Standing in the comfortable surroundings of a bustling Starbucks branch in the heart of downtown Toronto, I impatiently await the anticipated caffeine rush from a double espresso shot that promises to extend my productivity into the wee hours of a surprisingly mild night in early October. Laden with my over-worked, somewhat scruffy laptop bag, a few tattered books on child trafficking and the unmistakeably fatigued complexion that only accompanies a student-athlete at this time of year, I am uncharacteristically detached from the flurry of excited interaction and indulgent consumption which are all customary in this most North American of social spaces. Despite my wearied state, my subconscious nevertheless receives its customary bombardment from the infamous Starbucks symbol dotted amongst the elegant decor of the room. My attachment is broken only by the sight of a nearby coffee stand emblazoned with the words, ‘ethically sourced coffee’ alongside carefully crafted images of ’empowered’ West African farmers.
Setting my books on the counter as I await my coffee, I begin to unravel the parallels between the ‘ethically sourced coffee’ on the stand to my right and the disturbing image of a trafficked West African child on the cover of my book. Connecting the dots like any diligent scholar, I ponder the historical colonization of the African continent, it’s coveted raw materials and perhaps most importantly, its people. I contemplate the exploitation of South Africa in the quest for gold, of West Africa for cocoa and coffee, and as an image of Leonardo Di Caprio and the Hollywood blockbuster, Blood Diamond enters my mind, I recall the continuing destruction of the continent in the search for ‘conflict diamonds’. But, ultimately my thoughts are dominated by the single most devastating period in Africa’s history, in which the continents people were displaced from their homelands and subjected to the inhumane captivity of what has become known as transatlantic slavery. Despite my presence in a modern world which is framed around discourses of human rights, equality and social justice, it is apparent to me that that there are still living effects, seething and lingering, of a ‘pre-modern’ age which is all too often resigned to the last burning embers of a colonial past.
In thinking about the landscape of Ghana today, my mind inevitably bolts to an image of local children defying the orders of their elders as they get together to play football, blissfully unaware of their presence in the shadows cast by the many slave castles which still dominate the nation’s coastline. I can’t help but feel that their seemingly inconspicuous engagement with the game of football bears a more troubling semblance with the exploitation of the past in which a growing network of traffickers, agents, and powerful European clubs await the arrival of the next African ‘gem’. Indeed, the words of a recent interview with a rogue sports agent come to mind, in which he said without as much as a morsel of humankind that ‘football slavery exists across Africa. But Africa has long been exploited for diamonds, for gold, coffee, and even for its people, so why should child footballers be any different?‘. As shocking as they appear, his words certainly hold a grain of truth at our current juncture. But can it really be the case that a western-driven, capitalist greed has created a market economy in which living, breathing human beings are merely another ‘object of transaction’ much like coffee.
In exuding all the privilege which accompanies my current position in this world, it isn’t long before my now overdue coffee is reinstated at the summit of my thoughts and I re-emerge from my momentary period of abstract thought. Attempting to avoid the bitter aftertaste which accompanies a double espresso shot, I throw it back in one before turning and making a dash for the exit. Feeling instantly rejuvenated, I notice a middle-aged, African-American man fixated on a copy of Lawrence Hill’s famous publication, The Book of Negroes – a book which has had a profound impact on my own understanding of transatlantic slavery and the oppressive realities of black suffering from the 16th century onwards. Before the caffeine has even managed to pulse through my bloodstream, I am on route to his table and with all the enthusiasm expected of a doctoral student in relation to his cherished literature, I confidently sit myself down on the adjoining table. Eager to sound knowledgeable, I decide that a question would be the best way to break the ice, asking him what he thinks of Hill’s writing style before quickly blurting out the topic of my research so as to increase my chances of a response. However, clearly unamused by my untimely interruption, my new friend raises his eyes only for a split second before resuming his reading in a manner which tells me all I need to know. Being only too familiar with the unspeakable journey of the West African girl at the heart of the book’s narrative, I decide that its probably best that I leave this man and his book in peace.
