We are scheduled to play in a Unified Football tournament today. As ever in West Africa, the fearsome heat makes us anxious about taking part. But these events are such fun that it is impossible to stay on the sidelines. So bring on the football, bring on the sweat!
Special Olympics athletes are joined by DHL staff and members of the Burkina Faso Football Association including its president and members of the national Burkina Faso Under-17 team, who have competed at the recent Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria.
Being a Liverpool fan, Andrew is very keen to play on the team that is dressed in the Liverpool kit.
An open and friendly atmosphere develops as everyone gets to know one another. All the teams play against each other and once more football is the winner.
Some of the Special Olympics athletes who are playing have quite severe disabilities, but they are accepted as players of equal importance to each team.
The large crowd of spectators (we estimate around 500 people have turned up) seem to enjoy the games a lot and are very vocal in their support. The post-football celebrations show that making new friendships means that, whatever happens on the pitch, everyone is a winner off the pitch.
Today we are off to meet an ex-goalkeeper, but not just any ex-goalkeeper. This one is “the King of all Kings”, Mogho Naaba. “Mogho Naaba is more popular than the president in Burkina Faso,” says Patrick, our driver from DHL, as we head for a traditional ceremony that is open to the public.
Mogho Naaba is king of the Mossi tribe, an ethnic group that covers much of Burkina Faso and reaches into the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo. Mossi tradition dictates that the eldest son of the enthroned king must be banished from the royal court. And so, at the tender age of 7, the current Mogho Naaba was sent into exile in France, never to see his father again. When his father eventually died, he was called back to Burkina Faso and became king himself.
The ceremony that we witness takes place every Friday and dates back hundreds of years to the appearance of the first colonial invaders. Unfortunately for us, no photography of the event is allowed. At the start of the ceremony, the king prepares to leave for war dressed all in red, the colour of blood. His horse awaits him in front of the royal palace. But his ministers attempt to prevent him leaving, begging him not to go to war. The king listens to their appeals, goes back into the palace and minutes later returns dressed in white. Relief all round — there will be no war today.
After the ceremony, we are fortunate enough to go to the palace for a private audience with the king of all kings. The Ball is now covered in layer upon layer of signatures, more than four thousand in total. “No one,” we say, “king or layman, is allowed to sign The Ball without first kicking or heading it.” Phil throws him The Ball. Mogho Naaba catches it and says to us “But surely a goalkeeper is allowed to use his hands.”
And so from now on, thanks to the insight of a king, we have a new rule to accompany the signing of The Ball — a goalkeeper is allowed to sign it, but only if he or she catches it first.
Afterwards the king leads us on a tour of his private football museum, which is a treasure trove of memorabilia. It includes a signed Ivory Coast shirt worn by his friend Didier Drogba at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a framed photograph of himself and Roger Milla taken at a celebrity football match, where he played in goal.
And his prized possession? A shirt signed by the entire Welsh national team. He leads us to it with a broad smile. This shirt, he tells us, was worn by Ryan Giggs, with the famous number 11 on it, and it appears to be the king’s favourite. Perhaps he is a Manchester United fan? Diplomatically, Mogho Naaba wouldn’t say.
The Ball arrives in Ouagadougou to find that a meeting has been scheduled with the Minister of Sport, M. Jean-Pierre Palm. The meeting has been arranged by Special Olympics Burkina Faso (SOBF) to welcome The Ball to the country and introduce it to the national authorities.
We are slowly beginning to understand and appreciate the rituals and formalities of these official events. They are a great opportunity for everyone involved to get to know one another — both personally and professionally — and for a real dialogue and a constructive exchange of views to take place.
When The Ball is passed, whether in the street, on the field or in the boardroom, a connection is made. The Ball feels honoured to meet the Minister and hopes that the dialogue that has been opened will lead to greater opportunities for Special Olympics athletes in Burkina Faso.
Next up is a press conference in association with the Burkina Faso Football Federation (BFFF) at the National Stadium, the Stade du 4-Août. It was very well attended, with a big turnout of representatives from the media.
Although Burkina Faso have not qualified for the World Cup itself, the press is receptive to the connection with the tournament that The Ball represents. The connection is an unofficial one, but The Ball’s journey is very real. It reminds people that football can be a powerful catalyst in spreading the message of inclusion — and that the programmes that Special Olympics run are the very embodiment of the spirit of the beautiful game.
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.