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Broken by football, healed by art

Alhassan Abubakar chased his dream of playing Premier League football all the way to South Africa, and has stayed stuck there since 2010. He found…

Alhassan Abubakar chased his dream of playing Premier League football all the way to South Africa, and has stayed stuck there since 2010.

He found another livelihood, dealing in art craft in the basement of Johannesburg’s famous arts-and-craft market on the Rosebank. Abubakar is one of hundreds of young men across West Africa, leaving home to go after football, and then getting stranded abroad.

It’s just past noon, and Abubakar is on a mat facing east. He observes Zuhr, the Islamic noon prayer. His mat is an island of quiet in the busy market.

He is surrounded by articulately carved masks and totems, finely polished in deep hues of black and ebony, from Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria.

“It was not my intention to end my career here, but you follow an agent and end up in problem,” he recounts.

Tourists visiting the Rosebank and nearby mall throng out of the basement and a floor above. Fabrics of a rainbow of colours-from South Africa’s rainbow to Senegalese kaleidoscope-light up the space. A buzz of voices in transaction keeps the basement busy.

Abubakar’s father hails from Kano. He still remembers the name of the family’s home-Gidan Kada. Abubakar and his twin Hussain schooled in Nigeria until age 15 before he went to his mother’s home country Ghana. He played some football there, returned to Nigeria to play with Niger Tornadoes and Bida Lions.

His return to Ghana landed him a three-year contract in Ivory Coast from 1999. He played only one season with Bassam Club.

“I didn’t finish my contract. An agent said he got a good offer for me in South Africa,” says Abubakar.

Moving was a no-brainer for a dream to play big-league football. But football in Johannesburg wasn’t as he expected. He tried out Orlando Pirates and Jomo Cosmos.

“They said my ITC [international certificate] was a problem. They couldn’t afford that money for a foreign player,” Abubakar recalls.

“I said, no problem, I’d just have to return to my club. The agent kept telling me to wait, that he was arranging something else. I just got fed up. I only listened to him because he brought me to South Africa.”

It went on for a year. He was officially stranded without money or accommodation. But the Dashed Football Dream Club isn’t lonely.

Hundreds of dream footballers from across West Africa were there before him. Abubakar pulled out his phone and reached out.

One was a boy who held boys’ belongings while they played football.

“Lots of players are here, even people I knew from home are here, stranded, because of this problem,” Abubakar recalls his friend saying. “He tried to talk to me like a brother. He said, ‘let’s hustle, if football doesn’t work out, let’s hustle.’”

Then began his dealing in art craft. In his eighth year, Abubakar has established himself on the art craft scene of Johannesburg’s Rosebank. His new life includes a South African wife and two children.

He knew nothing about art. Growing up, he sniffed at buyers and collectors of art.

“At home, I see my brothers in art and wonder, what is that? I knew nothing about this, but when you are eager to learn something, you do it. If you are working on something, you have to love it with passion. Only then you can achieve something.”

The craft comes from all over the continent. Collectors buy artworks from makers from Mali and Senegal to Nigeria and Ghana, where they are cheaper.  They crate the works over to Johannesburg. Duty on goods jack up the prices somewhat, but the mark up in price leaves enough room for some profit.

Abubakar haggles with an Indian buyer over a mask from Burkina Faso for R250. He eventually lowers the price to R200, the Indian hovers around R140. It is a difficult deal, and it falls through.

“Business is not like before. Before, it is like you are selling out of a track and people are queuing to buy. If there is no business, you will need more stock in one month,” Abubakar recalls.

The influence of Nelson Mandela is a big pull to South Africa, enchanting tourists by the hundreds of thousands each year.

“But if you are talking about struggle to get independence, South Africa is not much like West Africa,” says Abubakar.

Tourists-especially Europeans intrigued by the mystique of African art- visiting the craft market have to deal with mostly West African dealers. Security concerns force tourists to restrict their movement.

“It clicks in their mind that the country is dangerous. ‘Don’t talk to any black guy’,” says Abubakar.

“They don’t know the country is sweet, it doesn’t have a problem. When they come to the market, see us, they are happy.”

But now he is dealing with xenophobia. Attacks labelled xenophobic explode into headlines out of South Africa now and again, and relations outside South Africa see the headlines even before loved ones in South Africa know what’s happened.

“So many things are happening in different provinces. I don’t know it. People in Ghana Google it and find fighting, but you are in Johannesburg and you don’t know it. They call you to say, ‘something has happened, you didn’t check the news? You get back in the evening, check it up and go, ‘oh, it is not around us, it is far away,” says Abubakar.

Xenophobia-instigated attacks haven’t affected him personally, he says.

“But what happens to your brother-like from West Africa-it may happen to you. You have to feel the pains. The way they are treating foreigners in this country is wrong. They forget that for South Africa to be South Africa, it was all Africa’s problem.”

His own problem started with football, and it hasn’t ended for him and countless others in the Dashed Dreams Football Club.

“It is too much. A lot of players are here, stranded, and end their career here. As a Muslim, I believe anything can happen.”

He remembers playing with greats like Liberian winger Anthony Laffor who plays for South Africa’s Sundown.

Hope still burns for Alhassan Abubakar. Real age: 42. Football age: 33.

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