Saturday, 12 July 2008

Tanzanian Peaks And Ugandan Cranes

I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story but a report from claims former Kaizer Chiefs utility man David Obua is currently having a trial with the club. The 24 year old from Kampala is said to have left for Europe on Thursday morning, amidst speculation that he would be joining former Uganda national team coach Laszlo Csaba at Hearts. Instead, it is claimed he landed in London and participated in a full pre-season training session with West Ham United on Friday. quotes an unnamed insider as saying: "Obua travelled to England aboard Kenya Airways on invitation for trials. The training staff at West Ham said that he did well and was quite impressive." If a deal was to be struck then Obua would become the first Ugandan to play in the Premiership. He is reportedly a free agent as his contract expired with the South African club at the end of last month.

Obua is a predominately left-sided player who can operate in defence or midfield. He signed his first contract in the United States to play football at collegiate level but off-field problems forced his premature return home. Picking up the pieces of his career with Port Louis and Express FC, he subsequently did enough to earn a place on the Uganda National Team, before being spotted by Kaizer Chiefs after a standout performance against South Africa. He went on to become one of the top players in South Africa during a two-year period 2005-2007. In September last year he scored a hat-trick for Uganda in an African Cup of Nations qualifier against Niger.

Obua has been linked with moves to Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb, Italian Serie B side Brescia, Orlando Pirates, and other sides from Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Tunisia and Egypt. "As a professional, I have to weigh my options and make a decision," Obua said earlier this week. "I have many offers, but I’m not about to rush. One thing is for sure, I’m not returning to South Africa. I have nothing to prove in South Africa because I believe I’ve won everything as an individual. I need a new challenge that will only be realised in Europe.”

Obua is the son of Denis Obua, considered by some as Uganda's all-time top player. He played for Uganda in the 1978 African Nations Cup Finals. His uncle, John Akii-Bua was a hurdler in track and field. He became Uganda's first Olympic champion after winning the 400-metre hurdles in the world record time of 47.82 seconds at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

On a separate note, here are a couple of nice articles from today's Independent on Robert Green's recent scaling of Mount Kilimanjaro. The United goalkeeper eschewed the traditional footballer's holiday of sun and debauchery and went instead to Africa to work with a charity that helps the truly disadvantaged. When reading about his experiences- both shattering and ultimately uplifting- you come to realise just what a great ambassador for West Ham United this man is. He is, without doubt, my favorite current Hammers player so give this man a new contract now!
Without doubt, it was my finest moment in football. In front of a crowd of around 500, I was in Dagoretti, one of Nairobi's many slums, surrounded by burnt out cars, fighting stray dogs, free-roaming chickens and glue-sniffing street children. There was litter strewn everywhere and it was a dust bowl of a pitch but, all modesty aside, I scored one of the greatest goals the beautiful game has ever seen.

Playing for the British consulate against Railway Wanderers, I had already abandoned my traditional role of goalkeeper after refusing to dive in among the glass and rocks to save the opening goal of the match, and roamed the midfield in an attempt to be a bit more of a positive influence. After a few minutes a hopeful punt forward came to me in the centre circle. As I took the ball on my chest and turned, I heard a shout from one of my British team-mates: "Go on, go it alone."

Being in the middle of Kenya and at least 45 yards from goal, I thought better of it and, on the volley, smashed the ball as hard as I could over a back-pedalling keeper, one bounce into the roof of the net. There might be a better goal scored this coming season, but I doubt it.

The crowd went wild, I got mobbed and the African fallacy of Premier League footballers being superhuman grew just a little bit more. I substituted myself immediately so as not to ruin the moment.

Come the end of the game, I was beckoned over by the local crowd to take a look at their "main stand". Glancing over, all I could see was more slums in the distance. Closer inspection revealed the main stand to be a row of tree stumps, lined up parallel to the pitch, with chopped and varnished branches on top to make crude but surprisingly comfortable benches.

"Each game we have, we go around with a hat and collect money for our stadium," I was told in perfect English by a spectator who showed some authority among the crowd. I was shown the hat. It had around 100 Kenyan shillings (about 70p). "This is enough to buy one more tree stump from which we will make our bench, we make them ourselves," he continued. "We have no help from the Government, nothing. They are all – how you say – 'fat cats'. But it is our dream to surround our stadium in seating so the people of Dagoretti can sit and watch their football."

