“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. Robert Nesta Marley evidently never turned on a Senegalese radio. It was March 2010, a dark, dusty evening when I first passed through the sea of white eyeballs peering outside Dakar’s Leopold Sedar Senghor airport. The frenzied clattering of djembé drums emanated from the dashboard of my sept-places taxi, assaulting my Toubab (white man) ears. In the three months that followed this hysterical sound became hypnotic, enticing me closer to a nation and people I previously knew nothing about as a graduate setting out to improve his French language skills. Maybe Bob was right after all.
My first day training with a local boys club should have revealed that this would be an extraordinary experience. I was trudging off the gritty, sandy surface common to most of Senegal’s Terrain du Foot, mopping my brow with my Black & White stripes. “You Newcastle?” asked a voice. I turned to find Abdou, the man-mountain who I’d been trying to avoid any aerial duels or 50-50s with for the last 70 minutes. After confirming his original question I was taken aback by his second. “I’ve heard the fans of Newcastle have a great song for Habib Beye? Will you sing it for me?” Now bearing in mind I’m surrounded by a squad of battle-hardened 18-23 year old West African lads, possibly the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to belt out ‘Sunday Monday Habib Beye!’. Two minutes later, my fifth encore (equipped with the hastily-adapted, French-accessible version ‘Dimanche Lundi Habib Beye’) was still being met with gleeful applause on the touchline. You try saying no to a 6’4” Senegalese welder known to his mates as ‘Le Boeuf-Noir’ (The Black Ox)! Not long after that I smirked at spotting a Panini sticker of Habib Beye slapped onto the walls of a 100-year-old, UNESCO- recognised colonial building in the old-town. It didn’t take much more to confirm my suspected diagnosis of how Senegal was similar to Tyneside: warm, welcoming people who are football-daft.
The Senegalese have actually adopted this reputation for hospitality into a national cultural mantra: Teranga. Hence the national football squad’s nickname ‘Les Lions du Teranga’. This wasn’t some self-appointed tag of tourist-seducing propaganda or a patronising post-colonialist label, my first experiences vouched that this was real. After all, I’d only played 70 minutes of football in the country and I’d already sang to Abdou, a proud local who welcomed my presence in his community. An everyday ‘Lion du Teranga’.
I began my time coaching Les Minimes (the under-13s, supposedly,) of ASC Medina Marmiyal, an Association Sportive et Culturelle based in a mainland quartier of the northern city of St. Louis. I also volunteered to work at a local care-centre for Talibé (the Koranic word for ‘disciple’). These were young, poor lads, often sent out to beg for their living rather than taught by the local Marabout (the cleric charged with their ‘traditional’ education). The majority of these boys were malnourished, impoverished and in extreme, but unfortunately not rare, cases physically abused. At the centre we (myself and other Westerners) would work under the leadership of Senegalese volunteers to treat the wounds we found on the boys and, on occasion, make cleaning visits to some of their Daaras (where they slept). On my first weekend I was introduced to Remy Gomis, the coach of the side in the (again loosely-applied) age bracket above mine at Medina Marmiyal, the Cadets (u-17s). I noticed he gave a stirring team-talk to which all his squad paid unwavering attention. During the match he enquired whether I’d like to watch him play later that afternoon. Being inherently curious and trying to soak-up as much local footballing culture as possible I agreed to come along to support. What I didn’t realise was that Remy was the number 9 for St Louis’ ASC Linguere, the then-champions of the Senegalese Premierleague. Obviously it’s different-worlds, but can you imagine Wayne Rooney coaching a group of teenagers in Moss Side a couple of hours prior to Sky Sports Super Spiffing Soccer Sunday? Thought not. Anyway, the really notable thing about seeing Remy’s side play was still to come. 24 hours later.
The morning after the match I checked into the Talibé centre for work only to have a bucket, a shovel and a pick-axe handed to me and was told “Stade Daara. Cleaning”. Thinking nothing of it I followed the group. It wasn’t until we approached Stade Medina that I realised – we were going to be cleaning out a Daara, the slums the young street-children were forced to live in, inside one of the city’s main stadiums. And there I was, gutting out mounds of dirt, soiled rags, insects and excrement from underneath the same concrete block I’d been perched on the day before. My worst suspicion, and one of Senegal’s horrific cultural paradoxes, was confirmed to me by one of the Senegalese volunteers. “Yeah, the boys sleep here when there isn’t a match on.”
Three years on, two Senegalese superstars at United, one teaching qualification for myself and I’m going back. This time Dakar. Hopefully I’ll be able to delve further into the culture that fascinated me for three months and seduced me to return. With an increased number of our players hailing from West Africa perhaps I’ll gain an interesting alternative perspective for some of the current squad. Surely my post-match reflections over a tasse-the in the local comptoir will pour an alternative light on Papiss’ reluctance to wear Wonga or Cheick’s superstitious preference for ‘traditional remedies’? Or perhaps the conclusions drawn will match those made over pints in The Forth and a Quayside Curry back on Tyneside? Other questions will hopefully be able to be illuminated too: What’s West Africa’s perception of the Bestest League In The World Ever? What are the locals’ impressions (if any) of Newcastle United? On a totally selfish level my first question is ‘Where can I watch the match?’ having been kept up to speed by 3-week old Chronicle cuttings the last time, as well as my Dad on the phone during Nottingham Forest. “Shola’s scored… We’re up.”
Speaking of Shola, how much will it cost to make a pilgrimage to Lagos in the event he lines up for the Super Eagles in the World Cup? With appreciation of the Fenham Eusebio h as acquired a taste as a Senegalese djembe beat, I’d best stop myself there and get packing.
À la prochaine fois!
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