• March 27, 2015

Why My Photo From Guinea Sparked a Soccer Star’s Search for One Boy

Pete Muller
Kurt Mutchler

I recently took a photo of a classroom in a small, remote village in Guinea where the first case in the West African Ebola outbreak occurred. I was focused on the young children learning French. I barely noticed what they were wearing when I later posted the photo on Instagram.

But Dries Mertens noticed. Mertens is an internationally renowned Belgian soccer star. And he was struck at seeing one of the young boys in the photo wearing a t-shirt with his name and number on the back.

So Mertens reached out to me on Twitter to find the boy. He initially wanted to send him his new jersey. On Friday, we connected with Mertens’s agent, Sam Kerkhofs, and now they hope to do much more to help the community.

PIcture of a students in a classroom in remote Guinea
A near frame of the one Muller posted on Instagram showing the face of the young boy (lower right) wearing Dries Mertens’s soccer jersey during French lessons. The school just opened a month before, having closed for more than a year after the Ebola outbreak.

Meliandou needs it. The virus spread rapidly in Meliandou, now known as ground zero, eventually claiming 24 lives in the village and more than 10,000 across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. I was sent there on assignment for a National Geographic magazine story on Ebola that will be in the August issue. When I arrived in February, nearly one year after the last confirmed case, I was concerned by the complex layers of social disruption that the virus wrought. At first blush, we see Ebola as a medical emergency; a highly infectious virus with devastating health consequences. While that is certainly true, those outside of the recovery effort rarely hear of the challenges that linger long after Ebola relents.

Picture of young kids playing soccer in the open space of a small village in Guinea
Boys play soccer in Meliandou. The village was hit with the Ebola virus in December 2013, and 24 residents died. Residents are still trying to get back to normal more than a year later.

I found the residents of Meliandou lamenting a lack of food, which they expressed as embarrassment over their inability to customarily offer me a meal. Food wasn’t entirely absent, but severely limited, as the outbreak disrupted last year’s planting season. In early 2014, as the death toll mounted and rumors swirled about the nature of the then unidentified illness, residents became frightened to venture into their fields beyond the village. They didn’t clear and burn the brush, they didn’t sow their seeds. They tended, instead, to the sick, buried the dead, and consoled the living. The essential annual yields of rice, cassava, and other vital crops never came to pass. As a result, each evening, families gather around bowls too modest.

Picture of a man standing among the roots of a very large tree
Etienne Ouamouno, the father of two-year-old Emile Ouamouno, the first patient in the Ebola outbreak, stands near the hollow tree that is suspected of housing the bats that gave his child the deadly Ebola virus.
Picture of men clearing tall brush with metal tools
Etienne Ouamouno and other men from Meliandou clear brush before the planting season in February. The Ebola crisis, and the fear it inspired, caused many residents to skip the planting season last year. This has lead to a serious food shortage in the village.

Despite the current hardship, the adults of Meliandou still allocate the necessary funds for their children to attend school. So many do this, in fact, that the benches of Meliandou’s three-room schoolhouse are crowded beyond capacity. Young students squeezed tightly together during a French lesson when I made the picture that caught Mertens’s attention. A child at the head of the class led the recitation and the students enthusiastically followed. It was only a month before that schools across Guinea were closed due to the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Picture of people congregating in a front porch area, braiding hair and talking
Women braid each other’s hair as other members of the village in Meliandou gather around. Meliandou is a remote place, but Gueckedou, Guinea, a main trading hub, is only nine miles away.

When Mertens reached out to find the student in that photograph, my photo editor Kurt Mutchler and I were happy to help. While Mertens and his sponsors intend to provide jerseys and balls to the children of Meliandou, we are also in discussions regarding the best way to help the students and villagers in a more sustainable way. Thank you Dries Mertens for your big heart.

Picture of adults inside a room eating dinner together
Schoolteachers gather for dinner in their compound. The teachers are paid by the Guinean government to come to the village to instruct the children.

As a photojournalist, you always hope that the images you capture resonate beyond the fraction of second of that moment, to impact people’s lives in ways you can never imagine. This occurrence reminds me of the enduring, connective power of photography and reinforces the value of the new social media through which images are so widely shared.


Pete Muller is a photographic journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work focuses on conflict, male gender, and national identity in postcolonial states. See more of his coverage of Ebola for National Geographic, including a short video interview, here.

