Chapter One: Football is a part of me
Nusee Cooper picked up his football boots as quietly as he could and put them into his schoolbag. He walked lightly to the door and left the house, shouting a quiet goodbye to his mother that was meant to fulfil his duty but not actually to be heard, and easing the screen door closed behind him so that it wouldn’t bang.
Nusee edged through the gap between two houses that almost met across the alley, his feet scuffing the sandy ground as he half-stepped half-jumped up and down a couple of uneven paths, one ear open for any sound of pursuit. He didn’t think she was following him.
Nusee hated playing tricks on his mother, but she had recently started hiding his boots to keep him from going to soccer practice. That’s why he carried the boots in his school bag now. Nusee was a good-looking lad and always immaculately turned out, but his boots were his pride and joy. It wasn’t a very subtle trick, but so far it worked.
A few days ago, he’d had a run-in with a couple of fighters near his home on 16th Street. A couple of guys that lived across the street had been involved in the recent fighting and still carried guns. One evening Nusee was heading for practice with some friends, openly carrying his boots, and one of the fighters called him over.
Nusee felt his heart bump. The previous seven years in Liberia had taught everybody that whenever a fighter called you, you went.
“Where are you going?” asked the fighter. Nusee knew that making a flippant answer would be dangerous, so he said: “We’re going to soccer practice,” lifting his boots slightly as proof.
You really never knew what was coming next when you were talking to a fighter. Many of them were no more than children and the mixture of immaturity and heavy-duty weapons was a dangerous one.
One of the great difficulties at the time for the moving population, fleeing the fighting, was the huge number of checkpoints that grew up along every road. Many checkpoints gained their own notoriety and people still pass them with horror.
On some roads, while you were detained at one – by drunk or high teenagers in T-shirts and bandanas or worse still in wigs, make-up and dresses – you could see the next checkpoint further along the road. The best you could expect was to be taxed – to give up cash or anything you had that was seen as valuable to be allowed to pass.
At worst, you would be singled out from the queue and taken to one side to be murdered, shot or butchered. Maybe you had been taken for an enemy fighter, or maybe you were just unlucky.
When the war first approached Monrovia in 1990, Nusee’s mother had taken him and fled on foot, aiming eventually to reach Gbarnga, more than 190 km away inland.
It was a horrendous journey. On the way, basic survival instincts took over.
He said: “I was five years old when rebels attacked a local church where my family and I had gone to seek refuge. We had to walk for about nine hours to get away.
“The journey was tough because we had no food or water. Children lost their lives trying to cross a swamp, while others drank from streams that had corpses at the top. We managed to survive without drinking any water along the way, because my mom made a wise decision not to drink from streams on the grounds that she did not trust their sources.
“I think [survival] was just a divine intervention. We needed His blessings, as anyone could easily be killed only because of tribal differences or how they spoke.”
On their way, they had been stopped by a group of ‘rebels’. Nusee is a Kpelle 1by ethnicity, so not one of the belligerent tribes in the conflict at that time, but if you were misidentified as a Gio by the Krahn or as a Mandingo or Krahn by the Gios, you’d be in trouble.
One of the fighters had taken a shine to Nusee’s mother and singled her out from the group. Nusee, terrified, was only five, but he could see the fighter was not much older than him – 12 or 13 at most.
The young rebel indicated his amorous intentions, but Nusee’s mom refused to go with the boy and he lost his temper. So he changed tack completely and began accusing her of being a Mandingo. He was going to kill her now he knew he said she was the enemy, even though she was Kpelle and not one of the enemy at all.
To prove she was lying, the rebels fetched a container half-filled with cane juice – raw spirit distilled locally from sugar cane. Because Mandingos were Muslims, they wouldn’t drink cane juice so all she had to do was drink some and she would be free. But Nusee’s mom was teetotal; she had never drunk alcohol in her life, let alone the notorious cane juice.
The rebel offered her the jar and she said: ‘No’ and pulled away. The boy soldier roared in triumph: “You see! Da Mandingo woman! En I told yor?”
He grabbed her and began dragging her behind a building they were using as a guardpost. Nusee’s uncle tried to intervene, but was ordered back at gunpoint.
