My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel

Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

liputa nyonso epasuki eeh

I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.

Ghana Cycle Challenge 2011

GHANA 2011

To donate please go to Friends Of Tafo homepage or visit my VirginMoneyGiving Page. Many thanks

Day One.

Oh my god what have I signed up for.  Utterly utterly shattered.  We are cycling from Elmina Slave Fortress north and east into the bush, and eventually to the town of Kwahu-Tafo. We have raised sponsorship from friends. We are going to sink boreholes and new wells for fresh water in this small Ghanaian town with the proceeds. But first we have to get there, cross-country on local bikes in tropical heat, dust, mud, sand and sweat.

And this is not at all what I was expecting. “The first two days will be mainly flat cycling”.  Er, no.  It’s very hilly, up and down, red dirt road almost all day with huge potholes at the bottom of each hill so that you can’t just freewheel down the slope in joy because then you’d be going WAY too fast to negociate the ruts and puddles at the bottom.  Which is exactly what happens to me on the 17th hill of the day – splat, handlebar in the nuts, scrape arm, ow, people watching, get back on, carry on.  Gears are unpredictable.  Back wheel wobbles.   If you get too close to another cyclist their mud spits into your face from the back tyre.  Then :  two punctures in 40 minutes; and the bike doesn’t have high enough handlebars, so pressure bearing down on my right hand and elbow becomes unbearable.  At least the punctures are handled brilliantly – proper mobile pitstop service by the local chaps following us in the van. Sore throat turns challenge into ordeal, and right hand and elbow are a constant source of pain due to previous training injuries.  So it’s either muscles on strike as yet another uphill slope appears and you crunch the gears down to minus one and grit your teeth, or its whizzy downhill avoiding potholes and skids with both hands gripping the brakes.  On one of these downhill suicide runs KM (Kien Mien from Malaysia) comes off his bike braking too hard in a far worse accident than mine, and we all stop to wait for the Jeff the Doc who cycles at the back of the pack, meanwhile cleaning KM’s wounds with wet-wipes gently on his arms, legs and body which is scratched punctured and bleeding, and scores of children have gathered round with curious women to see the strangely clad yellow visitors and their stricken companion.

crash spectators

Dr Jeff arrives and we converge on the local bamboo church (which is more like a small stockade with a palm leaf roof, a drum kit and a bottle of schnapps) and convert it into a hospital and food stop. Prince and team provide pineapple and peanuts for sugar and salt, and there is water.  We are all exhausted but pumped with adrenalin. KM is patched up and cycles on.  Other highlights of day one include the Golden Weaver birds building and re-building their nests a few feet away from us at Hans Cottage , a large crocodile, the kites flying overhead and the huge variety of butterflies, none of which stop anywhere long enough to be identified. My hand aches and Gideon the Classic Tours team leader kindly finds me ice as we finish, shattered beyond imagining, at 78 kilometres. “I’m fucked “ I announced to the group as I finally join them (I wasn’t the last). It was a discourteous but accurate assessment.


Slave River

The final coach trip to the hotel was long (3 hours) and included a stop at the Slave River exhibit which became sadly part of the ordeal – we are all spaced out and exhausted (and wet); then back we get onto the coach and back down round the houses via the Cape Coast road almost where we had started that morning (due to road works) thus a sense of futility descends over the weary bikers, sitting in our wet sweaty gear as the AC blasts us with it’s cool breath. The endless judders of the sleeping policemen merely add to the sense of misery, and terminate any thought of sleeping.

our bus is blessed

But we made it.  Experienced bikers Tim and Jim who’ve done ten each of these trips around the world said that it was the toughest “Day One” either of them had ever experienced.  Some solace.  That and the fact that it was cloudy all day long, a blessed relief.  But what will it be like when the sun comes out ?

Day Two

We are in a hotel in the town of Agona-Swedru and leave in convoy – or rather they all leave in convoy and I am left standing by my bike as Kofi unscrews the front gear frantically, finally telling me not to use it.  I have lost a long minute or two and become the way-back marker as we cycle through this bustling community at 7.30am,

all the shops are open, traffic is heavy: animals, motorcycles, taxis and lorries, and women….women carrying things on their heads – women with unfeasibly large bundles, trays, buckets, dustbins, or simply whole enclosed transparent boxes like shop windows with glass frontages and a variety of different things on sale. At one break a few days later we try to lift one of these giant baskets without even getting it off the floor, then watch as two women together lift it onto one of their heads, balanced on a cloth.

As I take it all in and try to snap a few shots the yellow line of bicycles disappears and Doctor Jeff gets annoyed and anxious. “Keep moving, stay in convoy!” His hand appears in my shot of Paulina directing cycle traffic at a busy junction.

And then on, through small villages and kids running to the roadside to see us whizz by, the sun starts to beat down and alongside us are gorgeous green butterflies, yellow butterflies like Brimstones, orange butterflies – Monarchs included, blue butterflies, white butterflies.  Banana trees, cassava, rich red soil and more curious villagers.  Slightly frustrating is the lack of interaction when we stop for a break – bananas, nuts, pineapple and water, beneath some shady spot in someone’s village, and they all just stare at us and we take pictures of them.  Sometimes it’s warm and fun, other times it’s frankly odd.

‘Allah is good’ sandal shop

Lunch is in a school which goes on around us as we wait for over an hour for the food to be cooked. People get tired and ratty. The muscles are really complaining and we’re hungry.  The food arrives and is good, but I notice that the Africans don’t eat with us, and mention it next day to Humphrey, whose crazy idea this all was, and thankfully people start to mix more on Day Three.

Then back on the Evolve Saddle which is a new design which all the pro bikers are curious about but no-one wants to try. By the end of the week I’ll be laughing at their nappy rash because it’s brand-new concept is “comfort”.

We cycle on, kilometre after kilometre, hill after hill, the front pack hanging onto Kobi’s every acceleration, the back markers puffing panting, walking up the hills and cycling down them. It is far far harder than I could ever have imagined.  The bike is uncomfortable and there is so much pressure on my hands. The heat is amazing, 90+ degrees. The hills are relentless. The schedule of kilometres per day seems absurd in these conditions, especially the off-road sections when you can’t go fast at all, can’t ever get into anything resembling middle gear let alone top gear, even if your bike would let you.  Patricia suffers 5 punctures today, 5 mobile pitstops, and lags farther and farther behind.  A gang of us at the back are beaten and climb into a car for the last section of the day.

get off and milk it

Annoying, since the car trails the back marker at 5 miles an hour but if the muscles won’t obey commands from the willpower what can you do? My heart is burtsting out of my chest on some of the hills and I’m not about to have a mid-life crisis African heart attack just for pride.  The final section of the day is a stupidly steep dirt track which we are invited to decline, and half the group do. The other half, lead valiantly by Kobi and including Fraser, assault the incline  in bottom gear, sinews straining, and are clapped into the hotel at the top by the car-riders. We are in Aburi, a hilltop town overlooking Accra with a pleasant climate, where most of our crew come from. No time to explore though, as tomorrow we start to cycle at 7.00am.  Once again Fraser and I are sharing a hotel room, but this time, in a rare development, we are sharing a bed. A “large bed.”

Day Three.

The morning routine – up, shower, pack – three bags : one suitcase (back of the truck), one handluggage (back of the truck) and one day bag (back seat of 4×4). Day bag has Things You May Need Which Cannot Be Carried On A Bike. Then breakfast, then Fraser reminds me to take malaria tablet, then warm up and stretch, check the bike, spray on Deet and factor 50 sunblock, and then, get on your bike, take your protein pills and put your helmet on….

Feel up for it today after that little rest in the car, and we head off back through Aburi by 4×4 – a few mad ones deciding to cycle down the aforementioned Very Steep Dirt Track. This means braking constantly for fifteen minutes – but not too much because you’ll skid. Tricky. Mark comes a cropper after announcing at a porridge-less breakfast that “even I’m feeling nervous about this hill”. He is cut and bleeds all over the red dirt.

Sometimes it’s harder going downhill

We rejoin the group at the bottom of Very Steep Hill, Mark bandanged, and head off behind Kobi northwards towards Koforidua on another red dirt road fringed by tropical green. I am full of life today and start with the leaders, arriving after a couple of stupid hills at the first break, once again in a village school. We refresh and move on.

Jim Carter valiantly cycles up another long hill in bottom gear

This is a glorious day – hot sun beating down, glorious red bishop birds just in eyesight, butterflies everywhere, vultures cicrling at times. I feel I can do this relentless cycling thing, my body has acclimatised, I don’t mind the heat and I can manage the cranky bike… I can even cycle uphill.

