Oh, Ball! I feel naked, lost without you, Ball.
In a moment of madness I’ve let DHL Lagos ground crew whip you away from me. They are carrying you with ease through to the cargo plane while I am battling through customs without you. Usually you are there to guide me through difficult situations; to lighten the atmosphere. Nigerian customs and security check is proving to be a challenge without you.
“Where are you going?”
“Show me your ticket.”
“Why are you travelling on a cargo plane?”
“Are you a pilot?”
It’s not easy and it is suggested that I pay for the privilege of getting through. I try to explain about you and the journey to the World Cup. But without you those explanations are thin. Ohhh Ball, life is much easier with you, Ball. Finally, I negotiate my way through with a little help from my DHL friends.
But, I promise you one thing Ball — from now until Johannesburg you and I are staying together. Whether you like it or not, Ball.
Adeola’s ears perk up when he hears about The Ball being blessed by various religious and spiritual leaders. A marabou blessed The Ball in front of the world’s largest mud building, The Grand Mosquee, in Djenne. Two animists blessed The Ball in the Dogon Country, Mali. The Ball visited my good friend Kweku’s bible study group in Accra and was given a benediction by the Pope of Voodoo in Ouidah.
So, when Adeola invites The Ball into his church, The Ball was hardly likely to turn down the opportunity. It is the first time I have set foot in church for a while. The childhood scars of many a Sunday morning spent bored to tears in Sunday school, when all I really wanted to do was kick a football, have left a lifelong impression. I’m slightly nervous.
And then there is Ade’s church in Lagos, packed to the rafters – gospel music permeating the hall. Men and women with beautiful voices are singing and dancing in the aisles. Praise the Lord! I dance, I sing (very badly) and I thoroughly enjoy my time in Church and I can’t help but wonder what my religious beliefs might be if my Sunday mornings had been spent with these fun loving souls.
What’s more The Ball is at centre stage. The reverend, preaching to the packed crowd has this to say:
“In our midst this morning is someone who is bringing unity to the world. He has been to 20 countries in this world and he has 10 to go. Right now he is in Nigeria and on Tuesday he will be in Cameroon. This is all in the name of football. And this man carries to the countries of this world a football. One Ball. One World. It is a symbol of unity. It is a ball that is made in Africa. You can all sign this ball.”
I speak about the fear I had of travelling to Lagos and how I am now feeling embarrassed about those fears because of the wonderful reception The Ball and I have had in Lagos and in Nigeria.
I guess the point I want to make is that sometimes a few bad apples can spoil the reputation of a place but the vast majority of people in this world are good. I have met loads of friendly, generous and sincere people here. Nigeria has been fantastic.
Sebastian Wunderlich took the undergraduate football for development course at the University of Erfurt that we were offering — appropriately called The Spirit of Football. He became a valuable member of the seminar and now he is on the board of directors of Spirit of Football e.V. in Erfurt, Germany. Sebastian wants to use the positive power of football to do some good in society. Through the German development education progamme ASA, he was able to do an internship at the NGO Search and Groom (S&G) in Nigeria.
It was there he met Yomi Kuku, S&G’s Executive Director. Sebas introduced me to Yomi. We connected Yomi to Special Olympics Nigeria and together they planned some events for The Ball’s arrival in Nigeria.
We met Yomi at the Ikeja Youth sports center in Lagos, Nigeria to talk about S&G.
Andrew: What exactly are you guys doing at S&G Yomi?
Yomi: Here we use football as a tool to communicate with disadvantaged young people to encourage them to live a life if integrity, self dignity and to realize their full potential. We use the instrument of fair play football to achieve that. We have been doing that for over 8 years in Lagos, Nigeria.
Are there some stories you can share with us?
There are many. Too many. But, let me share two.
There was a player, Joseph Olamiju, who was down mentally, physically and spiritually. After joining us in 2005, we took him out of Nigeria twice — to the Homeless World Cup in South Africa and in Denmark and returned to become a coach on a full scholarship at S&G. Now he is the coach of the team. In Milan in 2009, he took the Homeless World Cup team of Nigeria to the semi-finals for the first time in our history.
We have taken about 50 extremely disadvantaged boys (formerly homeless) out on international trips to Europe, Australia and South Africa and not a single one has absconded. They have always returned back to Nigeria. Next December, we are going to be in Brazil to represent Nigeria. In June, we are going to be in South Africa to represent Nigeria at the FIFA Football for Hope Festival.
Who are the heroes at S&G?