The others of their group watched helplessly. Nusee was in tears, screaming for his mother, as they took her. His uncle held him and tried to calm him down as he struggled to get free and run to her side. His uncle had a strange look that Nusee would later see in many eyes, a combined look of fear, desperation and impotence.
As they stood waiting for the inevitable gunshot, the only sound Nusee’s sobs, a car pulled up, filled with more rebels. The senior figure carried a look of authority in contrast to the undisciplined boy soldiers.
“What all going on here?” He asked. Nusee’s uncle indicated what was about to happen, and where. The rebel commander shouted: “Hey, my man, stop. That woman is innocent.”
He went round the building and began arguing with the fighter, eventually managing to talk him down from his pique. He nodded to Nusee’s mother that she was now released. She ran to her child and swept him up in her arms, tears flowing down both their faces now.
So with experiences like this behind him Nusee knew to keep his eyes down when he was speaking to a fighter, even though they knew each other by name.
Nusee was about 13 at the time. The rebel was only a couple of years older, but he was not happy.
He launched into a tirade: “Here we are fighting to defend you and you are going to play football. Who do you think you are? We are fighting for you, and then you are going to play. When things get worse, we will pull you over and you will join us and you will have to go and fight.”
Nusee stood there, feeling his heart pumping in his chest. It was like being caught misbehaving at school, but the Salvation Army never uttered threats like this.
He stayed silent and waited for a judgement, while the fighter looked him over. Finally, the deadlock broke. “Go,” said the fighter.
Nusee understood that the fighter was angry and jealous because of what he himself had given up. For many young men in Liberia playing football regularly was their chosen form of exercise. But it was difficult to be a fighter and a footballer at the same time. You could choose both, but when they called you to go to the front to fight, you had to go. Seeing lads his own age going to football practice while he held a gun and manned an outpost would remind him of what he had lost.
While the memory stayed fresh in Nusee’s mind, he began taking a different route to the football field. He had his school bag and even if it did show a bulge very much like one made by a pair of football boots, if anybody asked him he would say he was going to study class.
Nusee felt a determination inside him that even war wouldn’t make him give up football. It was an instinct that he couldn’t resist.
He said: “You know, football is part of me. I took my boots and I went to practice because at that time, if I don’t practise, I feel sick. Even presently, if I don’t practise for a whole week, I feel sick. Since I have known myself, I have never gone a month without playing, except due to injury. If I’m well, I’m always playing, always playing.
“I can’t sit behind a television to watch movies. When you see me sitting near television for 90 minutes, it’s for a football match, basically a Premier League match. So I really don’t spend much of my time doing any other thing but football. If I have to read, or to study, [still] the majority of my time, I play football.”
After April 6, Abraham Clarke was living with his mother near the James Spriggs Payne airfield, just south of Gbangaye Town. He was known as “Gashie” because of a supposed likeness to soccer player Daniel Amokachi, who had made a name for himself for Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup. He was a resourceful boy and just because he wasn’t going to school, it didn’t mean he was idle.
He could always join a football match in the afternoon, but while his friends were in morning classes, Gashie would go and sell small items for his mother at the sides of the roads around their Airfield neighbourhood. It had always been a busy area with lots of people passing on foot and in cars, and as the city settled down after the fighting faded away, more and more people came back. He would take a pack full of small items, chewing gum, soap, laces, whatever they could get a hold of in larger quantities and try to make a bit of money by splitting them up and selling them separately.
On his way, he would generally see the same few dozen boys and girls aged between 10 and 14 or so, each carrying their own small ‘market’ to a good pitch, maybe on the corner of Airfield Shortcut, where a lot of people would pass on foot, or near the checkpoint on Tubman Boulevard beside Vamoma House, where the cars slowed down to go through the checkpoint set up by ECOMOG, the West African peace-keeping force.
There was a kind of uniform for the street sellers – T-shirt or vest and shorts for the boys, and often the same for girls, or sometimes a frayed, dirty or worn dress. Some of them would carry food items on their heads, in baskets or on trays – boiled eggs, doughnuts, whatever was available.
Gashie was happier when he didn’t have to sell, and he loved to take his hook and line and cross to the sea side of Tubman Boulevard and head down to the beach and spend the afternoon catching fish. Other kids would be there – some of them using the sea as a toilet – but everybody knew which were the “poo-poo beaches” and which were for fishing.
