August 2015. It is typical English late summer’s day, the sun is warm but not overbearing and there is a crispness to the air that hints at autumn’s awakening. There is nothing unusual about the café in a bustling shopping village, but the conversation between myself and Jane Z was nothing but unusual. Since meeting Jane a few years before at a school where we were both employed, Jane had cleverly spiked my creative nature for an adventure I then could have never have imagined. Similar to the manner in which a Netflix series grips you and you are left eagerly awaiting the next episode, so had Jane awakened a curiosity in me that I was finding difficult to ignore. Indeed, her tales of a sun drenched fishing village in Ghana with wild snakes, crocodile infested waters in lush forests, strange spicy dishes and a city with disturbing slaving trade history had sent my imagination into overload. And so, much to my colleague Shane’s dismay, out came the black book and that evening I wrote feverishly an endless list of uninhibited possibilities. I had renamed Jane Queen of the jungle, and together we started to throw some balls in the air.
It was not long before I realised what a unique opportunity lay before us. Bath & Wiltshire Boys’ FA had been founded in 2003 with the intention to develop 4 values through the medium of sport: Responsibility, Resilience, Compassion, Curiosity. What better way could there be of nurturing the values by embarking on a project that would allow a group of 12/13 year olds the opportunity to find out more about themselves and the world than they could possibly imagine. What better way to showcase and develop the four values? What better way to show them a contrast to the ‘me, myself and I’ culture that has enveloped generation Z and the generation before it?
And so there it was. Untidy scribblings on 18 pages in a small black book of ideas that I had no idea how to bring to fruition. All I knew was that it must happen. Jane and her husband Martial suggested we explore the wild idea of building a football pitch in the heart of the village currently occupied by what can only be described as a small jungle! It was outrageous, it was ambitious, it was brave, but it was a way to make a real difference, so we had to find a way.
Numerous phone calls and emails with Jane followed and then it was time to overcome the first challenge, the parents. I pretty much knew the boys would jump at the opportunity. We had taken them already across Europe and they had grown into a very tight-knit and capable group of young people. This trip was exactly what they needed before delving into the depths of teenage-hood. Until then the parents had supported every endeavour with open arms so I had no reason to believe they would baulk at the venture, but this was different. This was Africa. Completely different culture, different climate, different peoples….different. I need not have worried. The parents thought it was a fantastic idea and so the process began.
|To realise a sense of responsibility, beyond oneself.||To explore new depths of compassion and its relevance to one’s personal outlook||To build strategies for resilience in pursuit of a goal||To value the significance of curiosity to enrich one’s experience|
The first task was to organise a fundraising programme and a schedule to prepare the boys through a series of educational seminars in which various tasks had to be completed. The boys were told to raise the money on their own. That meant that donations from parents and grandparents were not allowed. They had to use the four values to raise the money individually and as a group. I could not have been more proud of them. Not only did they organise a number of events such as quizzes, race nights and competitions, but each individual embarked also on a personal journey of entrepreneurialism and bloody hard work to achieve the target set. I believe that they really learned in this time the value of a pound.
The seminars were put together by myself working with Jane from afar. We created a booklet to accompany the seminars which encouraged the boys to research such topics as malaria, hygiene issues, water issues, the climate and dealing with dehydration. It was not just useful for the boys – it was an absolute education for me as well!
In order to organise the days in Ghana, we split the boys into groups, each group having the responsibility for organising a particular aspect of the trip:
– Travel and packing list
– Activities & Itinerary
– Accommodation and food requirements
In addition to this, the boys were to design an English and Maths lesson that they would then deliver to a group of children from the Kokrobite Chiltern Centre run by Jane and Martial. Although daunting at first, it was to be for me one of the highlights of the whole experience, and also a lesson. We should never underestimate the capabilities of young people and their ability to surprise, excel and fly.