And the smiling children in every village shouting “Oborooni!” in glee as they see the white people on the bikes is pretty special too, waving, smiling, running alongside us, their mothers waving, guys giving us thumbs up or just laughing at our foolishness.  Special mention for the crew looking after us – Boat, Prince, Kofi, Kobi, Lovelace, Ben, Efori, Cassava, Lydia, Paulina and Irene, handing us water, fixing our bikes , showing directions at all the junctions with their yellow Go Ghana T-shirts. All the cyclists are in yellow too (if we remember to wash them overnight) provided by secret hero Gary, they are very cool, especially when modelled by the ladies :

Alison, Mel, Lou, Tricia

We come into a bustling market town and push the bikes through, being offered yams, drinks, toothpaste, shoes, everything under the african sun. At the next stop Boat explains palm wine to us and Fraser and I as representatives of Brighton obviously volunteer to try it with chilli, pepper and onion. Delicious !

Palm wine is sweeter the earlier in the day you drink it…

Fearing it will slow me down I head off in the middle of the group but palm wine is rather like rocket fuel and the day glides by til lunch, when the whole group finally start to mix and talk together. Kobi gives us each beautiful glass bracelets and we are touched and thank him. The entire village watches us take a lunch hour like a captive audience watching every move, fascinated.


The afternoon is tough as we re-join the tarmac and battle into Koforidua, capital of the Eastern Region, with the rest of the traffic. Real mental stress as hill after hill appears round each corner and the muscles are not responding.  A regroup on the edge of town breaks down quickly as riders are posted on junctions to signal the next corner. I stand at one corner exhausted for half an hour before Hans from Sweden turns up, and we head off together to find the hotel.   We eventually arrive in a rage as no markers have been left for us but dinner is good, there is wifi, and Fraser and I have separate beds again.

Day Four.

The exit from Koforidua is slick and organised with yellow T-shirted crew on every conceivable corner to direct us out of town. Then the hills start again. On tarmac now, possibly more of a grind, long snaking hills going UP, relentless, merciless, strength-sapping and in the case of my hand, physically painful. The Doc gives me paracetamol every morning to take the edge off the hand issue. People cycle alongside and start to talk about stuff but I have no energy for chat, only for pedalling ever onwards. We hit lush green countryside, really beautiful scenery and suddenly there’s a village school and a long snaking line of kids –  it’s a demonstration of schoolchildren, protesting in their blue school uniforms about money and needing support from their parents.  Today I feel I will stop a little more often – just to take pictures – because it’s all flashing by me too quickly, I’m not taking it in, Ghana has become a blur. Too much cycling, not enough Ghana !  becomes my bumper sticker headline, as 21st century folk can only think in tabloid.  I think we all feel the same way – but there are two distinct groups emerging among the cyclists – those who choose these kinds of trips to challenge themselves, and can often be found at the head of the pack following local hero Kobi (previous representative of Ghana at 400, 800 and 1500 metres) who is always at the front – we’re not allowed to overtake him (did you hear that Mark ??) and these include brothers Neil and Gary, Mark, Fraser and Suzi with others from time to time taking a spell at the front – Claire, Gideon, Colin, myself for one glorious morning. A quick word about Colin – he is 70 years young and regularly overtakes my cycling uphill. He is not a cyclist. He is however a horse-rider, so perhaps he is made of leather and has thighs of steel. He is my new hero.

Ben leaps from a tree into the cascading waters of Boti Falls

But now there is a regular group at the back of proceedings which includes my weedy self, struggling with yet another hill, Louella, who also has an Evolve saddle and thus does NOT have nappy rash of any kind, Mel who has a bad back, Tricia who cycles along with a buddhist incantation of ‘cold beer cold beer’ like a carrot dangling in front of her,  and David, London lawyer rather like myself who has under-prepared for this physical assault.  Behind all of these is Doctor Jeff from Classic Tours and then local ball of energy Lovelace, the back marker, who always cycles behind the last cyclist, then behind him is the 4×4, behind them the truck with all our luggage and the spare bicycles. Somewhere between these two loose groups are the 3 personable Swedes : Frederick, Hans and Anders who rarely are seen beyond talking distance from each other, and even more rarely seen pushing the bicycle up the hill;  Georgina, Humphrey’s neice and Colin’s daughter who has calves of iron, and the sweetest disposition;  Alison from London who has done this before and has quiet determination;  Tim and Kien Mien lovely London gents who often but not always cycle together;  Dr Robert Spring, fit as a fiddle and attempting to record frogs in ponds etc, and finally but not finally Mr Jim Carter whose fitness, while not visible to the naked eye, is quite exemplary and who is an excellent actor and cyclist of ten previous “challenges”.

Mark, Anders, Hans, Neil, Frederick

My fitness by contrast with Jim’s is not visible.  I can often be seen in the standard defeated position of walking along pushing my bike because by today I am taking each hill as a personal insult, an adversary which has already beaten me to a quivering pulp simply by existing in my eyeline. Tim, an experienced cyclist advises me “don’t look up” but then why be here at all ?   It’s hard enough concentrating my overheated mind on ten yards of road immediately in front of me, searching for potholes, rocks and other distractions, but I do like to look up now and again and see where I am in the world.  And the views today are stunning.  After one immense downhill run which must have  gone on for over 2 kilometres (there is a god) the payment becomes immediately obvious – a hill going UP for at least 2 kilometres.  I get off and push.  Lou joins me and we find the breath to talk about our dead pets, both recently bereaved, and we walk uphill in 100 degrees weeping quietly.  My beautiful boy cat Chester died two weeks before I came on this trip and I’m still not ready to let him go.  I had a tattoo made of his actual pawprint just before I left Brighton.

the mark of Chester’s paw on my left arm

At the top of Endless Hill – a waterfall – Boti Falls, which is spectacular and a welcome cool relief from the overhead sun which beats down all morning.  Lovelace and Ben from the crew dive in and splash around, the rest of us take pictures and enjoy the sight of a river running over a cliff into a large pool.  There’s something about waterfalls – (is it the ions ? What are these ?) which is very pleasing.

Then, sadly it’s back on those bikes and off we go again with only a couple of bananas (small local ones) and a bag of peanuts for salt. Weariness sets in again, and the afternoon is a blur of small villages where the people have nothing, ragged shirts and dresses hang on lines, as Stevie Wonder sings “their clothes are torn but never are they dirty” and my abiding memory of the afternoon is putting my bike up onto the lorry and climbing into the 4×4 for a slow drive watching people push their bikes up yet another long long hill through a monsoon-esque downpour to the KitKat Club in Begoro and thence to St Monica’s Guest House, which has no electricity in the room and cold water shower only.  Remarkably though, we see no mosquitos, dinner is good, Star beer is better and I feel like we are truly bedding down in the African bush.

Day Five

Earliest start yet today – we are in the saddle by 7am and cycling down the hills of Begoro and down towards Lake Volta. It’s not all downhill by any means here, and after Fraser breaks his chain on the road out of town and we’ve all gone up half a dozen more red dirt hills we are ready for our first water- break, this time surrounded by centipedes.  Back on the road again and – come on Brown, you can do this without having a heart attack, just ask your muscles to OBEY (in the words of Shepherd Fairey) and then suddenly we’re going downhill and we can see in the distance the waters of Lake Volta – dammed in 1965 and the inhabitants of the valley relocated further up the hills – it is the largest reservoir in the world.  Despite that, we can see the other side, and half-way down the hill we stop en masse for an all-too-rare photo opportunity.  Here’s our leader Humphrey Barclay with some of his team :

Kobi, Pauline, Humphrey (Nana Gyearbour), Efori with Lake Volta below

Our hard-working chefs, Peter and Jessica, Ghanaian rastas

Then it’s a proper freewheel downhill at frightening speeds – if you came off on one of these corners it would certainly be broken bones at least – but that’s part of the thrill (isn’t it?).  Down at lakeside the track becomes sandy which is almost impossible to cycle through and Humphrey, who is recording the whole trip on his camcorder, takes great delight in watching us one by one founder in the sand.   On to a small town where one of the Tafo Chiefs – Chief of Drums, has come to greet us and the village elders of Mpaam, so before lunch is served we troop off to the Chief’s Palace ( a few mud dwellings around a mud square) and witness the ceremony of welcome, the linguist to the Chief’s incantation over the libation and the sharing of a few sips of…Schnapps.  Yes that’s right. Don’t ask.  A sacred drink in these parts.  Lunch is tremendous as ever, cooked by Peter and Jessica our local Ghanaian rastafarians from Aburi (Rita Marley has a presence in that estimable town).   After a brief rest surrounded by local children and once again with what seems like most of the townsfolk treating our presence as a show which is not to be missed, we continue past chillis baking in the sun, through sand, rocks, glimpses of the lake, and more sand.  But this is my kind of cycling – reminding me somewhat of the South Downs Way (hotter obviously and with more sand) but the terrain and the grit and gravel and the warmth of the afternoon is making me feel familiar feelings.  I’ve volunteered to represent the cyclists at the upcoming football match in Tafo the day after we arrive – and asked for volunteers, ie people who would like to play.  Only a handful have come forward, many have declined and so I ask the locals to join us – Kobi, Lovelace, Efori, Ewusu the policeman and Ben all agree to play alongside us at the exhibition game the day after tomorrow.   I will captain in the centre of defence alongside the three Swedes, Fraser is up front and Claire will play right midfield.  Do we have a chance ?   I’m afraid not in hell – I rather suspect we will lose 27-1, and I’m not entirely sure where the 1 is going to come from, but I’ve put all the Ghanaian youth up front to score us some goals.

