Mark Godfrey

The lure of Africa

Mark Godfrey
The lure of Africa

Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the fifth in a series of articles adapted and extracted from his latest book “Fantafrica”. More details of his book can be found at www.petemartin.org/fantafrica

After two weeks of cycling and wandering around South Africa I am back in Accra. Only a few of us disembark and it’s quick and painless through all the checks. In a nearby airport hotel, I take my first ever warm shower in the West African country of Ghana and then sleep. It feels good to be back.

I wake early, disorientated. I check my iPhone for the time, but instead I am drawn to a text message on the display. "Hi Pete, this is Coach Kofi, Accra Angels. We have a match against the national under-17 female team of Ghana this Saturday morning. Start time is 8 am. Would you like to join us? If yes, then I pick you up at 6:30 am."

Is it? (As they say here in Ghana when something is questioned). Coach’s text is timed at 04:15. No way! I check for the time now. It’s just after seven o’clock. I’m still tired – by the time I checked-in, showered and then got to bed it was after one. It’s too late to meet him, but then nothing happens on time here. Bloody Ghana!

I decide to go back to sleep.

At a quarter to nine, the vibration of my iPhone wakes me. The same message arrives from Coach, this time on WhatsApp. I responded to the earlier message, so I relax. I will see him at ten o’clock as planned and I resend my response from earlier.

Coach immediately replies, "I have been at your hotel since 6:45am. The match is called off. I understand. I will wait until ten.”

What is going on? I’m here for one day only and already it’s chaos. I guess Ghana is Ghana. I change quickly and race downstairs to find Coach Kofi sitting in the football academy car in the hotel car park. I’m happy to see his beaming smile. It’s like seeing a long-lost friend. Over breakfast tea, we laugh together as he recounts the story. A match, on a grass pitch, had been arranged for the Accra Angels under twelve boys’ team against the national under seventeen girls’ team, but as he drove to pick me up this morning he received a call cancelling it as the under seventeen boys’ team wanted to train on the grass and there are no other grass pitches. It’s so typical for Ghana that plans change and timings are not adhered to that it feels like I haven’t been away at all.

Whilst I go to collect my bags and check-out, Coach says he will get the car washed to rid it of the Harmattan sand. Again, true to form for Ghana, it means I must wait in reception for thirty minutes before he returns. We drive out of Accra to the academy house and, in stark contrast to westernised South Africa, with the windows down the heat and the rancid smell of this city shocks me all over again. As we slow for the toll booths, women selling food, drinks and toilet paper, all held in baskets on their heads, surround the car. There are no white faces, everyone is black. Goods are piled up untidily at the side of the road. A man pushes a wooden cart, as tro tros race past. Everything is a mess. I feel like I’m on different planet, never mind being on the same continent.

I recognise the dirt streets of the small village where the academy is based, just outside the capital. At the house, I get a wonderfully warm welcome from the boys. Two dare to wear Manchester United shirts, so jokingly I turn them inside out and make them wear them that way. Within fifteen minutes I am sitting at the table watching them play football-tennis on the hot sand. Baba (the other local coach) arrives and so does Betty (the cook). She wants to feed me. It’s hard to resist her offerings, so I settle for some fruit.

The boys are then fed their breakfast; huge portions of beans. After two sittings, I still have no food. When I enquire, apparently Coach has gone to buy me some fruit. This is so Ghanaian again; why offer me some fruit when there isn’t any? I didn’t really want anything anyway!

More of the junior team arrive during the course of the morning. It’s so good to see them again, especially little Kojo and Ishmael. The group that now reside here have settled in well. Baba explains that they are so happy and have made some of the older boys look lazy with their work ethic around the house.

Kwesi cuts his foot badly on a sharp stone in the sand and Coach has to take him to the doctor, so I am left to prepare the junior team for the game early this afternoon. It’s like I’ve never been away. More players have arrived; some have boots, others don’t, some have socks, others don’t. I’ve lost track of who got what kit last time, so I just make sure they all have kit and boots for today’s match.

Baba organises the older team and it takes them longer than the juniors, though they are not even playing. He then leads the team prayer circle. It’s much more subdued without Coach, or Chris for that matter. I follow the boys to the local pitch with the village’s chickens, goats and kids all in tow, passing the derelict houses with the families waving to us happily as we pass.

The opposition team is waiting. A huge pitch is marked out in the sand, which Baba has to shorten. He sends Luke back to the house for some cones, whilst big Kojo, Jonah and Luis – the usual helpers – fix the goalposts. The boys warm up – in the heat! – and soon we start the match. The other team are strong and it’s a tough first half for the young Accra Angels. The second half is much better and it ends in a two-two draw. Baba then explains that there will be a third half. As usual, he confuses me, but he just means extra time. It’s an excellent game to watch, both teams equally balanced and, whilst it’s hard and the boys give their all, there is no over-aggression. Only once does Baba scream at one of our players; maybe he is more subdued as his team is the seniors now and this is Coach’s team. Ishmael is man of the match again. The game ends with a defeat as the opposition score near the end, but perhaps they deserved it over all. It’s the most sportsmanlike team I’ve seen so far in Ghana, so I shake hands with their coach and I don’t begrudge him his win in any way. Yet, the boys traipse home sulkily.

Back at the house, the youngsters slowly get showered, whilst the older ones resume their football-tennis. I decline to join in as I am sweaty enough for my flight later this evening. Before their evening meal and before I leave, I play another game of heads or tails as I did on my last evening here. This time it’s for a sweat band but the value of the prize is totally irrelevant when compared to the amount of fun the boys have.

For our trip back to the airport, Coach Kofi is dressed in traditional Ghanaian clothes. It’s like he’s wearing pyjamas, rich in colour and intricately patterned, yet he looks so smart. His girlfriend, Sisi, joins us for the ride into town and perhaps this is why Coach is dressed to the nines. The car splutters frequently and Coach explains the petrol from the local station has been diluted recently as the owner tries to make more money from his sales. I splutter too after a taste of the local sobolo juice that Sisi has made for me. The cold drink is refreshing, but has a rasping, spicy aftertaste. She offers me two more bottles to take with me but, as I won’t be allowed to take them through airport security, I have to decline. I bid farewell to them both. My time in Ghana has been so wonderful that I’m sure I will be back.

On my flight home to Europe, I appropriately finish my book, the fantastic “Water Music”. Like Mungo Park, I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist the lure of returning to Africa.

Part 1 can be found here

Part 2 can be found here

Part 3 can be found here

Part 4 can be found here

© 2017 Pete Martin

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