Futbol na Swit Salone: A Retrospective View on Football From Two Brief Months in Sierra Leone, Part 1 of 2

After arriving back from Sierra Leone last August I wrote a piece for a football (or soccer) punditry website, LastMinuteWinner.net, detailing my (brief) experiences in respect to football while I was in West Africa.  I’ve written for them on occasion, specifically when I feel like I have something valuable to share. I had met one of their main contributors, Kristian Hardiman, in Morocco a few years prior where we immediately connected through our shared passion for the sport.  If you are a football/soccer fan I highly suggest giving their web address a view, as they approach the sport with a unique lens, delivering viewpoints not taken by any major website; focusing on rarely covered angles such as fan psychology, football economics, (r)evolutions of the game, highly influential players, managers, events, matches, and possible directions for the future of the beautiful game.

I briefly served in the Peace Corps, a United States federally funded program based on the ideals of improving the bonds between the U.S. and underdeveloped regions of the world that seek improvements in basic human needs, education, and life skills. Although the Peace Corps is a U.S. funded and backed program, it is apolitical, a religious, and functions essentially as a non-governmental organization equatable to well-known international ones such as Doctors Without Borders, BRAC, or Care International.

I was deployed to Sierra Leone in West Africa to serve two years as a Secondary School Teacher and work on Community Development measures in a rural town twenty miles from the Atlantic coast. My two years ended up being less than two months as we were withdrawn out of an abundance of caution due to what was at that time the slowly growing Ebola Virus.

Much of the situation has devolved to a position that is out of control, and as a result my position as a soon-to-be Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone was deemed untenable and I have now been discharged from my service.

Despite the brevity of my experience I received an eye into a world entirely different from mine, a culture far removed from the one I had known my entire life in America. I was surprised how every factor of their life resounded in a different approach to everything, including football.

Exposure, upbringing, mentality, everything created and influenced a different approach to the beautiful game. What follows below is my experience in Sierra Leone, or ‘Salone’ as nationals from the country call it, in regards to football.

A beautiful backdrop in Rotifunk, the village I would have been stationed in
A beautiful backdrop in Rotifunk, the village where I would have been stationed

I walked into T.O.T., a popular bar along Tikonko Road, one of the main thoroughfares in Bo, the second city of Sierra Leone. Nowhere close in size to Freetown, the capitol, but the largest city in the southern half of the country. It was a blistering day, the mid afternoon air was unbearably stuffy with rising humidity from a storm front. I had been told not to walk the streets between 2-4pm in Sierra Leone, when the sun reaches its peak and the humidity matches it, until a massive downpour releases the tension. You could almost set your watch by it.

The bar was filled with well dressed patrons all staring at the same TV showing a fuzzy World Cup match . Everyone watching seemed to be in a silent trance; sweating from the heat, focused on the game, and with a Star beer in hand, the national brew of Sierra Leone. The cable reception was patchy, and would sometimes freeze or disappear for five seconds at a time. Tortuously long when it’s a live match. A brutal eternity when it’s the World Cup.

The TV was blurry, a very low quality flatscreen, making it difficult to identify anyone. Even on close-ups I had trouble discerning one player from the next. Not until an extended close-up did I realize I was looking at Andrea Pirlo, and by extension realized I was watching the Italy- Uruguay match. The patrons all studied me and my friends as we walked past the TV, surely wondering what a couple of Pumoi (Whitemen) were doing showing up for a match. Pumoi was in no way at all a derisive term, simply the only way most of the locals knew how to address us.

A school visitation day
A school visitation day

I walked up to the bar and ordered a Star. The bartender didn’t hear me, as my voice was drowned out by a rising yell through the bar, people were out of their seats yelling, hollering. I left the bar and hustled to the TV; Luis Suarez had made a good play. No goal, but it had looked promising. I went back to the bar, got my Star, and sat amongst the other patrons. People sat and stared at the television, breaking their silence only if the TV froze for an extended amount of time, or if Luis Suarez did anything at all.

I remembered my host cousin Samuel, who preferred to be called Eto’o as he was one of the best players in the neighborhood, telling me that Sierra Leone was Premiership and La Liga country. We’d talked football one of the first nights I moved to Bo, and he’d told me about the big teams in-country; Bo Rangers, The East End Lions, teams known all across Sierra Leone. And yet I hadn’t seen a single jersey of either one, of any in- country team.

Instead I was inundated everywhere with Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Suarez jerseys. Everywhere. TV rights and broadcasting range was often minimal in the country, and it was often more likely for locals to be more up to date with the scores and tables of European Leagues than the Sierra Leone National Premier League.

When I’d traveled in the past I always made a habit of striking up football conversations because I found it a good way to instantly relate to people from different backgrounds; it was a common unifier. I knew it to be the most consistent thing I could ask foreign nationals wherever I was and more likely than not receive an enthusiastic response.

As much as I tried this method in Sierra Leone, my insistence to learn about the national league and teams would be shot down in favor for questions directed at me. ‘Who is your favorite premiership team? Is it Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool?’ I got very used to this type of question, as well as the inquisitive pattern of interaction whenever I talked to a local about football. After all, it wasn’t until I’d moved past all superficial Premiership questions that my host cousin had started to tell me about local teams and allegiances.

A few weeks later I was on a school visitation with a few other volunteers to see a school much like the one where I would be teaching. As part of the cordial hospitality we were given lunch and an apple cider drink. I kindly took my lunch and drink, thanked the cook, and chose to sit on a step leading to the outer courtyard of the school, facing an open field separating the school and the small village.

Bumpeh Academy Secondary School in Rotifunk
Bumpeh Academy Secondary School in Rotifunk

My lunch consisted of fresh and hot white rice covered in a stew of Casava leaf, known as Plasas. In the open field maybe fifty yards away a group of young boys played a disorganized game of football. A couple of large stones marked the goals on either side. The teams seemed pretty fluid, if even there at all, as one boy might pass it to another, and then try to steal the ball a minute later sending the game into a free-for-all.

A gaggle of kids stood a stones throw away from me, staring and giggling, pushing one another for a better view of me. I smiled and waved a few times, but mostly kept to myself and enjoyed the closest thing to privacy that I had yet experienced in the country.

I finished my lunch and walked towards what was now just two young boys staring at me. They had the same blue shorts on; a cheap knockoff of the National Team’s jersey. Both were wearing well-tattered shirts with that came from a foreign donation. I walked up to them and offered my apple cider drink, still more than half of the bottle. I looked at the two young boys and asked them to share the drink I was about to hand over.

I repeated myself to see if they did understand or were just placating me. They held my gaze and both nodded in understanding. I handed one of them the drink, and as I released it from my hand, the other boy jerked and yanked the bottle, pulling away and running off, chased closely by his friend. They ran, chasing one another. One boy eventually caught up to the other, grabbed his shirt, and with some malice in his eyes grabbed violently at the drink. A couple more kids a little further realized what the commotion was about and ran towards the two fighting boys. I turned and walked away, both boys still trying to wrestle the drink from each other, neither one of them having opened the cap and taken a sip.

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