Passing the Ball: Brighton to Mali and Back

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has been working with young people in Mali to help create content for a new World Stories gallery, opening in June 2012 to mark the London 2012 Games.

Developed in partnership with young people, this new permanent gallery will explore the changing world around us, drawing on Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’s stunning collections from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Americas, alongside newly-commissioned contemporary art and artefacts.

As the Youth Engagement Officer on this project I have been working with young people to engage them with the Museum’s collections and involve them in developing this exciting new space.

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The football story

One of the new displays will explore what football means in young people’s lives in Brighton & Hove and in West Africa: how football is embedded in local cultures; what it means to be a fan and the role football plays in bringing people together. Museum staff are working closely with Brighton & Hove Albion’s community and international development programmes, to involve young people in Brighton and in Mali, in West Africa, in developing this story.

In March 2011 I spent 10 days in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, finding out what football means to the young people who live there and exploring some of the issues surrounding the sport. Our project partner in Mali is Coaching for Hope, a UK-based charity that uses football to create better futures for young people in West and Southern Africa. Together we organised a two-day youth football tournament, conducted filmed interviews and ran activities with the young people to explore the topic.

During my trip I was helped by Sebastian Morua, who works for Brighton & Hove Albion and had been delivering a youth leadership programme in Bamako with Coaching For Hope. The course is designed to create a platform for youth advocacy and encourage the promotion of the youth voice in the community through football. During my trip I worked with this group of ‘young leaders’.

Football in Mali

When I first arrived in Bamako I was taken aback by the overwhelming presence of football. To say football is everywhere is an understatement. People play football wherever they can and wasteland pitches can be found on every corner. In the late afternoon sun countless matches kick off in neighbourhoods across the city and they all attract their fair share of spectators.

As I walked through the busy market in Bamako, trying to dodge the mopeds, every other person was wearing a football shirt, and the streets were saturated with stalls selling football boots and shirts. When you travel by car, you only have to slow down for a minute before someone appears at your window offering to sell you a football.

During my trip I wanted to collect some objects for the museum display that reflect the presence of football in everyday Malian life and there certainly were plenty to choose from. Images of famous footballers adorn many everyday items such as school books, bumper stickers and playing cards. The faces of Malian players Mahamadou Diarra and Frédéric Kanouté are particularly popular, as well as West African players such as Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, and Manchester City’s Yaya Touré.

Young people

On my second day I met Adama Yéyé (known as Yéyé), one of the young leaders, who volunteered to help with the organising of the tournament and the filming project. Yéyé is originally from Burkina Faso but he now goes to school in Bamako and is also a jewellery-maker by trade. When I asked him how old he is, an interesting conversation followed. He said ‘My real age is 22 but my football age is 14’. Sebastian explained that it is common for young people to have younger ‘football ages’ to make them appear better youth players to football scouts. This is a widespread problem in African football.

I wanted to film young people talking about what football means to them and their aspirations so we met with the young leaders for a group interview. The group of 12 young people (3 young women and 9 young men) were incredibly friendly and keen to contribute to the project. I was inspired to find that disabled people seem to be well-integrated in the wider community, in and that many hearing people communicate through sign language with their deaf friends. In the group there were 2 deaf young people – Gaoussou, 18 and Moussa, 19. They were confident members of the group; the first to answer my questions and keen to share their football experiences with me.

Collecting for the new gallery

After school one day a group of children were having a kick around on some wasteland. I had been told that young people often make their own football if they don’t have one so I asked the group how they would do it. They decided they would show me. They gathered together to discuss their task very seriously and then set about collecting rubbish to build the ball. A discarded sock formed the structure, charcoal the base and plastic bags the layers. Once the ball was deemed to be the right weight and shape, they quickly divided into teams and started playing football to demonstrate the effectiveness of their ball. The sock ball came back to England with me (much to their bemusement) and we took them to the market to buy them a brand new football.

Many young people play football in jelly shoes (or plastiques) because they are cheap and durable and I wanted to buy a used pair for the museum collection. I set off with Yéyé on a mission to find some. We had been in the taxi only a few minutes when Yéyé spotted a young person casually walking down the road, swinging his plastic shoes. We pulled over and, a brief conversation later, Omar jumped in. Although I wasn’t entirely sure how much Yéyé had explained (due to the language barrier!) Omar seemed happy with the arrangement. We set off to the market to buy him brand new football boots in exchange for his plastiques, had a coffee and said goodbye – but not before Yéyé and Omar had swapped numbers and arranged to play football.

The football tournament

The tournament took place in a huge walled pitch at the heart of the Badema Lafia neighbourhood. The pitch was marked out using charcoal and nets were hung on the goal posts. The competition was due to start at 7am on the Saturday morning. In Mali football is played early in the morning or in the evening to avoid the extreme daytime heat. I visited during the hottest season and temperatures reached a sweltering 40 degrees. Football matches always attract a crowd and shortly after we arrived children from the area gathered to watch the action. There were eight teams competing from neighbourhoods across Bamako. They included a team of young women and a team of deaf young people.

The competition is tough and is undertaken with the utmost seriousness. Over the next two days I got a real sense of the commitment of the coaches and the young people to the game.

At the side of the pitch one young player explained what the game meant to him: ‘I’m a footballer here. I like football because it’s known by everyone. It’s a sport for rich and poor, and disabled people too. It helps me keep in shape and later it’ll help me earn a living too.’

Next steps

My trip to Mali was an interesting and inspiring one and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet young people who are passionate and committed to football. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery will now follow this up with a parallel project involving young people in Brighton & Hove: conducting interviews, making a film and collecting objects for the new display. We are working with Albion in The Community to stage a youth tournament in the summer 2011.

If you are age 14-25 and would like to find out more about the World Stories project, and how you could get involved, please contact me on 07504221330 or worldstories@brighton-hove.gov.uk

Hazel Welch, Youth Engagement Officer, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery