How Kei Kamara divides his time between his MLS career and his work in Sierra Leone
“Ebola, Ebola, Ebola.”
20,000 voices in the stands joined in a jeering chorus. “It hurt,” said Kei Kamara, Sierra Leone’s star forward. “It really, really hurt.”
The Leone Stars were not supposed to be met with such a hostile reception. The match – a qualifier for the 2015 African Cup of Nations against the Democratic Republic of Congo – was supposed to be a home game for them.
But their country, along with Guinea and Liberia, was banned from hosting internationals because of the presence of the Ebola virus within their borders. Sierra Leone could not find an alternative venue so they conceded home advantage to their opponents and played in Lubumbashi instead.
Amid waves of verbal attacks from the stands, Sierra Leone could not hold out on the field. The DRC dominated proceedings and scored twice in the second half, leaving Sierra Leone with two defeats from their opening two matches and little chance of making a first Cup of Nations appearance since 1996. But Kamara and his teammates had other things to think about.
The team donated their match fees from the defeat to hospitals in need of supplies and began to think of other ways they could contribute to the relief effort. Michael Lahoud, the Philadelphia-based midfielder who made his international debut during qualification for the 2014 World Cup, joined forces with Dr Thila Kunkel, an assistant professor of sport at Temple University in Pennsylvania, to start the #kickebolainthebutt campaign.
“The idea behind it was similar to the Ice Bucket Challenge and he was looking to raise funds,” Kamara explained. The entire national team became official backers of the project. They saw no other choice. “We have to be ambassadors against Ebola as well now,” Kamara said. “For so long we had to spend our time convincing people there was more to Sierra Leone than civil war, child soldiers and blood diamonds and now we have to persuade them we are not a country that is all about disease either.”
The reputation of an entire nation is not an easy burden for anyone to bear but it is one Kamara has carried since he was a teenager. He left his homeland in 1998, as the civil war was still raging. He had mixed feelings: leaving would reunite him with his mother, Fatima, who had received refugee status in the United States. Staying would allow him to be with the rest of his extended family, those who were either still formulating escape routes or had none at all. Because Kamara had the opportunity to do the former, it was the only realistic choice.
He first found himself in the Gambia, where he spent 18 months waiting for his application to enter the USA to be considered. Once he was cleared, he travelled to California. He was 16 years old at the time and that is where he believes his story truly began: “By then I had reflected on where I had come from and where I was going.”
With the knowledge that his homeland could easily be swallowed in the flames of its own fury, Kamara joined the almost 250,000 people seeking a different future somewhere else. That Kamara was not a footballer; he was simply a refugee.
“I was too small to play football,” he said. “My older brothers played football but it wasn’t really something I did. They were much better than me anyway.”
Once he got to his new home, he did not have much choice. Football was one of the few things that did not feel foreign to Kamara and he started dabbling in it at school. Having learnt the game by jostling with those bigger, stronger and faster than himself, Kamara was better than he thought he was. Much, much better.
His talent earned him a scholarship to college and took pressure off his mother, who worked a minimum-wage job to fund his education. It also increased the expectations on him to juggle academics with on-field performances but Kamara took the increased responsibility in his stride. “I just stuck to the programmes,” he said. “I knew I had to keep my grades up and I also had to play well to be able to stay in school. It was a good challenge and I wouldn’t want to change that. I’d go to school all day, go back home to do homework and then be back at school in the evening for soccer. It motivated and pushed me to where I am today.”
Kamara’s career officially began at California State University Dominguez Hills, where he spent his sophomore season. Impressive showings there led to two seasons with Orange County Blue Star in the USL Premier Development League, the top-level men’s amateur competition in the country. But his big break came when he was drafted as the ninth overall pick by Columbus Crew in 2006.
Being selected so early in the process confirmed Kamara’s stock had risen. “It was a real shock,” he said. “I wasn’t one of the known kids and I was from a second-division school. It felt like it came out of nowhere, even though I considered myself a really hard worker. When it happened that way, I was just really proud.”
Things moved swiftly for Kamara as his profile grew and he went from Columbus to San Jose to Houston and ultimately to Sporting Kansas City. He was a Major League Soccer professional and knew he had been given an opportunity few from his homeland would ever have the chance to take. “It is not easy living in Africa,” he said. “The chances of success are greater in the United States than back there. It made me wish it was easier for people to come over here but it just isn’t.”
