Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the first in a series of articles adapted and extracted from his latest book “Fantafrica”. Soul searching for his true calling, the one activity to give himself up to that will replace ‘work’, he is invited to a volunteering project – developing a football academy in Ghana. His initial wonderment in providing housing, schooling and football training to street children is soon lost in confusion as he observes the levels of poverty and the alien culture of the African continent. More details of his book can be found at www.petemartin.org/fantafrica.
The car races through the dead of night to some destination unknown. It seems to take forever to escape from the grunge and grime of the capital. We make a couple of unscheduled stops for police checks. The farther away from Accra we drive, the closer we are to nowhere. Shack stalls, roadside cooking and people loitering in the dark indicate another town. After an hour’s drive and several turns at various villages, Kofi manoeuvres the car off the tarmac into a road of sand and rubble. He slows drastically to avoid huge cavities in the ground and large piles of debris. Here none of the houses seem to be finished. Some have incomplete upper floors and others haven’t made it past the concrete slabs and protruding reinforcement of their ground floors. High boundary walls, topped with barbed wire, fence off the few large properties that are complete from their surroundings. I don't want to get out of the car. I dare not see my hotel or my room. I’ve seen and smelt enough already.
Kofi stops the car on a patch of bare grass in front of a rundown single storey building. This is my hotel. In the darkness I can hear the ocean but I cannot see it. Three mangy dogs wander over and eye me as I dump my bags into my room. The light doesn't work inside so perhaps I won’t see the squalor for the whole of my stay. I climb back into the car for a short bumpy ride along the sand track to the football academy headquarters. Even though it’s late, Kofi beeps the horn. The brown gates swing open and he drives in. We tiptoe into a large bungalow. Three dorm rooms are full of bodies sleeping. The hall’s hard floor takes the overflow of young bodies as well as two adult carpenters who will be working here tomorrow.
I sit at a large wooden table outside the front of the house. Chris, my host and the academy owner, allows me time to breathe in the humid air and adjust to my new our surroundings, especially to the heat. If the temperature is this brutal late at night, how will it feel in the daytime? Kofi serves each of us some bland fried rice and some delightful fresh fruit and we chat about life as if we were sitting in a Kneipe somewhere in middle Germany. But we are not. We are in darkest West Africa.
We have a football tournament for boys to watch on our first day here, so Kofi has asked if I will be at the academy house for nine o'clock. In fact, I wake much earlier; at dawn. The native animals must also rise with the sun, as the place comes alive with various yelps, growls and birdsongs. I take a short walk to see the ocean. I had fallen asleep to its soft rhythms last night so I am keen to see what’s actually outside my front door. The day is as brilliantly bright as the night was utterly dark. There are a bunch of tables and chairs on the grassy knoll at the shoreline. For a tiny moment it looks almost picturesque. However, as my eyes adjust to the harsh daylight, I can see it’s not. I feel a little shocked at the amount of litter on the rocky beach and with the unkempt buildings when I bump into Stella. She works here. She is beautiful, with dark chocolate skin and braided hair. She wears a pretty dress. She looks too young to be employed here. Over her shoulder, I notice a tall white man walking along the beach. It looks totally incongruous. I wave a good morning to Chris.
After some discussion, I decide not to join Chris for a swim in the ocean. I am not yet brave enough to battle the amount of debris at the water’s edge and I am still generally unsure of this place. Chris returns quickly; the tide is too far out, way beyond the rocky beach, so we walk slowly to the football academy house together. In the daylight, the route looks very different. Past the sleeping dogs, we take a left turn at the hotel gates (if there was any). Opposite is the ramshackle home of our closest neighbour. Next to the small concrete hut, three corrugated iron sheets lean lazily against a breeze block wall, providing a covered cooking area. A couple of small wooden outhouses sit around the perimeter of their small sandy courtyard. Chickens, goats and young children wander around joyfully. There are two more similar dwellings on our short walk to the academy. One of these homes has several broken television sets piled up outside and left abandoned. There is also a half built concrete house, with its ground floor glazing complete, but the rest of the work seems to have come to a standstill. The sandy pathway is lined with discarded black plastic litter, squashed water bottles as well as various other items of disused junk.
