The fortnight or so since my previous post has been the United supporters’ equivalent of a trip to the dentist – feelings of fear, moments of excruciating pain and ultimately a lasting, nagging feeling of numbness for some and continued irritation for others. It’s not for me to remind you of the events in the second half of October that have contributed to this sensation, but I have to begin this latest blog instalment with a confession regarding the recent derby: I didn’t read a single word of pre-match build-up. I didn’t see a single minute of the game. I didn’t feel the same cocktail of frustration, anger and shame at the result. I feel guilty at not being able to take on my share of our recent woes. I apologise, comrades, for shirking my responsibility to our just and righteous cause. I must admit, however, my temporary escape from the agonising bubble of Newcastle United felt liberating and I return to my keyboard despondent, sifting through twitter feeds filled with unfortunately familiar feelings of frustration.
So how did I escape it all? Well, a well-placed half-term holiday gave me the opportunity to explore the interior of Senegal a little. The day of the Liverpool game I travelled 700km from Dakar to Kedougou. The journey took 12-hours, which is good going to travel the equivalent of Aberdeen to Brighton in a country with poor road conditions and limited forms of transport. The attraction of Kedougou is actually its surrounding area, the Bassari Country, named after one of the several different ethnicities of Senegalese people that populate this south eastern pocket close to the Guinean border. The attraction of the area is its dramatic geographical difference to the flattened, sand-swept plains of Dakar and the vast majority of the country north of the Gambia. Here, towering mountains, covered in deep, lush forest are the norm. This greenery is dissected by glowing red laterite roads that initially strike you with the same wonderment as when you first visited SJP and noticed the contrast between the gravel track and the vivid pitch it surrounded. The square, blank blocks of concrete you find in Dakar have been replaced by conical thatched roofs, adding to the effect that you’ve reached an Africa you’ve seen on countless postcards, pictures and programmes.
Before leaving Kedougou and heading deeper into the region I stayed a night in a relatively luxurious hotel, boasting the trinity of a hot shower, air conditioning and a TV in the room. It was the first time since the Hull game I’ve watched the telly and as it happened, I managed to see something of national importance: the funeral of Bruno Metsu. Bruno Metsu was the French coach who led Senegal’s national football team between 2000 and 2002. He took over a talented but indisciplined team and breathed life into them, leading the Lions to their best ever tournament finish (Runners Up in the 2002 ACN). It was such a remarkable transformation in the team’s fortunes that Metsu received the nickname ‘the sorceror’. He then went further to endear himself to the Senegalese public by leading his side to the Republic’s greatest footballing moment – a 1-0 victory over France, their previous colonial masters, at the 2002 World Cup. This admiration earned was, however, not one-way – in his short spell in the country Metsu married a local woman and then converted from Christianity to Islam.
Even after leaving to manage in the UAE, Metsu kept his coastal house in Saly and returned to it regularly. Then, following his death from cancer his body was brought to Dakar, his coffin draped in a Senegalese flag and was given the equivalent of a state funeral, attended by the President and several of his 2002 squad who gave poignant readings. This story reminded me of the remarkable ‘Teranga’ (welcome) and acceptance afforded to ‘toubabs’ (white people) you find in Senegal, of which I’ve been the beneficiary of on countless occasions. I watched the speeches and drew inspiration from the effect an ‘outsider’ can have if he works hard and treats others with dignity and respect. In fact, this is what Metsu’s finest moment was all about. Apparently before the 2002 match against the French, Pele had made a dismissive comment about the Senegal team, stating they were the weakest in their group. In response, Metsu gave a legendary pre-match team talk, one which Souleymane Camara, a striker in that squad, described as ‘a speech that I still talk about to my friends.’ Metsu himself revealed afterwards that ‘I immediately noticed a revolt in their eyes. I knew they were going to fight like lions’. Whatever was said, eleven years later the appreciation of the effect of his words was visible in the numbers of people in Senegal who stood still to pay their last respects to a man the President finally described as ‘a model of humanity and virtue, a hero amongst Senegalese heroes’.
After being drawn further into the emotion and psyche of the Senegalese people by the story of Metsu, I was even more eager to explore the Bassari country and to get to understand its array of people and histories. The first day of cultural exploration was quickly sidetracked when I (technically) met a Geordie! Upon leaving the Kedougou market I was introduced to Jordi – a Catalunyan who has worked in the town for 8 years or so (having, like Metsu, married a local women). You don’t speak to someone from Barcelona without mentioning their football team (top travel tip for you there) and conversation moved towards our own regional sporting institution. Remember when you used to go to places like Spain or Greece on holidays in the 90s or even last decade and the locals would have a pretty much stock response to the words ‘Newcastle United’? It was ‘Ohhh, Alan Shearer! Very good! Yes, Shearer!”.Well just to let you know I’m finding that there’s a new response that has become typical when talking to people about the current Newcastle United: ‘Your team? Ah Newcastle, yes… *purses lips* *smiles a little* *winces a little* *grimaces a little* *moves thumbs up* *moves thumbs down*’. It’s not quite as flattering as that feeling of pride when people used to associate the club proudly with its local-lad and world record signing, but at the same time I kind of liked the way a few gestures manage to convey the wildly erratic, inconsistent and basically hard to define concisely nature of our club over the past 6 years.
Anyway, with the football finally banished from my mind and conversations for a week I ventured into the countryside with a local guide to see what life was like in Senegal’s most isolated, poorest and most traditional region. We began in Anjel and Iwol, two fascinating villages carved into the hills outside Bandafassi (you’ll find that place on google maps, but not the other two, such is their obscurity). Both Anjel and Iwol’s people are of Bedik ethnicity but are made up of a mixture of religious beliefs – some Christian, some Muslim and some older villagers even Animists. And this complication is a microcosm for the massive amount of variations of different ethnicities (such as Bassari, Peul, Mandinka) you will find in this region. Refreshingly there aren’t problems between the neighbouring ethnicities in this region, in fact they even invite each other to travel between villages and celebrate each others’ religious holidays, family celebrations or ceremonies.
I was fascinated to hear about how the locals initiate their young lads into adult society. At the age of 15 the local boys are circumcised and sent out to survive ‘in the wild’ for three weeks. In fact, for the first two weeks they are not allowed to look to their left or right while walking away from their villages. In the meantime, the village families buy a rooster and a goat for each son and sacrifice them in order to ward off evil spirits or ‘fetishes’. Upon return the lads are granted the privilege of being allowed to take a wife and begin working alongside their fathers. In fact, over the course of their life the majority probably take more than one wife , with polygamy common practice amongst the Muslim community – there are four ‘families’ in Iwol yet the village population is currently standing at 507! All in all an intriguing insight into local society and an amazing contrast to our own – perhaps we could subject some of the plonkers who trashed the local match down at Wigan last season to a similar rite of passage to fill the United away end? Certainly more effective than the ‘members-only’ ticket scheme!
My return to Dakar coincided with the Chelsea home game and I was fortunate enough to catch the whole thing live in a Cameroonian restaurant courtesy of William Gallas’ ex-girlfriend, the landlady who has taken out a Canal + subscription. The obscurity of this find reveals the difficulty I’ve had watching our games up to this point – I’ll admit to wishing the cultural differences didn’t stretch to inhibiting my ability to follow the lads. But if I catch performances like that of last Saturday when I manage to see us in action I’ll be happy.
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