Manchester United is a global entity and stands as one of the world’s most famous football clubs, if not THE most famous!
Of course, disabled people and their issues are also of global significance which is why MUDSA wants to reach out to as many fellow supporters and ‘friends’ as possible, irrespective of which country they live in! Below you will see photos and stories from Sierra Leone but we hope this is only the beginning. Our hope is to highlight the great work other people are doing around the world and welcome them as part of our extended family.
Sierra Leone… ‘Paul Gaza’
Paul Gaza contacted MUDSA towards the end of 2012 explaining he and his friends wanted to become part of MUDSA and Manchester United. Although Paul doesn’t have a disability himself he has been the inspiration behind the development of a disability team and is now looking to start a ladies team. We asked Paul for as much information and as many photos as possible in order for us to share this amazing story of resourcefulness in a completely different environment to our own. We hope you find it interesting!
Following the initial exchange of emails and developing an understanding of what Paul is doing he very proudly sent this in an email…
“Hi Phil, We Manchester United disable supporters club here in Sierra Leone West Africa was established on the 14 February 2013 at 2:15pm at the Choitrams Supermarket car park we as a supporters club are always concern when it comes to Man united business like organising a disabled football team in which we are planning to send some photos of the team training where we have a committed and trusted coach in our midst to support. Basically Sierra Leone is a Man United fan based it will be an honour to be officially recognised as a Man united disable supporters club. Kind Regards Paul Gaza Chairman.”
We have continued to hear from Paul and his exploits but a strange twist to the story occurred when Josh Downs (Phil’s nephew) decided to take up voluntary work overseas for Ycare International… in Sierra Leone! This twist allowed us to have a first-hand account provided by Josh of what was actually going on for Paul and his friends and how that came to an abrupt end once the Ebola crisis became part of our everyday news for months. The piece provided by Josh who starts by introducing Coach Vidal and Paul Gaza follows below…
Name: Lamain Koroma (Coach Vidal)
Occupation: Team Coach
“I created Polio FC with the intention of not leaving disabled people behind hoping to improve their everyday lives and give them something to strive for. Freetown is not a place of opportunity for the most able of people, let alone anyone disabled. In 2010, I went door-to-door of the homes where I knew disabled people lived; I encouraged some to join my team because I knew how much they loved football. Football is a great part of our culture and I thought it would be the best way to inspire them, to restore their confidence. Creating this team has been my greatest achievement to date, boosting the opportunities of these young men is admired by many and many people are grateful for it.”
“Vidal is my favourite player and my style of football is very similar to his which is why they call me Vidal.”
Name: Paul ‘Gaza’ Conteh
“My uncle lives near Freetown city centre where a lot of disabled people also live; it was there I met a disabled woman named Adama (current Chairlady of MUDSA-SL) who introduced me to her disabled friends. Around 90% of disabled people in Sierra Leone are forced to beg for their money. I developed a great passion for this community, I found them so inspiring. I wanted to build the esteem and morale of disabled people across Freetown by creating my own unofficial Manchester United Disabled Supporters Club which I established on February 14th 2013, Valentine’s Day! I started registering members and got a brilliant response, I was very excited about the movement and it’s potential. Out here, football is a big conversation starter, the mere words ‘Manchester United’ will spark (usually positive) interest in the people which is why a MUFC Disabled Supporters Club is effective in engaging people, particularly the youth. I was told of a man named Lamain Koroma AKA Coach Vidal who coaches a team named Polio FC, a football club consisting of only disabled players. The following weekend I went to one of their Saturday training sessions and after I proposed collaboration between MUDSA-SL and Polio FC. He was very excited by the idea and it was clear we shared a common interest. Since then, every Saturday myself and the MU disabled supporters meet to watch the team play at training matches. There aren’t many other disabled teams in Sierra Leone so competitive matches are few and far between. In the future, I hope to start up my own women’s football team but for now I’m going to continue enriching the lives of disabled people across Freetown.”
If you’ve heard of Sierra Leone it was probably about the civil-war, diamonds or slums. Now Sierra Leone is synonymous with the petrifying Ebola virus which keeps normal life on hold to this very day. In spite of all the negative portrayals of Sierra Leone, I would like to shed some positivity by sharing an experience I had whilst I was there.
Last May I volunteered to take part in a three month slum development project in Sierra Leone with the YMCA and Ycare International. Around one month in I met a young man named Paul ‘Gazza’ Conteh, a fan of MUDSA who contacts Phil Downs. He eventually managed to track me down in the YMCA hostel. After explaining his connection with Phil and the lengths he had gone to find me (I kept ignoring his Facebook requests until I realised there was a connection! It would have saved him a lot of time if I’d realised straight away)! We sat down for a drink and continued to talk. He went on to explain that right here in Freetown (the capital city of Sierra Leone) exists an unofficial yet well-established MUDSA affiliate who regularly meet on Saturdays to watch and support the training sessions of Polio FC – a football club consisting of all disabled players. I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was being told and I wanted to see it all with my own eyes so Paul invited me and my mate Jenson to attend the following Saturday, of course we agreed to be there.
Upon arriving at the dusty playing field we were greeted by a large number of people, the majority of whom were disabled in one way or another – some more so than others. Everybody formed a big circle so Paul and Coach Vidal could explain who we were. After a brief introduction I went on to explain further why we were in Sierra Leone and expressed my thanks for letting us attend and watch. The response was extremely positive and gratefully received as we shook hands and joked about my painfully substandard Krio (the native language). They began training with a few stretches followed by push-ups, sprints, ball control and more stretches. It was so inspiring to witness the atmosphere and high morale resonating around the team. Considering the fact there is no healthcare in Freetown, no benefit system and their walking aids are battered by the rough terrain, these guys have no other choice than making the best of a bad situation every day, which is exactly what Paul and coach Vidal do at their own expense. I have so much respect for both of them and all their consistent efforts; did I mention Paul was only 17 when I was out there?
After warming up, the squad split into two 11-a-side teams and the game kicked off. It was an amazing display of human capability that was quite honestly on par, if not better than some of the stuff you’d see on TV. About 70 minutes in and Paul suggested me and Jenson coming on against each other. Some of the challenges were blood curling, these lads were rough and it was quite apparent that we have different ideas on what would constitute a booking but despite all that we were still keen to have a go. After the game I spoke to a few people about what they do for living, it wasn’t surprising to know that for a lot of the attendees their only source of income was begging. I spoke to a man named Keifela Kabbah who said something quite touching that I won’t ever forget: “I’m so happy to be a part of this team and this movement will restore the livelihoods of so many. I want us to travel from one place to another, letting people know that disability is not in-ability.”
All in all, it was a fantastic day and being a part of something as special as that reminded me that happiness is a relative thing, and that we’re all capable of it regardless of our condition or background. Life really is what you make of it. I returned and supported them the following Saturday and two Saturdays after that. I also intend on returning to Freetown at some point next year (If the Ebola virus has gone away); follow up to come!
With a special thanks to YCareInternational and ICS – If you or someone you know may want to volunteer overseas and share unique experiences like mine, go to http://www.ycareinternational.org/ics to find out more and apply
Feature produced by Josh Downs, Volunteer – YcareInternational ©Josh Downs 2014.