The carpenters are already sawing wood outside the house under Kofi’s commands. We enter the worn brown gates into the academy compound as we did last night. Sand gardens flank the short concrete driveway that leads to the front door. Young black boys sit quietly around the outside table. There are eighteen older boys (aged between ten and twelve) who live here permanently and nine younger ones (aged between six and eight) who are here to play a tournament today. The younger team are the reason I am here; to get to know them before returning to Europe to find sponsorship so they can live here on a permanent basis.
The boys are shy as Chris introduces us. Then we have a tour of the house. Chris is understandably proud. Around the back of the house, in between two sections of multi-coloured football kit drying on clothes-lines, is a small outside kitchen. The house cook, a young black woman named Betty, offers to make omelettes for us. Her young daughter hides behind her legs shyly. Chris shows us the state of the art kitchen inside the house, fully imported from Germany. Betty refuses to use it. Inside are the three dorm rooms, each with three sets of bunk beds pushed together to take up the majority of the space. Six boys live in each small room. Kofi shows us the wardrobes with the boys’ minimal amount of non-football clothes neatly folded as well as the small drawers that contain school books and their few personal belongings. The house also has a small toilet and an even smaller bathroom, with a sink and a shower, a locked storeroom and, on the other side of the large hall, an alcove with a dining table in it. We also glimpse into Chris’ large bedroom with its en-suite bathroom. Throughout the neat and tidy house, there is the constant whiff of sweaty youths.
Whilst we eat our omelettes outside, Chris asks a few of the bigger boys to play football-tennis on the sand garden. Barefoot, they ping a large tatty ball to and fro over a decrepit volleyball net. Their skill is astounding. The heat builds as we watch. The Harmattan provides a hot, sandy wind that blows almost horizontally into our faces and into our food. Everything is dry: the food, the sand and the air. The junior team members sit patiently and shyly on the red kerb of the driveway. For most of this younger team, Chris is the only white man they have ever seen. Now, with me, it is two.
A small minibus, a tro tro, arrives and beeps at the gate. Kofi instructs the boys to form a circle. They join hands and, with some prompting from Kofi, they sing together. Then one of the older boys recites the Lord’s Prayer. Kofi then says a few words and so does Chris. I am too fascinated by the ritual to take notice of what is said. Kofi then chooses a couple of boys to help him pack the necessary gear into the tro tro. The older boys will remain here whilst the young ones will travel to the tournament. We will follow in the car. Only David from the young ones will come back to stay at the house. The others will go back to their families after the football has finished until there is more space available for them to live here.
Once the tro tro has left, Kofi and Chris have no urgency to follow them. Chris heads to his room, whilst Kofi takes a shower using a bucket of cold water and the outside cubicle at the front corner of the compound. At the other corner is the small one-roomed gatehouse where he lives. I sit and wait, drinking my anti-malaria tea. So much for the nine o’clock start.
After five hours in the incessant heat, watching game after game of football on a makeshift pitch in the slums of Accra, we return to the academy house. I wake up as we turn from the tarmac road to the sand track that signifies we are nearly home. David is fast asleep resting his head against my shoulder.
Immediately we are served yam and stew. It’s spicy and very welcome. None of us have eaten since breakfast so we are hungry. The older team organise the dinner that has been left by Betty. Kofi has them well drilled. The boys all know their chores; some help to cook, others clean the tables, some wash dishes, others rake the sand whilst some sweep the floors both inside and outside.
The older ones are much more standoffish than the youngsters. After spending time with them at the tournament, I have a connection with some of younger ones, particularly Ishmael and Kojo, the two smallest.
Finally back in my room, with the ceiling fan on maximum, I can breathe again. What a day; my first full one in Ghana. I hadn’t noticed earlier but my legs are caked in sand. It’s time for a shower. My small bathroom, which has no door, is covered with sand too. The Harmattan winds have blown sand in through the screen window. I try to close it but there is only enough glass for half of the opening. I take my shower anyway. The ice-cold water doesn’t bother me, cooling my skin after the relentless heat of the day. My nostrils, arm and leg hair as well as my beard are full of sand. Even after soaping away as much of it as I can, my white towel becomes tanned with the dusty material as I dry myself.
