Steven Caulker meets some young fans on his visit to Sierra Leone in June. Photograph: ActionAid
By Dominic Fifield – The Guardian
Most footballers spend the close season on the beach or a golf course, but the QPR defender has given something back to the west African country and birthplace of his grandfather after a remarkable voyage of discovery.
The first thing that struck Steven Caulker was the desperate poverty. That and the stench. The slum area sweated in the steamy heat at the foot of a hill in Freetown’s densely crammed East End, with the raw sewage from the hovels further up the slope flowing down into the alleyways and streets where children played and families gathered to work or eat. The stink in which they lived was overpowering, the level of destitution utterly unfathomable. Yet, when he recalls his week-long visit to Sierra Leone, the overriding memories are not of misery.
Instead, Caulker recalls the spirit. The generosity, strength and heartfelt gratitude flung his way from the capital up to Kambia in the rural and remote north of a West African state scarred by years of civil war and, more recently, ravaged by the Ebola epidemic. “Most of all, what stays with you is the joy, seeing the kids’ faces creasing up in broad smiles,” he says. “The whole trip was emotionally draining, completely humbling, but unbelievably inspiring. It’s offered me perspective, but has also motivated me to work harder. I will dig deeper knowing whatever I achieve now is for the good of other people, not just me. It makes all those bleep tests in pre-season worth it. I’ve had a life-changing summer.”
It has been one far removed from a footballer’s usual close season, more normally spent lazing on a Caribbean beach or preoccupying the paparazzi in Las Vegas, and has fascinated his club-mates back at Queens Park Rangers. Caulker had always wanted to visit the country where his grandfather William grew up. The centre-half has no idea how or why Caulker Sr, at 30, departed the town of Bonthe near the Liberian border for London, where he met his future wife, Jessie, recently arrived from Dollar in Clackmannanshire, Scotland.
Steven was a teenager when William passed away, but the older man clearly made an impression on him. Retreat three years and in the wake of a summer move from Tottenham Hotspur to Cardiff City and a conversation with Craig Bellamy, who funds his own academy outside Freetown, the footballer found himself Googling charities in Sierra Leone, eager to offer something back.
He struck upon ActionAid, which has been established in the region for 28 years fighting poverty and furthering education and women’s rights, and discussed a scheme to raise £76,000 for the construction of a school in the village of Lal Gberay in the north. These days he laughs, recalling how naive he had been about the project, believing “if I could ask everyone in an average home gate of around 25,000 to give £2 each I’d almost be there”. It took a year of auctions, with items such as signed Gareth Bale shirts and Wales rugby jerseys, to raise £26,000. Caulker dipped into his own pocket for the rest, tapping into the privileges of life as a top-flight footballer, only for the sudden and devastating spread of Ebola in 2014 to rule out a first trip to Africa that summer.
He raised an additional £40,000 with QPR over his first year at Loftus Road, money to be spent educating communities to check the virus across west Africa, but it was not until he stepped out of a car in eastern Freetown in June that he realised the true level of suffering left behind by the illness. Official figures suggest more than 11,000 people died from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, a desperately poor country of 5.7m people with an average life expectancy of 49 years. Another 17,000 contracted the disease and continue to be affected, mentally and physically, by the consequences.
Children have been orphaned, families robbed of their breadwinners. Caulker met Elizabeth Tholley, a 21-year-old who lost her mother, father, brother, aunt and four other family members. “They still carry a stigma with them even now,” he says. “People think they have been touched by Ebola so don’t want to go near them. It’s purely down to education, but who is supposed to explain? There is no one, apart from the charities. When they first came back home after losing all those close to them, there was only one family across the road who welcomed them. Elizabeth is suddenly the head of the house and she’s surviving as best she can in those slums on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. There are days when they have nothing to eat. Others when they make do with a pan of rice. It’s frightening.
“She now looks after two brothers and two sisters, as well as being a surrogate mother to her extended family. Before the outbreak she’d been studying to be a nurse, but her life is now on hold. Her mother had been a qualified nurse and ended up catching Ebola from treating people.
“It is all so cruel. Elizabeth is so strong but her brothers struggle to see the light. But they have benefited from ActionAid’s input: the workers are local, command the respect of the kids and get them motivated and living again. What you quickly realise is there is no quick fix here. This country has been through it all.”
An 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 and during which more than 70,000 died had already scarred a generation. Now Sierra Leone, declared Ebola-free in January, is having to cope with the after-effects of the epidemic. With institutions closed, teenage pregnancy rates soared almost overnight. Society’s basic pillars had crumbled. Each day brings new problems which must be tackled.
It was in the Kambia district, an area where the literacy rate is 15%, that Caulker, three years on from that impulsive internet search, witnessed the community project he had helped fund from afar. He had spent the four‑hour journey north blissfully unaware of what awaited, with only a few photographs from the intervening years as evidence of the progress made in Lal Gberay. “It’s not real unless you see it properly,” he says. “We pulled up in the village and there were maybe 100 people there, singing and parading around waving ‘welcome’ banners. By the time we got to the school those numbers had grown to 400. It was too much to take in. The minister from the village said, for them, it was the best day of their lives: not just because we’d supported them to give them a future but that I’d taken the time to come out and see them first-hand. For them, that meant so much.