People always want to talk about Messi, but we are not talking about Valdes, or Carlos Puyol. We only see Messi because he appears to be the point man. But Messi will tell you, like he always tells the media, that without the team he is not a footballer. Without teamwork you can never reach anything. Search & Groom has been sustained through synergies and teamwork. These guys (the kids) are the real heroes. Next September, they are going to be in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to represent Nigeria at the Homeless World Cup. In June this year we are going to represent Nigeria at the FIFA Football for Hope forum in Johannesburg
What do you think about The Ball, Yomi?
The Ball is breaking down barriers across tribes, race, social status, and economic status. Special Olympics is doing a lot of great work with people who are intellectually challenged. Through The Ball, we have been able to open up a partnership with Special Olympics.
Through The Ball we are getting to build a relationship with our mentally challenged friends. It has connected us to people who were not aware of what we are doing. One Ball. One World.
Time and again on this journey we have heard a very similar story. Parents of intellectually challenged children are embarrassed of their own child’s disability. Traditionally, parents bearing such children have been outcast from their tribal group –their inability to bear so-called normal children representative of weakness.
Those children even today are often not integrated into society or even worse they are emotionally and physically mistreated. One of Special Olympics’ biggest challenges in Africa is finding children with intellectual disabilities and convincing parents to let those children participate in SO’s programmes.
Andrew met up with Riva Offong, mother of Treasure, an intellectually challenged child who is a member of Special Olympics Nigeria.
Andrew: “Please tell us about your daughter.”
Riva: “My daughter is 26, her name is Treasure and she is down syndrome but she is okay she does everything herself. She is independent and I am quite proud of her and we all love her.”
Andrew: What is the norm here for parents with intellectually challenged children?
Riva: The norm is that you hide them. You don’t bring them out. Which is most unfortunate because then they don’t do anything. They don’t amount to anything. Treasure travels everywhere she wants to go. She is quite independent. I know of some parents who have autistic children who lock them up. Actually, these children might be, like they say, mentally challenged. It is a matter of teaching and being patient with them. Treasure reads and writes and sings songs because we have encouraged her and allowed her freedom of thought.
Andrew: Do you have a message for parents of intellectually challenged children?
Riva: Okay you have them. It is not by choice. It is by God’s divine will. There must be a purpose why they are here with you. So encourage them as much as a normal child. Let them be normal, because they can be normal. They might look different but they are okay. So don’t hide them. Bring them out and be proud of them. They are your children and you should be proud of them.
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 a German resident, I needed to apply for my Nigerian visa in Berlin. In Germany in January, I didn’t have enough time and was subsequently informed that there was no way I’d get a visa anywhere en route as Nigerian visas are only issued in your country of residency. It looked very much like I wasn’t going to be able to get into Nigeria.
The way the trip has turned out, I will be solely responsible for carrying The Ball from Ivory Coast to Cameroon, including Nigeria. What happens if I can’t get a visa? Would I be stuck in Benin? Would The Ball have to go on without me? Most likely The Ball would not vist Nigeria. That would be a real pity as SO Nigeria have been planning events for The Ball in and around Lagos.
From a personal point of view, I’ve been very worried about the political situation in Nigeria where there have been kidnappings of foreigners, killings across different ethic groups and where the general situation appears to be dangerous and deteriorating. I’ve been starting to think that it might not be a bad thing if I don’t get my Nigerian visa.
Special Olympics Nigeria are on the case, however: Folashade Bolumole, SO Nigeria Director, has been in touch with the Nigerian goverment in the capital Abuja. Special Olympics have taken control of the situation, and as we arrive in Burkina Faso there is news — The Nigerian Embassy in Ouagadougou wants me to come by for an interview.
I turn up there with a representatives from the Burkina Faso Ministry of Sport and DHL and a letter of support from SO Nigeria. The Nigerian embassy staff are very keen to accommodate us and, to my surprise and delight, the visa will be ready within an hour.
I have a question about the political situation in Nigeria. “Is it too dangerous to travel there?” I ask. “The trouble is just in one region. That is the Niger Delta. The rest of the country is safe. Nigeria is a wonderful country. You’ll have a great time in Lagos,” comes the reply.
In my mind, I start reflecting on perceptions of Africa… we who live outside Africa hear so much about the problems of the continent. We sit in our living rooms and see pictures on the TV of war, famine, disease, ethnic cleansing and we hear about corruption and mismanagement. Yes, of course, some of these things are happening and are only too real — but the Africa I am getting to know is vastly different.
We are constantly meeting friendly people with smiles on their faces and a generosity that often goes beyond their means. A lot of these people may not have the level of material wealth that so many people in Europe have, but, to my eyes, they are often much happier. What is it that we have lost but that they have not?
Suddenly, I’m excited to be heading to Nigeria: With the positive energy of The Ball at my feet and the support of partners on the ground the prospect of Lagos’ chaos is enticing. Let The Ball roll.