I have to confess at not ever being so exhilarated but also apprehensive about a trip before. I had lost count of the number of tours and trips we had done over the years, but this was on another level. I could even forgive the parents for feeling nervous about this one. And so the day finally arrived. The endless hours of preparation, painful injections and tedious communications to acquire visas were behind us, and there we were with a mountain of luggage ready to board the plane for Ghana via Turkey. I am not sure Shane would ever forgive me!
An exciting, warm and strangely scented air enveloped us as soon as the doors to the aircraft opened. It was already 22:00 and very dark, but still the humidity was overpowering. We made our way through the usual customs and temperature scanning checks, assembled the mountain of luggage we had brought with us, and then descended the treacherous ramps leading from the luggage hall to the arrivals area; it is no exaggeration that I have negotiated black ski slopes less precarious than this walkway. Certainly, it provided the first skip of a heartbeat as 16 excited boys hurtled at great speed with overloaded trollies towards a melee of people awaiting the arrivals. How no one was injured I will never know!
Thankfully Martial and his team of workers were there to steer us through the market-type hustle and bustle of the arrivals lounge and we climbed upon the coach for the hour long journey to Kokrobite. Jane was waiting on the bus and plied us full of local delicacies and more importantly water! I remember Jane enthusiastically explaining what was no doubt very important and useful information, but it was all a bit of a blur and I cannot say I processed much of what was said – I was worse than the boys! Young and old eyes stared hungrily out of the window keen to take in as much as possible from this new and mysterious land about which we had heard so much.
Evident was that driving in Ghana is akin to white water rafting, just without the water. Whilst trying to avoid gaping holes in the road, cars were continuously hooting their horns, diving into gaps not even Lewis Hamilton would have seen and when miraculously everyone obeyed the traffic lights and things came to a standstill, we were descended upon by countless locals selling anything from food and drink to sports equipment and car parts! This is when Jane came into her element. As she dismissed the hawkers, the boys were in no doubt that Queen Jane was now the boss!
By the time we arrived in Kokrobite, I think we were all starting to feel the effects of the day’s efforts. I hoped we could unload and get to bed as soon as possible so we could wake fresh for the morning. As I was soon to quickly learn, time has another interpretation in Ghana so my naïve optimism of a quick shower and bed soon evaporated. After some time we acquired half a dozen taxis for the 200m journey from the main road to the accommodation. The side road was both too small and had craters so big one could only imagine a battle of enormous significance had taken place here, it would have been impossible for the coach to venture any further. The taxis were not the black cabs of London you may be imagining. I think we were too tired to care, but it was noticeable that in some there were holes in the floor reminiscent of how Fred Flintstone would propel his car forward with his feet, spider web cracks artistically spread across the windows, and one taxi even had a door missing! Luggage was crammed into every crevice of the vehicles as well as on top and we suddenly found ourselves shaken and stirred at the entrance of Big Millies where there was evidently a big event taking place. Unfortunately, the loud drumming and impressive dancing were not for our benefit and we had to cajole quite forcefully some of the boys away from the party goers and towards what would be our residence for the week.
The house in which we would sleep had two floors and one bathroom. Bunk beds were stacked in every corner and mattresses lay in every other space, interspersed with giant fans trying to disperse the warm air around the room. It was quite tricky finding space for all the luggage but somehow we managed. More of a worry was the bathroom arrangement. There was a solitary toilet and we were told that flushing anything that does not come out of your body was forbidden. I cannot even begin to describe the assault on all senses upon entering the room after just 30 minutes of arrival! Worst still, the shower was attached to the wall next to the basin and close to the toilet meaning anyone using it would drench the entire room and everything in it. We decided it might be best to do it the African way and pour water over our heads outside from water collected from the well – the bucket shower became a rare treat.
And so the first night in Africa ended with a light refreshment at the bar, the boys bewildered by the new sounds of the live African drumming group, the staff trying to remain as still as possible to keep the heightened levels of perspiration at bay.