For one aspiring Gambian football player, his dreams of playing in Europe were seemingly within reach. After returning home from the African Nations Championship (CHAN) in 2017, player John Bass thought his next steps would be in Europe after his talent landed him on the senior national team. But that was before he was diagnosed with kidney failure.
Sadly, he collapsed after experiencing a lot of pain.
“I had two tests; the first one I had, the doctor said, ‘I think something is wrong with your kidneys,” Bass told RFI's Africa Calling podcast.
“I told him no, no, that’s no possible. But in my mind I was like, ‘if this should be true, what about my football? My career?”
Bass was at the top of his game, and refused, at first to believe the test results. He told no one, including his family. Bass had always believed keeping fit would prevent illness.
He was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2018.
Staying in the game
Although Bass couldn’t return as a footballer, he did not allow the disease to end his world. After a successful kidney transplant he returned as technical director at his former club Brikama United and he is using his story to raise awareness among other players about kidney disease.
“Sometimes I feel the urge to play football but I don’t have the strength anymore because I have a foreign organ in my body and even though I had the transplant I’m still under medication,” he says.
He urges his fellow Gambians, and especially footballers, to have their kidneys tested.
For many footballers like Bass, transfer deals between one local club to another are carried out without any medical testing. There is no policy that compels club owners and players to conduct medical checks before transfer deals are concluded.
The Gambia Football Federation says it is working having these policies in place by next season.
“We know it’s risky to have players play without any health check but we are working on having all this in place before next season,” says Babucarr Jobe, director of competition at The Gambia Football Federation.
The GFF already has some testing equipment and will soon have a mini laboratory inside the stadium.
Kidney patients increase
Increasing numbers of patients are going to the dialysis unit of Banjul hospital, which concerns local doctors.
According the World Health Organization’s 2020 kidney disease data, kidney deaths were up to 2.07 percent, in the Gambia, higher than the 1.38 percent in 2018.
Patients who cannot afford transplants or find donors will stay on dialysis for the rest of their lives. Dialysis is the process of removing excess water and toxins from the blood in people whose kidneys can no longer perform these functions naturally.
People only go to the hospital when their conditions worsen and they are overwhelmed, says Marie Jatta, one of the nurses at the Banjul hospital kidney clinic, where there are 14 beds.
“We see 14 patients at a time, which means other patients have to wait,” says Jatta. “Most of the cases that come here are already in the end stage.”
In most Gambian homes rice is the main dish, and people take pride in never visiting hospitals. But for Gambians, it’s the poor diet that is one of the main causes of kidney failure, says nephrologist, or kidney Doctor Babucarr Jagne.
‘’Our food is very salty. The average Gambian diet, especially the modern diet, has a lot of salt, and we have seen a higher rate of obesity, even with children. That’s unlike before when we used to be worried about malnutrition,” says Jagne.
In The Gambia, the many kidney disease deaths are attributed to a lack of donors, and myths like ‘infertility after donating a kidney’ scare most people.
Thankfully, this myth didn’t deter Bass’ kidney donor Vincent Mendy.
‘’Not members of my family but others will tell me, ‘if you give your kidney, maybe you won’t have kids’, but I did not even hesitate because I saw how ill John was,” says Mendy, who is expecting his first child with his wife.
Both John and Vincent are now raising awareness on kidney disease through the John Bass Kidney Foundation.
This story was first heard as a report on RFI's Africa Calling podcast.