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TREATMENT

Ghana, formerly known as “The Gold Coast”, is located on the West Coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. It was the first British African colony to gain independence in 1957. The World Bank has projected that Ghana will be the fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a growth rate of 13.4% in 2011, dropping to 10% in 2012.

All this means precious little to a group of young men trying to make a living on these streets that seem paved with gold. In fact their livelihood is in danger as the government cracks down on street begging, which is considered by some to be unsightly and to discourage investors.

Ghana’s seemingly impressive growth figures have been achieved at an enormous social cost. The enrichment of the ruling class has not been shared with the population at large; rather it has exaggerated the social disparities that exist.

Many physically disabled people can be found begging on the streets of Accra. Being disabled in Ghana can mean that you have been reduced to being the poorest of the poor. This is in sharp contrast to the opulence of the elite who drive past, often chauffeured in late model SUVs.

Ghana, formerly known as “The Gold Coast”, is located on the West Coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. It was the first British African colony to gain independence in 1957. The World Bank has projected that Ghana will be the fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a growth rate of 13.4% in 2011, dropping to 10% in 2012.

All this means precious little to a group of young men trying to make a living on these streets that seem paved with gold. In fact their livelihood is in danger as the government cracks down on street begging, which is considered by some to be unsightly and to discourage investors.

Ghana’s seemingly impressive growth figures have been achieved at an enormous social cost. The enrichment of the ruling class has not been shared with the population at large; rather it has exaggerated the social disparities that exist.

Many physically disabled people can be found begging on the streets of Accra. Being disabled in Ghana can mean that you have been reduced to being the poorest of the poor. This is in sharp contrast to the opulence of the elite who drive past, often chauffeured in late model SUVs.

A group of young polio survivors make their way on their skateboards up and down the busiest roads of the city. These young men are here to beg for money in the severe traffic congestion that has become part of daily life in Accra.

They often hold onto trucks and cars to gain some speed, as much for the thrill as for a quicker way of getting around. “It’s a dangerous game that,” says Rasta, who gets around on a home-made skateboard. Rasta knows first-hand the perils of this method of transport. Last year he was run over and woke up in hospital.

Begging is officially illegal in Ghana and the debate lingers on. “Why can’t these people learn a trade or start a business? They are just lazy,” is a common catch cry from the upper classes.

The beggars themselves reveal a different story. Many have been marginalized by society and shunned by their families.

A large percentage have come from the rural areas: we hear how these young men ended up in the big city. Most are from rural backgrounds and a common thread is that they are generally unwanted and lucky to be alive today.

Superstition pervades in the rural areas, where diseases such as polio are viewed as the product of witchcraft and the solution is seen as death to the sufferer. Survivors are often saved by local missionaries and whisked away secretly to locations far from their homes. They are cared for briefly and then left to make their way on their own. Most migrate to the city, where they can blend in more easily and are not directly threatened with murder because of their disability.

Smallee arrived in Accra when he was 17. He left Niger for Nigeria when he was 16 as his family were not equipped to look after him. While living in the north of Nigeria, he played his first games of skate soccer. He left Nigeria for Ghana four years ago after a government crackdown on begging. In Accra, he lived under an overpass where he had very little choice but to beg and steal to get his daily “chop”(food). Here he also became a victim of urban scavengers who prey on the less fortunate. If nothing else, Smallee grew up tough and learned many of the essential survival skills necessary for life on the streets. One thing he has developed is a keen sense of humour and he often makes the other guys roll around with laughter.

The experiences of his teammates are all different but they have each survived through establishing a complex series of relationships. We hear from these young men and they tell their own stories, but this film is not interview-heavy – we see how life unfolds on a daily basis.

On Sunday, they play ball. The sun is rising and the streets around the normally bustling Dansoman Taxi rank in downtown Accra are deserted. As this time-lapse shot progresses, we hear the sound of skate wheels across the tarmac before we see the players enter the area that will be transformed into a makeshift sports arena. For a few hours, this piece of asphalt is home to Accra’s Rolling Rockets.

Football is Ghana’s most popular sport. The Black Stars, Ghana’s national team, received a hero’s welcome after a heart-breaking finish to their 2010 World Cup campaign, controversially losing to Uruguay in the quarter finals. They have won the Africa Cup of Nations four times. The year before, the Under 20 team, known as the Black Satellites, won the World Cup final against Brazil, despite playing half the game with only ten men. The Black Queens, Ghana’s female national side, has also enjoyed some success. With such a rich football heritage, it is little wonder that we find this reflected on the streets.

