After the training on Tuesday, we spent the rest of our week in our partner school, whilst also visiting other local schools, friends and the British Council in Freetown, who were so helpful. And on Thursday, we were guests of honour at the annual Sports Day, which took place on a dusty plot of land next to St Raphael’s Catholic Secondary School in Waterloo.
I am aware that we are in an Olympic season (though I think the Winter Olympics finished today), albeit in temperatures rather different to those in West Africa. But I must say to you, Pierre De Coubertin, Joao Havelange, Sebastian Coe, Nadia Comaneci, Franz Klammer, Abibi Bikila, Sir Steve Redgrave; your Olympics are dull, predictable and tepid.
Believe me, you have nothing on a school Sports Day in Sierra Leone.
Here are my highlights.
- The Opening Ceremony. I found this quite emotional. The national flag was raised on a stick, which a member of staff had whittled away at for several hours. I’m a National Anthem aficionado and this is one of the best. Each time I hear, ‘How we exalt thee, land of the free’, I cannot fail to be touched.
- An event labelled ‘Planting and Harvesting’. Yes, quite remarkably, this is an event for Sports Day. Children bring out small plant pots with cuttings that are carefully kneaded into the soil. I have absolutely no idea what significance this has for the athletics world, but it was fun.
- Random invasions. At one point, a party of staff and pupils from the Milton Margai School for the Blind walked across the track. Later on, one of our drivers parked his truck causing an exhalation of dust in the middle of Lane 4, nearly knocking over the recently planted pots.
- Pyramid Making. The children began their 100m dash only to stop half way to engage in mathematical problem-solving. Once they had completed their pyramid, they sprinted on to the line. If you were a great runner but had clumsy hands? Tough.
- No one could hear anything due to an immense speaker blasting out rap and reggae at one thousand decibels. It was a miracle that any child heard the starting whistle.
- Stewards enquiries after EVERY race. Virtually the entire staff bickered and screamed at each other before and after each event – the wrong child had started, or finished, or should have been in the other team, or started too soon, or too late. I say they were screaming at each other – in Sierra Leone, this is known as professional dialogue.
- Vivid colours. Each house was in bright green, yellow, blue or red (this was my team). Touchingly, the red house had been named after our school – All Saints House. (We came third, narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon).
- Vivid costumes. Half the pupils were absent from school the day before the Sports Day, to ‘prepare’. As the children turned up, we saw what this meant. Elaborate hairstyles, girls in make-up, colourful adornments, you name it. Some girls had put on colourful woollen tights. Woollen tights? It was forty degrees Celsius.
- Crowd control. As more and more parents and neighbours turned up to watch, the local scout brigade had the responsibility of preventing them from encroaching too far on the track. They did this by using more whittled sticks, but this time is a less cultured way, not that it had much impact. I can’t even begin to imagine the outrage this would cause at a village fete in Cheshire. No-one batted an eyelid here in Waterloo.
- The actual running. Some of the children were seriously quick, and showed remarkable fortitude to focus on the task in hand as their parents and teachers hurled seventy-five pieces of conflicting advice into their ears, already rendered numb by the ‘reggaeton’ booming across the dust.
Senses battered, we left early due to other reasons. But one of those reasons can categorically NOT be ‘acute boredom’.
So if you’re fed up with the over-coached predictability of our sports system in the UK, or the cosseted egos of our sports stars swooning across our screens, I have the answer to your apathy.
Don your woolly tights, put on the lippy, and head down to a Sierra Leonean Sports Day. You’ll love it.