Making changes in Senegal

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Alive & Kicking's 250,000th ball continues its journey with the Spirit of Football team from London to the World Cup opening ceremony in Johannesburg.

The air was thick and hot when we landed in the outskirts of the Senegalese capital of Dakar at around midnight. Richard, a good friend of ours, met us at the airport with a smile and a hotel reservation in the fishing town of Ngor.

Drawn curtains immediately blocked our hotel room’s view out over the Atlantic Ocean as Andrew and Phil from Spirit of Football collapsed into sleep. They were woken three hours later by a telephone call from the hotel reception.

On the other end of the line was an excited voice belonging to Bashir from DHL, who are helping us with our travel arrangements throughout the African Sub Sahara. He wanted to drive us to the Malian consulate so we could apply for visas.

Our arrival at the embassy was met with suspicion. The women behind the visa application desk no doubt wanted to know exactly what two men dressed for the beach and carrying a leather football expected when they entered a place of rules and neckties.

African embassies have a reputation for not rushing into making any bureaucratic decisions, but on this occasion it seemed like they would make an exception - one that involved us being led out the premises by armed security.

That may well have happened had Bashir not arranged for a letter of invitation to Mali, signed and stamped by the head of DHL there. Rather than being thrown out we were invited into the ambassador's office while our visas were processed.

In the privacy of her office, Her Excellency asked to look at me and promptly dropped me to the floor to display a range of short passing with her Chief of Protocol that is still beyond some Stoke City players!

Every evening the beach in front of our hotel is crammed with super fit Senegalese of all ages chasing a ball over the golden sand. Phil whipped off his shirt and joined in one game, exposing his pale complexion and his epiglottis, as he quickly found himself hunched over greedily sucking air into his lungs during the heat of the evening.

It’s easy for most people to find a game in Senegal, but for some it’s nearly impossible. These are the mentally and physically disabled children of western Africa, who are mostly hidden away by a sense of shame their parents feel in the face of the stigma still very much surrounding disability in this part of the world.

These children seldom get the opportunity to be involved in any way with sport. The Special Olympics provides them with the chance to feel far more optimistic about their lives by playing sport. I was privileged enough to be involved in two Special Olympics games involving intellectually disabled children that have helped to challenge old fashioned attitudes.

I was a guest of honour at a televised press conference at the Senegalese Ministry for Sport in Dakar, where Bacar Dia, the Minister for Sport, delivered a very heartfelt speech asking the country to support the disabled.

Looking straight into the camera lens, he encouraged parents of intellectually disabled children to have them enrolled in the Special Olympics' programmes. The ball is helping to make changes happen.

Next stop: Mali.

Part 1: From Battersea to Belgium en route to Africa
Part 2: Lost in translation with Julio Cesar

Part 3: In Iraq, football is torture
Part 4: You'll have to forgive him, he's from Hotel Barcelona
Balls to Africa home

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