“Look over there”, says Kirstin, ” do you want to stop?”. “Na Klar (yes, of course)” we say in unison as we spot children running around a field kicking a football. It’s time for The Ball to work its magic.
It’s a national holiday in Malawi and we are on our way to Blantyre. We’ve followed Kirstin’s suggestion and taken the scenic route. Its been a fabulous decision thus far as the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. Our mission is to make it to Blantyre by early evening and to take our time today, hoping for random football encounters en route. This is the first encounter of the day.
We pile out of the car and boot The Ball into the field. The children go bananas. They kick and chase The Ball across the field. As we talk to the kids, we get the feeling that something is out of the ordinary here. Something is different. They are more shy than the children we’ve encountered in Malawi thus far and they appear not to understand English.
But for now there is an international language in use and Christian is bending fantastic balls into the box for the kids to scramble into the goal. Andrew see’s Kirstin waving frantically from the other end of the field. He runs over to her.
“We are in Mozambique” she says.
The people who live either side of this road (some in Malawi, others in Mozambique) share a common language, common customs, geography and history and are indeed members of the same tribe — the Chichewa. But they live in different countries.
With The Ball at our feet and British passports in our hands, it’s been relatively easy for us to cross these European-defined “African” borders but we’ve always needed a visa stamp. Not this time. We have accidentally stumbled into country number 26. Visa, what visa?
We bid farewell to Blaise and get on the bus, heading out of Dar es Salaam. It’s not just any bus though, it’s a Chinese special. No-one has told us that in order to fit on this bus we’ll have to cut our legs off at the knees. Andrew’s legs don’t fit into the tiny space at all and, with no saw in sight, he takes the aisle seat and stretches out as best he can.
14 hours later and we arrive in Kyela, within touching distance of the Malawian border. At the border, many locals have heard about The Ball and we’re allowed to film The Ball being stamped out of Tanzania and kicked across the bridge that separates these two nations.
We’re expecting a friendly reception in Malawi, which touts itself in tourist brochures as “the friendly heart of Africa.” Our first experiences are, however, don’t match this cosy image. At immigration, we’re told, in no uncertain terms, to stop filming immediately. A visa stamp for The Ball is refused and there are no smiles whatsoever at the immigration desk.
We explain time and again that The Ball has been stamped in and out of every country in sub-Saharan Africa. We even show pictures of The Ball being stamped out of Tanzania just a few minutes earlier. But the Malawian customs officials aren’t persuaded. Not in the slightest.
“If you don’t give The Ball a visa stamp then it can’t come into Malawi” Andrew says.
“Are you sure that you want Malawi to be the only country not to give The Ball a visa?” asks Christian before he lists off the countries that have given The Ball a visa.
Finally, the customs boss relents and stamps The Ball, perhaps thinking that this might be the only way to get rid of these strange guys, but there is no way we’re going to film the stamping.
Borders are a strange concept, particularly so here in Africa where, some time ago, some men sat down somewhere (perhaps in London) with sharp pencils, long rulers and lots of tea and divided this continent up. Border posts followed — and with them border guards, who we affectionately call the linesmen. Thankfully, the linesmen haven’t flagged us offside yet.
The Ball takes a light-hearted poke at the strange concept of borders and nations as it makes its way to the World Cup, paradoxically a tournament that celebrates and sometimes even shapes perceptions of nationhood. The Ball, we think, is about making connections between people regardless of their nationality. In fact, we’d take that one step further and say as we always do… One Ball. One World!
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.
We are off on yet another visa escapade. At the Burkina Faso embassy, we are met by stares from the receptionsists so icy they could power the air-conditioning.
“Fill out these forms”, they say.
Unexpected disinterest in The Ball and our story. Oh well, you can’t win everytime.
Resigned to our task, we get stuck into filling out three identical forms. To our dismay, there’s not a photocopier in sight. We take some time out from the paperwork to look at a map of Burkina Faso — to plot our route from Mali to Ouagadougou and then on to Ivory Coast by train.
As we turn in our paperwork the Chef de Protocol comes out and stamps The Ball. He’s not interested in signing it. But our biggest mistake? We haven’t brought any money with us to pay for the visas.
So we’ve got exactly 30 minutes to get some cash and get back to the embassy. In the car and quick. Kassim from DHL puts his foot down in his white Mercedes, Mali seems to be the place where all of Europe’s old cars end up. Every second car is a Mercedes. Anyway, first bank: no luck, cards not working in that machine. Second stop at the North South Hotel and success! Olé olé olé! Cash in the hand, it’s back to the Burkina Faso embassy.
We arrive at midday, right on closing time. As we approach the embassy, the Chef de Protocol races out to meet us – excitement on his face. “The Ambassador wants to meet you. Now.” A surprise change of tack here — a much friendlier atmosphere, so upstairs we go. Straight into His Excellency’s reception room. Ambassadour Extraordinaire du Burkina Faso au Mali Sanne Mohamed Topan welcomes us with great warmth.
We sit down, tell our story and philosophise about the world through one football — The Ball. The most welcoming ambassador from one of the world’s poorest countries opens his arms to the project and tells us that he has decided to give us our visas for free – we’ll just pay for the tax duty on the stamps. We’ve won again.
And so we end up paying a tenth of what we could have done. What a wonderful gift to The Ball, which is doing this journey on the slimmest of budgets. Thank you, Your Excellency, we are excited to visit your country next week.
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!
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.