There are 100 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Donna
    May 23, 2015

    Thank you Pete Muller for the inspiring photojournalism. The issues facing rural SSA are structural in nature: this points to the need to find a new way to insure human welfare and equity to access to goods and services. The story of Ebola is being chronicled and the implications are enormous. Basic nutrition, micronutrients, clean water infrastructure, basic health care, research in early treatment of emerging infectious disease, access for rural farmers to fair compensation in external markets, and the social/political/economic impact of diseases like ebola on rural villages is the clarion call for new and innovative global policies that can arise from improved statistics, research funding that leads to prevention and early treatment of neglected tropical and emerging infectious diseases, and sustainable measures that alleviate human suffering. We need distinct policy changes on the local, country and international level if we are to guide ourselves and our fellow human beings into the next era. Climate change hovers over our shrinking world, creating dramatic changes in evolving microbes and their pathogenicity…creating more challenges to access to food and water… May we find the courage to contribute better solutions for ourselves and our global brothers and sisters.

  2. Jenny Mogul Obi
    April 18, 2015

    Its true that the children need more than a T-shirt, however I comments Mertens for looking close enough to notice the children and making a move. I’d love to help. Let me know how please.

  3. Gudy
    April 12, 2015

    felicito aquellos que viajan tan lejos en busquedad de la verdad,,

  4. Norma Hage
    April 12, 2015

    I just received a new tablet from HP and it has your posts of a Soccer Star’s search for one boy. My question is did you have HP tablet at some time and did you turn it in to them for a new one? Please respond as this would answer my question. I liked what I saw of your posts but I just need to find out how it got on this tablet. sincerely, Norma Hage

  5. zoey duncan
    April 10, 2015

    so sad and so sweet love you all please take care of these children;)

  6. monicah
    April 10, 2015

    powerful images…i like

  7. carol
    April 8, 2015

    A good example of a picture speaking a thousand words

  8. Lee Rother
    April 5, 2015

    As a volunteer at schools in Africa thank you for your story. It has many facets that demonstrate how borders can disappear to benefit children. Thank you.

  9. Papa Jack Area
    April 3, 2015

    My grandson brought this NG article to our attention. In some small way, hope to help this village and the plight that they are going through. Thanks William……

  10. prem
    April 3, 2015

    inspiring report and great pictures above all.

  11. Laura & Gary Mulder
    April 3, 2015

    The power of social media to connect our world and inspire people to do good is awesome! Your photos are beautiful and here’s hoping Mr Mertens good heart will be an inspiration to others that have the ability to do the same.

  12. Murari lal Vishwakarma
    April 3, 2015

    It’s a beautiful picture and very meaningful story

  13. Mary
    April 2, 2015

    Poverty—the poverty of the Soul, the poverty of the body, the poverty of isolation, the poverty of disassociation from others. Poverty takes so many forms—some visible, some invisible, some apparent, some not apparent…
    The peoples of the world who cannot find shelter and food and security and sanitation, they all need assistance. It is the calling for the wealthy to provide for poverty at this level…
    Everyone in the world is on the same great ship called Earth. If part of the ship goes into disrepair, if part of the crew is not fed and sustained, well, the whole vessel is threatened…

  14. Natalie ko
    April 2, 2015

    They should have more inspiring stories like this on the news channels instead of negativity all the time.

  15. Wil Geens
    April 2, 2015

    Very proud of my Belgian compatriot’s action!

  16. Sharon Wright
    April 2, 2015

    I believe the crowdfunding idea is a superb way of assisting these families. If I can assist let me know.

  17. Nancy
    April 2, 2015

    As a retired nurse I would love to help this community who has suffered so much. Please let us know how we can help. Your photography speaks to us.

  18. Laura Morrison
    April 2, 2015

    Beautiful photography and insight into a place and a people touched by a crisis.

  19. S. Owen
    April 2, 2015

    I think it’s wonderful to help. There were two girls with cell phones where the lady was braiding hair. Proof that someone is helping them. I think that’s great.

  20. Alfonso
    April 2, 2015

    I hope this boy gets more than a t-shirt. Otherwise, There´s no difference. One t-shirt is nothing. Just fame for the player.

  21. Brad Berkner
    April 2, 2015

    Wonderful story.

  22. Eric Nii Amoo
    April 2, 2015

    I’m so PROUD of the Photographer. Great Job !!!

