AND WHAT ABOUT CRICKET? (contd.)
BY CAMERON DUODU
I am a sports addict, and make no apologies for it.
When I was a mere little lad, who was not supposed to leave Asiakwa, my home-town, and travel elsewhere, unsupervised by an adult relative or friend of the family, I collected enough pocket money together to steal away with a group of football enthusiasts, who hired a truck and went in it to Old Tafo, in Akyem Abuakwa — about ten miles away — to watch a football match. Why, I had bought a beatiful and sharp pen-knife which I treasured greatly and I imagined that it would provide adequate protection for me, in the vent that someone wanted to attack me!
The venue was called “Rover’s Park” and it could contain quite a few thousand people. Can you imagine a football match taking place today between super-first-class clubs in a small town like that? If you don’t travel to a big town, forget it. In my day, football sometimes came to us! Money was made from hard work, not politics. And hard work was done in the forests and on the beaches. And it was the hard workers who enjoyed the good things of life.
Truly, one of the things we’ve lost as a people is the unmistakable sign of initiative in the most unexpected of places. that was scattered all over our countryside in years gWonderful things used tp happen all across the country in years gone by. The most talked-about children’s school in those days, for instance, was not in Accra, but Kumase. It was called Mmofraturo (The Children’s Garden).
The most attractive venue for school excursions was not Accra, but Senchi, where there was a “launch” (ferry). Crossing the huge expanse of water called River Volta with this very slow ferry — which looked as if it could overturn at any minute and deposit its passengers into the depths of the incredibly large River and present all of them as a meal to the crocodiles that were believed to thrive in the water– was perhaps the most ‘frightening adventure’ school children could be exposed to. The experience certainly stayed with a child for life.
On the way to Senchi, the lorry carrying school children would have to “climb” the steep Akwapim Mountains, the broads over which were so full of curves that there was a sign at both ends of the road saying “DANGEROUS HILL CHANGE TO BOTTOM GEAR”.
What was ‘bottom gear’? We didn’t know! In those days when vehicles did not have synchromesh gearboxes, our drivers used to stop their vehicle at the bottom of the hills and change into second gear before starting off again — changing from third to second on the move usually resulted in the driver grinding the gears very noisily: GWWWWWWWRRRRRRRRRRR! — even if he did “vroom–vrooom-vroom” before changing down. Sometimes, the gear change would not be successful and the enginse would stall. As for first gear, I never saw a driver engage it. So I always assumed that “bottom gear” was second gear! Some drivers, especially those with huge loads, did change into first gear on those hills, but even so, the driver’s mate would have to descend from the truck and follow the vehicle on foot. He would have in his hands, a carved thick piece of wood with a handle called a “chock”, and would place it under the rear wheels, if the vehicle refused to go forward any longer and threatened to to roll backwards. This was dangerous work — the truck could jump over the “chock” and gather speed backwards. In that event, a driver’s mate who was not nimble on his feet might sometimes be knocked over by the truck and killed, and the truck would roll backwards into one of the deep valleys on either side of the road and overturn, killing many passengers. Passengers who panicked and jumped out of the reversing truck were usually the first to die.
Give school children such a horrible death to feed their imaginations on and if they “survived” the experience, they’d never stop talking about it, would they? If a child was too poor to be able to pay to go on such asn excursion with his classmates, then, of course, he would be the subject of universal pity during all of his schooldays. And, of course, he would be bored to within an inch of his life by the endless repetition of the same stories of the same adventurous trip that he had missed — sometimes retold by the same classmates over and over again — each time, making syre the salt was rubb ed into the would even deeper. Are there any creatures more cruel than one’s fellow school children?
Are modern children given the opportunity, though, to live lives that make them use their imagination to the full? I sometimes wonder. We live in an age where a global, over-centralised jungle, supplies all our cultural needs. We all watch the same television programmes, which are available even on mobile phones. As to our daily lives, the small enterprises built out of love which could dispense pleasure to us are all gone.
