What has football got to do with chimpanzees? That was my first thought when I was asked to help organize a football tournament in the Moyamba district of Sierra Leone. I soon learned that Tacugama does more than just look after the chimps on site. They believe the best way to care for chimpanzees is to make sure they never have to be rescued in the first place. This is achieved by the very busy outreach team who go out into the communities of Sierra Leone, teaching people about chimpanzees, the importance of conservation and sustainable agricultural practices. Tacugama runs the Mobonda Conservation football tournament to gather eight communities together, providing a platform to educate lots of people about the issues facing chimpanzees and what they can do to help. My name is Andy and in this post, I will describe my experiences as a volunteer helping the Tacugama outreach team.
With all the planning, budgets and car checks complete, Myself, John the field officer and our driver Jeibo leave Tacugama heading to Mobonda. Our first stop is Waterloo, A market which like many of the places in Sierra Leone, is named after somewhere in England. This is where we buy the weekly $1000 worth of food for the chimpanzees and also where we will buy supplies for our trip. Amongst the bustling stalls, we pick up food and water for us. The market is very crowded and I’ll describe the smells as strong since there were lots of fish for sale, nevertheless, in Sierra Leone this is the best place to buy anything you need. As it’s tradition here for the person who calls a meeting provides food and drinks, we also collect biscuits and local soft drinks for the players.
The road isn’t too bad and we make good time to Moyamba, the main town in the Moyamba district. Here we make another quick stop since as well as conservation and caring for Chimpanzees, Tacugama pays for teachers so we visit the administrators house to drop of their paycheck. The last two hours travelling to Mobonda are more challenging as we go down a “road” which was either so overgrown that we can’t see through the grass or so bumpy that I frequently hit my head against the ceiling of the car. I was very glad we have a 4×4 and thankful to Jeibo for getting us through.
Once we arrive at the village, we must first be introduced to the village chief and elders. I greet them with my best attempts at speaking Mende and John explains our reasons for visiting so the chief can give us his blessing. Once we have been blessed, we head to our rooms where we meet Musa. He is one of ten bio-technicians hired by Tacugama who monitor and protect the forest and is in charge of organizing the tournament on the Mobonda end. As we sit down to eat an African staple of cooked Cassava leaves with rice, A woman called Fatmata offers to teach me more Mende. My attempts to pronounce new words provided much amusement to the people around me but everyone was very welcoming, the food was delicious and I finished the evening with a few more phases under my belt. I’m given a warm bucket of water for washing before I head to my straw bed. There are non of the luxuries from home and I’d rather not mention the toilet, regardless, I’m glad to lie down in a room by myself and I sleep well under my mosquito net.
We begin our first full day with a community meeting. Everybody gathers in the community centre and we begin by saying both Muslim and Christian prays to welcome god into the room. We then inform everyone of our the tournament schedule and rules. To leave a constant reminder of our message, we also provide Tacugama T-shirts to community leaders and our bio-technicians. Finally we explain and distribute posters about how the bush-meat trade is illegal as well as the importance of protecting the forest. With the completion of the meeting everyone disperses back to their own villages. We went back by the houses where we were staying. This area is surrounded by banana and guava fruit which people just pick when they are hungry or, in the case of the children, when they want to use a guava as a makeshift football. We leave to collect speakers for the tournament, returning to spiced plantain for dinner. This seems strange already but then i try some and they taste exactly like potato. Apparently this means they are under-ripe but i was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed my meal. By this point it’s dark so everyone gathers round to listen to a solar powered radio before heading to bed.
In the morning we wake up early to prepare for the first game. This involves hanging our Tacugama banner, attaching fishing nets to the back of the goals and herding the goats away from the field. Everywhere you walk in the community, you are surrounded by goats and chickens eating any left over food. Once the teams arrive, we distribute team jerseys, take photos and the referee talks to the players. By this point between three and four hundred spectators have also arrived to watch the games and as I’m handed the microphone i’m feeling a little nervous. Our first session covers how chimpanzees are highly intelligent, native to Sierra Leone and form strong family bonds. Explaining that because of these factors chimpanzees were chosen the the national animal. Despite my lessons, this is far beyond my Mende so throughout the whole speech, Musa acted my translator.
With our part complete, the game can begin! During the game, Mokombo scored three goals with their supporters flooding the field in celebration each time. As the final whistle blows the victors celebrate and dance to the music until everybody leaves for lunch. We return a 4:00 for the second game between Sobengi and Mai. While the players get changed, we take the opportunity to cover the similarities between chimpanzees and humans such as being ticklish and using tools. Despite the heavy rain that starts in the first half the atmosphere in the crowd is intense and a very close match develops. People walk through the spectators selling a wide range of local treats from a buckets on their head. I can’t help myself, buying groundnut cake, puff-cakes (aka doughnuts) and butterscotch. The game has a brief pause when a shot to the crossbar breaks the goal, however after some quick engineering everything resumes and after 9 minutes the score is 2 -1 to Sobengi.
As it grows dark, we have another chance to promote caring for chimpanzees with our conservation movie night. Our chosen movie was “Jane Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzee”, which was played in the community centre. Unfortunately, we had projector issues but forged ahead meaning approximately 100 people watching a single laptop, while John provided the Mende translation. The focus is intense and there is an audible gasp whenever a chimpanzee comes on the screen. To complete the night, we play music as everyone here loves to dance, even sneaking the Tacugama Song into the playlist.
Over the next day, Mobonda, Benkeh, Yelleh and Morgbeneh play with Benkeh and Morgbeneh winning their matches. Before each game we talk about the importance of the forest and how to protect it. After each game I collect the litter, since people here tend to drop rubbish wherever they are standing. This got the attention of the children who begun collecting rubbish and giving it to me as presents. We take this opportunity to explain how we are trying to keep our environment clean and lead by example.
The 5th day was semi final day. Our topics for the day are the dangers facing chimpanzees, such as the bush meat trade and how you can help. There is an interruption when the side of a house falls down but no-one is injured and by the end of the day they had almost rebuilt it so it wasn’t as serious as it first looked. Other than that incident and some interesting interpretations of 10 yards from free kicks, the day went smoothly. Benkeh and Sobengi win their matches making them our finalists.
This brings us to the final of the tournament. We give our final talk summarising our key points and the game begins! After much back and forth with one disallowed goal Sobengi score. This gives them a 1 – 0 lead which they hold till the end making them the 2019 Tacugama conservation football champions. The crowd doesn’t stop cheering and dancing for 20 minutes. We struggle to gather everyone from the celebrations to present certificates and awards to the players. We give thanks to everyone for hosting us and let the music play as the communities dance into the night.
As we leave Mobonda I reflect on my time here. Over the last few days i have been made very welcome. I’ve shaken so many hands and any time I’ve been standing someone has tried to put a chair under me. There really in a community feel in this village. They make one big meal that is shared between everyone and serves as both lunch and dinner. I was surprised by the use solar power for lights, mobile phones and the shared radios as well as the amount of motorbikes that were around. Tacugama does a lot of work in this area beyond football, such as providing seed for sustainable agriculture, but the number one thing people said they would like is a school and teacher in the community. I hope we have taught them about the importance of chimpanzees and that they enjoyed the tournament. Then during our drive back this happens:
We have one last adventure as we walk to the nearest village for help. About 15 people return and after an awful lot of digging, pushing and wedging sticks we are free. It took about 3 hours in total and I’m very glad when we finally return to Tacugama at 1 AM.
So concludes my trip to Mobonda. We successfully hosted a four day tournament providing a platform for us to talk about chimpanzee conservation to hundreds of people. This is not something I ever thought I would get to do and I am so glad for all the work John and Jeibo put towards making this happen. This is a glimpse at the work TCOP do in the communities to support both the wild chimpanzees that are so in need of help, and the communities that we rely on the care for them.
If you want to read more about volunteering at Tacugama, you can check out Alex and Zsófia blog describing their experiences volunteering.
If you want to help the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone and support projects like this, you can become a chimpanzee guardian.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer yourself, you can visit our page on volunteering at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.