He would take some fish home to eat, but first stand by the road holding up the best, hoping an NGO or government worker or one of the US Embassy staff would get their driver to stop.
Gashie also had a shovel that he’d take with him, and if the fish weren’t biting he could dig up red crabs on the beach and carry them home instead. They were tasty too and it was also sometimes possible to sell the extras.
Gashie was a tough-looking kid with a piercing stare. He could smile, but it didn’t come quickly. He could handle himself, but he always felt a bit uneasy moving around the community on his own.
One day, he was heading down the Airfield road to cross Tubman Boulevard and go fishing. With the Boulevard in his sights up ahead, and carrying his shovel, he realised he was being approached. A gang of lads about the same age as himself had crossed the road and were making directly for him.
Gashie said: “In Liberia after the war, there were a lot of child soldiers who were homeless. They just used to be on the street. Somebody see you with something, they will jump. There was no war any more, but because they’re in groups and they look at you alone, they can come and jump on you. And if you have anything, they want it. You have to give it to them. If you don’t do it they attack you. Because there was no security at the time.
“So, people who fought in the war started to join these gangs. Because that’s the only way they can find themselves up again. But there were no bullets, no guns in their hands to rob people. So they join these gangs, they attack you, they take what you’ve got and they run away.”
Maybe he recognised them. He had seen gangs like this waylay other people before. One look was enough and he turned on his heels and ran. For some reason, he had the idea that he’d be more exposed on the beach – caught between the boulevard and the sea – so he high-tailed it with all the speed his football training had brought him the way he had come, and headed for the maze of alleys around the Old Matadi estate, which he knew pretty well.
With a few snarls and yells, the gang launched themselves after him. It was close, but Gashie had managed to take them by surprise and he put enough distance between them so that when he got to Old Matadi, he could dodge between the buildings and lose his pursuers in the tangle of houses. The chasing group burst through a few back yards where clothes were drying and little children were pottering round in the dust or taking baths. They soon gave up.
After that, Gashie had lost his enthusiasm for an afternoon of crab-hunting, so he waited till he was sure the coast was clear and headed home. He knew if they recognised him later he’d be in trouble. He had some history of his own by then that he wanted to hide.
Moses Barcon’s whole life had been bounded by Gbangaye Town’s narrow perimeter, until the war came and people scattered. Moses, aged nine, and his mother and father left Gbangaye Town and Monrovia to walk to Buchanan. They were of the Bassa ethnic group and wanted to get back to the security of their home land in Grand Bassa County.
As Bassa people the Barcon family would have seen themselves to be outside the ethnic tension which at first seemed to be at the heart of the Liberian chaos. Simplistic views put on one side the Krahns, the tribe of former president, Samuel Doe, and the Mandingos, largely Muslims and trading people; while on the other were the people of the Gio/Mano ethnic group who claimed to have been persecuted by Doe and the Krahns.
So the decision of Moses’ parents to take shelter in Buchanan, 140km from Monrovia, would have seemed a logical one. It was far from both the counties of Nimba and Grand Gedeh where the Gios and Krahns called home, and from Monrovia, where the forces of rebel leader Charles Taylor and the remains of Doe’s defeated army would clash.
They had no alternative but to walk, and they had gone some way before they were stopped at checkpoint manned by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) by rebels on a mission to find soldiers from the former government escaping the capital.2
Moses described what happened: “We left Monrovia and everybody was going on foot, walking. At that time I was small, around nine years, walking with my mother and my father and maybe other people around us. For each checkpoint you reached, the people were asking for identity. When you be a AFL soldier at that time in Liberia, they will pull you to one side of the line, and when you bad lucky, they kill you.
“My pa was a businessman. And a friendly man. After we left Monrovia, we reached to a checkpoint. My mother and myself were approaching the checkpoint with my father.
“They called and said ‘Identity yourselves!’ I was just a kid. It didn’t mean anything to me. My father went to identify himself. ‘Oh, Moses Barcon, senior. I’m a businessman. I’ve got my wife here, and my son.’