Where is the Zabrama man carrying his “pampam store” on his head down the street, and who would laboriously but expertly bring his huge tray of wares down and find a jar of mentholatum, or a wapi toffee or Wrigley’s “chooing gum” for you, on your proffering a mere penny or two? Small enterprises are largely strangled at birth these days — except the nuisance ones, such as the sale of dog chains!
Now who was it at Old Tafo who imagined that he could promote such a match as the “outdooring” contest between famous national teams of the size of Great Ashantis and Great Olympics? And how did he actually pull it off? I don’t know, but I bless his soul, wherever it is.
The match I went to see was one of those that stick in the mind like super-glue. The two teams were exceptionally attractive to football fans. Both had splintered from two of the most famous clubs in Ghana at the time, Asante Kotoko and Accra Standfast. Great Ashantis were the Kotoko splinter-group, while the ex-Standfast fellows called themselves “Great Olympics”. Of course, everyone was agog with expectation, waiting to see which team would emerge as the “Greater” of the two “Greats”.
Now, there were some excellent football reporters in those days, the chief of whom was Kofi Badu, sports editor of the Daily Graphic. These guys could build up a match before it happened, and they naturally hyped and hyped and hyped the “Battle of the ‘Two Greats’” to the high heavens. That the début match of the two clubs was to take place a mere stone’s throw away from my home-town made it irresistible to me, and I would have taken any risk imaginable to go and see it even if the newspapers’ hype had not got to me.
I stole off to watch the match, and I was not disappointed. I saw with my own eyes, Charles Gyamfi, who, with Kwaku Dua and James Agyei, had been the talk of my elders during their “Monday morning quarterback sessions”, when they read the Daily Graphic reports on matches that had taken place on the Sunday before, and commented on them, while we kids stared open-mouthed at them. Kwaku Dua could play round three defendres, eh? (Sadly, I never saw Kwaku Dua play, as he was past it by the time I got interested in football But his name is etched in my mind — from hearsay, haha — as one of the greatest players ever to kick a ball in Ghana.)
In the Olympics side too there were famous stars, for Accra Standfast was a great team whose rotts went deep into history. Some of its players were among the stars who played for the “Gold Coast” national team that used to thrash Nigeria by 7 goals to nil, and to see them a few feet away from me, and to hear them shouting for the ball, was an experience I relished.
C K Gyamfi had been a hero of mine from the days when I sat listening to football talk from my elders. I saw him play for the first time at the match at Old Tafo, and topped that by watching James Agyei play at Kpando, whjikch was then a fairly small town. Kotoko went there to play against Kpando Mulpos. I happened to be at Kpando, where I had been sent with spare parts for the pick-up truck that delivered the first paper I ever worked on, New Nation magazine, to shops all over the country. Its driver was a very friendly chap called Ebenezer. After delivering the spare parts, my job was done, and while waiting to get back to Accra, I heard that Kotoko was to play Mulpos on the Sunday, and I went to watch it. It was such a thrilling match – Mulpos gave a very good account of themselves, thus strengthening my theory that great initiatives were born and maintained in relatively “remote” places in those days. So mgood was the match that I was inspired to phone the Daily Graphic in Accra, out of the blue and at my own expense, to ask them whether they would like a report on it.Yes, you could ge through to Kpando by landline telephone in those days!
Fortunately, the Graphic had not sent any reporter to Kpando, and I sent them the first sports report I ever wrote. When I bought the Graphic the day after I’d called them, they’d used my story! They didn’t give me a by-line, of course, but it was the first time I’d seen my words printed in a daily newspaper, and the feeling it gave me was sweeter than honey. I was particularly pleased that they’d kept in the story, my description of James Agyei, who, I said, had “darted about like a wild cat, his eyes flashing left and right, looking for the ball, and his feel directing passes to his teammates as if they were guided by wireless signals.” I read it over and over again! That was probably the first time I got bitten by the bug that impels one to share one’s thoughts with other people through print. The bonus was that when I got back to Accra and went to see Kofi Badu, he made the paper pay me a small fee! Heaven, where are you? I’d enjoyed the match, read in print, what I’d dictated over the phone; and enjoyed that. And I’d also been paid on top of all that. Boy oh boy….!
