Ministère Togolais du Football

From The Ground Up

The genesis and sustaining of a grass roots ministry in the heart of West Africa

In August of 2018, I was first introduced to him by the mission hospital administrator. She first told me that she knew a fellow soccer enthusiast and evangelist working for her in the hospital that she would like me to meet because of our shared interests. Tsigbo had a powerful build and an infectious smile. He extended a heavily calloused hand for the traditional Togolese greeting, followed by a mutual snap with the thumb and middle finger.

The administrator explained to both of us our mutual desire for a soccer ministry in Togo, and a partnership was born. At first, it was just an idea. I expressed that I had a son who would love to play soccer and that I’d love for him to be able to play on a local team, but also that I would like to somehow incorporate a ministry into this idea. Tsigbo was way ahead of me. He had been thinking it through for several months and was just waiting for the catalyst to see his calling come to fruition.

In fact, Tsigbo has already been doing it, just with a much older group of young men. He coached the village of Tsiko’s team. They often travelled to other, sometimes quite distant villages to play football and at half time, he would share an evangelistic gospel message. It was expensive to arrange travel for an entire team, but since the players were almost entirely employed elsewhere, they could usually collectively scrounge up enough funds to pay for the “friendlies” in other outlying regions. 

He lamented the fact that the local private school had an informal soccer team, and the Catholic school located in the larger city a few miles down the road had a rather well organized team, but the public school in Adeta, where most of the children from Tsiko went to school, did not. In fact, he said, none of those children could even afford cleats, which was necessary for playing an organized match.

I asked him, “what are our first steps?”. 

He said, “we need a place to practice.”

That was easy enough, the missionary campus had a single open area with grass that was relatively flat, and I had brought two small soccer goals with me from home.

“Great!” he replied, “now we need good bible study material.”

I was surprised. Not cleats, jerseys, or money? I knew immediately his heart was in the right place, keeping the main thing the main thing. And he had already been eyeing one devotional in particular. It was a 12-week study on the gospels in french, and it had a picture of a soccer player on the front cover. 

We went straight away to the mission’s bookstore and purchased enough copies of the study and pencils for a team of 15 players. The next step was finding the players. And that was harder than we thought it would be. 

The first practiced was scheduled for a typical hot and humid Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock. I brought a pitcher of Kool-aid and plastic cups to the field and waited. Only a half-dozen kids showed up that first day. None fo them with shoes, but all of them with the skill of someone much older. When I expressed my concern over the size of the team, Tsigbo assured me that more wold come when they started hearing about it at the public school. Tsigbo had trusted the recruiting to his 13 year-old son, Mawuko, and apparently, he was was pretty choosey.

Weeks went by and only a few more had joined, but Tsigbo was dedicated. They’d work out until dark or thunderstorms would force them off the field, then they’d spend up to an hour under going through the Bible study together. After about 6 weeks the team was hovering between 8 and 10 regular attending players, I mentioned to Tsigbo in passing, “We have to fill this team, you need to find more players so we can start playing some matches.”

“But there are no other boys that go to church to join the team,” he admitted.

I was surprised. That wasn’t part of the deal. But the way Tsigbo saw it, if this team were to go out as missionaries and evangelize through soccer in other villages with no Christians, he needed to be sure the other boys on the team could exemplify what a Christian athlete was all about. We prayed about this, and the next day both reported to one another that God was calling us to invite any boy who had some skill, and they would learn from the culture of the rest of the team, and perhaps come to know Christ themselves.

But we had one more problem. The regular attenders were not showing up some days. We were coming to the end of the rainy season, and being subsistence farmers, that meant money was running short. Some of the kids couldn’t afford to take time away from farming or couldn’t afford the fare to ride by motor cycle taxi from their rural farms to the mission campus. 

Worried that this would be the end, I asked reluctantly, “how much would it cost to help them so that they can keep coming?”

The answer to that question shocked me, Tsigbo let out a long sigh, “about $10 a month.”

“Ten dollars!” I said too emphatically for his comfort. Obviously, that would not be a problem.

Soon we had a full team practicing, and even some nearby villages were starting to inquire about scheduling some friendly matches. Tsigbo hadn’t scheduled any by the beginning of the year, and the kids were getting understandably antsy. Several, if not all of the boys who had joined later had decided to give their lives to Christ and had begun attending church, and they were looking amazing on the field as Tsigbo masterful skills coaching had led them to become formidable attackers and defenders.

The only thing that was holding us back at that point was equipment.

I reached out to friends and churches on social media asking for help. The response I got was amazing. Within a couple fo hours, my son’s old soccer club in Oakdale had donated cleats and soccer balls as well as individuals donated enough funds for some really nice jerseys. Others donated some professional level goal nets. 

Cleats were a challenge, though. The ones that were shipped were caught up in the abyss of the postal system, or maybe in customs, and some more were on their way in the luggage of a short-term medical missionary who volunteered to bring them with him on his flight over, but we had a match scheduled, and no idea where we would get them. 