  23. Gagandeep
    April 2, 2015

    The perfect example of how Photography connects people… Beautiful story..

  24. kartina
    April 1, 2015

    I love the pictures

  25. Gaurav Verma
    April 1, 2015

    Incredible story without word. Wowwwwww……..

  26. MS
    March 31, 2015

    What a lovely gesture. If it’s not too late, I think it would be fantastic if Dries Mertens started a crowdfunding campaign and perhaps matched the funds donated to get as many people involved (via kickstarter or the like). I think many people would be interested in helping out not only Meliandou but perhaps schools in neighboring regions that have suffered as well.

  27. Loida M
    March 30, 2015

    That’s the beauty of photography…it brings us all together.

  28. Sue
    March 30, 2015

    Thank you for this journey into the lives of these people. Your pictures are beautiful and the article has placed me out of my zone and into this touching story of kindness and resilience among people that I would not have known. Thank you so much.

  29. Bodhishatwa Roy
    March 30, 2015

    really amaizing and heart touching photography

  30. Manon
    March 29, 2015

    Beautiful touching photographs.

  31. Nelly
    March 29, 2015

    Una fotografia impacta la vida de otras personas, excelente labor Peter.

  32. Meghan McCormick
    March 29, 2015

    It’s wonderful to see such an outpouring of desire to help out. I lived in Guinea for over two years working side-by-side with community members. They don’t need you to send your old clothes– there is plenty of that in the market– they need you to invest in them so they can create their future. If you want to contribute visit osezinnover.com. We train Guineans to build market-based solutions to social issues. We are a low overhead organization so your money will end up in the community, not paying for rent for a Washington, DC organization.

  33. Meghan McCormick
    March 29, 2015

    It’s wonderful to see such an outpouring of desire to help out. I lived in Guinea for over two years working side-by-side with community members. They don’t need you to send your old clothes– there is plenty of that in the market– they need you to invest in them so they can create their future. If you want to contribute visit DaretoInnovate.com. We train Guineans to build market-based solutions to social issues. We are a low overhead organization so your money will end up in the community, not paying for rent for a Washington, DC organization.

  34. Jean
    March 29, 2015

    Amazing. Absolutely stunning.

  35. Angel RomanoGlass
    March 29, 2015

    The power of photojournalism bringing the focus on the children and community needs, I will like to sponsor a family how can I go about doing that.

  36. Rob Kersshaw
    March 29, 2015

    Good work Mertens. A great example to your fellow highly paid sports stars. Hope this inspires more of them to share the wealth.

  37. mel
    March 29, 2015

    Can you please provide me the direct contact or address to send some of my kids cloths to these kids without going to any organisation.

  38. Thai DUong Nguyen
    March 29, 2015

    feel peaceful

  39. Julie Squires
    March 29, 2015

    Mr Mertens should speak to Craig Bellamy former Welsh International. He founded the Craig Bellamy Foundation, which we were lucky enough to help out with in a small way, in Sierra Leone. The foundation has built a school and helps youngsters to learn how to play football and get an education. Love it when these guys actually put the money and time where their mouth is and make a difference!

  40. Suleman Lukman
    March 29, 2015

    Wow! I Couldn’t hold back the tears in my eyes from rolling out. Mertens has a big heart. May GOD continue to bless him

  41. Aamir
    March 29, 2015

    This is very inspiring. When I see kids who are not so privileged, I see their dreams. Let’s fulfill their dreams. Amen!

  42. pia
    March 29, 2015

    great work!

  43. Garrett Soulen
    March 29, 2015

    Penney Iofi March 28, 2015; Mamadou Diallo March 28, 2015. These individuals have the right idea. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk in their shoes and see what it’s like to be without. Then look at these pictures and tell yourselves AAAAAHHHHH! A lot of the monies to go to help the poor countries never reach those in need due to greedy governments that take the monies for themselves without any concern for those who really need. Sending actual supplies, food, clothing and such ends up in the wrong hands and never reaches those who are really in need. Instead of just sending it, one almost has to hand deliver it so the people get what they need. But then one is up against, again the government and restrictions and enough red tape to choke a horse. So, What is the Answer?

  44. Victoria Turri
    March 28, 2015

    It’s very important these villages receive help to make there existence more self sustainable. Every donation of food is wonderful it would be great to think the help could be taken a few steps further. Wonderful real photos thank you for sharing them.