“For no reason, no reason, from the other side, we heard, ‘You move from here man! You’re the one who can lie!’
“That’s when they carried him behind the house.
“You know that each time when they take somebody from the line, it will be to carry you across and definitely you know you will not return.
“It’s not easy because at that point the NPFL had everything. You can’t get away from them, because they control the whole country.”
“It was so sad. It was so sad, so sad. And we leave, my mother and myself, leave my father behind now. Just the two of us now. It was so sad.
His friend Gashie described the random nature of the violence. “If you’re unlucky, people take you from the line. Ex-combatants say: ‘I know this man, this man did such and such,’ and they will take you from the line and kill you.”
After that tragedy, Moses and his mother somehow continued their way on foot to the comfort of their kin in Buchanan, but although it provided some feeling of security, they were still forced to live on the generosity of family and friends, so as soon as they could face the journey, they returned.
War was a time of permanent fear, but that fear lasted long after the actually fighting had died off. Coming back to the city was tough: the sudden sound of guns far way and not so far; no electricity and utter darkness at night providing a cloak for robbery and hijacking. If you went out at night, you could be press-ganged into taking part. But it was also tempting to join in because you knew you had to provide for your family in some way.
Moses said: “For a young man, you got a house on your own, you’ve got to strive. See how to get the end means, because if you sit down, nobody will bring it to you. So you’ve got to try your best way to get what God purposes for you. So you’ve got to keep trying your best way.”
Everyone knew everyone else in Gbangaye Town, so when Moses and his mother arrived from Buchanan it wasn’t hard to find his friends. It was great to be back with all the people he’d grown up with, all those he knew so well – their style, their ways of talking, their ways of expressing themselves – and to be able to have fun and laugh again. But the main connection was football.
They would sometimes challenge other groups of kids playing in the locality. And Moses was delighted that more often than not, they would win, as he recalled with pride in 2013: “We were well organised, you know, we had the fit minds of football. We would go anywhere through football and nobody could defeat us because the self-confidence was there because we were used to each other and the pattern we played to.”
Inevitably, afterwards, when the game was over and they were sitting on the pitch, the laughing and joking would at times subside and the talk would turn to more serious things. They would tell stories about what had happened to them and their families during the war. Everybody in Liberia was affected by the war, and everybody had a story. Moses told them about his father’s death. For others, it was their mother or brother, or another close relative who was hurt or killed. Some had stayed put; some had fled; some like Moses and his mom – had sought the sanctuary of their tribal lands, and then returned. Everybody had a story.
At that time towards the end of 1996, as had happened several times before, Moses and the others were once more back in the early stages of rebuilding their lives, finding houses, looking for school places. It seemed like things were just beginning to get back to normal, but life was still not really settled in the way it was before the war or would be after.
Schools then were temporary affairs, completely or almost completely without resources, just a group of children of mixed ages and abilities and a willing adult to teach them for a few Liberian dollars per pupil. The only thing that made it a school was the shared desire for learning, but education had been a hit and miss affair, so it was not something you could rely on.
For Moses, this was how it had been for six years: “You went to school for three or four weeks, maybe even up to ten months. Then you hear the guns start ‘Pok pok pok pok’ and you run back home and everything stops. Because if war fighting, you are not able to go anywhere.”
Even though he was still in his early teens, Moses was still going to grade school, in the UK what we would call Primary School.
One day he was walking through the community and heard his name called. There was always still a momentary flutter of anxiety, but his face broke into a big grin when he saw it was one of his long-time football-playing pals who used to meet on Gbanagye Town field, Prince Momo, known to all as Menwoe. Menwoe had a dour exterior, but his friends new him to be loyal and determined and always keen to get anything organised that might improve their pitiful prospects.
“Oh Moses,” he said: in his usual matter-of-fact way. “The men are forming a football team here.”
“But which kind of team?”
Menwoe said. “It will be a great football team, called Power From Heaven.”
So Moses said: “All right. I will be part of the team.”
They spent two or three months playing together and meeting up to train together on the same pitch, and that experience felt good among them all. Excitement was beginning to mount. The team began to think of themselves like brothers.
