Football, Fame, and Volunteer Work in a Poverty-Stricken Nation
I’ve never been mistaken for being a footballer.
As I honed my skills on the five-a-side pitches of Sheffield Uni, I never turned heads with a breath-taking trick or left defenders mystified by a mazy run. Despite possessing a great love for football, I am cursed with being painfully average at playing it.
But for one weekend that all changed, and I was a football superstar. People looked on in amazement as I passed them in the street. They whispered and pointed excitedly. “Is that really him…?” “What’s he doing here?”
For this story I am going to take you to Burkina Faso.
But first, the beginning of my story.
I was watching the TV quiz show Pointless one evening this summer and got very excited when a question came on that I knew I could ace.
Richard Osman cocked one eye and stared deep into camera one. “The topic is 'Countries that border with five or more other countries.'"
In this quiz show you get rewarded for giving the most obscure answers possible. The pinnacle of the game is to give a pointless answer - one that no one questioned would know.
So you could say China, France, Germany, Brazil or India and you’d be right… but you wouldn’t score very well. If you’re really hot on your geography you could think of somewhere like Turkey or Austria. You'd be right but you wouldn't score a pointless answer. Oh no. To find a pointless answer you need that extra bit of knowledge, you need to think outside the box.
The contestant managed to come up with Afghanistan which, considering the pressure of studio lights and being watched my millions of judging eyes, I thought was a pretty decent effort. Afghanistan borders with seven countries, apparently. It served them well, but it wasn’t pointless.
I was thinking of Burkina Faso. It’s a much forgotten French ex-colony in West Africa. Surely that would be pointless.
“Okay, let’s see what answers you could have given,” Richard smiled, turning to the big screen behind him. He scrolled through the first page: Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Chad, Congo. He went on to a second page: Guinea, Hungary, Mali… and before I knew it he had finished and moved on to the next question!
WAIT! What about Burkina? Why have they forgotten Burkina?! I felt an immediate connection with the 16 million Burkinabé who I knew would be outraged to find out their little corner of the world had been forgotten.
Whatever happened to Burkina Faso? It’s that place with the funnily named capital (Ouagadougou… giggle, giggle) that you probably heard of once in a pub quiz and then immediately forgot. Your grandparents will know of Upper Volta, as it was once known, but then it changed its name and seemingly disappeared off the map.
Going to Burkina Faso is not pointless.
As you decide where to volunteer this year or which stops to add on your round the world trip, I dare you to consider going somewhere you wouldn’t think of trying.
With cheap flights and know-it-all guides, the opportunity to travel has never been greater. We can see the other side of the world and video call home for free when we’re there.
The trouble with this is I think travel has lost some of its sense of adventure. I mean, who hasn’t been to Thailand? Who hasn't been to the Khao San Road? Or to Australia? Yes, yes, that road sign has a kangaroo on it, I’ve seen it a hundred times before. So many people have done a ‘gap yah’ that it can look like there’s nowhere left to discover.
The truth is though that there are great experiences to be had if you are willing to try somewhere different. Think beyond the tourist traps and discover a part of the world you never knew existed.
I’ve lived in Ouagadougou for over a year, volunteering with a Christian mission called SIM (www.sim.co.uk) and I’m loving it.
You can find Burkina in the middle of West Africa, bordered by Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Togo and Benin (take that Pointless).
Just slightly bigger than the UK, Burkina is full of weird and wonderful culture. The main Mossi tribe dominate Ouaga, while there are Fulani in the north and Gourma in the east.
There is also a great variety to see. The north is on the edge of the Sahara Desert, where you can see sand dunes and try a camel ride. The south is lush and green, with flowing waterfalls and stunning rock formations to rival Australia’s bungle bungles.
And this brings us neatly to Mahadaga - a village in the south-east of the country, close to the border with Benin.
SIM has a centre there to help disabled children, as well as a school for the deaf or blind (the largest in West Africa, I’m told).
It also happens to be absolutely beautiful, so I’ve seized the opportunity three times to take the eight hour journey east and visit the station there. I was there last week and it was then that something extraordinary happened.
15 Minutes of Fame
I was wandering across the station one evening when a crowd of at least a dozen men marched across and formed a semi-circle around me. They all looked very serious.
“Nous voulons voir G’Johnson,” one demanded. He wanted to see someone called Johnson and since there was a Dale Johnson on site, this was an easy request. I pointed them on their way, but they weren’t satisfied.
“Le jouer de Chelsea, G’Johnson.”
Hmmm. This was not such an easy request. I tried to joke that Dale was a good footballer, but they were having none of it.
“G’Johnson… Chelsea.” As I looked around the group at least half of them looked like they wanted to deck me. They were utterly convinced a Chelsea player was in the middle of the bush in Africa and they believed I was keeping them from him.
Again I tried humour. There aren’t any Chelsea players called Johnson, but there was one called Glen Johnson who’d moved on to a better team.
There wasn’t even a smile, but then the plot thickened.
They asked if I’d been handing out football shirts earlier and indeed I had. A friend from home had given me a dozen shirts to take with me and they’d been received with absolute glee at the centre that morning. I began to think I knew where this was going. I was wrong.
I was questioned whether it was me that drove through the village that afternoon. I had. I’d been to swim in one of the waterfalls just outside town.
“Tu n’es pas G’Johnson? de Chelsea… et Barca?”
Then it clicked. EIDUR GUDJOHNSEN! They thought I was Eidur Gudjohnsen!!
When I’d given away the football shirts earlier that day, one had ‘Jon’ printed on the back. As people in the Burkina bush have no idea that any Tom, Dick and Harry can have their name put on a shirt, they believed this was an authentic player’s shirt and that I was a professional footballer.
This rumour spread and when I drove through town a few hours later someone must have said, “I know who he is… he’s Eidur Gudjohnsen!”
Now Eidur and I are both blessed with blonde locks, but that’s about it as far as comparisons go. He’s made over 300 appearances for Chelsea and Barcelona. I haven’t. He’s won the English, Spanish and Dutch titles. I haven’t.
The next day I found myself bombarded with questions from new fans. ‘How long have you been playing for?’ ‘What team do you play for now?’ If I left the station I’d have people coming up to meet me. I tell you what, being Eidur Gudjohnsen is quite fun. He’d got all the credit for the shirts I’d handed out, but I didn’t care one bit.
Andy Warhol once said everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. I didn’t realise my 15 would be in the middle of nowhere.
I fully recommend trying something different in your gap year. Choose an unknown wonder of the world like Burkina Faso. And if you struggle to keep up with a challenging culture, you can always hand out a shirt and be mistaken for an international sports star.
There’s something so refreshing about spending this chapter of my life in the West African wilderness. I dare you to join me.
About the Author: Jon Nurse
Hi, I’m Jon Nurse and I'm currently serving as an English teacher in Burkina Faso, West Africa.
I took a gap month in Sri Lanka between years of university and got bitten by the travel bug. I taught at a rural primary school and knew the moment I got home that I wanted to dive into more volunteering and travel after uni.
I finished my studies in History and Journalism in 2009 and wanted to experience Africa, master a second language (French) and have a go at Christian service. A placement in Ouagadougou ticked all the boxes and here I am.
I’d love to be able to see all the continents. So far I’ve seen four…