Making it out of the ghetto
A young boy juggles a soccer ball on the streets of Abidjan as Anjali Nayar and a group of local residents look on.
Abidjan, Ivory Coast - This week I ventured into Abidjan's ghetto, a neighbourhood called Appecoube, to catch up with the Ivory Coast's (local) captain, Ali Badra Sangare.
When I first saw him he was leaning on the back of his car and talking on his mobile phone (it seems to be the preferred stance here - everywhere you go, people are draped over their cars). Badra was dressed in stylish jeans, a tight white tank top and a designer cap with an ostentatious green and red stripe down the front.
Ivorians like to be noticed
We cruised through the streets of Abidjan in his retro red BWM, weaving through the maze of joggers in soccer kit and the feminine white plastic Chinese sandals that are so popular here. Local Ivorian music called coupe-decale was blasting from the radio. For a taste of the music, check out the perennial song Bobaraba by DJ Mix and DJ Elo, which celebrates womens' curves.
"Ivorians like to be noticed," Badra quipped between lengthily phone conversations.
We detoured to pick up one of Ali's music producer friends. He dressed the part -- Pascal Elfazo had his tight black dress shirt buttoned down to reveal a sprawl of chest hair, shiny black patent pointy shoes and expertly-manicured facial hair.
For the next half hour they chatted while leaning on the back of Ali's car. They walked a few steps and then perched on another car. It makes sense, I guess, since even at dusk it's so hot here, a single step makes you sweat.
It was dark by the time we got to Badra's home in Appecoube. The alleyways were packed with drying laundry and women stirring pots of aromatic stews. Other women were scrubbing little naked children vigorously - the white suds contrasted with their little wet bodies.
Ali's father, Toumany Sangare, gushed about how proud he was of his son, and how he hoped his son would be selected for a team in Europe.
Anjali's trip across Africa
View Anjali Nayar - Destination: South Africa in a larger map
A crowd of children gathered round when Ali and I starting juggling a ball in the small square in front of his cramped cement apartment. There were cheers of surprise and congratulations every time I managed to hit the ball -- it's not easy in the dark!
Ali went from being a rowdy kid to having nice clothes, a car, and travelling around the world. He made it out of the ghetto. It's an inspiration to most of the kids here, because they know if they practice hard enough, they might get out too. A young barefoot boy of no more than 10 (one of Ali's supporters) joined our juggling game. He was better at it than we were -- once he grows another couple feet, he could be in line for the national side.
It's something I've often seen in Kenya with runners. Many kids in Kenya's rural areas have a running base because they run to and from school, often several kilometres a day. Then later in their teens or twenties they might meet or hear of someone in their village that has won a cow or prize money from a local race. Running shoes or not, babies strapped to their backs or not, they train in obscurity. A year or two later, they show up at a race and take home the crown. It happens every day.
Soccer a pathway to a better life
Here too in Ivory Coast, sport is one of the few ways someone without schooling and without social and political connections, you can make it out of the ghetto. If you are good enough, you will get picked up by a club or by a foreign agent.
Not all of these players' foreign experiences are positive. Many Africans leave home to toil in mediocre leagues in Europe and Asia. They never quite make it. Badra went to Thailand - it was an experience he doesn't like to talk about. He came back home. Next time, he hopes to make it to Europe, "Insha'Allah," he says, if it is God's will.
As the night dragged on, the kids in the neighbourhood got more rowdy. They started grabbing and pinching my skin; the little alleyway turned into a veritable mosh pit. (see picture above). "You have to sing," they shrieked in amusement. Mothers clamoured around trying to beat their children off me.
"Until next time!" the kids called out, lovingly hammering down the doors of the car I had slipped inside to escape. "Bye!"
In the darkness, I could just make out Ali leaning against the trunk of his red BMW.
Follow me on Twitter for more updates at www.twitter.com/anjalinayar.
Because of the transport strike in the country, I might have to be a bit creative in how I get to Ghana. I hope you'll stay tuned for the adventure.
Canadian journalist Anjali Nayar will travel across Africa by train, bus and foot (and when necessary by plane), and will arrive in South Africa just before the World Cup. Along the way, Anjali will tell the continent's stories through its favourite sport: soccer.
For the trip, Anjali will bring only the essentials on her back (camera, flip video, computer) and in her hand - a soccer ball. Every day, Anjali will play soccer, whether she's on the beaches of Accra or stuck in one of Lagos' impenetrable traffic jams. Sometimes she'll play with children in the sprawling slums and refugee camps, other times she'll play with adults in the rich diplomatic quarters of major cities.
Through her Destination: South Africa blog, Anjali hopes CBCSports.ca readers will discover Africa and what the World Cup and the game of soccer means to the continent.
About the Author
Anjali Nayar is a Canadian journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She's reported from the back-alleys of the African continent for the last four years for the CBC, Reuters and the BBC, covering everything from politics to the politics of sport. From training with Kenya's elite runners to cheering on Burundi's footballing president, Anjali uses sport to learn a little more about the world.