It took a moment for it to sink in. These people have nothing. They live in homes made from mud and faeces. They have no water, very little food, and not much hope for the future. But it meant everything to them to build a football stadium that they could be proud of. And they were proud of it. It was their life.

At this point I realised why I had come to Africa.

This was the first summer in a number of years that I had had more than a few weeks' break. We knew back in November that England would not be competing at Euro 2008 – which is not to presume I would have been in the squad, but obviously I'd be at least an interested spectator – and having no family to think of, and spending the last few years' holidays boring myself on different beaches, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to explore a part of the world that I thought I might never get the chance to see.

I would be able to experience something different, something that I could learn from, appreciate a whole different level of life. And, most importantly to me, perhaps I could even use the status of a Premier League footballer for some good.

Playing professional football you surround yourself in a bubble. For 11 months of the year you don't have a choice of truly experiencing real life. Having left school and gone straight into football, I have played almost every day of my adult life. As far as lives go, I admit I have a pretty great one. But as far as life experiences go, it has been of fairly limited scope.

In a similar way, life as a footballer is self-focused. It can be easy to take for granted the life that you lead. Focusing on the negatives, not appreciating what you have, things that anyone in the western world could be guilty of. As a footballer you live on challenges, whether they are set by fans, managers, media, the opposition or yourself. This summer I wanted something to challenge the habits, thoughts, and beliefs that I had built into myself after 12 years of full-time football.

So around Christmas last year I approached a number of charities with my thoughts on how I wanted to use my summer break. Amref (the African Medical Research Foundation) came across as positive and active and saw my interest as an opportunity they could make something of: to use football and, in particular, the popularity of the Premier League as a vehicle to spread their Aids, HIV, health and peace messages.

On arriving in Nairobi, I found the dusty, bustling streets were jam-packed with rushing commuters, similar to London, but with fewer suits. But there were some instantly familiar sights: the chaotic roads were full of local buses – mutates – half of which were dedicated to a Premier League team, player or ground. There was the Drogba Bus, the Adebayor Bus and the Gerrard Bus. And it wasn't just the buses. Huge billboards lined the streets: Ronaldo, Joe Cole and Fernando Torres selling anything from mobile phones to saving plans. A pattern was emerging.

The first place we visited was Amrek's clinic in Dagoretti, which was positioned next to a sea of makeshift tents. These were filled with refugees from the civil war earlier this year. We met a group of eight children, aged from six to 16, from two related families who had fled from their homes and farms outside the city. Among them was eight-year-old Peter Mwangi, a cheeky-looking boy, with a permanent grin who had just had a cast removed from his broken arm. The children explained, through an interpreter, the ordeals of their families hiding at night in their maize fields for two weeks, while they watched rioters burn down their home and attack friends and family with clubs and machetes.

It would have been a terrible experience for anyone, let alone children as young as this and Peter had not spoken throughout. We asked what the clinic provided and the children responded with answers such as schooling, food, safety, and health checks. Then Peter sprang into life shouting: "Futa!" (Football in Shen, a mixture of Swahili and English). I asked him his favourite position. "Goalie!" This needed no translation. I had found a new hero.

Wandering back out of the clinic, we walked on to a small dust-covered area where a mixed team were holding a football training session. Amazingly, it was almost identical to a specific training session we use back at West Ham. It's not just football that is universal, it seems. Football training is too.

Behind the fence that protected the dust bowl the movement of refugees from their camp had stopped as people enjoyed the training session. The stark contrast between the organisation and skills on show right next to the chaos of broken and lost lives was difficult to avoid.

A few days later we were able to watch a game of football. A rejuvenated Kenyan team were hosting Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier. It was carnage from start to finish. The crowds trying to get in five minutes before kick-off were getting restless and swarming the turnstile in an attempt to catch the start. Their anxiety was met by that of the police, who were quick to brandish clubs and bayonets on rifles to clear the mobs.

Inside the ground it was equally manic, with dancing and singing in the stands before, after and during the match. Early and late Kenyan goals sent the 35,000 crowd into raptures, causing surges and shaking within the terracing. I couldn't – rather than didn't – see much of the match, but the exuberant crowd more than made up for it. It was the first time in a long while that I enjoyed watching a game of football on a day off.

The experiences of Dagoretti proved to be warm-up for the streets of Kibera. A two kilometre square slum and home to a million people, it witnessed some of the harshest violence during Kenya's post-election troubles. The Kenyan government barely acknowledges Kibera as a settlement and it is almost understandable why. The size of the place and the problems are so big that it is impossible to decide where to start. Amref decided to start right in the heart of the slum.