  45. Garrett Soulen
    March 28, 2015

    You will find that my comments don’t always follow conventional ways of commenting on photos. Especially when I see photos of degradation, poverty, people without even the basic needs. Yes, don’t get me wrong, Mr. Muller’s pictures are eye opening, heart warming and as he puts it: “As a photojournalist, you always hope that the images you capture resonate beyond the fraction of second of that moment, to impact people’s lives in ways you can never imagine.” To me it’s just not looking at beautiful pictures. It’s looking at a reality that we here in the US don’t always comprehend. Will these photos strike the heats of Americans to give? I don’t know, but to hear someone say AAAAHHHH, this warms my heart! I’m glad it warms your heart! What do you plan to do with that warmed heart? Sorry, I’ve lived most of my childhood life and third world countries and have very little sympathy for those who speak, but don’t do, don’t act upon their convictions.

  46. Denise
    March 28, 2015

    beautiful and compassionate work. I would love to make some blankets etc… To send to children such as these and their families. Could you direct me to a family /town there in need? We already support two children with child fund. I am looking for a direct connection without having to go through organizations that just want money and there’s nothing personal between you and the family. Thank you! And keep up the good work.

  47. Sol
    March 28, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful pics. So heartwarming and inspiring story.

  48. Claudia Daher
    March 28, 2015

    The world needs miracles like this everyday

  49. Valori
    March 28, 2015

    Please open go fund me for this village and notify me. I will spread the word.

    • Garrett Soulen
      March 29, 2015

      Valori-March 28, 2015 As Valori stated in her comment – Please open go fund me for this village and notify me. I will spread the word. Pleas count me in. Thank you.

  50. Geesh
    March 28, 2015

    great work

  51. Penney Iofi
    March 28, 2015

    It’s sad to know we here in the US have so much and discard so much clothing because it’s the wrong color food because it’s not what our taste buds was craving,most here don’t know the feeling of hunger true hunger,or need ,and would fall apart if we did without what we wanted ,yet I see those children’s faces and trying to learn in school with most likely no food in their stomachs,if we could all learn to love and be generous enough to give there would not be anyone in need or hungry!!! God bless you for opening our eyes!!!!

  52. michael
    March 28, 2015

    love this pictures this is the real world we live in beautiful……

  53. Wm Kent
    March 28, 2015

    A midst the disgusting corruption of FIFA a man stands tall. God bless the children

  54. Mayee
    March 28, 2015

    May God touch the hearts of the people that they may help/provide the needs of the community esp.the children.:)

  55. Cathy
    March 28, 2015

    Beautiful photos and a heartwarming follow up. Would you consider coming to Vanuatu to photograph after the March Category 5 cyclone?

  56. ashlyn ang
    March 28, 2015

    y got phone in one of the photo

  57. jocelyn pantaleon
    March 28, 2015

    This post brought tears into my eyes. Mertens has a big heart. GOD bless you.

  58. kathy kay
    March 28, 2015

    Can we help these what 60- 70 kids. in america this would be only to classrooms of kids. I know there are many high schools that adopt schools to help. Let someone help please!

  59. alden joshua cedo
    March 28, 2015

    An inspiring story. We have so many reasons to be thankful for each day.

  60. RJ
    March 28, 2015

    I am curious why most of the students on the left of the picture are dressed differently from those on the right. Do you know the answer?

  61. Bob Woodward
    March 28, 2015

    This photo compelled me to read the article, captured my attention completely, makes one want to help also. Powerful photo journalism of what life is all about for many.

    March 28, 2015

    fantastic pics, incredible story, amazing place and brave people.

  63. Tina Cheng-Eng
    March 28, 2015

    life’s coincidence & it coming to fruition captured via an awesome profession ~ a great shot ~

  64. Nancy Knoblauch
    March 28, 2015

    Such a touching story. Even if these kids were to just receive jerseys and balls can you imagine how excited they would be? I do hope, however that they will be given the means to get back on a healthy track. They seem like a proud and independent people.

  65. elprina limbong
    March 28, 2015

    May God bless u always Pete, wonderful job of u..

  66. Peggy Medearis-Peacher
    March 28, 2015

    These pictures make me want to connect with these people. They are beautiful, resilient, and strong.

  67. Natasha McIntosh
    March 28, 2015

    The dignity, restraint and clarity used in this piece and in the photos brings the humanity of this crisis to the forefront in a non sensationalized way. Not only effective but deeply moving while maintaining the dignity of the people instead of reducing them to a scary headline. Thank you.