The players are going through their pre-game ritual. Some arrive on their skateboards while the luckier ones dismount their hand-powered tricycles and strap themselves to their boards. Gloves and jerseys are put on and the players begin to warm-up on the pitch. The goal keepers – who, while affected by the disease, still have the capacity to walk standing up – set about constructing the goals, then practise their saves.

Polio can be a devastating disease. It is one of the 20th century’s most dreaded childhood diseases. Polio epidemics have crippled thousands of people, mostly young children: the disease has caused paralysis and death for much of human history. A vaccine was developed in the 50s and has been successful in radically decreasing the incidence of polio around the world. But cases are on the rise again in seven African countries, including Burkina Faso, Sudan, Mali, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Ghana, with recent outbreaks being traced back to Northern Nigeria where vaccinations were suspended for 13 months.

No Fear arrives on his tricycle and chats to Rasta as he puts on his gloves and tightens his body to his board. Smallee is on the field, walking on his hands as a display of his strength and agility.

Coach and manager Albert Frimpong pulls the team in for a pep talk and selects the team for the day. As the game starts, a crowd begins to form. Two well-dressed women look very out of place in this environment. They are Albert’s twin sister Alberta and his mother Vida, who have arrived after attending church.

The whistle blows and it is Game On. The action is intense as the players battle it out on the field. The rules follow that of traditional soccer, except that the players hit the ball with their hands.

After the game Vida and Alberta congratulate the players and leave. Albert talks to the players again. Some have grievances – they want money, need medical attention, the list is endless. Albert does what he can with his limited means. These resources have been tapped by another source recently, as Albert was married and has a new baby with his wife.

We then join the players as they make their way home. Many live in shop doorways in makeshift tents that must be put up after dark and pulled down before the start of business in the morning. This is where Smallee and a few of the crew live They wash on the streets then attend mosque.

No Fear recently moved into a shack he built. It’s in the crime-ridden slum Odrorna, but it is a step up from living on the streets. He hopes for a better life for his wife and child, who will be starting school soon. Child workers can be seen everywhere; earning enough to support the household often requires the input of all the family members.

The next morning, after packing away their tents and belongings for the day, the guys hit the streets. It’s time to make some cash. They travel on their skateboards to the busiest and most dangerous intersections in the city, where they spend the day begging for alms from drivers in the passing traffic. Being run over is not an uncommon occurrence as Rasta has attested to. He was lucky to survive being run over a few months back.

On the field, the guys play as a team but in their daily dice with death at the traffic lights, it’s every man for himself. The goal posts have shifted: now it’s a battle for territory as the best spots yield more money. The guys aren’t shy to get physical with each other over a favoured piece of ground either, especially Salisu, who was thrown out of the team by Albert because of his violent behaviour.

As the film progresses, we learn all about these diverse characters from vastly differing backgrounds; their relationships with each other, their families, and of course their coach. Shot over a year, we will be there for some astonishing highlights and lowlights of this incredible group of people as they battle towards their personal and sporting goals.

Now grown up and living in the city, these young men aspire to the same things we all do. They want to make a living and care for themselves and their families. The lucky ones have been in programs that provide formal education and some have tertiary skills such as welding and mechanics. There is, however, high unemployment and discrimination in the workplace, so for the most part, they are forced onto the streets to beg for a living. Competition is fierce though and beggars have to make an effort to promote their business and stand out from the crowd.

Their livelihood is however in danger as police are cracking down on street beggars and chase the guys away from the traffic lights, sometimes arresting them. When they do get money, they party up a storm: hanging out in bars, drinking, and smoking “wee”, which often leads to picking up women. Three of the players have had babies in the last six months.

Albert’s dream is to get the guys off the streets through his sports program, which he hopes will decrease the stigma of being disabled and make the guys stars in their own right. He has big plans for skate soccer, one day hoping for a Skate Soccer World Cup. But it’s baby steps for now. He has already organized two international games, both against a Nigerian team. The first match was played in Accra, Ghana, then the team got on the road and had its first tour to Lagos, Nigeria, to play there. He is in the process of putting together the inaugural Four Nations Cup to be played in Accra. This tournament will include teams from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire.

Many people don’t like to be “guilt-tripped” by movies about the less fortunate, but Rollaball is not that. It tells the story of courageous people – but they aren’t courageous because they’ve overcome odds to do some physical things many doubted; they’re courageous because they are fearless competitors who fight for their rights; they fight for their lives, their families and above all, against the stigmatization that is pervading society in modern-day Ghana.