After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, I wake to the noise of nature at dawn until it quietens. I think about the young boys in the academy, now sharing rooms and a life away from their homes elsewhere. Some are extremely poor yet they are now in an environment of care. Chris has told me that some of the boys’ parents would not let them come to the academy when he talked solely about education and schooling. The parents saw no value in it, wanting their children to be at home to work or to look after younger siblings. It was only when he focused on the football side that the parents became interested and also proud to let them join the academy. It seems that the parents have their own dreams of raising the next Michael Essien as much as the children have their dreams about becoming football superstars.
I spend another fine day again with the boys but I do feel out of sorts here. Chris is so connected here but I am so far from my reality. Yet it’s a long time since I have seen a group of people so happy with the basics; a bed, food, chores and a football. Not a single kid has an iPhone or PlayStation in sight. They are allowed their phones only on a Saturday to call home. Yet the dwellings and half built houses the locals live in are shocking, albeit not quite at India levels. Next door to the football academy house is an open barn. Chris’ neighbour, Jacob, somehow provides for four wives and twelve children who live there with him. There is also a small wooden outhouse in which his mother sleeps and sits in front of all day, whilst kids, chickens, cats and goats roam freely. I wish this place could develop, some education and some cleanliness.
For the first time I begin to wonder what this academy is all about. With perfect coincidence, this month’s ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine has an article by Taimor Lay reviewing Ed Hawkins’ new book, “The Lost Boys: Inside Football’s Slave Trade”. This is my introduction to the darker side of football academies. FIFA’s Article 19 clearly states that international transfers are permitted only if players are over eighteen years old. There has been no mention of this by Chris or Kofi, but they did mention that one boy, who left this academy recently for another one, has been in Rome for trials with both Roma and Lazio. If he was with the academy he must be aged somewhere between ten and twelve years old; certainly under eighteen. There are three exemptions from the Article 19 ruling; when a player’s parents move countries for reasons other than football, transfers in the EU or EAA for players between sixteen and eighteen or if a player is within fifty kilometres of a national border and then plays in the neighbouring country. If this is the case, how can it be possible for this boy to play in Rome? Lay is clear that “a child taken across a border for the purpose of exploitation or economic gain … is a victim of trafficking”.
There are fairy tale stories of players such as Lionel Messi moving from Argentina to Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at thirteen and subsequently becoming the best player in the world. This is the same Barcelona that was banned from any transfers at all for the whole of 2015 for breaking FIFA’s rules in signing under-age foreign players. At the same time, the club was (and still is) sponsored by UNICEF. Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Chelsea are other high profile clubs who have suffered punishment for breaking the rules in signing foreign players under the age of eighteen.
I wonder how many boys will actually make it. The success rate from European academies is extremely low. In Sally Williams’ superb article in The Telegraph in 2009, entitled ‘Football academies: kicking and screaming’, she suggests that ninety percent of those who join an English Premier League academy will fail to make the first team and that most will never become professional footballers. To make it from Africa must be even more daunting.
Perhaps it’s the education and upbringing that this academy can provide that will make a difference to the boys’ lives. The boys can dream of making it – dreams are good – but maybe that’s not the real goal here.
It’s my third day and most of it is spent playing football tennis with the boys in the heat. I am drenched with sweat and covered with sand at the end, so I find some refuge in the shade to watch. I watch one of the boys. Chris has told me that he is ten. There is not a chance. I thought he had given his age as twelve when we chatted to all the boys on the first day. Kofi has explained that obtaining a birth certificate costs money and therefore many parents in Ghana don’t bother. Birthdays are not celebrated as they are in the West, as more credence is given to the day of birth, rather than the date. Parents actually give their children names based on the day of the week they are born, such as his name, Kofi, for a Friday or Kobby for a Tuesday. So maybe he just doesn’t know his own age, but he towers over the rest of the boys and already sulks like a teenager.
It’s the first day of school term today and so the house is unusually empty and quiet when I arrive. Mid-morning four of the boys arrive home from school. They look very different, almost younger but definitely smarter in their school uniforms of yellow shirts and brown shorts. The football academy provides for them as most would not be able to afford the expense. Luis, one of them, tells me they are on a ten minute break. Jonah tells me they have been studying science, a lesson on matter. I laugh as I have been telling the boys, as much as they enjoy playing football, school does matter!
© 2017 Pete Martin