Bruce!
Sophie, maybe you will agree to Phil coming back for the final push into Johannesburg? You wouldn’t want to miss that would you now, Phil?
Dropping down from Burkina Faso on that agonizingly long train ride, one cannot help but notice the change in climate. It was 40 plus degrees in Ouagadougou but a very dry heat and surprisingly manageable. Abidjan’s temperature by comparison is mid thirties and stiflingly humid; one starts to sweat just thinking about going outside.
We are soaked through, while all around us are locals, used to the conditions and looking very comfortable — even wearing suits and ties and not a bead of sweat to be seen.
“Get used to it”, says Charles Takouet from Special Olympics, “Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon are all going to be the same.”
Stinky, sweaty boys on tour!
Ouagadougou — Abidjan. What a ride, 1,180km of searing heat in 46 hours… and a seat for The Ball. This single track giant of a line, dating back to 1905, is carrying The Ball, Phil and me from the heart of Burkina Faso to the tropical Côte d’Ivoire.
We were told “don’t go to Côte d’Ivoire, it is far too dangerous”, “watch your back there, there are thieves everywhere.” “Don’t trust anyone”. “Watch the political situation. It is a volatile one. ” “It is getting ready to erupt there” said a French pilot we met in Mali, “the people want elections, they have been waiting for many years. The government cannot hold out much longer. It will go off there in the next month.” I am particularly worried about this leg of the journey.
There was a civil war here recently and our train is taking us through the heart of former rebel territory and its capital Bouake. I am also paranoid that our video camera might get confiscated. The train line is one of national security and monitored by the gendarmerie. But trying to prevent Phil from recording is a tough job for anyone at the best of times. He is also hoping to climb onto the roof of the train to film from above.
Many people warned me about travelling through Africa. Friends and family alike have grave concerns for our safety. They think we are mad. “Yes, there are problems in Africa. But there are problems everywhere,” said the Burkinabe Minister for Sport a few days ago. “If a bomb goes off in Marseille,” he continued, “France is still okay. If a bomb goes off in Nigeria, it is Africa and it is a big problem.”
Phil is much more relaxed about the whole situation. I worry when we can’t get a hold of Charles who is due to pick us up at the end of this gruelling ride… our mobile is not working. Phil chills. I’ve heard that bandits operate on the train which should arrive in 2 days time, if there aren’t any unforeseen technical problems. Phil continues to chill. I’m quietly looking forward to seeing the back of Cote d’Ivoire and I haven’t even set foot in it yet. The prospect of Ghana and visiting my friend Kweku is very appealing.
As the train rolls onwards, we start getting to know some of our Ivorian and Burkinabe neighbours. We drink beer with them, share food with them and joke with them. We have plenty of time to contemplate this roller coaster of a trip to the World Cup, endure some rigours of sub-Saharan long distance travel and open up The Ball’s Côte d’Ivoire adventure with a lightning-quick game on a station-side pitch.
As we cross into Côte d’Ivoire, almost a whole day into our journey, I have no more fears. I am excited to visit Abidjan and slightly embarrassed about my paranoia and very tired from this long, exhausting train ride. Onward.
The Ball has been given two blessings from two fetishmen in one morning and now we’re leaving Teli and the Dogon Country and are on our way to Bankass to catch a bus to Koro in the far east of Mali.
From there another bus takes us across the border into Burkina Faso. At the Burkina Faso border control point we play football with others on our bus.
Phil picks up the last set of tickets for one more bus to Ouagadougou. Although the journey is fascinating and the company delightful, we’re really looking forward to arriving at our destination for the chance to have a rest, we hope!