With the chaos still inherent in the country, and the economic pressures pushing people to sell or steal, and education remaining unaffordable or of little value, the group of friends somehow picked on football as the way to rebuild their lives. They had an understanding that they had to do something, and because this was what they were good at, their minds turned to football. Moses said: “From what we experienced, we had to keep focused on the football game, how to rebuild our lives.”
Menwoe says his first memory of Millennium Stars was playing barefoot. The group of lads would gather, if they could lay their hands on a ball, and pick up sides from whoever was there and the game would begin. No-one had boots. Very few played in any kind of footwear. Your skills developed in a certain way when you could feel the ball with the actual skin of your feet. Boots were so far out their realm of economic possibility that they didn’t give them a second thought, but whenever you saw the professionals playing, you remembered.
Throughout 1994 and 1995, Menwoe had done his best to get to the Samuel Kanyon Doe Stadium to watch the Liberia qualifying games for the African Cup of Nations. If you couldn’t afford a taxi – and who could at that time? – then you joined the crowds walking out to SKD shortly after the sun came up.
It was a good 10km walk from Gbangaye Town to the stadium, and on a normal day would take about two hours on foot. But on match day, the same journey could easily take double that. Crowds of singing, shouting, horn-blowing fans would spend the day getting to the stadium. Street vendors selling snacks, drinks and liquor lined the way and the few available routes. For some kids, it was the best day to be out selling, but you still kept an ear out for the team news, the football gossip and the score. The atmosphere was lively, and usually didn’t become anything worse.
The concrete SKD Stadium was built in the 1980s as a gift from the Chinese government, and held about 50,000 people in concentric rows of concrete benches – except for the slightly plusher VIP area, where you got a thin cushion to put on the concrete bench.
You had to have a ticket to get in and you could usually buy these on the day, but thousands who didn’t have a ticket turned up anyway They would mill about outside waving banners and flags, joining and jumping queues, jumping fences and at times trying to force their way in. It was every man for himself, and like most football crowds the world over, the majority were men.
At some point close to kick off, it would be clear the crowd wouldn’t all get in in time and there would be more and more violent surges. Armed soldiers – ECOMOG at this time, but AFL (Armed Forces of Liberia) at other times – acted as matchday security and would use sticks to encourage the crowds to queue in a more genteel way. It didn’t work. At kick off, the crowd would surge again. And again, with every cry or whoop from inside the stadium.
Often, at some point during the match, the gates would be forced open or would be opened deliberately and thousands of fans outside would join a mass charge to get in for free. Unless he had been lucky enough to get a ticket, Menwoe would be part of this crowd. Delight at getting in to see Lone Star in action overcame any fear for his personal well-being. For a few minutes there was chaos as crowds swept round the stadium to find a spot, and then you could concentrate on the match.
Liberia’s most famous person, the soccer star George Weah, would always draw a crowd whenever he came home. Even if it was at his house or on walkabout in Sinkor, kids, young people, adults would gather to see him, touch him, to listen to his words.
In June 1995, George Weah came home to show off the World’s Best Player Award and there was a public event at the SKD stadium. Menwoe forced his way in alongside tons of impressionable youths in a crowd as big as any Lone Star – the nickname by which the Liberian national team is generally known – would get for an international match, just to watch their hero and sing his praises, while he showed off the accolade that many took to have been bestowed on the country itself.
The stadium was jammed when George Weah addressed the crowd. He singled out the youth of Liberia, encouraging them, urging them to be serious about themselves and giving them the responsibility to help rebuild the country. Football, he said: could unify the country.
When he got home, and in the days that followed, Menwoe began thinking. On the one hand, he could see around him the lads who were still suffering mentally because of what they’d gone through during the war. On the other, he could see the example of Oppong and Salinsa, George Weah and James Debbah – the other Liberian making big news at a European club – and their exploits in Europe for Milan and PSG.
Menwoe used to go to the video club in Gbangaye Town and pay his one Liberian dollar5 or stand outside and try to catch a glimpse through the flimsy walls to watch the two Liberian stars, tall and majestic, sweeping all before them. If you couldn’t see, you could still hear the commentary and imagine them in their full pomp.
