Headline: When football is the last hope
Location: Banjul, Gambia
Article Synopsis: This piece focuses on how football is being used as an instrument in revitalising the lives of those who have undergone a bitter experience of civil war. It tells a story about a particular Sierra Leonean who first seemed to have lost hope after being forced to seek refuge in a foreign land, but only to later find expression and contentment on the football field.
First Paragraph: For millions in Africa, hope, loved ones and personal belongings may all have been lost. However, a passion for football is never lost.
Keywords: Football, War, Passion, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Hope
Text: For millions in Africa, hope, loved ones and personal belongings may all have been lost. However, a passion for football is never lost.
War breaks down communities, creates enmity, snatches away lives and casts a bitter experience on the lives of millions of ambitious children. And war leaves an open wound on the minds of all those who have fallen victim to it, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity or geography.
The memories of war are difficult to erase. But in the war-ravaged regions of Africa, one will discover that a passion for football is impossible to destroy. Football is being used on the continent as a vital instrument to revitalize the lives of those who have suffered the bitter experience of civil war.
Back in 1997, a bloody civil war broke out in the diamond-rich West African country of Sierra Leone. When the rebels invaded the capital city Freetown, everyone fled leaving everything behind. Some of these war refugees sought safety in my native Gambia.
Kai Kamara, who now plays professional football in America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), was one of these refugees.
The 26-year-old Kansas City Wizard forward, who was only sixteen at the time of his exile, vividly recalls his fear when teenagers were being forced to join the rebels or risk being killed.
Kamara is grateful that his life was spared and that he escaped the war unharmed, but he always thinks about his fellow youth who were not as fortunate.
“Many became child soldiers and were put on drugs while thousands of others lost their lives. I strongly believe that many of those who were killed aspired to become the future George Weahs, Michael Essiens, Samuel Eto’os and Didier Drogbas of African football,” he says.
Football can be a life-changing activity for anyone seeking refuge in a foreign country. For hundreds of youth who fled the brutal war and moved to Gambia, football was their last resort for happiness. This was certainly true for Kamara.
“When we escaped the violence, football [was seen] as the only form of counselling and social rehabilitation,” he says.
“The sport became a tool of unity among Sierra Leoneans. Football fields where our teams played became a meeting point to get news about what was happening back home. For once, football united Sierra Leoneans and helped preserve hope in us as in a fortress.”
While in Gambia, Kamara later realised his dream of travelling to the United States to pursue a career in football and the promise of money and a better life.
Though Sierra Leone is a football-crazy country, Kamara didn’t know it well. His brothers were all prominent football players in the country, but the war limited their opportunities.
In America, Kamara learned that he could earn a college scholarship if he excelled on the field. He quickly got kicking.
The change of scenery – far away from the sounds of battle, hiding under his bed or watching his possessions being looted from his house – freed Kamara. He found expression and contentment on the football field.
“I played, but not organised football [in Sierra Leone]. I was always one of the smaller players among my family – my brothers were always really good and among the best,” Kamara says.
“I didn’t really start playing until I got to The Gambia, and I didn’t get big until I got here [USA]. That’s when I began eating hamburgers!”
On a recent trip back to Sierra Leone, Kamara recollects, he played informal games with national team players. They recommended him to the team coaches, and he has subsequently played five times for his country, most recently in World Cup qualifying matches. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone was eliminated before the region’s final qualifying round.
“I was standing there in the stadium, alongside the other players, listening to the anthem play and I had a flashback – to my past. It felt like I’d left Sierra Leone just yesterday. God has been so good to me,” he says.
Many Gambians will attest to the impression it made on them to observe how football enabled refugees to cope with the effects of war and to minimise their stress.
Mustapha Jarjue, a 25-year-old Gambian striker who currently plays for Belgian side RAEC Mons, says he was struck by how many refugees handled the pressure.
“I remember playing against those guys, although I was a small lad who had just started playing in the first division. I can’t picture myself in their position; fleeing my country, leaving everything behind – some of them also lost their parents. And with all that pain, they were still able to play a game that needs one hundred per cent concentration.”
Hope, loved ones and personal belongings may all have been lost in the war, but the undeniable truth is that the passion for football in Africa has not been extinguished. It likely will never be lost.