On the road to Banyana’s promised land

Banyana Banyana’s World Cup qualifying journey was long and winding, and a triumph.

On a blisteringly hot day in Accra, Ghana, in the city’s Kaneshie market, a place that makes Johannesburg’s Noord taxi rank seem like paradise, a woman dressed all in red preached the gospel in front of a VW Kombi. I squeezed between the preacher and the door to board the minibus, which was about to leave for Cape Coast, where Banyana Banyana would go on to book their ticket to the promised land of the Women’s World Cup next year.

Even though no one paid attention to her, she preached with passion and gusto and turned into a human pulpit. The only times I recall her being silent was when she wiped the beads of sweat running down her face, and when the Kombi eventually left. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that there was no “four-four” because the gentleman seated next to me wasn’t exactly lean. In the debilitating Ghanaian heat, the more than two-hour journey would have been near unbearable if there were four of us at the back.

But it was a relatively pleasant trip, even though the driver proved that the way in which speed bumps are approached is a matter that’s open interpretation. The not-so-lean gentleman promised to show me where I could get a cab that would take me to Cape Coast Sports Stadium, and even negotiated my fare to make sure I wasn’t cheated.

The air changed as the Kombi hurtled closer to Cape Coast. The humidity of Accra, something that assaults every inch of your body, was slowly being replaced by a pleasant sea breeze bearing only the slightest pinch of humidity. The roadside contained two recurring features: petrol stations and posters of numerous churches. Most of the church posters were basic, with pictures of pastors striking “holy” poses, captioned with some divine promise or the other. One poster that stood out, though, depicted a pastor, sword in hand, promising to slay demons. But the most popular poster choice was the one with a pastor and white Jesus either in the background or side-by-side.

That sight would have probably annoyed Sakyi, the Uber driver in Accra who took me from my hotel to Kaneshie market. On the drive, Sakyi bemoaned how his countrymen, and Africans in general, believe that white is pure and black is suspect.

He also told me about his love for Lucky Dube. “I get emotional when I talk about Lucky Dube. I still don’t understand how any African would kill such a man. In my opinion, because I love reggae, he was the second-best reggae artist of all time. There’s Bob Marley and then there’s Lucky Dube,” said Sakyi, his passion betraying any reservations he might have still held.

Getting behind “BaGhana BaGhana”

Another interesting thing about my ride with Sakyi was the sight of the Ghanaian and South African flags sitting side-by-side. Sakyi and many Ghanaians were rooting for Banyana Banyana in their Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon) semifinal clash with Mali on Tuesday. The roles of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa were reversed. After Bafana Bafana’s elimination in the group stage, the first hosts to suffer that embarrassment, South Africans rallied behind the Black Stars and even called them “BaGhana BaGhana” in the knockout stages.

The Ghanaians were now the ones rooting for South Africa in their own backyard after their team crashed out early. “We are brothers, South Africa and us,” Sakyi explained.

After a quick stop in Accra to take on Zambia in their last match of the group stage, Banyana returned to Cape Coast, where they have enjoyed great support from the locals, especially university students. What changed the roadside scenery from the repetitive sight of petrol stations and church posters were traders selling all sorts of things from plantain to peanuts, water and bread. Exodus 14:14 Bakery was one of those traders.

I felt a bit disappointed when I got a chance to look up that verse. “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” If I was a religiously inclined bread-seller, I thought, I would borrow from the numerous verses in the Bible specifically related to bread (38 in total, I checked). Perhaps John 6:51 which reads: “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”

The owner probably didn’t want to be sued for false advertising by going with that verse because this is a very grand promise.

Burying the ghost of Namibia

A place that would never be sued for false advertising is Serious Wood Works, a stall on the Cape Coast roadside that makes coffins. But these aren’t just any coffins, they’re elaborate works of art, almost as beautiful as the coffin Banyana Banyana used to bury their opponents in this year’s Awcon, along with the ghost of the 2014 Awcon in Namibia, where they narrowly missed out on a top-three finish and a spot in the 2015 Fifa Women’s World Cup in Canada.

That disappointment haunted Banyana and, judging from their performances in Ghana, they were simply not prepared to let it happen again.

That said, they nervously began their match against Mali on Tuesday night. Thembi Kgatlana’s opening goal calmed those nerves and Lebohang Ramalepe’s audacious strike sealed the deal. The tears of sadness that flowed in Windhoek in 2014 were replaced by tears of joy at the Cape Coast Sports Stadium. Janine van Wyk, who was captain on both occasions, was in shock after the final whistle. She struggled to comprehend that they finally did it; that Banyana had qualified for the World Cup for the first time after so many missed opportunities.

Making history thrice?

The staff at Elmina Beach Resort, where Banyana have been based for the most part of the Awcon, gave the players a heroes’ welcome upon their arrival at 9.30pm. Banyana players marched up the stairs in song and dance towards the conference room, where they ate and drank to their achievement. The party continued late into the night, with some of the Ghanaians and the hotel staff declaring: “We will lift the Cup on Saturday.”

Van Wyk spoke about believing that this team can make history twice in the same competition: qualifying for the World Cup for the first time and winning the Awcon for the first time. They would actually make history three times if they beat Nigeria in the final, becoming the first team to beat the Super Falcons twice in one Awcon.

There’s no doubt who the Ghanaians will support in the final on Saturday. Apart from the strong bond they have with South Africa, there’s an even stronger rivalry with Nigeria. They wouldn’t want to see the Super Falcons leave Ghana with their 11th title. With a trip booked to the promised land, the World Cup in France next year, Banyana now need to beat Nigeria for the second time to take their place at the summit of African women’s football.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.