Back on the bike my right hand is now wrapped in a bandage fashioned by Peter and Jessica, underneath my cycling glove, but the pains shooting through my hand like lightening strikes are causing me huge concern.  Dr Robert thinks I may have carpal tunnel syndrome and may require an operation when I return to the UK “basically you have to stop cycling”.  Er…thanks Doc !   Second opinion Doctor Jeff reckons I have a bruise on my hand which is constricting the nerves and making the palm of my hand numb. He’s not fancying the electric shock needles anymore than I am but hey – one more day and we’re there.  We all stop at a bridge and take on water, and the three women carrying chillis stop and bathe (fully clothed!) and then place the unfeasibly heavy baskets back onto their heads.  Baskets which we cannot even budge let alone lift.  Clearly we have all led soft lives.

Weedy European cyclists rest as African women walk past carrying things on their heads

Once again I feel I have no choice but to get into Humphrey’s car for the last two hours of the day – my hand is killing me, and the bike’s handlebars won’t raise to take the strain back onto the saddle.  The road is incredibly rough here, and the sand takes all power out of your legs, but up to this point I was enjoying it.  Maybe I should just have taken a couple of paracetamol.   We drive on and finally reach the beautiful lakeside village of Asubone, which has a campsite set up for us on a hillside, one small tent each, cold-water bucket-wash in a stand-up enclosure (male and female) and camp fire with singing.   Deet is applied, and local teacher Steven generously allows me to charge up my iphone/camera (all pix on this blog taken by iphone4) on his three-pin plug socket for a couple of hours and I meet some other teachers including Evans Osei (hi Evans!).   Steven has been at the school for six years and just been made headmaster.  Not his choice – education is government-run and centralised, and teachers are posted out to where they are needed.  But the local kids are a credit to him and his staff, they surround Fraser and I sitting by the fire and ask me questions about Chelsea, school, England, anything they can think of, so gentle,  some touching my leg because it is exotically white, all wanting to be close, all really sweet teenagers of about fifteen or sixteen.  So very unlike our local youth here in England.  The tent is small and slopes gently downhill.  I am exhausted and despite the excitable crew members talking until fuck-o’clock I fall asleep as my head hits the towel-made pillow.

Asubone campsite on the shore of Lake Volta

Day 6

Three mosquitos get in at 5am and two die – the other bites me twice. We wander down to the lake after breakfast (oh porridge I love you) and it’s such a strange feeling – a group of cyclists in yellow jerseys walking through mud huts, chickens with red ribbons tied onto their wings (so people can’t steal them), goats and kids climbing up mud walls, and there’s the lake with long canoes, and here we are on the water now, bailing out frantically before we sink and contract bilharzia in the waters of Lake Volta.  I walk back through the village making friends and chatting to villagers.  Lovely people.

Asubone village, Volta lakeside

Dawn, Lake Volta

She puts red ribbons on her chickens so they can’t be stolen

And from here to Tafo – the last day of cycling I can scarcely believe it – it’s all uphill.  All morning.  But I’m going to do this regardless of my legs, my hand or any other excuses my body is trying to throw into my path, I’m going to cycle up that damned hill into Tafo.  And off we go – first more sand, rocks, mud, puddles, red dirt, then tarmac uphill.  Uphill baby.  We sing :

“we are going, heaven knows where we are going, we know we will;

we will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, we know we will….

…….it will be hard we know, and the road will be muddy and rough

but we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, we know we will”

Osibisa 1974, a Ghanaian/Caribbean UK band whom I saw at Sussex University when I was at school.   The circle turns, the cycle wheels turn, the earth turns, we push on.

Delegation of Tafo Elders greet the cyclists below the rock God Bruku on the last day of cycling

Then delegations start to appear to meet us on the road, Tafo cyclists, local schoolkids, some elders below the towering fetish rock Bruku, more hills more long hills.  I have to get off and push then get back on and get into low gear. And one more water stop before we stop – halfway up another hill.  Kofi the motorbiker starts to give people a push with his right foot on the back gear of their bike, a little rush of speed which lasts fifteen seconds.  We see an aerial which surely now MUST be the top of the hill ? Despair and hope mix.  The plan is we will re-group at Humphrey’s house take on water, then triumphantly ride into town.  Humphrey Barclay is a chief in Tafo – since his friend Christopher Gyearbour Asante (Matthew in C4’s Desmonds) died, Humphrey was made Chief of Development by Kwahu-Tafo and he has run the charity Friends Of Tafo for the last ten years, raising money for a library, a high school, an internet cafe, a musical college.  And this year for fresh water boreholes.  His offical title is Nana Gyearbour (Nana=Chief) since they gave him Christopher’s name as a title.  And Humphrey has a house on the edge of town.  As we round the corner at the top of the hill, my eyes fill with water and my heart is in my throat – hundreds of schoolkids line the street, cheering, holding hand-painted banners reading “Cyclists We Salute You”, “Your Pain, Our Gain”, “We Love You Sweden and UK”, “Leave Your Hearts in Tafo” and more, there are TV crews, a brass band, Humphrey is recording it all as ever on his camera, children run alongside, I start giving high fives to those on my right with my injured hand, no pain now just a swollen feeling in my throat, a swelling in my chest and I am overwhelmed with a brand new feeling which I have no name for.  All that pain all that effort all that whingeing all those moments of excruciation disappear in a second and are replaced by a surge of – what shall I call it ?  Pride ? Not quite. Relief ? Certainly. But something else I think.  Something to do with doing a thing which actually matters. Which Actually Matters. Quite extraordinary.  The brass band walks into Humphrey’s garden and plays on, the students come and dance, we drink water and shake hands with each other, congratulations, and a Ghana flag appears, dancing on the lawn, Colin’s wife Rebecca is here – Humphreys’ sister. We are all weeping, although perhaps not visibly…

Arrival in Tafo – Paulina and Lovelace dance with flag of Ghana

Nana’s lawn with welcome banners for the cyclists

And then we regroup and ride three abreast into town – behind the brass band who are walking and the schoolkids and students and other cyclists and anyone who wants to join in.  Which means we have to cycle at less than 5 mph which is very very hard all over again.  But no injuries occur and we arrive at the Chief’s Palace, park our bicycles and go inside.  There is Humphrey, (now Nana Gyearbour) seated at the head of the room alongside Nana Tafohene the Chief of Tafo resplendent in robes and gold jewellry, and other elders.

Nana Gyearbour resplendent in robes, Chief Tafohene and the linguist and fetish priestess

Boat, the Chief’s son, is now robed and playing the talking drums. There is a man on the horn of a cow blowing it like a bugle, and whenever the Chief speaks the drum and the horn accompany him – or rather translate for all those outside the yard who cannot hear his voice. Once again we are greeted and we drink beer, shake hands and the formalities done we troop out to ride our bicycles one more time round the corner to the Durbar – after lunch I should not neglect to mention.

drumming at the durbar

Durbar is one of those colonial words – it meant a court in the Raj, here it is the town square, set aside for a ceremonial occasion and we cycle in and round the square past the packed seats, the dancing girls, the royal family seated opposite us and the drummers, and then take our seats in the stand.

The choir from the royal college of music, Kwahu-Tafo

This particular ceremony is in our honour and there are speeches, musical interludes from the magnificent choir, drumming and a fetish priest who drips hot boiling water onto my head (and everyone else’s!) in the centre of the durbar, more speeches from Humphrey, more dancing girls, more speeches from the Chief, and collection of a certificate of thanks from the town council.

Nana Gyearbour walks with retinue to the microphone

The ceremony was supposed to last for six hours, with far far longer speeches – they like a speech here I gather, but thankfully it’s all been cut “short” and we’re still in our cycling gear from that hill-climb.  It’s a welcome reserved for royalty one imagines and we feel the warmth, the gratitude and the honour bestowed upon us.

fetish priest is possessed by the drumming at the durbar ceremony of welcome

It’s an honour that half of the group wish had extended to the hotel rooms which are at the bottom end of the african scale, but frankly, the reasons why we are here in the first place far outweigh any feelings I have about the comforts of my room. There is a toilet a dustbin of water in the shower a bed and a lightswitch. And no mosquitos. We walk back through town, a local child pushes my bike for me and the feeling is grand.

It was his honour, and mine too

Then it’s back onto the Evolve saddle for a few hundred more yards – all uphill naturally – to the hotel.  Guest house.  Whatever. That evening we eat nearby and drink a great deal of beer for we have cycled across Ghana on behalf of a town full of people that we know little or nothing about and who have greeted us as heroes.  My sleep is deep.

