We have been in the DHL office all afternoon copying footage onto hard drives, writing for the blog, taking pictures with the DHL staff and The Ball. Our time in Senegal is coming to an end: an overnight DHL cargo flight awaits us. We are properly hungry by now so Bashir has a idea. “We have time to visit my mother, boys. She wants to meet The Ball. Then we are having some traditional Senegalese food for dinner. Rice and fish.” Okay, that sounds like a plan.
The flight is scheduled to leave just after 10pm. Bashir reassures us. “We have time. We don’t have to be there until 10pm at the very latest.” Great, we have time to eat. Or do we? There has been a power cut at Bashir’s; we find his house is candle-lit. All very romantic. The good news is that the food is prepared.
Just then, Bashir’s phone rings. It is Basile at the airport. “Where the hell are you?” he screams down the phone. Oh dear, there’s been some miscommunication — it turns out we had to be at the airport 20 minutes earlier. We might even miss the flight. No time for food now. As soon as we can, we head for the DHL depot at the airport. Frantic faces greet us.
We are escorted through the airport by Basile. “DHL (pronounced Day Hasch El in French) cargo flight,” says Basile as we jump the immigration queue. He repeats this as we go to the front of the security check-in line. In five minutes we have cleared security and customs and are on the tarmac. Basile has one more trick up his sleeves. He waves down a large airport shuttle bus, commandeers it and once more tells the driver “DHL cargo flight.”
We reach the plane and Phil takes The Ball and chips it Remi Gaillard-style first time on board and celebrates first by wheeling away, then coming over to celebrate with me. We celebrate not just the goal, but the fact that, thanks to Bashir and Basile, we’ve made the flight on time. We will be leaving for Mali today.
Time for take-off, up and away to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania with Phil in the jump seat and Andrew back cargo-side in one of two other seats, sitting next to a distinctly non-talkative US government official. Our 15 minutes in Mauritania allow The Ball to be kicked on the tarmac and a single solitary Mauritanian signs The Ball.
Back on board and off to Mali, this time Andrew taking his turn in the jump seat. His first thought — to give The Ball to one of the pilots for an onboard portrait photo.
We arrive at 4am in Bamako and a friendly DHL employee is the first to head and sign The Ball in Mali. It is dry and it hasn’t rained here for months. It’s a reasonable 25 degrees right now, but the expected high later in the day is 45 degrees. We’re a little bit daunted by that figure. But there’s no time to dwell on weather reports as it’s off to our hotel where a surprise awaits us. More than 10 Special Olympics Mali administrators and athletes are there to greet us.
Fantastic! What a welcome. We’re overwhelmed by the reception. But for us it is time to get our heads down and sleep — at least for a few hours please?
A collection of random moments in Dakar. We’re about to leave for Mali, but wanted to post these to give a flavour of this football-obsessed city.
Next up, The Ball heads onwards to Mali for adventures on the southern edge of the Sahara.
So what do we do when we’re not chasing round on one footballing mission or another here in Dakar? We take a stroll along Ngor beach and enjoy the relative cool of the late afternoon. And play some football, of course!
The temperature is dropping and the sun is starting to set, plunging straight into the sea. Who are those guys walking towards us? A team of footballers? Yes. Certainly. These guys look like professional athletes — they have amazingly toned bodies. “Phil, they have to be a football team,” Andrew suggests.
Phil immediately approaches them and explains The Ball and the journey and is welcomed to join their “light” training session the day before an important cup match. Phil whips his shirt off, revealing a great British blindingly-white torso.
Soon the team and their latest starlet start jogging up and down the beach. While Phil’s energy quickly drains away, their pace ramps up to a furious level and Phil rolls out of the pack in a heap. As the professionals continue their light warm-up, Phil resorts to some more gentle keepie-uppie instead.
By this stage, Andrew is keen for a game of beach football. Organising a game of footy in Dakar is just about the easiest task you could ask of someone. People simply love their football here — and play just about anywhere and anytime they can.
In a flash, its 3 against 3, with stones as goals. The tide is coming in and The Ball, being made completely of African leather, is soaking wet in no time. No matter, game on. 3 against 3 becomes 5 against 5. Two French surfers join in. They are spending a month in this surfing Mecca, where the local Wollof-speaking fishermen have surfed for years on the beautiful rollers that frame the nearby Ile de Ngor.
This idyllic beach harbour is the perfect place to wind down after the intensity of the last few days. Football for football’s sake. A welcome break.
We hone our diplomatic skills as Special Olympics Senegal organise a visit to Dakar’s City Hall.
We’re beginning to understand that, this time round, The Ball’s journey is more than just an exercise in “happy-go-lucky” serendipity and has a more serious element to it. Meeting the children at the special needs schools impressed on us just how important The Ball can be to them and that we have a responsibility to make The Ball as good an ambassador for their cause as we can. And so we’re off to meet the Mayor of Dakar on their behalf.