As I said earlier, in those days great initiatives were often taken by all sorts of obscure people in the most unlikely places. Look at what I can next remember — a super-match was staged in my own town, Asiakwa, itself! What? Yes!
The postal agent just got up one day and decided that that he would create a full-sized football park out of wasteland opposite the cemetery of the Presbyterian Church. (We only had two school football parks at the time, which were both rough and full of bumps and sandy patches. One was on a hill, which meant that if you played downhill, half your job was done for you!) The postal agent managed to have his park properly levelled and grassed, and then fenced it with palm branches stitched together with bamboo and rope.
It became an attractive enough park to enable him to convince Asante Kotoko to come and play on it against its splinter-group, Great Ashantis, in their first-ever encounter since they split up. How the postal agent managed to bring off this feat remains a mystery: it was bruited about in hush-hush tones in our street talk that he had got all the cocoa farms of his aunt, our Queen Mother to be “cut down” (in an operation known as ‘all-die’) by the Cocoa Rehabilitation Department (CR) and had then used the compensation money to organise the football match.
We football lovers didn’t care much, though, about how he got the money: the fact that he was bringing Kotoko and Great Ashantis to pit their skills against each other was massive. Period. That it was to be done at “a small town” like Asiakwa was wicked, right? Yeah. Simply mind-boggling.
And that was enough for us. We knew that every football lover in the country wanted to know which team was superior to the other, with bets being placed on the match all over the country. Asiakwa would be on the map, and that was what mattered most. How the postal agent got the money together to stage the match was not our concern (though we would whisper to each other that it was probably the discovery that the compensation from the cocoa trees that had been cut down from her farms had vanished, that speeded our dear Queen Mother on her way to be reunited with her ancestors.)
I was able to see the nimble Gyamfi but he was playing against his old pal, Agyei. It was a most thrilling match because, of course, there was bad blood between the two teams – very bad blood. There were no fisticuffs, however, as we’d feared, and it was Great Ashantis, fielding a then-unknown but devastating outside- left called Mohammed Salisu, who won the match.
We heard rumours that the Kotoko management of the time was nearly lynched when Kotoko returned to Kumase after the match. Kotoko’s loyal supporters had been thumping their chests, boasting, “Let the recalcitrant players who want to go, go! We are Kotoko and we can get better players to replace them!” Well, their bluff had been called and they’d been found wanting. How could great Kotoko be beaten by rebels? The defeat was calamitous.
A rather odd thing happened after the match: we could not bring ourselves to discuss it, as we usually did after a great match! It had been such a perfect occasion — and so emotionally draining as a result — that all the football lovers at Asiakwa were overwhelmed by the miracle of it and therefore became tongue-tied. We’d seen soccer artistry at its best — filifili — and we could not find the words of dispute with which to argue against each other on it.
I mean, what was there left to talk about? Gyamfi and Agyei had both excelled in dribbling; Salisu had been magical with that powerful left foot of his that sent bullets into the goal. No — the match only crept into our football talk sporadically; it was never fully dissected like we usually did with the matches that we did not actually see but over which we nearly came to blows, after reading reports about them in the newspapers. Was Baba Yara better than Ofei Dodoo? Was Kwao Baffoe a better goal-keeper than Dodoo Ankrah? We had never seen any of them, so what? Truly, mankind, as the poet, TS Eliot, once observed, “cannot bear much reality”!
There now, so what “about cricket”? In my neck of the woods, we admonish impatient people who don’t want to wait for the natural progression of a story, that they are “drinking the soup while the fufuo is being pounded.” In other words, a full and satisfying meal takes time to prepare. I’ve dwelt on football, so that when I begin to talk about cricket, readers will understand where I am coming from, to talk about my fascination for what (to many of us ) is such an exotic game. So, patience, patience!