Day 7

We are shown the results of our efforts after breakfast and the rains – walked round the town in groups by local teachers and kids, we end up at the one borehole well which has been built so far with money we have raised – the bulk of the sponsorship had to be in by the end of June – and take it in turns to pump clean fresh water and yes – drink it.  I am proud of this effort, proud of this concrete achievement, both on behalf of myself and my sponsors, but also for all of us who cycled those gruelling miles.  All worth it.  All worth it.

Fresh water for Kwahu-Tafo from a bore-hole well

We walk on through the town, visit another, older well by the mosque, buy some oranges for half-time at the football match, visit the library, meet Grace the headmistress of the High School, a local film director who demands and gets my email address, we visit the local Butuase Waterfall where the local teenagers frolic, then walk back to the High School for lunch and the football match.

Girl in the Butuase Waterfall, Kwahu-Tafo

I talk with a gentleman and note that Ghana, to me, is very reminiscent of St Lucia in the Caribbean where my wife’s family come from and which I know well.  The same vegetation, the same food on offer – yam, plantain, chicken, fish, rice, the same faces, the same colours on the buildings, the same weather, the same tradition of spilling some alcohol on the ground ‘for the ancestors’ before you drink, the same red earth.  The only notable differences – the language and the music.  The music in St Lucia has been quadrille & Calypso which becomes Soca – the music in Ghana has been palm wine guitar and highlife, now Hip-Life the 21st century version. The main language in Ghana is Twi.  Having visited the Slave Fortress on Day one before we started cycling and hearing how many millions of Africans passed through the Gate Of No Return on the way to the dreaded Middle Passage which if they survived would become a slave plantation in the Caribbean and separation from their tribe, I was curious as to how many links remained between Africa and the Caribbean. I speak the St Lucian language french creole patois rather badly, which is a mixture of french, english and african words (apparently) so I tested one of the words (which wasn’t french or english) on my host. “Bodiyeh” means God in St Lucian dialect I said. What is it in Twi ? “Obadiyeh” he said, it means Creator.  I had a moment.  A big sacred word had survived the crossing and the division of tribes.   It made everything seem so close, so recent, so terrible.  Here I was in Africa hearing where my wife’s family had come from, quite recently.  A few generations ago.

Kwahu-Tafo, Ghana, Nr St. Lucia

The other great thing Ghana and the Caribbean have in common is religion – notably Christianity. It’s not the whole story – see the fetish priests above, but Catholicism is very strong in St Lucia and here in Ghana it’s Presbyterianism, Methodism and 7th-Day Adventists.  Many of the shops and businesses are named after religious catchphrases – such as Jesus Blood Is Sacred Hairdresser, or God Is On Your Side shoe shop.  Had no time to take pictures of any of these except this one in Tafo :

God’s Time Is Best fashion & decoration centre, Tafo

We walked on up to the High School where the TV was on and groups of students watched Sudan 0 Ghana 2.  I remembered last summer’s World Cup in South Africa and watching the Ghana team lose on penalties to Uruguay in Soccer City Soweto, the calabash stadium after one of the worst pieces of cheating ever witnessed in a football match – Suarez handball on the line, Gyan missing the subsequent penalty. Talking about this famous incident with the locals it still rankles, still hurts and will do so for many many many years to come. The cheats prospered and Suarez now plays for Liverpool and earns millions.

Tafo supermarket

And then it’s time for the game. Half my players haven’t turned up yet but the ref wants me in the centre circle. I’ve pulled an important muscle in the pre-match warm-up in classic Brown style, but decide to play on. Have little choice frankly.  We hold out valiantly for most of the first half and our offside trap is working a dream as four old Europeans step up in time to catch a gang of marauding 20-something Ghanaians who ought to be thrashing the pants off us. But Dr Jeff is finally beaten by a perfect through ball which springs the trap and we are one-nil down at half time. For some reason the referee plays 20 minutes for the first half (agreed) and 40 minute for the second, by which time we are all broken with exhaustion not surprisingly. I have already limped off as has Hans, but we score a goal through Owusu the policeman and finish the match losing 3-1 which frankly is a valiant effort. Special mentions to Suzi and Claire for sterling work on the right wing, and Fred, Anders and Hans in the defence, Gary in midfield, Fraser up front and Jeff in goal. Pictures, teddy-bear trophies, shaking hands, and we limp home for a shower and a final party at Humphrey’s house tonight, where we are presented with medals made from coconut, handwoven local scarves with our names on and a calabash. The choir sing the national anthem with us in four -part harmony and then provide us with one more tingle moment when they sing for us on the steps. After all the aches and pains, the electric shocks in my hand, the heat, the hills, the stresses and strains, it’s been one of the finest things I’ve ever done.

Thanks for reading. To donate to Friends Of Tafo, go to or go to my Virgin Moneygiving Page at

Colin and Ben, heroic cyclists

October 2011

Painting I bought in Accra the day we arrived.

World Cup 2010 in South Africa part one – Cape Town

Cape Town June 17th

– we land in South Africa to the news that the local team Bafana Bafana representing the host nation have lost 3-0 to Uruguay while we were flying.  Uruguay are destined to be the party poopers at this World Cup, and everyone’s least favourite team. A kind of gloom is on the land as a result –  it’s winter but more like an English summer’s day on Table Mountain. The q for the cable car is so long we don’t bother. Robben Island is booked up all weekend. The English have arrived – all 20,000 of us, the best-supported team at this World Cup, though whether the boys deserve it is open to question. We watch Argentina take South Korea apart in a restaurant in Camps Bay as surfers catch a wave a few feet away. Very white this part of SA. Later that day France capitulate against Mexico giving Bafana Bafana a sliver of hope.

June 18th

– my birthday. We drive to Cape Point, the southernmost tip of Africa, pausing for baboons crossing the road, and searching in vain for penguins. Germany lose to Serbia and we drive back through Chapman’s Peak a stunning rocky cliff road that rivals the best of Amalfi or California. Then the ritual preparation for The England. Draped in flaggery and clutching our tickets we take a local minibus to the stadium just a couple miles up from our B&B in Seapoint.

greenpoint stadium june 18

The vuvuzela massive makes it’s presence felt, the stadium is a masterpiece and quite a thrilling structure, the weather is warm, and then, oh dear, the game. How such successful practitioners of the art of football produce quite such a turgid display of misplaced passes shin bounces, pathetic headers and off-target excuses for shots is beyond my analysis, but the regular torture of watching England play football is comfortably exceeded by this woeful and inept display. Two chaps behind us cannot believe their eyes and they voice all of our thoughts over the 90 minutes. “Sort yerselves out for christsakes”. “What’s going on?”. “I can’t believe what I’m watching – fuckin sort it out!”. The English footballers were clearly unable to sort it out. Add to the disappointment a rather large contingent of the England around Jenny and I singing “You can stick your vuvuzela up your arse” and the evening was complete. Quite the worst evening I have ever had on my birthday. We did go along to Norman Cook’s party after the game, picking up some S African musicians onto our guest list, and it did cheer us up somewhat thank god. But clearly England were not going to challenge for the World Cup. We felt bemused, stunned, angry, confused. Not good.

June 19th

Long Street cafe has the games, the internet and a decent menu, and a mixed clientele leading us to believe that perhaps people are starting to get it together over here.  Holland eventually beat Japan but Ghana and Cameroon struggle to make an impact and Africa is not being represented well at this tournament. We drink in Camps Bay later and meet some of the characters – Billy The Bee has gathered a large crowd of English many of whom have done World Cups before – including of course myself and Jenn. This is her fourth World Cup and my fifth – and various tournament veterans swap stories from Japan/Korea 02, France98, Germany06 and USA94.   After convincing the locals that Valentine is a member of the Ivory Coast squad we drive off in search of the next bar but it never appears and after 90 minutes, rather like England, we give up.

June 20th

New Zealand celebrate an early goal v world champions Italy

To the FIFA Fan Park in Independence Square where Mandela made his first speech after being released from 28 years in prison – the square and District 6 in general reeks of history but the fanpark is terribly disappointing – over-policed, very corporate and empty save for a few hundred locals and their face-painted kids, a smattering of soon-to-be-gutted Italians and four chaps from New Zealand in tights. We watch the second half in an Italian restaurant in Seapoint where our waiter (who looks Sri Lankan but sounds Cape) tells us that Cape Town types haven’t started sharing their wealth with the nation yet. The sun sets. Back to Long Street and a search for the perfect African vibe finally settling on Bob’s Bar where the almost entirely black clientele mingle with european footie fans from England Portugal and elsewhere to watch the big one : Brazil v Ivory Coast.  This is the African World Cup Final. The pool table is covered, the lights go down, Jen sits next to a very busty Nigerian lady named Candy who is waiting for her Swedish boyfriend to come and marry her, at which point she will ‘clean her pumpum’.  Sandy and her two friends are working girls and supporting Brazil, to the point where whenever Brazil score (3 times) Sandy attempts to do the same by waving her two giant Brazilian-flag-painted breasts at the middle-aged England fans in the bar, shouting “I’m a winner!”   But when Drogba scores for the Ivory Coast the roar is huge and african and electric. It is amazing how the africans all support the other teams from the continent – unheard of elsewhere on planet football. But the first black World Cup needs an African Success. I’ll never forget the intensity which came over the chaps playing pool when one by one they found a chair and lined up along the green baize, intent on the game, the World Cup meant everything to them. I imagined the scene being played out in bars and homes and clubs around the whole continent, around the whole world.