Even when they went to school, Menwoe knew he and his friends were way behind where they should be. The only job opportunity for young people was street selling. He didn’t judge those who had fought or would continue fighting; it was a choice made out of necessity, for survival. Sometimes he would hear stories from another community: “Oh, this person go in this or that house and take money and everything.” But that wasn’t for him and it was definitely not what George had requested of them.
So it became clear that for him and his friends, the thing to do was football. It wasn’t just a bid to create an economic future like their heroes, it was more. Because when you played football, it wasn’t just imagination, you were those heroes. Your feet were their feet; your headers were their headers; your goals were their goals.
Menwoe had a friend, John T Morris, a big guy, larger-than-life. Big John wasn’t that interested in playing football, but he liked to coach. John could handle himself in a fight, there was no doubt, and he wasn’t afraid to get involved on that side, but he was also a hard worker and dedicated to improving himself. Menwoe was sure John would help them if they set up a team.
Kunta Varnie is a true Millennium Star. He was born in Gbangaye Town, grew up in Gbangaye Town and his mother is the town chief of Gbangaye Town. He is another football fanatic.
He stayed in Monrovia throughout the first part of the war, from 1989 to 1997, and in the peaceful times, football was what was mostly on his mind. He said: “At that time, I would go to school by 7.30 and come home by 2 o’clock. So after 2, I’m free until the next day. I would practise football for at least two hours every day.
“Because where would you run? You don’t have money to go? You never have visa. You never have passport, so you just got to stay to your house and protect your family.”
The feeling in even small children that they had a duty to protect their families comes up again and again.
Kunta said: “During the war, I was very small, like eight or nine years old. I saw a lot of things. Children under the age of six or seven years old carrying gun, and they were molesting people. If they see you they say ‘Come here!’ because they’ve got a gun.
“He’s a very small boy. His mind is not big like the big people, so he does things out of the way. So actually, I had fear. You can’t stay there if someone’s molesting you. You’ve got to fight back. So that’s how Liberia was.
“You’ve got to fight back and protect your family, because if you stay there, they will kill every one of you. There was no-one you could turn to because there was no government. Everybody was doing their own thing. So everybody was afraid, so you’ve got to protect yourself.”
It wasn’t just the fear of children with guns, but the fear of the possibly that you would be forcibly dragged into the war. Sometimes it was the only choice. Kunta said: “I protected myself by keeping away from them. Because if they see you’re a healthy man, they will call you and bring you over and give you gun and tell you to go and fight.
“They did that to me as well. They forced me. If you do not go, then definitely there’s a problem for you. Either they kill you or they go to your family and kill your family people. So you have to go with them.”
Kunta found himself dragooned into the same tit-for-tat war of fear that he’d experienced himself at the hands of children. He said: “I used the gun to protect myself and to protect my family, because if you got gun, then people afraid of you and at that time there was no government. Nobody would tell you to do this or to do that so everybody was doing their own thing.”
Acting in self-defence is one thing, but one of Kunta’s family took a more proactive role in the war.
As we sat on a sunny balcony in Monrovia, in 2013, Kunta cast his mind back to the early days of the war, when Charles Taylor’s rebel group, the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) were sweeping all before them.
Just as they reached Monrovia, the NPFL splintered. The breakaway group named itself the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) and were led by another opportunistic warlord, Prince Johnson – who is now a senator for Liberia.
Kunta’s brother, under the name General Robert, fought alongside Johnson when Johnson captured, tortured and killed then President, Samuel Kanyon Doe
Kunta described what happened: “They catch President Doe at the Freeport that day and cut the ears out. Can you imagine? You cut the President’s ears out?
“He was telling the people, ‘You people have to loosen me!’ but they tied him up.
“It’s not easy.
“People asked him, Prince Johnson asked him: ‘Where is the Liberian people’s money?’ He said: ‘I don’t have money, but just loosen me first,’ but they said ‘We can’t loosen you.’
Undoubtedly, Kunta – like many children of his generation – would have seen the film Death of Doe that was shot by one of Prince Johnson’s men, showing the torture and eventual murder of Doe. But still today the memories of the stories told him by his brother live behind his eyes, and have coloured his life.
Kunta continued: “So my brother was there, he was with Prince Johnson. They captured Doe, they killed Doe, the war ended. He did a lot of things without cause because war in particular is not good. Because if war comes in the country it’s bad especially for the youth, and at that time I was very small. I think I was about seven or eight years old at that time, so I couldn’t remember everything, but he used to set me down and tell me.
