Elevating my drenched torso an inch of the mattress, I repeatedly flapped at a fly who appeared determined to torment me through the night, refusing to give up on the prospect of settling on my sweat-sodden neckline. It had been a night in which sleep proved to be an elusive luxury as I grappled with the intense heat, the unrelenting chorus of foreign sounds reverberating around the permeable structure of my tiny ‘hut’, and that feeling of self-doubt that often characterises one’s first night in unchartered territory. Considering myself quite a seasoned traveller, I have been reasonably adept when it comes to packing up my life and being plunged into the raw existential uncertainty that accompanies relocation across continental borders. Indeed, so efficient had been my adjustment to life in North America that I had recently begun to question what it is that drives me to so often swap the warmth of the familiar for this perpetual state of unknown. What is it that I am searching for within these unexplored spaces and how can I rationalise this thirst for understanding and meaning within a particular locale only to eject myself at the moment such familiarity appears to be achieved. As I lay silently studying my new surroundings in the heart of a remote village in eastern Ghana – my senses heightened by each creek, hiss and shriek – such deeply philosophical thoughts assumed a diminished level of immediate importance.
Daybreak was greeted by what sounded like an army of roosters perched outside my window with a megaphone as a chorus of ‘cuck-a-doodle-dooooooo’s bombarded the innermost chambers of my eardrums. I squinted at the clockface of my newly acquired Ghanaian phone as blinding rods of morning sunlight peered into my empty room – populated as it was only by a crestfallen bedframe, its aged mattress and my crammed suitcase in the corner.
It was 5.20am on Monday morning and from the indistinct chatter emanating from beyond the confines of my new ‘home’, it seemed that the local villagers had already emerged from their traditional mud huts – each finely crafted from a mix of modern construction materials counterbalanced by the use of indigenous thatched roofing and carved wooden supports. As I stretched a clean t-shirt over the sweaty residue which had generously coated my upper body and donned the first of my impressive repertoire of shorts, I thought much about how the day ahead would unfold. It would be a day in which I would commence my doctoral fieldwork at the Right to Dream Academy hidden deep in the wilderness of eastern Ghana – two hours detached from the relative metropolis of the capital city, Accra and a world apart from the luxurious surroundings of downtown Toronto.
I had touched down at the Kotoka Airport in Accra three days earlier, allowing me to find my bearings while exploring the sights and sounds of the University of Ghana and its immediate locale on the outskirts of Accra. Whilst vividly apparent across the African continent, one cannot help but be struck by the level of disparity here – between an infinitely wealthy minority and an underclass whose very existence is plagued by grave poverty. In Accra itself, such disparity appeared particularly acute, where enclaves of western privilege occasionally threaten to permeate the chaotic inner sanctum of the nation’s capital, at times even casting a super-imposed facade of prosperity on the underlying layers of unspeakable hardship.
Opening my creaking wooden door and stepping out into the morning sunshine, I was about to experience the kind of traditional African village which is so often immortalised in storybook representations, but which exists unbeknown to the majority of the global population. The isolated rural location of the village, its rich traditional culture, and the surviving remnants of ancestral rituals making it a fascinating prospect for any budding anthropologist. Greeting me before I could even turn the key in my door was a herd of goats, lazily wallowing in the morning rays having slept only a stone’s throw from my bed during the night. Nearby, a vibrantly coloured lizard – his torso split between electric yellow and a cascading shade of grey – attentively watching my every move as he enjoyed the mild heat of the morning sun. I chuckled to myself as I imagined my father’s glee at the prospect of me roughing it in a rural African village with god only knows what kind of wildlife on my doorstep!
But, before the wry smile could extend across my face, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of small boy – his dark skin hinting at his Ghanaian lineage while his lack of stature indicating that he was yet to undergo a real growth spurt. He remained perfectly still in front me, his inquisitive stare fixated on me as I came to a halt. And then, just as I uttered the words ‘hello there’, the boy whose name I would later learn to be ‘Fabu’ burst into tears, abandoned his belongings and scurried off amongst the maze of huts which dominate the village topography. ‘Welcome to Africa’, I thought as I attempted to comfort myself after such a distressing welcome from my new neighbours.