Fan Park, Cape Town

June 21st

Lunchtime kick-off at Green Point stadium and we’re back there in the rain with tickets for Portugal v North Korea, who are a bit of a collector’s item,unseen in a World Cup since their ’66 heroics. We see their “fans” – apparently Chinese actors pretending to be Korean – and are seated with the thousands of Portugese.

Portugal singing the anthem v North Korea

They sing and shout and eventually cheer as Portugal demolish North Korea 7-0.  Ronaldo finally scores rather like a trained seal after two barren years for the national team. It’s a big scoreline but North Korea collapsed in the 2nd half.  Later we eat wild boar and ostrich watching Chile and then take pictures from Signal Hill before going back to Lavender Lodge for the Spanish game watching in bed as we need to get up at five the following morning for a long drive down the garden route to Port Elizabeth.

World Cup in South Africa 2010 – part two : Bafana Bafana

5am Lavender Lodge, Seapoint. We rise and shower, breakfast and hit the road while it’s still night. Driving east through the city and out past Khayelitsha towards the winelands. It’s too early in the morning to drop in on my HIV orphans project  which I visited last time I was here – but we’ll be back. As we climb the impressive mountain road the lights of False Bay twinkle below us and disappear. The faint glimmer of dawn is on the horizon. Layers of mist swirl across the road, a tree-top here, the distant mountains poking through the blanket of soft cloud, the car eating up the kilometres.  Gas stops are clean, peopled by africans of varied hues, and you never fill your own tank – someone does it, wipes the windscreen, asks if you want the oil and water checked, gets tipped and on you go. We spot ostrich in a field, then in the back of a lorry. As the sun rises the mist starts to break up and melt and the full glory of the countryside is revealed, just one long unbroken road stretching out before us.

dawn on the garden route

Our deadline is 4pm – when Bafana Bafana kick off against France in the make-or-break final group game – or to be more accurate our deadline is 3.50 because we both want to hear our hearts beating when they play the national anthem of South Africa, N’kosi Sikelele Afrika, and wherever we are on the road we have to be part of it. So I drive like a demon until lunch, which, appropriately for the fabled Garden Route, we take in a Garden Centre. Surreal but there we are at outside tables with fry-ups, coffee and tea, delicious. Back on the road. All the land we drive through is farmland here, so the chances of seeing wild animals is slight. Nysna is a stunning break in the road, a great bay, a cliff-break to the sea, a small busy community. We move on through Humansdorp and reach Port Elizabeth where the road sweeps down to the beach and the Indian Ocean. I’ve been driving for eight hours and it’s 3pm. We push on driving north towards Addo on a small one lane road. Suddenly : zebra, wildebeest. It’s another farm. Then : monkeys, on the side of the road, in the bushes, a whole family with babies. That’s not a farm ! Thrilled we push on to Addo National Park and drive in at 3.45, park up, buy two beers and sit down in a great thatched dwelling with no walls, open to the bush, but crucially with a TV screen suspended from the roof and a few hundred South Africans gathered to wish, and hope, and pray. They need to win 5-0.  The anthem is immense, and touching when a six-year old girl behind us joins in.

Watching Bafana Bafana's last game in Addo

The game is lively. A Frenchman is sent off for the elbow. High drama. Bafana Bafana score after 20 minutes, then another, then another which is disallowed. We can scarcely believe it. 2-0 at half-time. In the other game, Uruguay are beating Mexico 1-0. Come on bafana !! Three more goals against ten men !  But it isn’t to be, they huff and they puff, the French score a goal but are still beaten 2-1 by our hosts South Africa, the greatest result in their history. France are bottom of the group and out, and so are Bafana Bafana sadly, on goal difference to Mexico, who proceed with Uruguay.  The locals are sad but not gutted I sense, and indeed they recover quickly, after all they are still hosting this tournament, and mindful of their role they brush themselves down, become philosophers (like us all) and whole-heartedly throw their support behind all the remaining African teams in the competition, and most notably Ghana. What is striking to us untravelled Europeans is the enthusiasm that white people have for Ghana, considering both themselves and Ghana to be Africans. And thus we learn an early lesson in south african culture. It’s not just black and white. They’re a rainbow nation, and they are moving forward. Together.

Next day we safari in our own vehicle through the park. There’s a map outside the office where they flag sightings from the dawn patrol, and since this park is the size of Buckinghamshire we need to target our morning.  Kudu are immediately in evidence, large graceful beasts, and it isn’t long before we see our elephants. A large family slowly crossing the road in front of us, eating, travelling, not bothered with us or the few other cars here. Magnificent spectacle it is to see them getting on with their day and we take endless photos.


We are not allowed to leave our vehicles here as it is deemed to be their space, and besides, it’s not safe !  Further down the road we spot a warthog with his wiggly tail, then a bird squawk beside the car alerts us to movement and a mongoose flashes by pouncing on a mouse. A kill right beside us. Then the leaves shake and it’s gone. Further up the hill are a group of eland with their elegant long horns, more ostrich and loads more, literally tons more elephants. We carry on driving into Port Elizabeth (PE) where England are due to play Slovenia at 4pm. We’ve had a wonderful wildlife day and decide not to try for tickets (later learn that people are giving them away and the ground isn’t full) but to try the Fifa Fanpark instead and get a different vibe. We make the first of many mistakes by asking a taxi driver fixing his engine where the fanpark is. “Summerstrand” he says with authority and waves us in the direction so off we go. Fifteen minutes later we are asking at the gas station where the fan park is – “next to the Casino, you can’t miss it”.  Turns out to be a funfair so now we ask a policewoman (with ten minutes to kick off and both of us getting frazzled with endless circling moves around PE). It’s in the cricket ground !!!  We finally park up, walk in through the frisk security, and indeed here we are at the Oval Port Elizabeth. Hundreds here, all locals from what we can tell, generally supporting England – we can tell from the painted faces and scarves.

south africans supporting england in PE cricket ground

This is rather moving, since the night before their beloved Bafana Bafana had been knocked out of the tournament thus ending the hosts’ interest in the World Cup, yet the very next day they’re actually painting their faces with the red on white cross of St George and cheering on the uninspired millionaires Gerrard Lampard Rooney and Defoe – oh what a goal !! Come on England !!!  Half time we mingle with the locals, eat local food (kudu burgers ? “proper african food” says the white lady serving from a caravan) and wait forever for a cup of tea. Defoes’s goal is replayed on the big screen. C’mon we can do this. Hope springs eternal. But it wasn’t to last – a brief moment of inspiration, a flickering match in the dark which cannot light the way to the poetry of football, to touch, to control, to pass, to cross, to shoot, to score. We grind out a 1-0 win and actually laugh as John (poison) Terry throws himself horizontally at the ball in a surreal attempt to deflect a Slovenian shot. USA score against Algeria in the 92nd minute and we finish second in the group, but without deserving anything from a weak group of teams, we are through to the knockout stages with a chance to turn it round. So who will it be ?  Serbia ? Ghana ? Germany ???

mummy warthog protects her two warthoglets, Addo

World Cup 2010 in South Africa – part 3 : please not penalties

24 June

Addo – We wake before dawn because we’ve signed up for the 7am guided safari, on the understanding that more animals will be visible and moving around at that time of day. Breakfast is delayed until we return. It’s cold and we huddle in an open sided vehicle as our guide explains that we may not see any animals. Oh. But once inside the ‘wildlife area’ – so-called because amidst all this farmland, the citrus groves, sheep grazing and steers, the only place you’ll find wild animals – ie ‘the big five’ : elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard or the smaller (?) six : hippo, giraffe, jackal, hyena, warthog, eland – is inside an electric fence patrolled by wardens. This comes as a shock to me – my imagined Africa has already disappeared, certainly here, probably in Kenya, Zambia and elsewhere too. We shiver and wait for a sighting, cameras ready. A jackal, almost as soon as we’re inside, skulking through the scrub. Kudu. Elephants more elephants, bless ’em. Then a long wait, a long drive and – nothing. A driver tells us a lion ‘just crossed the road’ but since there are only six lion in this giant park we don’t seriously expect to see it. Nonethless we stare at the bushes for ten minutes. Then as we turn around for the drive back to camp, a crashing noise to the right and a huge lone Cape Buffalo runs acorss the road directly in front of us and into the bush on the left. Cameras click madly and I get one great shot of him, an aging male, not with the family any more, wandering around solo.