“Because when I go to him like that, he had a lot of people, boys, small soldiers, a lot of people with guns. People who was eight years old, nine years old and they were carrying gun, and that gun they were carrying is very heavy for them. Trying to hold the gun itself, they will fall – whoa! But any day they will still fire the gun and kill people. I saw a lot of things.
“I remember seeing small children, eight years old, nine years old, ten years old. And they inject them with a lot of drugs. So when they inject them, their mind is not set, so they do certain things out of the way, they kill people. Some of them kill ten people, fifteen people every day, innocent people. People who are not fighting war, who are not government official, nobody, just common citizens. They just killed them.
“So my brother sometimes sit down too. He regret. He say during the war, because when you’re fighting war, as soon as you get gun, you will get money, you will get food, you will not lack for anything. Because of that weapon, people are afraid of you. And he killed people most of the time. He do a lot of killing, opened people’s gut. He juke them. Oh!
“He told me ‘You can be sitting here and one will just take a gun and ‘Bwaa!’ Another fighter comes back to them and says: ‘Oh where’s my friend who we was sitting here with us? Oh you killed him.?’ The other on will say ‘Oooooooh! I forgot!’ Doing drugs caused that, drugs in his body.
“My brother told me everything. At that I time I was very small, but I could still remember.”
Kunta’s best friend at the time was a tall slim lad called Teku Nahn, another talented player, and Teku had known Nusee Cooper since they were little. The three of them would often get together for a kickabout whenever they could.
Teku was trying to get by through selling clothes. He’d buy a job lot from an auction and then go and sell it piece by piece round the community. But it was hard going – people were still mourning their lost families and their few possession that had been looted. There was a lot of damage and a lot of trauma, but little cash. Business was not good, so Teku found himself with a lot of spare time, too, sitting down and thinking about football.
One day, Nusee mentioned to Teku that there was a team forming in Gbangye Town and told him: “You must come to the Gbangaye Town field and meet Coach John and the rest of the team.” He didn’t take much persuading.
Teku felt a bit nervous, but was ready for the challenge. He joined in the game and although he took it as a trial, he still played well. John said he liked the look of him and he should join. Teku’s serious face broke into a big smile, and his pals, Kunta and Nusee came and slapped him on the back.
Teku, and another lad who had recently started joining in the kickabouts Zayzay Kollie, would both go on to be picked for Liberia’s national squad.
Saah Taylor was another who grew up in Gbangaye Town who joined in the impromptu football matches, having moved there from Zorzor, Lofa County, when he was around five years old. When the rebels began approaching Monrovia in 1990, the Taylors, like many families, fled back to the safety of their fellow Loma people back in Lofa.
They would be back in Gbangaye Town by 1991, but it was an interlude that would have profound impact on them. They had the misfortune of bearing the same surname as the main player in the war – the hero to some, but the villain also to many – and at a time when people were being killed for reasons much less plausible, Saah’s family knew they would be targets for more than one faction in the conflict if they had any association with Charles Taylor. So they changed the family surname to Tamba.
It may have been that which made Saah Tamba a shy teenager. Or it may have been a perception that he came from a family which was – in a society already economically deprived – in the lower strata of the Gbangaye Town social order. Saah senior became unable to look after the family when Saah was a boy and simply left. So Saah’s mother resorted to buying ‘fufu’ – a starchy, doughy, low-cost foodstuff made from ground cassava – and selling it on at a tiny profit. Gbangaye Town residents would sometimes shout “Fufu” at her as she went about her business and the epithet stuck with Saah also.
Like the Tamba/Taylors, a lot of people in Gbangaye Town were from the Loma ethnic group. One of them, a Mrs Kpaiwolo, saw the group of lads getting together every day to practise and play on the Gbangaye Town field. At first, it troubled her, but soon she saw that they meant no harm, and then realised that they were actually doing some good. She had four sons and the oldest, Mulbah, already played for a team. She could see the value for the individual and the group of being part of any unit that wasn’t gathering to cause mischief, and she made a mental note to get Mulbah to see if he could help these lads.