It turns out that the Mayor himself is otherwise engaged and so The Ball is introduced to the First Deputy Mayor. The meeting takes place at an enormous long table with a central channel for The Ball to be rolled down. The Deputy Mayor takes great interest in the journey and our partnership with Special Olympics and can’t resist a spot of keepie-uppie out in the hallway.
He promises to grant Special Olympics athletes access to a number of sports facilities for training and other activities. He also asks Special Olympics Senegal to send him a list of their needs for further consideration.
We hope that The Ball has helped Special Olympics Senegal to open some doors to the administrative and political authorities in Dakar. And, more importantly, that they stay open once it has moved on.
Dakar is on a peninsula and is said to be the nose of Africa and that Africa breathes through it. We take a morning ferry from Dakar to Ile de Gorée — an island off the coast of Dakar — with Mademba Mbacké, Directeur des Programmes Special Olympics Senegal. From this seemingly idyllic island, millions of Africans, who had been rounded up throughout West Africa (and as far east as Sudan) in the 19th century, were exported as slaves to the USA, Brazil, the West Indies and Europe. 50% of them died in transit.
Our first stop is the last remaining slave house. It was in here that thousands of slaves were crammed, awaiting their fate. When Nelson Mandela visited the island, he insisted on crawling into the tiny prison room of this house. 6 or 7 people were crammed into this tiniest of cells under the stairs, without a window and excruciatingly hot. Mandela came out shedding tears.
Let freedom ring. Girls from the traditional all girl school Maison D’Education Mariama Bambaras painted a series of peace paintings on a memorial wall on Gorée.
As a sign of brotherhood and respect, the brothers of Guadeloupe donated this memorial statue to the brothers of Africa. It is a statue of the liberation of slavery sent from the West Indies. The drum symbolises communication, and the knowledge that the Africans who left would continue to understand the rhythm of the drum. A rhythm that can bring people together.
Along with The Ball’s tour guide Francois, Mademba and Andrew request a minute of silence to contemplate this place and the things that happened here over 200 years ago. Mademba eventually comments: “This is the real story of Africa. The present is important, but the future comes from the past. What happened here 200 years ago explains what is happening now in Africa.”
This baobab tree is providing a little bit of shade on this blazingly hot day. It is said that the nut from the baobab can relieve constipation. Not sure that we are going to be needing those on our travels, however. We are heartened to see the goalposts here — it reminds us that Mandela played football during his incarceration on Robben Island. There are some things that can help alleviate the horror of even the most hopeless of situations. Play, friendship, or a smile from a stranger.
Leopold our gracious host for the day, sponsored the journey, including our delicious, typically Senegalese, rice and fish lunch. On behalf of his brother, the Mayor of Gorée, he awards us and The Ball “official pilgrim” status to Gorée Island.
We finish our lunch and realise we have to rush for the ferry. But where has The Ball gone? Panic sets in. Again. We needn’t have worried — Leopold has it safely tucked under his arm. He guards it for us as we head back to Dakar.
We like to think of the way in which The Ball travels as one big game of football where the world itself is the pitch and everyone a player. The Ball highlights the ways in which football can be inclusive — breaking down barriers wherever it is played.
So when we learnt that Special Olympics have developed a variation on the standard game which they call Unified Football®, we were intrigued. We went to the Iba Mar Diop Stadium in Dakar to see how it works.
The basic premise of Unified Football is that each team consists of both Special Olympics athletes and mainstream athletes training and playing alongside each other. Andrew had hoped he might get special treatment on account of being unused to the heat. No such luck — there are no allowances made on the pitch for anyone, whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.
When this kind of game happens, the emphasis is not so much on the winning as on the taking part. What is foremost in everyone’s minds is the sheer joy of playing the game — the essence of the “spirit of football” as we see it.
When football is played this way, it becomes immediately apparent that Special Olympics athletes are people of equal status and value in the community. And encouraging that kind of acceptance really is a cause for celebration.
This morning it’s back to “Visa Training”. We go to pick up the Malian Visa. The Chef de Protocol takes us upstairs into the Ambassador’s office. Her Excellency kicks, heads, signs and officially stamps The Ball for entry into Mali. Accomplished sporting — as well as diplomatic — skills are on display.
As we leave the Embassy, the Chef de Protocol comes running out.
“Stop! You forgot The Ball” he says, handing it over. “Bon voyage!”
“Plan at least 3 days for the Ivory Coast visa,” the Lonely Planet guidebook tells us. “Requirements: Letter of invitation from the Mayor of city you are visiting. Letter of invitation from business partner. Official address whilst in Ivory Coast. 2 passport-sized photos.”
We have neither a letter from the Mayor of Abidjan, nor do we know where we will be staying. We do have a letter of support from DHL and from Special Olympics who are organising several events for The Ball in Abidjan. We also have The Ball.
Buoyed by the Malian experience we decide to dive straight in. This time, Richard, Phil and Andrew are joined by Guy from DHL. Once again, careful preparation allows The Ball to be a sensation. We are ushered upstairs to meet the Ambasador. With a picture of the President looking down on proceedings, The Ball is decorated with an official visa stamp and signed by Her Excellency.