3 subs no goalie

At breakfast we discuss last night’s results : Germany beat Ghana 1-0 with a beautiful goal by young star Özil, but the Aussies went out with a bang beating Serbia 2-1 thus Ghana have qualified for the 2nd round – the only African team left in the competition.  Had we topped our group we’d have played them in Rustenburg, but that pleasure now falls to the USA, while we just need to drive a few hours north to Bloemfontein and a meeting with the young German team. Thrilling prospect though it is, our plans and all of the 20,000 England fans out here are now in disarray : we have rooms booked in Joburg, booked on the assumption that we would win the group. German and Dutch fans have made similar arrangements, but their teams had the dignity to deliver. Ah well. We hit the road for a short (3-hour) drive to our next B&B in Graaf Reinet and wave goodbye to Addo.

Oranges oranges everywhere, oranges and lemons by the acre. Or hectare probably. Cape fruit. Outspan. All the dreaded symbols of apartheid that we boycotted all those years ago, leaving them to rot in the fruitbowl if mother made the short-sighted error of actually buying the stuff. All so different now – black majority rule, a country looking forward not back, we need to get with the programme. Monkeys sit on fence posts by the roadside but if you slow down to take a picture they jump off and lollop away in gangs like teenage boys.

vervet monkey

The road here goes on forever, rather like those desert roads in New Mexico and Arizona, the endless horizon, the deep blue sky, the odd vehicle. It’s exhilerating stuff and we stop in random Boer towns for gas and drinks, the accent is strong and the skin weathered. There is cactus, more monkey gangs and a field of blue cranes. As we reach Graaf Reinet and fill up, the chap at the till thinks that “3 teams can win the World Cup. Brazil, Argentina….and Ghana!”  It’s the first indication we get since last night’s game of how the african imagination has embraced the Ghanaian campaign and will follow them all the way – to the final ? Who knows ??  The B&B is delicious – cats and dogs lazing in the sunlit garden, tea made for us on arrival, a spacious cosy room, and moreover, directions to the Valley Of Desolation.

Karoo landscape near Graaf Reinet

Graaf Reinet is surrounded on three sides by the Karoo National Park, and the geography here, nevermind the wildlife is quite stunning. We take a short drive past the lake and wind our way up the mountainside, the views at the top are breathtaking on Monument Valley scale. Not quite Bryce Canyon at the top, but a similar rock formation towers over the Karoo desert. On the way back down the sun is dipping and animals are making their way to the lake, crossing the road where they fancy – we see ostrich, springbok – my wife’s favourite animal which means I can’t eat any at dinner – and the smaller duiker and very large-eared Cape Grysbok which is basically bambi. Upon our return to the hotel two German guests are hunched in front of the TV in the lounge watching Italy get beaten 3-2 by Slovakia and dumped out of the tournament – the holders of the trophy are going home! It’s a thrilling moment – even my brother Paul texts me from Shanghai “best match yet!!”,  Missed it, I answer, “on safari”.  He doesn’t send any more texts after that – until the game with Germany that is…

In the evening we eat some ostrich and have a glass of wine in a very arty little restaurant called Die Kliphuis just round the corner. Graaf Reinet is a quite superb little gem of a town with over 200 listed buildings, and a quite unique feel to it. We see a Japanese couple in the blue shirts walking around, but mainly locals. Our black waiter is definitely gay, like the white proprietor, so that was another collecter’s item. Back at the B&B we watch Japan see the Danish off with a wonderful display of football, winning 3-1 to book their place in the last 16 then go to bed happy and exhausted and reasonably drunk.

June 25th

Breakfast is completely awesome, as it has been every morning on this trip. B&B is simply the only way to travel. On the drive out of town we are randomly stopped and asked for our driving licence opposite the local township – always on the edge of town, always crowded with always black people. It’s stopped feeling weird. As we drive across more stunning scenery we spot a large group of springbok leaping around in some kind of courtship display and flexing and stop for pictures. A group of eland stand by watching impassively.


Then we hit the trail again, more monkeys, the odd meerkat and ground squirrel aside, it’s non-stop to Bloemfontein.  Actually we did a quick sandwich stop at an interesting desert museum type place which had hosted forty Swiss the night before. They’re playing in Bloem tonight against Honduras – but it’s not a game we’ve planned to attend. Spain v Chile is on the TV !!

Bloemfontein is entered the wrong way completely and we find oursleves in the market area totally surrounded by people, taxis, people with huge loads balanced on their heads, men in suits on mobiles, kids in rags. A few right turns, and there is the stadium, the Waterfront (small lake) and the FIFA ticketing office. No it’s sold out (England v Germany in 2 days time) but come back tomorrow and englandfans will have a desk. If you have a fan number (we do !!)  The place is crawling with Swiss dressed as cows, with horns and cowbells, and there are a few Hondurans too.

Swiss gather at the waterfront, Bloemfontein

The B&B is possibly the best yet, Cape Dutch architecture, a siamese cat called Izzy whom I fall in love with (we do miss our two on the road) and – wonders will never cease – a hairdryer !! Spain deliver and so does David Villa scoring another terrific goal. He establishes himself as my wife’s favourite player in the tournament. Hard to argue, though Özil is pretty special I think.

Breakfast is glorious as ever, with Izzy becoming literally attached to my knee, then off we go to search for accomodation at the University of the Free State, since we only planned to be in Bloem for one night. We were supposed to drive to Joburg today, but Billy the Bee has sublet our room successfully and we’re gonna stay here. The University room is only 600 rand a night but it’s a prison cell. We console ourselves with the thought that if you are actually at this University and staying in this Hall Of Residence, you’re one of the lucky ones. Back at FIFA and englandfans we get so incredibly lucky it’s not true – someone hasn’t needed their pair of Cat 2 tickets to tomorrow’s showdown and for one hundred quid each (face value) we are IN.  One of the more sublime feelings on this earth is to score a pair of tickets to a World Cup game, usually outside the stadium with 15 minutes til kick-off, this is almost two whole days away. We relax for the rest of the day and watch the gathering England fans as we witness Uruguay beat South Korea with a superb goal by Suarez. More about him later. In the evening we look for another fanpark and find one in the other University – a large hall inside (nice – it’s cold) with a large screen, beer, and food. Not great food, but we stay in a pretty african atmosphere for the big one – USA v Ghana. It’s tight and goes to extra time at 1-1. When Gyan rips the US net with the winning goal the place erupts, I leap off my seat and the man behind me gives me the biggest squeeze. It’s the most euphoric moment we will experience at the tournament. Ghana are in the quarter final, and will play Uruguay.

Next day after a night in the cell, thus woken by English accents outside our door (shared bathrooms) from all corners of this green and pleasant land (“what’s breakfast like ? Mince. Shit.”) it’s England day. We’re England all flipping day. T-shirt, flags, jackets, tickets, the lot. The waterfront mall is awash with St George and it’s very very difficult to get a drink anywhere. It’s heaving with English and Germans. Locals have joined in on one side or the other.  Drink ? We’ve pretty much drunk the place dry and it’s not even 3pm. We finally manage to find some beer and talk briefly about the perils of pitching your tent on a hippo path with two chaps from Dewsbury who have been camping in Kruger. And the delicious slow walk to the stadium surreptitiously supping beer from the bottle and spurning offers of spare tickets, meeting Steve from Brighton and moving inside the arena to confront our destiny, full of hope and love and joy.

chav millionaires look like this

their anthem is also better than ours

the human condition : the hope of glory...

And thus the game. Lovely seats, between sets of British asian fans, front row second tier – thus when people stand up, there’s no-one in front of you. A perfect view then, of the demolition job the young talented German team performed on our aging fat superstars. Never at the races frankly. They turned us, outran us, outpassed us, outscored us by four to one. Yes yes, all the talk at halftime was of the text received from Ibiza that the ball was two feet over the line, three feet over the line, a goal, that Lampard had scored, should be two-two, but deep down we knew, as one fan said to me in despair : “what is it with England and tournaments?”  This isn’t the forum for that debate, but we were spanked that afternoon by a side willing to run for each other all day. We barely moved above a trot. Out. And stay out.

As the afternoon faded to evening and Germany progressed impressively to the quarter finals and a probable match with Argentina, we were left to cry into our beer and into the arms of happy Germans, and look for food. The bars were awash with hugging entente ; grown men weeping into fat German shoulders. Music pounded into the african night. Drink was drunk. Not a glass was broken in anger. We wished them luck, and went home to bed. Fucking England. What a bunch of inept overpaid woeful wankers. They let us all down, and it hurt.  Time to move on. One more night in the cell then away. If you’re out of luck or out of work we can send you to Johannesburg.

lesson one : learn how to pass the ball

World Cup 2010 in South Africa – part 4 : Soweto

June 28

The morning after. Woken by English voices again in the corridor : “going to Durban”, “flying home”, “going back to Joburg”. The students running the prison-sleep facility are sweet natured and sympathetic, but they know their football, and Germany are their new favourite team. Oh yes we’re going home we’re going home we’re going, football’s going home.  But we’re not.  No.  Last night some wag re-invented the “England Til I Die” song (I know I am, I’m sure I am) as “Ghana Til July”.  Class. Along with the rest of Africa we adopt Ghana as our team. So yes we reconvene in Steers for the largest breakfast ever seen – strangely midwestern atmosphere here in Bloemfontein, proper giant on-the-road breakfast where we nurse our wounds and plan the next few days activity.  It’s a four-hour drive north to Johannesburg. For reasons unknown, five of them squeeze into one car, and only Jenny and I sit in ours, but – we’re following The Bee.  This is a theme we will return to throughout our time in Johannesburg, not always with a happy ending.

