How Newcastle’s Christian Atsu is using his voice in the Premier League to tackle the poverty in Ghana he escaped

After enduring and overcoming his own difficult childhood, Atsu is working with charity Arms Around the Child to take on the problems of child trafficking in his home country

Martin Hardy
Sunday 18 March 2018 11:39 GMT
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Christian Atsu wants to make change in his home country
Christian Atsu wants to make change in his home country (AFP)

Christian Atsu is wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of Nelson Mandela on the front when a young girl, probably around four years old, puts her arms around his neck. The pair have been reading a book together. “You are so smart,” he says.

A video is showing Atsu back in his native Ghana, in Senya Beraku, a small village, in a school that was set up to combat child trafficking and help those who had been orphaned.

“It’s hard, it’s not just about the orphanage,” the Newcastle winger will say later. “When I’m driving on the streets, when I see a child reach out, selling things and if they tell you how much they earn for a day, it is not even up to one pound. Sometime I don’t want to see this, it is too much. I roll the glass up because I feel so sad to see humans suffering.”

It is a world away from the Hilton Hotel in Gateshead, on the banks of the River Tyne. Team-mates Mo Diame and DeAndre Yedlin are there, as is Akosua Puni Essien, the wife of Michael, like Atsu, an ambassador for the charity Arms Around the Child. Chris Hughton’s daughter Aisha, has travelled north and the rapper Ramz will perform.

It is a glitzy night, a reminder of how far Atsu, one of eleven children from Ada, a village an hour from Ghana’s capital, Accra, has travelled.

“My parents were farmers, my father was also a fisherman,” he says. “He did a lot of different jobs to try and get by. His life was always hard. I had a very difficult childhood when I was growing up. It was difficult for my parents to pay my school fees for me.

“One of my older brothers moved to the city. I moved to be with him and I was living with my twin sister, then my mother came and one of my brothers. It was hard. We were thrown out of our home and then we went to stay in a non-completed building. We lived in a hallway and we all had to sleep in one bedroom. We could not afford rent and my mother went back to the village.

“It was too hard. I said, ‘No, I am not going to stay here anymore’. I left there to stay with my friends to begin life and I was 14 years old. It’s normal in Africa. You see a lot of kids on the street. It’s hard, it’s really hard. It’s a different world. It is unbelievable. You see child labour, and you see child poverty. I decided when I moved out that I wanted to be a footballer.”

Christian Atsu has represented his country 42 times
Christian Atsu has represented his country 42 times (AFP/Getty Images)

The sacrifices were huge. He was spotted by Feyenoord and had joined their feeder team in Accra by the time his father was taken ill. He was not told. Atsu did not know until he returned home.

“When I remember how my dad died it was very painful way because it came through a lack of money to take him to the hospital,” he adds. “I don’t want this to happen to anybody; suffering because of a lack of money, to not have education. It’s not right. I will try as much as possible.”

The video kicks back on. There are apologies for absence and wishes of good luck from David Luiz, Juan Mata, Rio Ferdinand and Chris Hughton. Then there is a picture of the beginning of the school building Atsu hopes to help raise £50,000 to build. Desmond, a small boy, is shown on screen. He was abandoned by his mother and father when it was discovered he had cerebral palsy. Atsu is shown helping him play on a climbing frame. We learn Desmond can now move his feet. He has a wheelchair, and something approaching a chance.

Seth Asideu, a director with Becky’s Foundation, a non-government organisation, talks of children being taken and sold.

“We realised child trafficking was on the increase in 2012,” he says. “Kids were trafficked because of financial difficulties to go and do fishing in other communities, like Yeji and Jepe. We searched for those kids and put them back into school.”

The video shows a packed classroom and children are cheering the Newcastle footballer. It is worth remembering that Atsu has only just turned 26. There have been 42 caps for his country, but his move to Tyneside finally released the potential Feyenoord saw in him as a child (he moved to Porto and then Stamford Bridge).

He has started 19 Premier League games this season for Newcastle, who paid Chelsea just £6.7m, and has been used by Rafa Benitez 61 times in the last two seasons. Spells at Everton and Bournemouth have been forgotten.

“I started the season and the team was doing well and then I got an injury,” he says. “Now I just want to focus on improving the team. The wins against Southampton and Manchester United were very important, for the team spirit and we are back again, confident. We are still working.”

Christian Atsu has faced a difficult journey to the Premier League
Christian Atsu has faced a difficult journey to the Premier League (Getty)

Football, for the evening, is largely forgotten. Atsu had broken down in tears, during an interview ahead of the Black Star Gala night.

“I started doing charity about three years ago, by myself,” he adds. “Why? I wanted to show love to the kids. I had a difficult childhood. I will not allow these kids to go to the same situation as I went to. We have to do everything possible to help these kids, to provide food, water, everything and give them shelter.

“You can see in the video I was very happy, but when I leave I am humble and you get upset. Tears fell from my eyes to see the children so happy. Life in Africa is nothing like it is in Europe. The way the system works in Africa, those who are rich are getting rich and the poor are getting poorer, every day. This is a big problem for Africa to solve.

“This is why as a player for Newcastle and for the national team I want to raise my voice.”

For more information on Arms Around the Child visit: www.armsaroundthechild.org

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