However, just as I make a move for the exit, I feel a tug on my coat and before I can turn, the gentleman says, ‘Look son, anyone asking me about Hill’s writing style has missed the very heart of this book… This is a book that symbolizes three hundred years of my people’s death, suffering and subordination so his choice of writing style doesn’t really enter the equation for me. For a boy that claims to be fighting the exploitation of young Africans today, I would like to presume that you’d be a little more knowledgeable on the subject of slavery‘. Feeling shell-shocked at his frankness, I am momentarily left searching for words… any words at all to at least offer a response! However, determined to salvage my integrity which suddenly feels in doubt, I offer a haste reply, ‘Sir, I’m sorry if you’ve misunderstood my intentions, I only wanted to say how important the book has been to my research‘. And with that, a sweeping smile extends across his face in an expression of self-satisfaction that can only mean that he has rather enjoyed making me feel uncomfortable.
Still chuckling as I approach his table, he pulls across a chair and introduces himself as Kwame – a second generation Canadian whose father departed Ghanaian shores to work in Europe before eventually settling in Toronto in the early 1950’s. Informing me that he retains close ties with his family in Ghana, Kwame proudly declares himself as part of a relatively affluent Ghanaian population who have had the opportunity to establish a lifestyle that their ancestors could only have dreamed of. I immediately identify with Kwame’s story, recognizing my own privileged position as part of an Irish diaspora who have benefited from the toil and graft of our grandparents who lived through similar experiences of colonization, famine and sectarian violence. Seeking to re-direct our conversation to the young Ghanaian footballers at the heart of my academic endeavor, I somewhat cautiously ask Kwame whether he is familiar with the process through which child trafficking occurs in West African football.
Pausing briefly, he continues to sip on his cold coffee before offering the kind of organic insight that could only come from a man who has lived and breathed the very real challenges which face the young footballers in question here. In his deceivingly Canadian accent, Kwame says, ‘you must think about the power of history here. History does not just stay in the past but seeps its way deep into the very structure of the present. The slavery and black suffering which Lawrence Hill speaks of in this book did not end with the abolition of slavery but lives on today as the same powers continue to rape and pillage everything we have. It doesn’t matter whether its diamonds or young footballers, Africa has always been just a source of raw materials, with living human bodies being no more valuable than any other commodity‘. Before I can wrap my head around his wise words, Kwame bursts into life again, proclaiming that ‘time moves on but the poverty and exploitation will never cease to exist across the West Africa. This is what drives the dreams of young footballers and their families! The reality is that if a slave ship landed on West African shores tomorrow, even the horrors of the past would not stop thousands boarding so long as it was destined for Europe… throw in their deep love for football and you have a situation where there will be only one loser‘. In his uniquely abrupt manner, Kwame extends me his best wishes and subtly encourages me to be on my way.
As I settle back into the comfort of my warmly lit apartment overlooking the sparkling city lights of Toronto, I immediately begin inscribing every detail of my interaction with Kwame before the fruits of my caffeine-induced thought dissipate into little particles of memory. However, my attention is deflected to an international game between Belgium and Kazakhstan which has just started on my over-sized television in the corner of the room. Displaying the starting line up for the Belgians, I am awakened to a fact which has previously eluded me. After a few minutes of digging online, I confirm my suspicions that this is a recently rejuvenated Belgian nation spearheaded by no fewer than seven players of African descent, including emerging talents such as Romelu Lukaku, (Congolese), Marouane Fellaini (Morrocco), Vincent Kompany (Congolese), Nacer Chadli (Morocco), Axel Witsel (Martinique), Moussa Dembele (Mali) and Vadis Odidja-Ofoe (Ghana). As my journey into the interwoven nature of past and present colonial links enters its final hurdle before I retire to bed, I am increasingly convinced that as so often is the case, the often trivialized realm of sport may well offer an unrivaled lens through which to understand the subtle ways in which remnants of history have seeped into the very fabric of the present. As I think about the numbers of young west African footballers who have been left abandoned in former powers such as Belgium, France and Portugal, it seems that the colonial meanderings of the past may well have retained their insidious, self-serving dominance in the present.