The last blog post left us in a lively Ghanaian rooftop bar, overlooking the small town of Mpraeso, enjoying the late afternoon sun and sipping a refreshingly cold beer. That had been the end of our first full day in Ghana, with the team feeling positive and excited to get stuck in to some hard work. Despite the fact that we were keen to get moving on the organisational front, the following day was a national holiday – a celebration of Ghanaian independence from our own nation. This year marked the 60th year of independence and as you can imagine, nobody was going to be working on this day, which meant that we wouldn’t be either. Instead we went back to the local town to watch a parade featuring a number of local groups, comprised of 100s of local children, all well rehearsed and dressed in impeccably smart uniforms.
The day provided a real insight into some of the highlights of Ghanaian culture, the sense of diversity and inclusion, the loud music, the passionate dancing, a display of tribal values, the respect shown for regional officials and local leaders, and the obvious love of wearing a uniform. The uniform seemed to resemble a sense of pride and identity, as all were kept in impeccable condition, despite the obvious lack of material possessions in this area. Ghanaians seem to take a real pride in wearing a uniform and of conforming to a given group. This was something which we saw a number of times during our short visit. Even families who had very little made a notable effort to send their child to school wearing a smart uniform, and you could tell by the way the children carried themselves, that they felt a sense of pride in wearing it too. This, I think, was a warming thing to see. It made one feel as if a simple dress code provided a way of bringing people together – a sign that they were all equal and a way of encouraging a mutual level of respect. Of course, on a deeper level I may be wrong, but this is how it appeared to me – as an outsider looking in.
The day also highlighted some of the differences between Ghanaians and ourselves (as Brits). The first thing I noticed was a feeling that there were distinct groups of people in the community, and that people knew which one they belonged to. Overall, there was a feeling that everyone was welcome, yet there still seemed to be a distinct boundary between those who felt entitled to sit in the grand stand or under gazebos, and those who did not. This made me feel a little uneasy, we were treated as guests of honour and led to seats located in the shade of the stand, whilst the local people, who’s day of celebration it was, were left to stand in the sun. I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but I think I would have felt more comfortable mixing with the locals on the outskirts than being elevated in a privileged position. The second major difference came about two hours into the ceremony, when children dressed in full uniforms, who had been stood in the sun for a couple of hours, began to collapse in front of us. At first, when it was just one or two (who were whisked away on stretchers) we thought very little of it. But as the minutes passed, more and more children collapsed where they were standing, overwhelming the paramedics and littering the field with passed out children. In the UK, this would probably lead to a cancellation of the ceremony, or at the very least, the rest of the children would have been dismissed. In Ghana however, the ceremony carried on regardless, with those who had fallen simply being moved to the first aid tent to recover. This was both pretty harrowing to watch, and pretty worrying. We had presumed that the locals would be used to the heat through or naive assumption that living this close to the equator somehow made one immune to the immense power of the sun. Apparently not however, which opened the gates to another concern – would the children be okay playing football for several hours in the same heat on Saturday? We were reassured by our contacts that they would be – and that part of the issue at the parade was a high level of expectation and anxiety – and so decided to proceed, but doubled our plans for water provision and shaded areas too just in case.
Shortly after this we made our way home, strangely exhausted from a day of doing very little and eager to get stuck in over the next few days.
The rest of the week was to be spent getting organised for the tournament. The first couple of days this involved travelling to the villages to visit the schools we had invited to take part, film some promotional footage and get to know a bit of background to the communities in which these schools were based to find out how we can best support them moving forwards.
To do this involved travelling a bit further afield than Mpraeso – with a fairly long, hot and (once again) terrifying taxi journey from the mountainous plateaux which houses Mpraeso, to the shores of Lake Volta, a much hotter, drier landscape where the vegetation was much less dense and dust seems to be one of the most prominent landscape features. Four of the schools taking part in the tournament would come from this area and it was only after arriving at the first, having a chat and a look around, that I began to realise how very little these people had. The first school was in a small village comprised mainly of mud-hut style houses and little more. The school itself was a fairly impressive building – and previous aid efforts had seen the construction of a drop toilet block – however when we asked the school the one thing they really needed – their answer really brought us down to earth. Clean drinking water. That was all they really wanted – and it was a huge reality check – proving that we were in a really deprived area. Despite this, none of the people were sat around moping or complaining, they were getting on with life as best they could. The children had big grins on their faces and nobody seemed to give off the impression that they were struggling, yet they were missing the most fundamental of human needs. This was the defining moment for me that we were doing something worthwhile – a successful charity structure imposed in this area could see this entire village get access to clean drinking water. And not just this village but many others in the area. The tournament was just one step on the way to achieving this – but it was a step in the right direction, and I left that first school feeling more committed than ever to making this tournament a success.
The remaining visits we made over the course of the week went in a similar way – each village was lacking in basic facilities to a varying degree, and each could benefit from the support that a successfully implemented Kicking Off strategy could supply. In each village we were greeted with endless smiles, constant chants of ‘Oburoni’ (white person) and many requests for pictures. It was simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, and all of it added to the fire of wanting the tournament to be a roaring success. The schools were all really keen to get involved and as we moved through the week it began to look like we could have a really exciting tournament to mark the first ever Kicking Off event.
With the schools all visited and invited to the tournament (I missed the second round of school visits due to a nasty bout of Ghanaian belly disruption) and in testament to all the hard work which Julian had put in prior to heading out to Ghana, our remaining tasks to complete before tournament day came down to two key things. Number one was constructing some goal posts to use in the group stages of the tournament. Whilst I had wild visions of this involving some kind of heroic efforts from myself and a machete – it really involved a lot of watching locals with machetes and carrying the occasional length of bamboo. I did however get to use a machete for the first time and survived many near death experiences. The first of which being a close encounter with a huge swarm of angry bees, followed by a spotting of a bright blue and white spider by Julian, and ending in some local school children pretending to throw the machete at me and dropping it behind their head. It also involved a lot of getting bitten by jungle critters – but as experiences go – it is one I will struggle to forget.
The second task was to buy medical supplies to be used during the checks which were to be delivered to all children at the tournament. Due to the volume of supplies we needed this involved visiting a number of pharmacies to try and buy enough de-worming tablets, Malaria tests and Malaria treatments, to cater for 300 children. Our search culminated, rather appropriately, in Climax Pharmacy, and by the end of the week we had plenty of medical supplies to get us through the day. All in all preparations had gone extremely well and after finishing the goal posts late on Friday night we headed out for a celebratory meal – which in true Ghanaian style took almost three hours to make and tasted slightly different to how it is meant to. Undeterred, we ate up, headed back to the hostel and had a (fairly) early night.
The week had been insightful, exciting, eye opening and hard work. We’d made arrangements for everything to arrive at the stadium the next day and all we could do now was get some rest and roll up early the next day. The hard work had been put in – all we had to do now was somehow manage a tournament with over 250 children, deliver lunches, goodie bags, a constant supply of water and a medical check to each and every one, keep the teachers from losing it whilst watching the games and leave a positive legacy to return to later in the year. It was time for one of my most frequently used phrases to come back in to play…
How hard could it be?