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