Divided and United

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Every Saturday afternoon, the chaotic streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone get a little quieter, as English Premier League football draws thousands of young men to the city’s sports cinemas.

These cinemas do not have wall-to-wall projection screens, Dolby Surround sound, or popcorn. These are humid, white-washed rooms, where the temperature inside can top 40 degrees. Soccer fans fight for the best seat in front of a banks of televisions mounted on the wall.

And today, March 2nd, the cinemas are a little more humid. A little more tense. It’s Manchester United against Norwich City.

“There’s a division now between club and country,” says local sports reporter Alie Turay.

That’s because, on the previous weekend, Kei Kamara became the first Sierra Leonean to score in the English Premier League. The striker was recently signed, on loan, by Norwich, from Sporting Kansas City. His goal made history and helped his new team to an important win.

Turay watched the game in a bar in Freetown’s seaside neighbourhood of Aberdeen. “That goal sounded like Sierra Leone playing a home match,” he says. “I never head a Sierra Leonean talk about Norwich City. Not until last week. Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Those are the four teams people follow.” And follow they do.

The jerseys and logos of those teams can be seen all around this city, this country, and most of this continent. But in Sierra Leone, the love of England and English football runs deeper.

Over a decade ago, British troops intervened in the country’s devastating civil war. Tens of thousand died here, before they helped to rid Freetown of rebel forces. A move that eventually brought peace to Sierra Leone.

“I like English teams and English people. The English people saved our lives. I appreciate everything they did for us,” says Osman Kiss-Conteh. He is among around three hundred men, and two women, cramming into the International Sports Cinema Hall on Rawdon Street. “Let them support Kei Kamara, but I’m going to support my team. Manchester United.”

Some United fans are not as loyal as Kiss-Conteh. “I like everything about Man U, but Kamara, he is our brother,” says Mohammed Sesay. “I hope he has a goal, but does not win the game.”

Fans of other teams have no such dilemma. “Definitely I’m going to support Norwich because I have my brother there,” says Chelsea fan Dowda Bangura. “I felt very happy [last week]. I felt very proud as a Sierra Leonean.”

Kamara starts the game on the bench. The crowd juggles its attention between the three games on show. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona – arguably the biggest match-up in world soccer – is being shown alongside. A round of applause rises as Kei warms up on the sideline. Cheers for their guy, literally living the dream.

Kamara enters the game, but seconds after his first touch, the game is over. United score their second goal. The game eventually ends 4-0. Business as usual for Manchester United. Kamara barely got a look in.

Fans file down the stairs. Booming postmortems move out to the sweltering street.

Santigie Sesay has his red shirt draped over his shoulder. “Manchester game is very good.” His English is halting. His joy is not. “I also feel proud today. I like Kamara. He will have the courage to try more in the future. I love my Salone brother, but I love Manchester more, because it’s my team.”

His friends – Arsenal fans – put their arm around him and agree. Another civil war in Sierra Leone is over after just 90 minutes. And life continues in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Norwich hosts Southampton next Saturday. And they’ll all be back here here again. Freetown united.

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