He was also earning an MLS professional’s salary and he was careful not to hoard it but to plough it back into the place that he thought needed it most. Kamara became involved with Schools for Salone, a Seattle-based non-profit organisation founded by a Peace Corps volunteer, backed by prominent figures such as the Sierra Leonean philanthropist Joseph Lamin and the former child soldier turned author Ismael Beah.
The organisation’s focus was on a subject close to Kamara’s heart: they aimed to build schools and libraries in Sierra Leone. Kamara’s partnership with them extended to building his own school – the Kei Kamara School in Freetown. His involvement in the project took him back home, where he was also starting to come to the attention of the national footballing authorities.
Despite residing in the United States, Kamara remained a citizen of Sierra Leone and he was eligible to play for their national team. He received his maiden call-up in September 2010, ahead of the 2012 Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. Simply reaching the competition would have been considered a massive achievement and Kamara wanted to be part of a team that could do that.
He made his debut in Cairo, in a 1-1 draw against Egypt. Sierra Leone’s next match was against South Africa at home and would be crucial in the context of the pool: Egypt had won the previous three titles but political turmoil had set them back, meaning South Africa seemed the most likely qualifiers. It was the first time Kamara had represented his country in front of his own people and he was determined to make the most of it.
He maximised his time in Sierra Leone, training with the national team and visiting his school project. That was where he met Dave LaMatinna and the film crew of Copper Pot Pictures. They were shooting a documentary about the Schools for Salone foundation and the last person they expected to meet on the way was an international footballer. But when they did, it was just the person they wanted. “We had always been interested in soccer stories and wanted to produce some of our own but we had nothing on our reel,” LaMatinna said. “So when we found out who Kei Kamara was and that he was involved in the Schools for Salone project, we thought we could do a short film on him and that would give us something to show people going forward. We asked Kei if we could follow him around for a little while and put something together. And he said yes.”
What was supposed to be a few hours of shadowing a sportsman to make a snippet of showbiz news turned into a several sessions of shooting and a sizeable amount of material. The crew were drawn into the Kamara story in every way. “We found that he had an amazing way of being confident without being cocky,” LaMattina said. “We had great balance. Obviously confidence comes with being a professional athlete but his confidence in his abilities never overshadowed his kindness. He is an intoxicating guy. He was so accessible and welcoming that we thought all footballers were like that.“
After tracking Kamara at training, observing his interactions with colleagues and countrymen, they understood that a short segment would not do justice to what they had witnessed. “We knew the story we had could not be done in seven or eight minutes, so we made it into a 22-minute short film,” LaMattina said.
The end result is an artfully painted portrait of a man who leads a charmed double life. One half of it is the American dream, the other an African adventure. To tell them together is almost as difficult as living them but the film Kei does it.
It juxtaposes scenes of Kamara’s MLS career with his fortunes at international level, pitting success against struggle. Kamara was regarded as a hero in Kansas, where the stands were brimming with supporters brandishing banners reading “We Love Kei,” and he was on the scoresheet often. With Sierra Leone it was much more difficult. Although their stadiums were also full and the fans always cheered, they very seldom had anything to cheer about.
Sierra Leone drew against South Africa, for instance, and failed again to qualify for the Cup of Nations but they can hardly be blamed for lagging behind. “The civil war impacted everything about the country’s infrastructure and football did not escape,” LaMattina said. “They are doing the best they can with what they have.”
That is also obvious from the film where the quality of the surfaces in US club football - pristine and smooth - is contrasted with pitches in Sierra Leone that are often pocked with puddles and patches of sand. The only thing that does not change between the two places is Kamara himself. “He loves life, he loves his teammates and he is just happy to be able to play soccer to make a living,” LaMatinna said. “Most of his time, he plays on one of the biggest stages in the world but that does not mean that he forgets Sierra Leone. He loves his country - that is best illustrated by the fact that he remained a citizen - and he wants to do well for them. He wants to be involved with them.”
That relationship extended to the film as well. Copper Pot’s agreement with Kamara was that the proceeds from the mini-documentary would go towards the Sierra Leone schools’ project. The documentary screened at the Bermuda International Film Festival and London’s Kicking and Screaming Film Festival. Importantly, it was also shown in Sierra Leone, where people were starting to put a face to Kamara’s name. “When I first went back there, some people may have heard of me, but they didn’t really know what I looked like,” Kamara said.
The relative anonymity allowed Kamara to move around undetected at home at first but any chance of that happening after January 2013 has vanished. That was the month when Kamara understood what it really means to play with the big boys.