I decided to get Tsigbo involved in this, along with another missionary whose son was also playing on the team with mine. We loaded up in a Toyota Land Cruiser and travelled the hour or so to the city of Kpalime. There we found a roadside stand that sold cleats. We bought them out, every last pair, with Tsigbo’s reluctant help to help us get the best price in negotiations where being an American always resulted in getting gouged. We had two left to buy though, and headed to the busy outdoor market deeper within the city. We found the sizes we needed, including a pair for the coach. 

One of my most vivid memories of my time in Togo was watching those boys try on their new cleats for the first time. Most of them had no socks, and only a few of them owned another pair of shoes. The joy in their faces as they raced up and down the field just filled me with a sort of hopefulness for the world to come that I’d never known until then. 

After a full practice in the new cleats to get them used to kicking a ball with something other than bare feet, he had them return their shoes to him so that he could store them. When I asked him why he made them give the cleats back, he explained that when the kids got home with them, they’d likely be told by their parents to sell them, if they didn’t choose to do so themselves. 

It was January 26th, 2019 before we would have our first match, and we were playing on home turf, sort of. The opponent was the almost legendary Catholic school boys team. Our young team, which came to be know as the “hospital team”, looked well-organized and sharp in their matching red jerseys and brightly colored brand new cleats. Each team warmed up on their respected side of the field amongst wayward chickens and grazing goats. 

It wasn’t long before both sides of the field became lined with dozens, if not hundreds of spectators. They just kept coming. I didn’t even realize we had that many people living in our village. And the audience was not just their to spectate. This was war!

The drums were my first sign that this was not your typical little league soccer match. Then the chants and songs. The crowds on both sides of the field looked synchronized as they undulated and rhythmically bounced. It was positively euphoric. At first I thought one side was for our team and one side for the other, and I was amazed that our brand new team of kids from another town had so many fans. It wasn’t long before I realized that it didn’t work like that.

Except for a few hardcore “fans” for each side, everyone was cheering on and for everyone. I’d never seen a match played out like this before. It didn’t matter who scored, with every goal, the entire crowd would erupt in song and cheers.

Owen, my now 14 year-old son, once expressed after a match that playing soccer in Togo had ruined soccer for him in the US. I understand why.

We one our first match, quite decidedly actually, which I heard had surprised everyone through both Adeta and Tsiko, and suddenly the invitations of friendlies began flooding in. This began some of the best few months of my life and Owen’s.

Some of our matches were so far away, it would take hours to reach them in our missions 15 person van. Those were long trips, in a car with poor ventilation and 12-14 perspiring and noisy boys, but those were adventures we’d never want to have missed.

As time went on, our team itself became a bit of a legend. In all the games we played, no matter the opponent’s size, skill, or renown, we just kept winning. But that wasn’t even the best part. The best part was that in every match, at half time, the coach would call on both teams to come and sit with us as we passed out little plastic baggies of the local “Volta” filtered water, while he would share a passage of scripture, a short Christian devotional and the gospel message with both teams and spectators alike. 

Tsigbo did this so boldly, yet humbly. He shared the gospel confidently, yet gently. He’d close in prayer and often you’d see almost everyone both on the field and on the sidelines join him in his prayer. Who knows how many of these players and spectators heard for the first time who Jesus was, but this was clearly both and effective discipleship and evangelistic ministry now, and I knew I was in it for the long hall.

It’s been almost a year since I last saw Tsigbo. Things haven’t been easy for he and his family during the economic upheaval caused by the Corona virus pandemic. Elizabeth and I have lost count of how many times he and his children have had malaria in the last several months. Personally, I’m a little worried about his blood pressure, and he seems quite stressed to Elizabeth and I, as we frequently check in with one another.

His home, that he has been renting for several years, is falling apart, and his landlord continues to raise the rent while neglecting to replace absent window screens or fix gaping holes in the roof. Of particular concern to Tsigbo is the latrine facilities that have become increasing inhabited by poisonous snakes and he is afraid to let his children go outside at night to use the restroom both because that’s with the malaria carrying mosquitoes are most active, the giant black scorpions are on the prowl, and when the mambas and night adders are out hunting. 

He has been working on building a new home on a very small plot of farm land that he acquired some years ago. Even thought he and his wife both work and farm, they’ve only been able to partially finish their home. Elizabeth and I have helped as much as we could, and at least one missionary surgeon has contributed to help finish his home, he is still in dire need of assistance.

We’ve managed to get as far as getting a well dug, the land leveled, wales and structure built and just this month a roof on the house, but he still cannot move in because he dare not expose his children to the critters of the night by putting them in a house with no doors or windows. 

To make matters worse, theft has become a greater problem recently, and if he is not able to watch his farm at night, since he lives about a mile from his farm, his crops are often ransacked in the night.

We are looking for some ministry partners to help us support this humble servant of Christ. If you have a heart to donate something, anything, to help him finish his house so that he can continue in this life-changing ministry, keep his family safe from the elements, and continue to pursue the calling the Lord has put on his life, please help us out by clicking the link below and donate to help him finish his home. 

Thank you.

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