Surrounded by thousands of tiny mud huts, the Amref clinic was the only brick building to be seen. The streams of rubbish and bags of sewage line the streets, causing sanitation to be non-existent. Children who could barely walk, roamed the streets alone, picking through the filth for anything they could find.

For me, this was a culture shock on an almost indescribable scale. It was hard to take everything in. I found it a fight not to be sick from the smell. It was difficult to understand, and even harder not to be overcome, by the enormity of it all. This was an education. It took me some time to realise that at the end of a day the stench in the hotel was me and my sweat from the hours spent in such squalid environments.

Amref's work in Kibera mainly consisted of treating HIV and Aids sufferers from two of the 14 villages that make up the slum. Meeting two single mothers who lived "positively" through Amref was an extraordinary and in many ways uplifting experience.

Mildred Kendi was a young lady who had overcome the stigma, discrimination, and physical difficulties of living with HIV as well as the general problems of living in the slum to become a vibrant, positive person who led groups set up to help others in the same way. It was wonderful to see someone so positive and happy regardless of her situation and surroundings. She didn't have money to pay the rent, she watched her neighbours scrub the communal bath after she had used it and wasn't allowed to use the same washing line as them, but she was genuinely happy.

The next time I struggle to rise from bed for a 10.30am training session at West Ham, I will think of her. In fact, I will think of most of the people of Kibera. Friendly and lively, they were intrigued by the "strange, tall white man" walking around their homes. All so positive and happy living their normal lives in such extreme circumstances.

They knew their football as well. In among the homes people would poke their heads round a corner and shout my name. On turning round I would be greeted by another shout of "West Ham" or "England". Shops in the slums may have been made of wood or mud, but they provided the same services as any western shopping centre. The difference being that these would be named after footballing subjects. Football Sold. The Emirates Library, Lineker's Video Store, even to the Real Madrid Battery Charging Service.

Kibera's pitch made the one in Dagoretti look like Wembley. An open drain ran straight through a patch of ground on which it would be illegal to keep animals in the UK. Here, though, it was a children's playground. In fact, it was the only children's playground for the thousands of kids that lived in the area – and they loved it, playing with anything from a stone to a rolled up sock. It staged numerous impromptu football matches.

The main event during my stay in Kibera was a game named as a "Peace and Reconciliation" match for the 14 villages within the slum. Each was home to a different tribe. Each of the tribes went to war with each other during the post-election violence earlier this year. For the match each tribe would be providing two players to make up two sides, and I was refereeing.

I must admit I didn't grasp the enormity of the situation until after the event, when I was told the disturbing recent history of the tribes. What I did notice at the time was the tension – there was even some snarling between members of the teams – which was a huge contrast to the friendly people I was meeting just a few moments before.

This was perhaps the first time that members from other tribes had come into contact with one another since they were in civil conflict, and I was in charge with a whistle. In fact, the game went by without so much as a murmur, but come the full-time whistle there was not the jubilation or celebration that I had witnessed in previous days.

It left me wondering whether we had actually done good or bad by using football to bring the tribes together, or whether it had just antagonised already fraught relations. But as I thought about it more I felt that, no matter how precarious, football had built bridges between previously fighting groups and I guessed I would have to leave it to Amref to decide on how to develop this.

What I knew for sure was that the sights, sounds and people of Nairobi had given me a life experience that I would remember long after those I had visited had forgotten me. I would not be able to tell you where I went to for my summer holiday last year. This year, I will never forget.

Leaving Kenya and making the short flight to Tanzania meant a flying altitude of around twenty thousand feet. Twenty minutes before landing our pilot cheerfully announced if we looked out of our windows we could see Mount Kilimanjaro. Looking out of the window it was there, above the clouds, looking at us eye to eye. I had seen the pictures and the video footage, but this was massive. I cursed AMREF for their challenge.

I had felt an extra sense of pressure. I realised I was not an average punter trying to climb Kilimanjaro. I had been on television, radio, in newspapers and magazines trying to drum up sponsorship for the AMREF cause. I wasn’t just going home to my family and friends to tell them that I had failed. I had put myself under severe pressure.

