Friday 22 March 2019

'I'd love to get more black kids playing... any kids from a different background' - From wartorn Monrovia to Moate

Boidu Sayeh moved to Ireland from Liberia after being adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was eight years old. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Boidu Sayeh moved to Ireland from Liberia after being adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was eight years old. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It's not always the cheeriest of tales but Westmeath's Boidu Sayeh is happy to share the story of how his life took him from Monrovia to Moate - especially if it can help people of different backgrounds to get involved with their local GAA team.

His memories aren't crystal clear now but he remembers being spirited away from the civil war that had engulfed Liberia when he was just eight. His uncle approached Boidu's father and offered his son a chance of a better life. Soon afterwards, he found himself in Westmeath.

"I was more sheltered away from seeing that sort of stuff (around the civil war), but you could hear gunshots and hear all that kind of stuff and you would see people running for their lives," he recalled. "But I was always sheltered away from seeing someone getting killed or getting shot or whatever.

"You could hear everything. But I had so many sisters and brothers we were being moved around so much to different houses and being brought back and forth," he said at the launch of the World Games, which takes place in WIT from July 28 to August 1.

"When my uncle Ben came over to adopt me I was living in my sister's house in a little shanty town with shanty buildings beside the sea. They started chatting to me and told me I was coming over. They got me new clothes and new shoes, and sure I didn't know where I was going but I was excited about the new things I was getting. Then he just brought me over here."

Several years earlier, his uncle Ben had met Therese Kinahan at a basketball match while she was working in Liberia. They married soon afterwards and had lived in the midlands for several years before they adopted Boidu.

He has spoken before about how the first meeting with his extended family in Moate was the first time he had seen so many white people together. He can also recall his first time seeing snow.

"Everything else for me in the room was just gone then, I was looking out the window, 'What the hell is that coming out of the sky?!'

"(In Liberia I was living) beside the beach, I'd never seen snow before."

Sayeh remembers now that he didn't fully grasp the idea of a move here.

"I thought I was going to America!" he smiled. "I'd say when I landed I thought I was in America, I was only a young lad. The only thing we heard of back then was America, even though we all supported the English teams like Liverpool and all those."

It wasn't long before his path would be laid out in front of him. The first game of Gaelic football he ever saw was the drawn Leinster final between Westmeath and Laois in 2004.

He had played soccer in Liberia but in primary school in Westmeath a coach he remembers only as 'Jim' sparked his interest in football.

Around the same time, John Keane - who marked himself out as one of the best defenders in the country for a period - encouraged him to join the Rosemount club and even helped him work on his game.

"He'd a huge influence," he said. "John lived about five minutes away from me, he used to bring me out just to train and help me develop my game. Just catching a ball and kicking the ball because when I first started playing Gaelic I just got the ball and kick it away."

In football terms, he's well established in Westmeath circles. Sayeh played in a Leinster minor final, scored the winning goal as the county recorded an always welcome win over Meath in the Leinster U-21 championship in St Loman's and under Jack Cooney this year, he has played every minute as they set their sights on a second promotion in three years ahead of a vital game against Louth on Saturday.

And while he says his experience playing football here as a black man has been largely positive, he has experienced some incidents of racism.

"With me, like, people would obviously say things to you. But I would naturally brush it off. I just see it more as someone is frustrated or whatever and something would come out. It wouldn't be anything as bad . . . it might be something like, 'ya black b*****d', it wouldn't be anything major, major. I don't really take it as personal, I just brush it off. But obviously it's still there.

"I feel like a lot of people would see black lads playing, or Asian lads or Pakistani lads, I think everyone is seeing that the game is developing and things are getting better. I think the situation has calmed down a good bit. Well from my part anyway, it feels like it has calmed down a good bit."

Tragedy took him back to Liberia when his father died in 2012

"I got to meet everyone; my sisters, brothers, aunties and uncles. It was a big experience for me.

"They are all aware that I play but they obviously haven't a clue what Gaelic football is! They all think I play soccer . . . It's an interesting thing, I came from a pure soccer background and grew up looking at soccer and George Weah, he's president of the country now.

"People were like 'what are you playing in Ireland? Gaelic, what is that?' I remember when I went back I brought two or three footballs with me to show the kids the ball, but they'd just start playing soccer with it on the ground.

"They all think I'm from America, they've never heard of Ireland! They were like 'England?' '(No) right beside it.'"

He's 23 now and an established part of the Westmeath side. During the week he's a student in Waterford IT. At the weekends he works in a gym. And if his story can help people from different backgrounds get involved in the GAA, then he's happy to tell it.

"There's not many black athletes (in Ireland). I know it's part of the way it is. Even when I'm asked to do something like Africa Day, or the World Games, I'm like, 'Yeah, of course, I'd love to get more black kids playing football, get more Asian kids involved, any kids from a different cultural background'. It's a great game and it's great to get them to know (about it). Once you start playing you get to make new friends and to meet new people and all that kind of stuff.

"Every team I've played on I've nearly been the only black guy on the team. Sometimes it's a bit intimidating, especially as a little kid, it can be a little intimidating being the only black guy on the team. Yet a little kid will join a soccer team no bother because there's probably 10 black kids on that team. But for Gaelic, you'd be the only one standing there, maybe one or two others. When I first started there was only two of us I think."

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