It’s a hot Sunday afternoon at Odaw Station in Accra and the bad smell coming from the slum almost spoils what promises to be a great day ahead of the match between Ghana’s Black Stars and Sudan.
The people who live here don’t seem bothered by the heat. They shout ”Oboa” repeatedly while Ghana’s strange, self-proclaimed chief supporter, Oboa Samuel, emerges from the east side of the slum looking slightly depressed, carrying a plastic bag filled with green and red fabric.
I get goose bumps looking into his red eyes and wonder if I should carry on with this journey. I have never seen a place as scary and dirty as this one. Samuel leads the way to a taxi rank, where he and six friends do what they are famed for in Ghana: they are body painters.
They attend the Black Stars matches with their bodies painted red, gold and green. But it is Samuel’s famous pot, which he carries on his head, that draws most attention.
Things do not look good today because they have to move their dressing room to an old building at the slum’s train station. Again people shout ”Oboa, Oboa” and he waves back like a dignitary.
On arrival in the room, the excitement mounts when Samuel’s friends take off their clothes — no, they keep their underwear on — and the preparation for the match finally begins.
I also intended to paint my body, but after looking at everyone else’s muscles and comparing them with my big tummy, I changed my mind. Even if I had painted my entire body, people would see that I was not one of them.
These guys don’t blow vuvuzelas, don’t arrive in taxis playing loud music, chant slogans or sing as other passionate national supporters would, but they get enormous attention. Within five minutes of our arrival in the room, there are about 40 people who want their bodies painted.
”When you are good at what you do, this is how people respond. I can only paint six of the guys because the paint is expensive. It costs a fortune, I don’t work and [I] make a living from selling shoes,” says Samuel.
Life appears to be tough for him. He lives in a one-room shack with his brother. Many people in Ghana are patriotic and paint their homes in the same three colours. This is what you would expect from the country’s number-one supporter.
Not so. Samuel’s shack is plain white. Inside there is just a mattress and untidy laundry, not even a poster or the national team’s flag or his famous pot.
Strangely, he keeps his pot three blocks away and pays a friend two Ghanaian cedis (about R10,50) to look after it.
”I do not want it in my house, it will bring me bad luck. I also don’t paint my body at my house. I go where nobody will see me at all,” he says.
In 1991 he introduced body painting to his country after he asked his artist friend Musafa Suhb, from Kumasi in the north, to try it on him.
Since then it has grown in popularity. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which was Ghana’s first appearance at the contest, Samuel bought his pot and started using it.
This captured the attention of the organisers, who gave him a BMW sedan after he was chosen as the best supporter at the tournament.
Sadly that was the last time he saw the car.
”I am not educated and people take advantage of that. I don’t know what happened to my car, but God will deal with those who took it,” he says.
Finally Samuel and his friends are transformed and have to get to the Ohene Djan Stadium, which is about 15km from the slum.
With red, green and white fabric wrapped around their waists, they set off. They refuse to take a taxi and insist on walking to the stadium.
We get to the main road. Cars stop and everyone’s chanting ”Oboa” … and we all walk in the middle of the road. Cars and goats make way for us. On the sidewalks street vendors and pedestrians cheer us on.
It has been a long hot day and I step aside for a breather because these guys seem to walk as if they are running. Samuel leads up front, carrying his pot on his head.
I decide to hop into a taxi and wait at the stadium for them, but within 10 minutes they arrive. These guys are fit.
At the gate a police officer says: ”Oboa, come this side,” and pushes everyone else backwards.
If you are with Samuel, you don’t even pay to get into the stadium.
Inside, people make way for us to get to the bottom of the grandstand, where I expected the most passionate supporters to sit.
Mistakenly I run after the group, thinking that they are looking for seats, but it turns out to be their routine. They walk up and down cheering the crowd on for 90 minutes; they don’t watch the match at all, but celebrate when Ghana scores two goals.
After the match (the Black Stars won 2-0), they don’t appear excited at all.
”It is time to go home and sleep now. We are tired. We will see you in South Africa next year,” says Samuel.
It’s a good thing that Ghana have qualified for the 2010 World Cup. Self-proclaimed number-one Kaizer Chiefs supporter Saddam Maake could learn a thing or two from Samuel and his boys.
Not every win is cause for celebration
When the final whistle blew in Ohene Djan Stadium last Sunday confirming Ghana’s place at the 2010 Fifa World Cup, fans simply cleared the stadium as though nothing had happened.
Ghana became the first African team to qualify for the finals. This will be the country’s second World Cup appearance after the 2006 tournament in Germany.
Ghanaian striker Manuel ”Junior” Agogo, who didn’t feature in the match because of an injury, stood out because he couldn’t contain his excitement.
”We have done this for our country and this is only our second World Cup — which is a great achievement for us. We are still going to do our country proud next year at the tournament because we are not going to South Africa to fill the numbers but to make an impact,” Agogo told the Mail & Guardian.
But the stadium was empty within 20 minutes. There were no wild celebrations outside, most fans quietly made their way home and traffic flowed normally. A number of local sports pubs were quiet.
McHorney Yeboah of the Media Foundation for West Africa explained: ”Accra is like a suburb and people prefer to sit at home and watch television. And if they go to the stadium they immediately leave after the match. People don’t have time to celebrate.
”Passionate fans are from Kumasi. There you will find the Ashanti tribe who are known to be passionate about football. The Ashantis like to show off, a guy can walk into a pub and buy everyone drinks or load a truck or bakkie with supporters, buy them tickets and go to the stadium. Most of them support Asante Kotoko and will do anything to get to the stadium. The national team gets a lot of support when playing in Kumasi as opposed to Accra,” he said.
Just before the match people around Accra were talking of the importance of qualifying. They were wearing Ghana’s shirts and street vendors sold flags, bangles and caps. The atmosphere inside the stadium, which was packed to capacity, was wonderful. Security was tight, but cans and water bottles are allowed into the stadium because the fans are well behaved.
”That is Accra for you. Maybe the fans knew that we were definitely going to win against Sudan, which is why it was not a big deal. Such matches should be staged in Kumasi where fans show appreciation,” said Yeboah.
For a South African who is used to wild celebrations when Bafana Bafana win, this seemed strange. But lately we have grown accustomed to draws and even celebrate them. How strange.