In Freetown's Kroobay ghetto, the football pitch serves as a haven of peace and offers education and hope to the children.

Sierra Leone has 5 million inhabitants, one fifth of whom live in the capital, Freetown. And the vast majority of these one million city-dwellers exist in conditions of misery that are scarcely imaginable. Today we are in Kroobay, right in the centre of Freetown. According to its inhabitants, this slum has existed "for a very long time" but has "developed" considerably since the civil war that raged between 1991 and 2000. 7,000 people now live here, 4,000 of them children. The area consists of a warren of shacks, where the word hygiene has no meaning, drinking water is a rare commodity, and where crime, AIDS and drugs are all rife. All you need are a few lengths of wood and a piece of corrugated sheeting and you have a house. Solid constructions are the exception to the rule, and people survive by selling absolutely anything on tiny stalls or in the street itself.

Kroobay has grown up around the municipal dump, which is in fact a sort of pestilential river carrying all of the town's waste, a nest of bacteria that the inhabitants cross over every day. Malaria, typhoid and cholera are common conditions here, and when it rains, the whole district is flooded. One of the many as yet unfulfilled plans is to build an embankment worthy of the name, but that requires materials and equipment, and the aid is still being waited on.

Right at the heart of this township, there is a football pitch. On this heavily rutted clay surface complete with makeshift goalposts, matches are held all day long, seven days a week. The games are taken very seriously and, considering the poor quality of the surface, the technical ability of the players, aged roughly between eight and twenty, is highly impressive. Their physical power and stamina are equally remarkable, especially as the majority play barefoot or in sandals. A league exists involving teams of different age categories, and the games there attract sizeable crowds. There is even a fanfare that is respected by everyone. It is hard to imagine how this organisation has arisen in a township so steeped in chaos, but that is the character of the place.

"We set up the Kroobay football association during the war, in 1995," explains Saidu Jones Carew, one of the founders. "The aim was to restore a bit of hope to the youngsters and above all to bring them together and get them talking to each other. That's because at the time, fear reigned in Kroobay like everywhere else. What with the pro-government and pro-rebel forces, it was very difficult to know where to turn. And on top of all that, there were also conflicts between different areas. Maroon Town and Kroobay had been squabbling for a long time, for example, but football has brought an end to that."

Very quickly, teams and then a league were created. "We've been working with the Sierra Leonean Federation since 1998, and there are now 16 to 20 teams which play against each other next to the national stadium. We write to each of the communities to ask them which are their best teams. We're interested in their behaviour as much as their standard of play, and if they fit in, they're allowed to join the league," Carew adds.

These neighbourhoods and leagues produce almost all the best Sierra Leonean players. Many of the national team that qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Championship Finland 2003, along with Alhassan Bangura (Watford FC) and most notably the huge star Mohammed Kallon (AS Monaco) started out on these pitches. The success of these "local lads" is a source of tremendous pride for the founders and of great motivation for all the children. "Unfortunately, we have to tell them that they won't all become stars like Kallon. It's not easy, but that's the reality," admits Tijan Barrie, coach of the Wild Chase team.

These pioneers are responsible for another, perhaps even more significant, achievement. Alongside theses matches, discussions take place on sensitive subjects that are part of the harsh reality of life in these slums: sexuality, AIDS, prostitution, drugs, and crime. The organisers-coaches lead the discussions, but the more senior players are also involved. One such 'old hand' is the aptly named "Wise", captain of one of the best sides in the neighbourhood. Aged 16, he explains that he "passes on his knowledge of the perils of AIDS and prostitution, for example, to the younger players." As proud as a peacock of his team and his community, he adds, "I want to help the kids here, who've got nothing." He actually went to school, but that is far from the case for all.

And although concrete statistics are thin on the ground, all without exception admit that Kroobay has been a better place since the football association was founded. You only have to see one of the older players ticking off a slightly over-excited youngster to understand that the handing down of a way of thinking, of a form of education by the "big brothers" has widely taken hold.

Mohammed Koroma, one of Carew's assistants, believes in the initiative wholeheartedly. "Our main aim is to develop football, because through it, we want to unify the whole nation. We've already succeeded in reconciling people, so why not unify them now?" he says with a beaming smile. But the community is short of every resource imaginable and is seeking aid for the new league due to start in June. Saa Moses Lamin, coordinator of the Youth in Action in Sierra Leone (YASAL) association, which supports numerous clubs in the slums countrywide, believes that "football should be used to unite people, encourage discipline, initiative and respect for others, and to give hope to communities." It is precisely these qualities that emanate from the pitch in Kroobay.