Despite the hysteria of our initial meeting, little Fabu would soon become a source of much enjoyment and comfort for me as he meticulously timed his early morning wake up to coincide with me passing his hut. Each day without fail, I can bank on Fabu being alive and kicking, excitedly jumping up and down shouting ‘Obroni! Obroni! Obroni!’ – ‘white westerner’ to you and me – and intimating with two hands that he wanted to play the ‘sky rocket’ – an improvised game in which I would propel him from his lowly grounded position to soaring high above my shoulders as he wriggled hysterically at the sheer altitude of his flight!
Such is the simplicity of life in rural Ghana that the innocent pleasures of interactive ‘play’ – a much diminished concept in Western societies – continues to enrich the lives of the children who have taught me so much about the relative nature of happiness over these past few weeks. Indeed, life in this corner of West Africa has remained largely unshackled by consumerism and the onslaught of alienating technologies, retaining in the process a distinctly human element, where entertainment, socialising and personal expression are still grounded in shared interaction, in collective gatherings and in mutual forms of enjoyment.
As I continued my gentle descent through the village towards the Right to Dream Academy school – itself an isolated exemplar of contemporary construction in the heart of eastern Ghana’s green leafy landscape – it became clear that the presence of my whiteness was by no means a routine sight for the local people. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel parallels with Mogli from the classic Disney movie, The Jungle Book as I sheepishly nodded at an elderly man whose curious gaze penetrated deep into my sense of being, my whiteness being an inescapable prism of immediate difference. In the weeks to follow, my growing familiarity with the local tribe, and particularly my willingness to embrace aspects of their life and language would earn me much respect, generosity and stimulate no shortage of comical moments as I butchered repeated attempts to replicate their customary method of transporting things suspended perilously on one’s head! But as I reached the Right to Dream Academy, I was unwittingly about to embark on a journey which, even in the space a few short weeks, has challenged me to peel back the layers of my own life and have my understanding of human nature, kindness, and achievement redefined by a group of adolescent West African boys – ‘adolescent’ being an adequate descriptor for these boys from a legal categorization only.
The Right to Dream Academy itself is a football academy and school in eastern Ghana having been established in 2001 by Englishman, Tom Vernon. Whilst I find it difficult to define the mission of Right to Dream in any succinct manner, the primary motivation is to offer 5-year residential scholarships to 15 talented West African footballers each year, providing educational and athletic tutelage designed to prepare graduates for a career in professional football, to secure academic scholarships to study in the US and England, and ultimately, to nurture future role models for the African continent. With over 30 graduates currently pursuing university degrees all over the world, and a growing profile of professional footballers playing their trade in European leagues, such a lofty ambition doesn’t appear beyond this inspiring little academy in Eastern Ghana.
Walking into the communal, open air dining room, I was greeted by a resounding choir of chattering as the academy’s sixty-five young scholars devoured a breakfast of porridge and bananas. I immediately catch a glimpse of the cultural richness of this space, with the national flags of all academy graduates draping proudly from the rafters. The student body here is dominated naturally by Ghana but includes boys from neighbouring countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and DRC Congo. Feeling famished, I decide to discard my initial hesitation and join a scarcely populated table on the outskirts of the group, introducing myself to a collection of boys – ranging from a baby-faced boy around ten years old to fully developed teenagers complete with scruffy goatees. Receiving a collective ‘welcome sir’ and warm smiles all round, it isn’t long before I am at ease among the boys, with each of whom I share a mutual passion for football and an understanding of the daily challenges which accompany one’s desire to achieve excellence both on the pitch and in the classroom.
As I scoff down the surprisingly tasty porridge complimented by the sweetest bananas I’ve had the pleasure of tasting, the boys take it in turns to interrogate the underlying motivations of my presence at Right to Dream. Their inquiries delved deep into ‘the nature of my mission in Ghana’, about culture in Ireland, and whether I could play football – a question which inevitably aroused a tempered reaction as I continue my recovery from knee surgery. As my bond with the boys grows, I find myself increasingly in awe of their outlook on life, their unwavering kindness, and their contagious thirst for life which drives them onwards from the moment they begin morning practice at 6.30am to their evening prayer at 9pm. Needless to say I have found kindred spirits here as I engage with so many young Ghanaians who share my love of the game, who understand the integral positioning of football in my own life, and who spur me on each morning and afternoon to push myself to the limits as I pursue my own educational and sporting goals.
