Video: The life of Kei - How Norwich City’s new signing escaped civil war in Africa to find football fame
12:00 06 February 2013
Clay Frost for Copper Pot Pictures.
Many different characters have worn the yellow and green of Norwich City over the years, but few can boast the dramatic life story of the latest Canaries signing.
Kei Kamara is due to arrive in Norfolk today after signing from Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States.
The low profile of US football means the 28-year-old forward had hardly been heard of by City supporters before he signed – let alone his emergence from a war-torn African country to find fame and fortune.
His story has even inspired a US film production company to make a film about his success.
For Kamara was born and raised in the west African country of Sierra Leone, where tens of thousands of people were killed during an 11-year civil war.
Today the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News tells the full story of Kamara’s dramatic escape from Sierra Leone, where he learned to play football amongst the sounds of gunshots and the horrifc sights of war.
Nightmares and memories of seeing dead bodies in the street is not the sort of tale you’d expect to hear from a professional footballer – but Kei Kamara is not just any footballer.
That is because the new Norwich City player, due to arrive in the city today, carries a remarkable rags to riches story on his shoulders.
The 28-year-old’s rise to prominence in Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States, subsequently earning his dream move to the English Premier League with the Canaries, is impressive enough.
But set against the background of war, tragedy, poverty and struggle of Kamara’s upbringing in Sierra Leone, his journey becomes a story worthy of the silver screen.
The tall winger’s tale soon tweaked the interest of film production company Copper Pot Productions, which has produced a documentary, simply named Kei. The film follows Kamara on a return trip to Sierra Leone to play football for his country of birth, where he is given a hero’s welcome.
However, Kamara also talks of how “the nightmares are always going to be there, I don’t think they’ll ever go away” as graphic photos of the country’s bloody civil war are shown.
In one scene he recalls: “I was in school and just heard this big explosion and then everybody just ran out. We ran to a little road and people started falling and then you were stepping on people. You come outside and it’s just dead bodies. The worst thing about that is they were laying there for a while.
“When I was a kid it was just one of those where I see it and, you know, just go by it and it was like it was never there.”
Kamara explains how his mother, Fatima, moved to California in the US in 1990 when Kamara was aged just six, hoping to set up a better life for her family.
Then in 1991 the civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, with tens of thousands killed and awful atrocities tearing the west African country apart.
It wasn’t until 2000, aged 15, that Kamara boarded a small, leaking wooden boat and made his break for freedom with around 40 other people.
Fleeing the country’s capital, Freetown, Kamara and some of his other family members headed for Lungi, where the only airport in Sierra Leone was based.
Their escape was successful and a new life in California awaited Kamara, as well as a mother who had not seen her children for almost a decade. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kamara went on to play college soccer at California State University Dominguez Hills and spent two seasons with Orange County Blue Star in the USL Premier Development League.
He then got his move to the MLS and after four reasonable seasons – at Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo respectively – Kamara found his spiritual home in Kansas in 2009.
His career went from strength to strength with Kansas City Wizards, now named Sporting Kansas City, and 31 goals in 98 appearances earned him his move to Carrow Road.
The film about Kamara’s life is not publicly available but Dave LaMattina, from Copper Pot Pictures, is in the process of trying to arrange some screenings of the 25-minute film in Norwich.
Mr LaMattina said: “We’re thrilled for Kei. It’s rare to find a professional footballer who is as good off the pitch as he is on it.
“Selfishly, we’re happy that Kei’s loan brings more attention to the work he’s doing in Sierra Leone. He’s not just paying lip service, he’s working with Schools for Salone to build a school and home for orphans in Freetown and this move will certainly help get that story out there. As part of that, we’re hoping to bring our short documentary, which we shot in 2011, to Norwich to show supporters what Kei’s journey has been to this point.
“When you see the sheer joy he has on the pitch, it’s easy to forget that civil war made him a refugee, but his story, even without adding football to the narrative, is remarkable.”
In 2012 Kamara’s annual basic salary – which are published for all players in the MLS – was $210,000 (£133,223), making him one of the league’s better-paid players. The MLS did have some big anomalies on its salary list last season however, with Arsenal legend Thierry Henry earning £5m at New York Red Bulls and former England captain David Beckham making $3m with Los Angeles Galaxy.
And although Kamara’s weekly wage of $4,038 (£2,566) was roughly equivalent to a reserve team player in the Premier League – his comparative riches have allowed him to give something back to his homeland.
Tod Palmer, The Kansas City Star newspaper’s Sporting Kansas City writer, has watched Kamara’s rise to prominence and credits the team’s manager Peter Vermes with allowing Kamara to fulfil his potential.
Mr Palmer said: “Undoubtedly, some of the things he witnessed and endured growing in Sierra Leone helped him persevere and reach this point in his career. How could it not? I’m not convinced that accounts for his burgeoning maturity after arriving in Sporting Kansas City, though. I think Peter Vermes reached Kei at a personal and professional level, showed unwavering belief in what Kei could become and convinced Kei to buy in and tap his vast potential.
“As Kei settled in, he got the chance to look at the bigger picture more too and decided giving back to his native Sierra Leone and making a positive impact for future generations was of critical importance. He’s a world-class humanitarian in addition to a world-class footballer.”
- For more about why Kamara proved so popular with Sporting Kansas City fans, including public snowball fights, his “prankster” antics and a popular goal celebration, see the link at the top-right of this page.
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