There are so many life-changing experiences available for gappers that I had great fun researching options for my gap year. I wanted not only to travel, but to adapt and live in a totally different culture.
Having always played sports, I thought the football coaching placement in Ghana organised by Sporting Opportunities sounded different and amazing. Being outdoors in the sunshine all day, interacting with another culture through sports, was my idea of a gap year.
Initially I had minor worries that a girl football coach would not be respected, but as soon as I got there, this illusion was proven very wrong. I was based in the United Through Sport Ghana academy along with other gap year volunteers. I worked with the Young Schweppes Football Club, in Nungua, a poor area in the city of Accra.
Waste, sewage and wooden huts
I coached under-12, under-14 and under-17 boys from poor and rural backgrounds. The training pitch was a dusty, bumpy patch of land surrounded by waste, sewage and wooden huts. Taxis and goats casually made their way across the pitch during matches. Rubber tyres elbowing out of the ground acted as the spectators’ seats. On match day the boys sprinkled white charcoal to create the pitch lines. Street children swarmed from all directions to join the buzz of football training.
Schweppes FC train from 6am to 9am and 3pm to 6pm every day, religiously. My challenge was to add a different perspective and new ideas to the training sessions as well as educate the raw, already talented boys with the more technical rules and disciplines of the game. Facilities at training were painfully limited; no cones, no bibs, no nets… I coordinated training sessions with 30 or so boys with merely a few torn, deflated balls and a whistle.
A true passion for the game
Many of the boys played in bare feet and without t-shirts, but their passion for the game outshone their restricting poverty. Training is serious and tough. Attitudes towards sport are tremendously dedicated unlike the beer-fuelled Sunday League teams in England! For thousands of Ghanaian children football is their life, their religion, a doorway to relief from poverty. The atmosphere at Nungua training pitch is of a hub of passion for football. A group of seven-year-olds kick around a coconut shell at a side clearing of sand; the under-14 team effortlessly run around the pitch; the older boys are practising kick-ups and volleys; some stretching, some sprinting, some praying in the corner.
The weather was extremely hot so I coached early in the morning and in the evening to avoid the midday sun, but I got used to the weather. During the day I went home to snooze, sunbathe, chill or read on the balcony, looked round markets or went to the beach. My diet was basically chicken, rice, sauce, yam, beans, fresh pineapple and pawpaw.
Some memorable moments
I watched the Ghanian national women’s football team play in front of a massive crowd against the United Through Sport Ghana academy (the boys team I might add), near to where we lived, and in the last ten minutes their coach asked if I wanted to play, so I played up front against the Ghanian national women’s team! I also saw the women’s team play against Nigeria – 40,000 spectators! I joined in with training sessions with a women’s premier league team, training alongside many of the national players. The women are surreally amazing – quick, athletic and extremely skilful.
About 20 of us from the house, all volunteers, went out regularly in Accra for nights out. The nightlife there was great, with Ethiopian, Italian, Indian and Cantonese restaurants, African bars, open-air with live bands, and American-style karaoke bars.
Visiting an orphanage
I visited an orphanage which was an eye-opener. There were rooms of cots, with small under-nourished babies in each – the cutest things I’ve ever seen. We got taken to another section for HIV / AIDS sufferers. There were a few girls and guys in a garden area, walking with crutches, or with bandages round their sores. Inside the ward were seriously ill AIDS patients, so weak they could barely manage a smile. I asked loads of questions to the sisters and learnt a lot. The patients will all die there within a matter of years; it’s frightening, they all know they’re dying… ah, it’s horrible. I did some fund-raising from my home town. The money paid for a water tank, food supplies and school stationery for the orphans.
We were encouraged to travel as much as possible as life is completely different outside Accra, Ghana’s capital city where we stayed. We took weekend excursions to see a historical slave castle, to a rainforest where we went on a canopy walk (a rickety wooden bridge high up over the rainforest), to beaches, on a boat trip on Lake Volta, and to climb the highest mountain in Ghana in the Volta Region. We went up to the rural north of Ghana, where there are clusters of mud-huts; we saw elephants and other wildlife in the national park. I feel like I saw the whole country!
Keep an open mind
To make the most of an experience in a totally different culture or a developing country, you have to go with your mind like a blank canvas; you have to forget about the way life is run in England, to be open-minded and accepting of the way things work and happen in that different country. I find Ghana enchanting because of its hidden beauty, the novel and informal ways of life, the friendliness and happiness of life there, but also frustrating because from a Western perspective there are always problems. Being a volunteer is sometimes really hard because you can get the feeling that whatever you do is not enough, but it is rewarding both for yourself and for the handful of children you come into contact with on your placement.
When I came back from Ghana I set up a charity scheme to collect old or unused football strips from family, friends, schools, local pub teams, professional football teams and friends at uni. I have collected hundreds of strips. Leeds Utd donated 50 shirts and shorts and hundreds of new Nike socks for example, and I fundraised £200 to buy balls, cones and bibs. I am going out to Ghana for three weeks over Easter as an extenstion of my gap year, and was granted free excess baggage from FlyJet for all my kitbags! I’ll be giving the football equipment to the teams I coached last year becuase they needed it so much more than we ever did. I just wanted to make a difference, even if it was a small one…