3 hours later, Phil returns to pick up our visas.
Visa training advice: Be prepared. And take a ball, but not just any ball!
Bashir guides The Ball through Dakar’s crowded streets, past its sprawling market stalls and the football fields that can be seen lining almost every major street along the coast. Past the peninsula’s beaches where thousands of the super-fit Senegalese do their early morning exercise. Arriving at the football stadium, the West African adventure is truly underway. Update: thanks to Charles Takouet for the new pictures.
There we meet the Special Olympics and DHL staff we are about to spend the next few days with. A convoy is assembled with a sound system at the head, set up on a lop-sided pick-up truck. We’re ready to go.
But hold your horses! There’s a delay. One often hears about “Africa-time” — people say “don’t expect it to run like it does in Europe, Africa is different.” Although this time, we’re delayed waiting for an Englishman to appear.
Visits to two schools for children with special needs are planned — first to Talibou Dabo, then on to Estel & Aminata Mbaye. We’re finally on our way. But hold on! The generator for the sound system is out of fuel. A quick stop at a petrol station and we’re off, on the road again. But hold on! “Where is Phil?” Panic. Have we left him at the gas station? No, there he is, in the thick of the action, hanging off the side of the pick-up truck, camera in hand, grinning from ear to ear.
We have some apprehensions, however. This will be the first time that The Ball is being used as a publicity vehicle for anything or anyone. Both of us feel slightly awkward, not knowing how we, or Special Olympics, will react to the events — nor, indeed whether they will be a success.
The Ball is the guest of honour at both Special Olympics events. The children are excited at each visit: photos with The Ball, more signatures, music, presentations, interviews with media — and football games, of course. The vuvuzela is a real hit.
Our apprehensions evaporate as quickly as the sweat on our brows — it all makes sense now. Special Olympics had assured us that the presence of The Ball would make a real impact on their lives and we now realise that this is indeed true. Yes, our visits to schools and SO sports events are fleeting and our interactions with the children and their teachers and parents short — but there is a much bigger picture here.
We have to step back and consider the thousands of children in Senegal that are ostracised, often stuck in their homes, unable to leave because of the shame that their parents and familes feel about having them. The media attention that The Ball is helping to bring to their cause is considerable and across the board.
Earlier today, we were sitting with the Minister of Sport at a press conference. Two white guys wearing football gear with The Ball in a swarm of top Senegalese dignitaries dressed in their finest at the Ministry of Sport. In front of rolling TV cameras, the Minister of Sport made an emotional call to action that will be aired on national TV tonight.
He asked the Senegalese people to support special needs children. He encouraged parents of intellectually disabled children to enrol their children in Special Olympics’ programmes. Phil speaks pretty good French, and was able to understand the Minister’s speech. Tears were welling up in his eyes as he listened. It was an unforgettable moment.
We know without a shadow of a doubt now that The Ball can be a force for change. And, as we travel, we are increasingly realising how powerful it can be. Next week, The Ball and Special Olympics will be guests of the President and Prime Minister of Mali. As it heads inexorably towards the World Cup, The Ball is going to bring similar issues to the attention of national leaders right across Africa.
The Ball’s reach used to be described as being “from street to stadium.” Now, perhaps we can add “from the people to the palace.”
We are preparing ourselves for a rough visa ride. We’ve heard many stories about African bureaucracy done with a good helping of “Africa time” at exorbitant prices. We are on our way to the Malian Embassy in Dakar.
At this stage we haven’t a single African Visa. “Have we got all the necessary paper work?” we ask ourselves. DHL have prepared a letter of invitation, signed and stamped by the head of DHL in Mali. That should help. Bashir from DHL is with us — he speaks French fluently, is a persuasive talker and has done a lot of work to prepare the ground for us.
“I called the British Embassy, they said that a letter of support from them is necessary,” Richard says. “Bypass that lads: they’re only drumming up their own importance,” he advises.
Thanks Richard, advice taken.
We walk in with The Ball, not knowing what to expect. Phil and Bashir explain the situation in French. The woman in charge of visa applications wants to know more about The Ball.
A few minutes later, the Chef de Protocol invites us into his office. His phone rings. He’s talking about important things — like bed linen. Bashir, looking nervously at his watch, whispers “we have a meeting with the Minister of Sport in 10 minutes, 20 minutes across town”.
Bashir’s phone rings 3 times in the next 5 minutes, but not once does he answer it, respecting the Chef de Protocol who casuallly signs The Ball whilst continuing his phone call.
Suddenly, as he reads our letter of introduction, the Chef is all ears and frantically scribbling notes.
“So, you are meeting the President and the Prime Minister, the Mayor, the Governor?” The situation sinking in. “Moment. Moment please.”
He’s on the phone to the Ambassador, eyes shining now. She wants to see us right away.
“Sorry,” we say, “we must leave this minute. But we’ll gladly meet her tomorrow when we pick up the visas.”
Its all smiles as we exit, running out through the official front door.