The road is uneventful – apart from meeting old mate Shekar in a gas station, awaiting the Capello press conference. He works for the Standard and weirdly (or perhaps not) knows Billy. We decide to head for Soweto FanPark to watch the Dutch play Slovakia, slayers of Italy. And so in we go. This being the legendary SOuth WEst TOwnship we are taking pictures of the most ordinary sights – people at bus-stops, painted adverts on walls, views of traffic jams. The cooling towers are spectacular and graffittied all over, and Orlando Stadium, home to the Orlando Pirates, is impressive. The team I used to play for in London on Sunday mornings was called The Hoxton Pirates as a tribute to the Soweto team. Many circles being joined here. The name has echoed through my life since I can remember, but I guess mainly since the student uprising in 1976 when I was 18.  It all feels very peaceful and clean and organised here though – all streets are paved, lamp-posts, electricity, real houses not shacks, hard to see any corrugated iron or clap-board dwellings that you’d get in Khayelitsha. I realise that they’ve had 15 years of investment here. Mandela has since moved away (he used to live on Vilakazi Street just up from Desmond Tutu) but Tutu still lives here among his people.

Soweto graff cooling towers

And it’s become a vast suburb, rather like Milton Keynes, all bungalows, an orangey glow from the red earth and pastel orange walls of the houses, and buses, cars, traffic, a brand new shopping centre, tourists. That’s us !  We find the Fanpark and enter through security. So thrilled are we to be there that we’re taking pictures of anything with the word Soweto on. After some nice cups of tea from a man from Ivory Coast (commiserations) we walk in to the big screen and join about thirty people dotted about watching the Holland game. Really empty. The sun is setting and it’s a beautiful evening but there’s no ‘vibe’ as such. Some lads playing football, some kids playing vuvuzelas and bouncy castles, a few Europeans like us.

We drive up to our new home in Bryanston at half-time, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy suburbs, our street gated and manned by Checkpoint Charlie as we call him, our large house owned by ‘Black Diamonds’ Sotwa and Muriel, part of the emerging black middle class, with two young girls, . They have installed a chap called Willard  (the sweetest-natured man you’ve ever met) who tidies up and cooks us breakfast every morning. He is here for the World Cup from Malawi, happy to have found work. The house has a huge back garden peopled by woodpeckers, prehistoric ibis pigeons and siamese cats who don’t like black people. We worked out that the ‘staff”  in this area will probably beat pets who scavenge. We have a large room with bathroom, shower and tea-making facilities. It’s a joy. That night Brazil beat Chile and will play Holland in the quarter final. We watch the game in Fashion TV Cafe – suggested by Ade, one of the characters. Ade is an Australian Nigerian Englishman. Other characters in this bar tonight are Laney (England Til I Die editor and Brentford), Billy (Brentford and Kick Racism Out) and Aisling, her sister Rosie, Craig and his sister Alli (Bristol Rovers and Bristol City) and John or Wally (Chelsea).  And me (Brighton). The bar is red and peopled by French students getting off with each other. They are about twelve. Jenny (Spurs) makes friends in the ladies toilet with another working girl with a spectacular set of breasts from Nigeria. We realise that girls dancing to disco on their own is a kind of semaphore. Ade spends the entire game online. Our waitress actually has the nerve to tell us that our fifteen percent tip an a reasonably hefty bar bill (with burgers n chips) “isn’t big enough”.  Nice.  Back in the house characters recall previous World Cups, the general election and what we’re going to do about it. A different kind of blog altogether.

The following morning the assembled characters get into the three cars and head back to Soweto and the Hector Pieterson Museum, which is just round the corner from Mandela’s House, and thrumming with tourists. It’s a new construction and movingly takes us through the events leading up to June 16th 1976 when the students of Soweto marched and refused to be taught in Afrikaans. Thousands mobilised that day and scores were shot dead by the police. Hector Pieterson was the first to die and a large photo of his lifeless body being carried by another student with his sister running alongside dominates the area.

Hector Pieterson Museum, Soweto

It’s one of those iconic images of grief and despair that changed the world – after the deaths and the ensuing fires with government buildings set alight, the world sat up and took notice, the UN passed a resolution, China and others condemned the SA Govt and Anti-Apartheid movements the world over boycotted South African goods (at the request of the people of south africa it has to be said). The Unions joined forces with the students and the system was at war with it’s own people from that moment. Fifteen years later Mandela was released after a campaign of terror, largely managed from Botswana, strikes, boycotts and international pressure. It’s an amazing exhibit, built on the spot where it all started.

We drive from Soweto due north to Pretoria, another name which echoes down through the years. Jen wonders if we can visit John Vorster Square, where the notorious police station stands and where so many activists perished “jumping from the window” including Steve Biko and Chris Hani. My guess is that it would have changed it’s name – we see Nelson Mandela Drive, Freedom Square and Transvaal has become Gauteng, so complete has the revolution here been.  We find the stadium and a couple of tickets for £40 each and bamboozle our way past very lax security so that we’re sitting right behind the goal. Paraguay v Japan. Last 16.  Frankly a dull football match, but we always find plenty to entertain ourselves.  Billy Laney and Ash enter the world of the Japanese Ultra where drums are banged and Samurai attitudes struck. John Jen and I decide to go upstairs for the second half and I meet a drunken afrikaaner enthusing to two black chaps whom he doesn’t know about sport, south africa and the world cup.  I congratulate them all on hosting a brilliant tournament, it’s been a spectacular welcome and very moving (people in gas stations commiserating with the Lampard over-the-line effort) and the white fella expounds “And look at the last fifteen years!” (you’ll have to imagine the accent) ” the country has changed so much ! I can talk to you (the black fella) without my father giving me a clup round the ear”.  Extraordinary.  The black fella clasps the white chap’s hand and gives him the bloodbrother handshake. Another great World Cup moment.  Meanwhile the Japan push the Paraguay all the way through extra time to penalties then miss the fourth spot-kick, cue tears and wild celebrations.

Paraguay beat Japan on penalties in Pretoria

Paraguay have never been in a quarter final before. The game finishes and the locals (for the stadium is filled with locals black white and indian) melt away into the night, we pay our car-park attendant the usual 10 Rand and drive south to a restaurant in Melville called The Catz Pyjamas. Or at least that’s the intention.  After following The Bee for an hour and a half, with stops, torchlit map consultation, petrol station direction requests, U-turns and other dithers, all while listening to the first half of a classic Spain v Portugal clash On The Car Radio with Alli John and Craig in the back, we peel off and head back to an Italian we saw ten minutes earlier and Ignored (God Knows Why). Later we discover that The Bee was actually meetng someone in the Pyjamas so had to find it. But we didn’t and we ordered beer and settled down for the second half. Villa scored again, and Spain progressed. Alli and Craig are off to Cape Town tomorrow so I hook them up with the Guest House in Khayelitsha there, built in a squatter camp and completely sustainable. We finally manage to change our flight to the following Monday from Johannesburg, which means we don’t have to drive a couple of thousand kilometers and 14 hours south back to the Cape.

We bed down in Johannesburg and decide to explore.

World Cup in South Africa 2010 – part 5 : Jozi

June 30th/July 1st

How very weird. Two rest days. Two days without football. We go to Sandton with The Bee, Aisling and Rosie for a little lunch and shop. It’s the financial heart of Johannesburg, full of black diamonds and middle classes of every hue. Nelson Mandela Square is spoiled by a large inflatable Sony exhibition tent – the inflatable corporate theme of this World Cup are these red and white blobs of shit everywhere.

characters : Aisling, Jen, Rosie, Billy The Bee, Ade

Billy goes to take Ais and Rosie to the airport and Jen and I decide to investigate the legendary Market Theatre of Johannesburg which is downtown in Newtown. This is the true heart of Jozi, there’s a real african feel to these streets, stalls, taxis, people selling animal parts (yuk) and general street business. We circle the area and the brand new Mandela bridge a few times before we find the venue, an impressive adaptation of a fruit market into one of the most famous theatres in the world. Regularly putting on anti-apartheid plays during the dark days, run by Barney Simon, this theatre helped shape many people’s politics, and when they toured the UK and elsewhere, spread the word about what was happening inside South Africa during the 70s and 80s.  We feel almost on a pilgrimage to buy tickets and see a show here.