Our party consisted of fifteen people and one leader split fairly evenly between experienced and novice climbers. I was firmly in the beginner category. We were met by an army of forty porters to carry anything and everything needed to complete the climb in relative comfort. This soon became thirty nine as we watched one of the porters slip under the bus they were travelling in and have his leg ran over. This was not the start we were looking for.

Our five day climb consisted of rising at around 6.30 each day for breakfast and hiking for five to eight hours. Starting at the base of the mountain the terrain changed from the warmth of the glades, through to the exposed areas of heath land, and finally the barren grounds of volcanic rock.

We were told in the briefing that no matter how fit you were, it was a lottery as to whether your body would adapt to altitude. I knew from experience that my body does not take too kindly to sea sickness. So I assumed that it would be the same for altitude sickness. I was right.

After a fairly uneventful first few days I woke on the third morning knowing I was in trouble. It was the sort of day where in a normal environment I would have gone back to bed for the day and not move too far away from the bathroom. Unfortunately for me this was not a normal day and I was stuck half way up a mountain and only facing one direction, up. The eight hour hike that followed was absolute torture. ‘Slowly, slowly’ was the cry from the porters as a warning not only to fight the urge to rush up the mountain too quick, but to say to the rest of the group that the tart of a footballer was flagging way behind after stopping for his fifth toilet stop of the morning.

In a strange way I was glad that I had got through that day as I knew whatever the summit day could throw at me, it couldn’t get much worse. I was wrong.

Come the final ascent, the group had realised that the previous five days had been purely preparation for the last push up the mountain. We had spent our evenings, playing poker in the dark and having a joke and a laugh. There wasn’t any of that on the final evening. Nerves had really kicked in. It had felt like a build up to a game for me. A weeks training and resting in preparation for a Saturday, the tension, the build up, and the waiting for it to arrive.

Our final climb started at midnight. Trudging off into the darkness away from the warmth of our sleeping bags and disappearing into the freezing night didn’t seem like a great idea at the time. The hike was to last around seven to eight hours, with at least being in pitch black. It was hell. Physically it was a struggle to breath and there was still another thousand metres to climb, it was cold enough to freeze my drinking tube within the first hour of the climb and then all of my water that I was carrying by a couple of hours. Mentally there was nothing I could do. There was no scenery to take my mind off it and so it was back to staring at the pair of boots of the person in front for the next seven hours.

It wasn’t long before people of other groups started to drop out, and I thought if someone in our group did the same, then they would drop like flies. But hey, we had come this far.

Just after dawn the group had reached Stella Point, one hundred metres below the peak. I was still twenty minutes behind, resting after each couple of steps. Stumbling my way up the side of the mountain. There was nothing else to think of but to where and when my next step would be. It was a slight conciliation knowing that whatever came at me this coming season would be nothing compared to this climb.

The last hundred metre climb between Stella Point and Uhuru Peak took me about forty five minutes. To a man and woman our team had conquered the 5,895m mountain. I cannot remember one celebration from anyone. I was so pleased to have done it but was in too much pain to think of anything else. A quick photo, and head back down. The views were stunning, but it was all too much, it was around minus fifteen-twenty degrees and the oxygen level was below fifty percent of that at sea level.

The group started the descent but a few people started to wobble, and I was one of them. Because of the lack of oxygen to the brain, combined with a lack of water, diarrhoea and vomiting for two days, and a general inability to adapt to altitude, my body gave up on me. With one of my last clear thoughts I decided to call for help, it wasn’t the time or the place to trip of the edge of a mountain.

With the aid of two porters, I was guided down step by step for four hours back to our camp. After two hours sleep I was checked over by one of the group doctors. Each day we were given a medical to see if we could continue. One of the tests checked the oxygen levels in our blood. If it was below 78 percent, then you were deemed unfit to continue. Mine was at 45 percent.

On my return flight home, looking up at Kilimanjaro looked a lot less daunting having just reached its peak, but there was no way I would ever return there. It was by far the most demanding thing I have ever done, much like the first leg of the trip had been mentally demanding. In a similar way, the people of Kibera and Dagoretti had been normal people living in extraordinary conditions, I had been part of an ordinary group of people doing something extraordinary. Apart from the frost bite still in the tips of my fingers, and losing a stone in weight, I survived unscathed. It was an experience I will never forget, and if I am lucky, did some good.


Goatygav said...

Obua sounds an interesting prospect.

Good on yer Rob Green. Top man!!!

Anonymous said...

don't know who you are mate but keep the articles coming - top work!


p.s. good for greeno too


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