No matter what happens after Sierra Leone’s opening match against Algeria in the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon, that first game was the biggest national moment for Sierra Leoneans in the past two decades. Those of us who watched will never forget it. We will reference it for years to come, both for how as the underdog, our team held back the reigning champions and also because of how it brought us together.
In recent times when we were united, it was to mourn or respond to tragedies caused by man-made and natural disasters. But this week, thanks to the Leone Stars, Sierra Leone’s National Football Team, on the streets of Freetown, and across the world, Sierra Leoneans got a rare chance to cheer and celebrate together. Who knew a draw could feel like a win?
I watched the game in Accra, alone in my living room. The last time I watched Sierra Leone play football on DSTV, I was 12 years old. That’s a quarter-century since I watched my flag appear amongst others at AFCON. And for sixty percent of the population under 25, this was their very first time. I always hoped we would qualify, but I never imagined that hearing the national anthem broadcast across the world would mean so much to me. So I sang along (missed some of the words even) to High We Exalt Thee, and when Kei Kamara broke out into tears at the end, I could understand. I felt it too––just being at AFCON had lifted a weight ––finally, we are in the race!
I met Kei, who scored the lone goal against Benin that helped us qualify for this AFCON in 2011 in Freetown. Back then, SLFA had just called him for international duty. As host of my eponymous TV Show, The Vickie Remoe Show, I interviewed him and six other members of the team who were playing a qualifier against Niger at the National Stadium. Their stories were pretty similar––they had all come from poor or working-class families––football had been their ticket out. Kei had emigrated from Kenema (where he started playing football as a boy), in the Eastern Province to the US during the war as a refugee. I, too, had fled Freetown by road on a bus a couple of years earlier to escape the war. We are of that generation. Today, at 37, Kei is the oldest person on Team Sierra Leone at this year’s competition. While I won’t say this is a turning point for Salone (because this is still just football), it feels like a coming of age moment, albeit delayed.
Beyond the destruction of life and property that a decade of civil war left Sierra Leone, it also robbed us of common national ground and identity. This AFCON has given us a moment to take out, brandish, and amplify our symbols of national pride. Everyone is wearing our national colors, and we are going to lift our voices on high every time they play the national anthem. Our country’s name is in the international press heralded for skill and talent in a way that it never has in my lifetime. In the hours and days since the match, I’ve retweeted every tweet and devoured every article praising Team Sierra Leone. I never get to brag like this, so allow-allow. I imagine, especially for Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora, this win is bound to increase and awaken interest in all things ostentatiously Sierra Leonean––dem go no say na Salone ah comot! It’s about to be Green-White-Blue season all day! We don’t give a damn who has the best jollof, this…football bragging rights is what matters. And this time we day insai!
On Sunday, 16 January, Leone Stars will face Ivory Coast who already secured their first win against Equitorial Guinea and are leading Group E. After that, we play Equitorial Guinea on 20 January. The outcome will determine who gets to move beyond the group stage. I have high hopes for Leone Stars. And like I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t need a football game to make me feel national pride. However, after that first game, the blood in my veins is green white and blue. I can not wait for game two! Until then, you can find me over on Twitter, tweeting up a storm with the hashtag #TeamSierraLeone. In the immortal words of our brother at Hotel 5/10 I want Africa to know that dis game get yagba, udat no able, pull an! If you gerrit, you gerrit. You dont gerrit forgehabourit!