This blog and the short series that follows it has been written to give readers some of the context behind the reason that the Kicking Off charity has been started and why the town of Mpraeso and surrounding area in Ghana has been chosen for the first Kicking Off project. As the Kicking Off team builds up to the first ‘pilot’ tournament in March, we will publish regular blogs to add some personal insights into how and why each member has become involved in starting the charity.
In 2010 I was lucky enough to visit the Sub-Saharan West African country of Ghana for a month.
During my time in Ghana I was able to do many of the things gap year people do when they go and volunteer in Africa e.g. teaching English, painting, building schools and being generally helpful in a whole host of other ways. It was an amazing experience as an 18 year old and I felt some of the things I did and saw helped forge my love of travelling to exotic places around the world and further compound (after working for a month in an orphanage in Beijing, China) my will to help people in desperate situations!
One of the volunteers working on the project, a guy called Anthony, had been donated a whole bag of sports kit by a local football club including: first team strips, cones, balls, pumps, training bibs the lot. He decided that the best and fairest way he could give it all out would be to have a small tournament and invite local teams to try and win the kit!
Throughout my time volunteering in the area I’d noticed how much the people loved football, but when tournament time came it went to a whole new level! Schools took they day off just to pick teams to play for them, kids made banners all day and the immense excitement across the whole area among kids and adults was tangible.
When the tournament took place, (without exaggerating) hundreds of local children came out, not just to play, but to watch and enjoy the day of competitive football bringing the whole local area together in a celebration of sport.
For some people, gap year volunteering has a bad reputation, ideas of young well off kids righteously heading out to far flung places around the globe and not really making a difference to anyone or anything. Contrary to that, I’ve always found volunteering as a great way to travel. As much as some projects and volunteers help those in need more than others, volunteering helps travellers to ‘get under the skin’ of a place and allows you to get to know and understand what makes the people in a place tick in a way that being just a traveller bouncing from tourist trap to tourist trap rarely does.
The day of the tournament was the day 18 year old me got ‘under the skin’ of Ghana and fully understood the extent to which football was a key way of bringing everyone together, importantly allowing children to forget their troubles and be equal with one another as they battled it out both on and off the field for local school bragging rights! To those sceptical of volunteering abroad, the happiness caused by running this tournament justified in my mind importance of volunteers in the Mpraeso community and highlighted the importance of the unique opportunities even young people like myself could help deliver to people living in poverty in the area.
After a month in Ghana, with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, I sat in the back of a familiar taxi with Akon playing on the radio, a picture of legendary Ghana/ Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien on the from window and a crucifix hanging from the rear view mirror, heading back to start my journey home. At this moment without even knowing my experience in Africa was starting to turn the cogs in my head and inspire the idea for Kicking Off to be born.