Market Theatre, Johannesburg

But tonight there’s no theatre – it’s the south african music festival and a band called Jozi are playing. We buy tickets and join a gang of teenagers mainly, black kids largely in the legendary auditorium. Jen quietly sheds a tear. Then a DJ starts scratching and Jozi turn out to be a local hip-hop act , a DJ with a great singer and a very cool rapper, quite poppy but extremely good. The teenage girls are screaming and as they bring on various guest artists some of whom rap in local languages sesotho, xhosa and sestwana we are thoroughly entertained. Jozi’s main rapper reappears on a skateboard and raps while circling the stage. Impressive. Over the road in the Laboratory is another show included in the ticket price so we wander in. It’s called The House Of The Holy Afro and is essentially a drag act with House music. We get bored and leave. But a quick word about House, or Afro-House which dominatess the airwaves here – we didn’t bring any CDs or ipods and thus listen to the local radio stations all day long, and I tell you what – afro-house is IT mate !!!  Very 80s mixes but with the unmistakable rumble which places it on this continent. Loads of covers too of famous soul songs by local artists. A very musically rich culture here. My favourite Jozi songs were those that sampled mbaquanga – people like Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens, pumping township jive from the 70s and 80s, but all the music here : the gospel, the pop, the house, the hiphop, the jazz is so vivid, so full of energy. You can’t beat a township jive bassline though! Ask Malcolm McClaren…

Next day we drive up to De Wildt’s Cheetah Reserve in the afternoon which is north of Pretoria and spend a few hours in the company of these beautiful beasts. They’re bred here and placed back into the wild (why it’s called “the wild” I don’t know since this inevitably means a National Park or ‘game reserve’. And while we’re at it the word ‘game’ tells you all you need to know about it’s disappearance in the last 300 years and why it all now needs protecting. Game bollocks.That and the local superstitions about animal parts.) The centre also uses the more naturalized cheetahs as ‘ambassadors’ and they are taken to townships and shown to children who get to stroke them, thus allaying some of the fear africans have of these large cats.


This park also breeds some other endangered species notably vultures and African Hunting Dogs – not to be confused with hyenas. These are amazing pack animals – no-one goes hungry even the lame and old – and the young pups are given first gobbles at any food that appears. They are fed in front of us and we watch the heirarchy of eating. If there is none left for the males, they get regurgitated food which gets passed around. Disgusting, but other species simply don’t look after each other in this way. Their eyes are red, and when we drive into their area they run around our vehicle as if we are a group of impala. The African Hunting Dog is extremely rare in the so-called “wild” and cannot be domesticated – even if you bring one up as a puppy, it will challenge you one day. They stay wild essentially. I loved ’em.

african hunting dog puppies

That night we drive into Melville with Billy, the funkiest part of Jozi where blacks and whites mingle all night long in the various bars restaurants and clubs. It feels a little like Brighton, and many of the folk here are the “Born Free” generation, in their 20s. There is a relaxed confident lively vibe in Melville which is very warm.

July 2nd

watching Holland defeat Brazil in Soweto

Quarter Finals start today – we drive back to Soweto to watch Brazil v Holland in a restaurant there called Sakhumzis on Vilakazi Street. It’s packed but we manage to get a table. Present : me, Jen, Billy, Ade, Hinsh and Damian and many dutch, brazilian and locals who engage in face painting while watching Brazil tumble out of the tournament to all of our delight. Not because we love Holland, but Brazil and their fans always seem to have this air of entitlement when it comes to World Cups – they’re the best, bow down and worship, and move on. It’s a pleasure to see them beaten frankly.

And so on to Soccer City, where all the painted faces have only one flag on them – that of Ghana. Soccer City is the calabash-shaped arena where the opening ceremony was held, and where the final will be played. It’s near Soweto, not in it, so once again we are following The Bee. A few circling movements around the township and we’re in traffic with the usual young chaps offering parking. But we’re miles from the stadium, so Billy spins round, I follow, and we’re off down the motorway to a different exit, through a security roadblock with a nod and spying three cars parked behind some orange cones right next door to the hospitality, slide in behind them.  The stadium is breathtaking, Jen and I need to find two tickets which we promptly do for £100 each and we enter the arean to witness The Ghana take on Uruguay in the World Cup Quarter finals.

Soccer City - Ghana v Uruguay

The place is astonishing by any standards, and the game is good. Muntari scores for Ghana just before halftime, but Forlan equalizes with a stunning free-kick just after the restart, and it stays 1-1. Until that final minute of extra time when Suarez handballs on the line and is red-carded, but of course all the tension and pressure then falls onto Gyan to convert the resulting penalty kick.

Gyan's - and africa's - moment of destiny.

Seconds after the photo was taken Gyan stepped up and crashed his shot against the crossbar and up into the night sky. It was the last kick of the game and we went to penalties. We all knew Ghana were out. Respect to Gyan, he picked himself up and converted the first pen, but they were undone and Uruguay progressed to much booing while Gyan had to be carried off the pitch such was his personal despair. I felt for him – he’ll have to carry that moment forever, but over-riding that sorrow was a terrible sense that an injustice had been done. That a player had cheated – handball on the goal-line preventing a certain goal – and kept his team in the game, which they had then won. A very sour taste in the mouth for a whole continent, nay a whole watching world to swallow. A very poor lesson to teach the kids inside that stadium and watching in their homes across the globe. Cheating works.  Gutted, we walked back to the car, but it was no longer there, and neither was Billy’s.  We’d been towed. The other 3 cars parked there were police cars.

sorry - how do we get to the car pound ?

Jen sweeted up the policewoman with her charm and little-girl-lost eyes and in the twinkling of a star we were in a taxi bound for Jozi with strict instructions we were not to be charged more than 10Rand (90p) each.  The cars cost 700 Rand to recover. One of those nights.

Next day was Melville again for shopping and internet cafe coffee and a ringside seat for Germany v Argentina – the best game of the tournament for my money where the Germans once again impressed us all with their simple direct running approach and stuffed Tevez, Messi and Co 4-0. Billy rang to say we had two tickets for that night’s game, so as dusk descended we drove over to Ellis Park, home of the 1995 South African Rugby World Cup Final for the last quarter final – Spain v Paraguay. The locals appeared to have recovered from supporting Ghana and were bedecked to a man woman and child in the red and yellow of Spain. The game was tight, and ended 1-0 to the Spanish with another David Villa goal.

A pyramid of Spanish joy which occurred once every 90 minutes

Definitely the roughest part of Jozi we’d been in, especially Summit Hill which we drove through accidentally, but it was swarming with very heavy police some of whom were a little too heavy-handed with ticket sellers. After the match we bought vuvuzelas for the folks back home and drove back to Melville where we met with FA contingent ‘Gravy’ and Paul Elliott who are part of England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup. We all agreed that England had a great deal to learn from the South Africans in terms of hospitality, attitude to visitors and foreigners generally, infrastrucure and overall charm. We need to woo FIFA delegates with our attitude instead of parading that entitled flex that Brazil operate on – I don’t expect the next World Cup in Brazil to feel anything like this one, or for the South American continent to feel as welcoming or united as Africa has done for these past three weeks. They’ve been the perfect hosts : warm, committed, friendly, offering shelter, food, transport and guidance. Always happy to hear we were visiting from England, how would the average English person be when confronted with African football fans at the 2018 World Cup in Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle ?

July 4th/5th

Anyway on our last day in the Rainbow Nation we went to Alexandra township which is considerably poorer and has less facilities than Soweto, where FIFA were running a Football For Hope festival which involved six-a-side games between teenagers of both sexes from many different countries – we watched Lesotho v Nigeria for example and took loads of pictures. The warmth with which we were greeted once again was quite overwhelming.  What an amazing country.

Billy and some Alexandra township lads

Then back to Soweto once again – because Ziggy Marley is playing back at the FanPark we originally visited a week ago. As we walk in it sounds like Bob himself is singing Get Up Stand Up and it feels as if all the rastas in africa are here, the smell of ganja, the Ghana flags, the Ethiopia flags, the kids, the white people here too, and then the Jamming bassline pumps out and we bounce we stride we rock.

Ziggy Marley playing his dad's 'Africa Unite' in Soweto

It’s been said before, but Bob Marley’s kids really do sound like him. As Ziggy talks about unity and economic co-operation across africa our hearts swell with hope and longing, and the band launch into “Africa Unite” and the place simply takes off.  One of my moments of the World Cup without doubt.

Then it’s over and we’re done. We do come back to Soweto one more time to buy Bafana Bafana shirts and grab some lunch before our flight home. It’s been a magical three weeks in South Africa, and we feel that we will be ambassadors for this great country when we get home, tell everyone to come here and see for themselves – the forward-looking energy, the desire to make things work, the huge reserves of hope and willingness.  It’s been an inspiration.

Thank you Africa ! Whoever wins the Final, it’s been a triumph for this continent, and we feel lucky to have been a part of it.

Vilakazi St, Soweto, July 2010