“We’re talking a remote village, a 40-minute drive from anywhere, with no phones or any type of communication with the outside world. It’s like stepping back in time 200 years. They have nothing apart from what they make or grow and yet here they were handing me fruit bowls and the clothes they’d made. They wanted to give it to me. It was too much.
“That sense of togetherness, their community … there was so much hope in that village. The school gave them light. The kids get up at 6am every day, ready and eager to go in. I spent my childhood running the other way from school. The whole thing was inspiring.” The building is now home to 306 pupils in six classes.
Everything about life in Lal Gberay touched Caulker. There was the night spent with a local family in the “best house in the village”, a five-room but basic dwelling where the footballer delighted in taking selfies with the “15 or 16 children who’d never seen their own reflection and just spent the whole evening laughing their heads off”. He slept, eventually, from about 3.30am, on a mat “while the cockroaches and huge spiders circled me on the floor” and found relief with the early-morning cold shower (laced with Dettol) “the likes of which you don’t get anywhere else, other than maybe after training at Harlington with QPR”.
In Freetown, a population obsessed with football, which they watch in open-air cinemas for 25p a ticket, knew everything about him, from his various transfers to his solitary England cap, against Sweden in 2012. Out in the sticks he was more of a curiosity, overseeing frantic games of football with the children or stealing away for a few hours to go on runs and maintain his own fitness before pre-season.
“I’d watch the women leave the village early with their baskets to collect food and water or even sell the soap they’d learned to make via the Livelihood project we’d help set up. They’d make 20 or 30 bars every day, and then walk to the nearest town to sell them at market. We’re talking miles away and they’d maybe earn 3p for every bar. You just wonder … the cost of living is very low, but that low?
“But it’s not just about the money. It’s about confidence and creating an entrepreneurial spirit. ActionAid are educating women in Sierra Leone to impress upon them their rights. In Kambia you could see how much work the women do. They’d prepared us a huge meal upon our arrival and they were the ones collecting the logs, preparing the food, cooking and cleaning, feeding the children. Their lives are insanely tough. In their culture, the men work during the day and then come home, where things are done for them. The women are expected to do both. They put on a show for us, showing us how their daily lives work, and there was this weird scenario where the men were sitting round watching and while they weren’t necessarily clapping, they weren’t objecting either. It’s just ingrained into their society.”
These are ongoing issues, with Caulker due to meet ActionAid to discuss future projects. “The school is a drop in the ocean. We have to address everything from a lack of basic toilets and sanitation to proper education and you do find yourself asking where to start. Building more will probably cost up to £90,000, but I’m in a fortunate position where it wouldn’t change my life to earmark that kind of money, whereas it would change theirs unimaginably. It could help an entire generation.
“It has changed me already. I recognise better my wants and needs: I ask myself now whether I need something, say a £200 shirt, or if I just want it. I know it sounds simplistic, but I’ve been living in a bubble all these years. The £50,000 I spent on that school is worth so much more than anything else I’ve ever bought. I’d rather put money into that now.”
In the context of his summer, the forthcomingChampionship campaign, which opens for QPR with a game at home against Leeds United on Sunday, might normally seem rather mundane. Yet football provides the centre-half with a platform from which to contribute. His career has been on hold since relegation with QPR in 2015. Last season was spent on loan at Southampton and Liverpool, spells that yielded one Premier League start and having disappeared off the scene under Jürgen Klopp at Anfield, no first-team appearances since the end of January.
There had been talk of another start. Crystal Palace considered a bid and there was interest from Brendan Rodgers at Celtic. But Caulker has a young family, is settled, and after last season’s spluttering opportunities is anxious to play regularly, even in the second tier. Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, his QPR squad shorn of the major earners as they prepare for a second year outside the elite, considers the 24-year-old a natural-born leader. “It’s a young changing room, which means I’m one of the senior players,” Caulker says. “Jimmy wants me, along with Karl Henry and Nedum Onuoha, to lead by example because the younger players, while hungry, need guidance. I like that responsibility.
“I came back a different player. When I left Tottenham I wanted to play games, and I did that for two years [at Cardiff and QPR] but was relegated each time and that stung me. It hurt. It created a bit of fear in me and the move to Southampton was more about a safety net, knowing they would not go down. But I struggled for game-time, the same at Liverpool. There are still positives to take. I worked under Ronald Koeman and Jürgen Klopp, two very different but great managers, and was reminded first-hand about the professionalism that it takes to reach that level. It was a refreshing year. I know you have to give it your all every single day. There is no respite. And there won’t be in the Championship, either. Jimmy will have us robust and ready.”
Caulker can relish what awaits once more, not least because now he can see the bigger picture. “I came back more rounded and mature,” he says. “The summer added to that. I’d hope William would be proud of everything we’ve done so far. He’d be shocked as well, but he’d be proud.”
To help make a difference to support some of the world’s poorest women and children in countries like Sierra Leone you can sponsor a child with ActionAid. For more information visit www.actionaid.org.uk/sponsor