He was signed on loan by Norwich City. The previous season, Kamara had scored 11 times in 33 appearances and his style of play had begun to combine the speed and accuracy that came naturally to him with maturity and subtlety. He was only the third player from Sierra Leone to appear in the Premier League. “It’s where every footballer wants to be and I was no different,” he said. “It was massive for me and I knew it. I had a smile on my face from minute one. People would ask me why I was always so happy and I would tell them that I was living my dream.”
For football fans in Sierra Leone, Kamara’s move to the Premier League provided the recognition they needed to reassure themselves of the richness of their own resources. Almost overnight, they became Norwich City fans and purchased the Canaries jerseys en masse. The club’s matches were broadcast in cinemas in Freetown and in their third week of watching the audience had reason to celebrate.
Kamara came off the bench in the 58th minute in a match against Everton, with his team a goal down. With an early touch, he headed just wide. “That rare chance seemed to lift the home crowd and bring much-needed belief,” the match report on the BBC website said. Six minutes from time Kamara met a Robert Snodgrass corner and powered home for an equaliser. Grant Holt struck even later to give Norwich an unlikely win.
That remained Kamara’s only goal for the club.
He appeared 10 more times for Norwich that season, in which they were relegated. Kamara had impressed, though, and was signed by Middlesbrough. Again, it did not put him in the same league as the likes of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, or even Mohamed Kallon, whom Kamara regards as Sierra Leone’s greatest player, but it was another step. Kamara didn’t go any further in English football but that was something he was always prepared for. “He knew it could all end tomorrow,” LaMatinna said. And one tomorrow it did.
His contract was cancelled by mutual consent in August 2014 but Kamara felt little sadness. “It was an experience to go out there and taste that level of football,” he said. “I tasted it.”
Although he was out of contract, he was not out of heart. “I knew he would bounce back because he is the type of player whom anyone would want in the team,” LaMatinna said. “He may not be a superstar but if he is on your team, you will do well.”
For a while, Wolves considered signing him. Kamara trained with them for a few days and the manager Kenny Jackett described him as having “done OK,” but stressed that any long-term relationship would depend more on administration than ability. “He would need a work permit because he is a Sierra Leone international,” Jackett said.
The citizenship he clung to so fiercely ended up costing him in the end. The paperwork proved too bothersome and Kamara was not signed. He returned to the United States to look for a club and his search forced him to pull out of Sierra Leone’s Cup of Nations qualifiers against Cameroon in early October, something he was loath to do but on which his long-term professional future depended.
Shortly before chatting to The Blizzard, Kamara signed for Columbus Crew - the MLS team who had picked him. For some that may be seen as a move back, but for Kamara, it’s something of a homecoming. “As much as I enjoyed the Premier League, I respect the Major League and the players who are here so much that I had no hesitation in coming back,” he said. “The only thing was that I couldn’t play for the national side. I had to stay here to solidify my next career move. But I hope the guys can do well. The task at hand is big.”
Sierra Leone held Cameroon to a goalless draw – a decent result in itself – but one which meant their chances of appearing at the Cup of Nations in 2015 all but disappeared. Qualifying for tournaments in the future is unlikely unless there is a dramatic upsurge in what Sierra Leone have available to them and Kamara knows it. “We need preparation to be a lot better,” he said. ”That has always been our biggest problem.”
That is only on the field. Sierra Leone has far bigger problems off it and it’s those that Kamara is more driven to solving. In the immediate term, he wants to do something about Ebola, having witnessed its horrors first-hand. “I could not believe what I saw when I went back,” he said. “The disease had spread so much and there was such fear. The problem was that people didn’t believe that it existed at first. I just hope first-world countries can help get things sorted out and that we can do our bit as well. We know that it’s not something we can control so all we can do is to fight together.”
Once that battle is won, Kamara wants to turn back to the bigger picture of promoting Sierra Leone in a more positive light and he has a plan for how to do it. “I’d like to be a movie star,” he said. “Seriously. I do a bit of television work at the moment but I want to do something to represent Africans and tell a story that the world should know.” He references movies like Captain Phillips, a story about Somali pirates holding hostages, and Machine Gun Preacher, on Somali orphans, as the kind of stories he would like to tell not because of the desperate situations they show but because they tell of people’s attempts to change them.
Does all that mean Kamara will one day return home for good? Even he is not so sure, especially now that he is recently married and thinking of starting a family in the States. “I can never turn down my country but going back permanently is not something that is in my plans right now,” he said. “I just know that I love going home, I will keep going and I enjoy going home every single time.” That he still considers it home says everything about where his heart is.