  68. Millionhundred
    March 28, 2015

    If I have a million I would love to share with them especially for their education. I love children

  69. Mary
    March 28, 2015

    Thank you for putting real faces of real people in our minds and oyr hearts. We must not forget. I am forever changef by your images. Beautiful yet sad. The images of this struggling community will hopefully provide much needed aid from around the world.Meliandou

  70. Beth Tranter
    March 28, 2015

    so good to see an international sports star doing good on the world stage and to see that it was inspired by a single photo is fantastic

  71. Mary Hicks
    March 28, 2015

    Amazing story.

  72. Aishvarya
    March 28, 2015

    Beautiful photograph….Lovely people! @Pete- Marvelous work for humanity…Thanks for your efforts.

  73. Rachel Depp
    March 28, 2015

    Wow. The Norman Rockwell of modern day photography.

  74. Rod
    March 28, 2015

    Great work

  75. ambrosio
    March 28, 2015


  76. Amarilis Tejada
    March 28, 2015

    Great story,beautiful pictures!

  77. Melanie Wachter
    March 28, 2015

    Wonderful pictures and great report which touches my heart. Makes me also sad to see how the people there suffer. Heartbreaking.

  78. Lais
    March 28, 2015

    Just a beautiful story. I can take my hat off to you Pete, Kurt and Mertens.

  79. Mamadou Diallo
    March 28, 2015

    this is nice story that showcase the struggle we face in Guinea and many parts of Africa. Mertens could have made a fictional story become true. I said this because there’s a film that I loved watching showing how a young boy was siscovered and he was a great football player (soccer) and this guy who was searching for him gave him the opportunity to travel abroad to play professional football. I appreciate what you guys doing but these kids needs hope and to dream to keep them on the path of education and eventually sutainable living.

  80. Agnes taabu
    March 28, 2015

    May God bless the work of your hands. Nice photos

  81. Meghan McCormick
    March 28, 2015

    Wonderful photos and incredibly important stories– the economic impact of Ebola will extend long after the last patient is released. If you want to help with Guinea’s economic development please visit daretoinnovate.com

  82. Anu Patnaik
    March 28, 2015

    This is inspiring- what I wanted to do and still hope to do ….

  83. Shubham Mazumdar
    March 28, 2015

    Hi Pete, this is some brilliant work! Would it be okay to you if I do a story on this article, with giving you full credit for the photos and the story, if of course it is alright by you? I am a football editor at Sportskeeda.com, one of Asia’s largest websites, and our audience would love a story like this one right here!

  84. Esmaeil Yosefi Ramandi
    March 28, 2015

    Hi, Tanks. Very nice. I enjoy all of pictures.

  85. Ellie Wallace
    March 28, 2015

    Your insightful photographs captured the mood and have led to action. Powerful and moving

  86. leonie
    March 28, 2015

    The power of love!

  87. Mary
    March 28, 2015

    My mom and her family were all photographers and had a studio in our small town for 40 years. She would be fascinated to see how far photography has come in the digital age. Your photos are breathtaking! Stay safe on your travels!

  88. Randy Soppeland
    March 28, 2015

    i would hope the need for food outweighs the need for balls and jerseys!!

  89. dutch550
    March 28, 2015

    Clothes from the west are often brought into West Africa by the bale and sold in markets. It’s possible the boy doesn’t know who the player is. Help them, anyway.

  90. Annette Elbourne
    March 28, 2015

    Beautiful pictures – Beautiful people

  91. june jean playfair
    March 28, 2015

    Its always good when better is inspired by the simple taking of a photo.

  92. Nico
    March 28, 2015

    kid in the top picture has a united chicharito jersey. maybe you should contact him as well.

  93. Alexandra
    March 28, 2015

    This warms my heart

  94. jose chavez
    March 27, 2015


  95. Lmzr
    March 27, 2015

    Great story of humanity being served by art.

  96. Bonita Nevins
    March 27, 2015


  97. Shalini
    March 27, 2015

    Beautiful photography and a courageous and kind hearted soul.

  98. Jared
    March 27, 2015

    Top Photo, the kid has a “14” Manchester United Chicharito Jersey on….that’s Javier Hernandez, soccer star for Mexico

  99. Sarah Leen
    March 27, 2015

    The power of photography!! Bravo Pete, Kurt and Mertens!

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