As the morning sun reached its height in the sky and the boys polish off their generous helpings of porridge, a tangible shift in the atmosphere could be felt, as school bags, chattering about homework and a new urgency swept through the communal dining area. It was time to become scholars again! By the time the school bell rang at 10am, tranquility had descended across the campus – the authoritative tone of a teaching voice occasionally breaking through the calm of the late morning air. It wouldn’t be long before my own teaching repertoire would be challenged as I acquired the lofty task of teaching English to five french-speaking Ivorian boys – each of whom has developed rapidly since we commenced our assault on the English language only a few weeks back. But my teaching debut wouldn’t begin until I experienced a traditional lunch menu of spicy waakye with boiled eggs – a thoroughly Ghanaian delicacy which I have grown to immensely enjoy. In addition to waakye, my exposure to traditional fare has included kenke, kontomire with boiled yam, and last but by no means least, the delicious jollof rice with tilapia – a locally sourced fish whose many bones make for a laborious dining experience!
Heavy legged from my hearty lunch, I was soon sat straight across from three Ivorian students – Diomande, Fofana and Modibo – whose prodigious footballing talents are befitting of a player twice their tender age of eleven years old. Resurrecting my patchy grasp of the French language, it isn’t long before we are conversing fluidly, the boys putting me at ease as we make a pact to mutually develop our English and French language skills. As we enter our third study week now, I am greeted with fluent English and mischievous smiles as the ‘Cote D’Ivoire gang’ roll up to brighten my afternoon as we grapple with the nuances of verbs, pronunciation and even the occasional breakdown in diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Cote D’Ivoire!
While I possess a deeply personal appreciation of their athletic talents, I nevertheless can’t help but be inspired by the courage and bravery of these boys in general – so many of whom have persevered and thrived in spite of traumatic childhood experiences and seemingly insurmountable barriers to their achievement in education and professional football. Their maturity is incomparable to that of their European and North American counterparts, with my conceptual understanding of ‘childhood’ undergoing a radical shift as I observe the levels of self-discipline, courage and focus demonstrated by the ‘Right to Dream boys’ on a daily basis.
As the sun descended beneath the tree line on my first day at Right to Dream and I wearily typed up my field notes in the refreshing evening breeze, I mistakenly concluded that it was bedtime. That was until a staff member asked if I would be at ‘Fabu’s’ later. ‘Fabu’s?’ I replied inquisitively, wondering if this was the latest appointment which had slipped my mind. ‘Yeah Fabu’s Irish bar! he replied excitedly. ‘What!? I exclaimed while screwing up my face in dismissal of such a bizarre idea. Yeah sure, an Irish bar in a rural village in Eastern Ghana that doesn’t even have a shop or restaurant I thought to myself. ‘Come with me… you’ll see’ he replied as we abandoned the lights of the school and turned to our torches as we navigated the path through the improvised dirt road into the village. Within seconds, the unmistakable sound of live football and the chattering of a few staff members breached the air as we reached ‘Fergal’s Irish Bar’. Naturally gobsmacked, I could do little but laugh at the unlikely interconnectedness of my Irish roots and this remote corner of eastern Ghana. The proprietor, Fabu is chief of pitch maintenance at the Right to Dream Academy and established the little pub following a loan from Right to Dream a few years back. Needless to say Fabu now operates a thriving local business offering an impressive array of much sought after commodities, including alcohol, soft drinks, milkshakes and even chocolate biscuits!
Within a few minutes, the comedic value of Fabu’s is considerably enriched as I’m briefed about the possible arrival of Enoch – an eccentric middle aged village man whose daily wanderings are thought to include the occasional alcoholic beverage. With the mythical twist that should accompany any village fable, Enoch’s bizarre and at times, ludicrous behaviour is said to have originated during his time in Nigeria where the locals say he murdered and ate a man – thus rationally explaining the split in his personalities before and after the sun goes down! Rather more worryingly, I would later learn that Enoch is in fact in charge of safely transporting us across the nearby river – itself shrouded in mysterious tales of crocodiles lurking beneath the water’s surface.
In the dim fairy lights of Fabu’s bar – the very tableau of serenity against the chirring insects, the silver moon suspended above the trees and the cooling touch of the evening breeze, I couldn’t help but feel deeply liberated from all things western, even in spite of such talk about mysterious locals and deadly local predators! As I sat pondering my location deep in eastern Ghana, my first day at Right to Dream, and my new home in the village, a cold drink at Fabu’s Irish bar seemed a fitting end to a day which promised much for my doctoral research, and more importantly, for my contribution to the future development of the Right to Dream Academy.