By Jevin Lee Albuquerque
I’m thirty-two years old, on a three-month journey through Africa, with little more than a soccer ball and a fishing pole. Today, I’m walking down a narrow dirt path, centered between endless rows of soil. I stumble across a Malawi boy carrying a wooden chair, white table and a small pink cooler. The chair is snug to the top of his head, his right arm holding it secure as the table leans against the chair, held by his left hand, the cooler balancing at the top of the castle.
“Sorry to bother you…do you know where the football field is?”
“No bother, I love football. There’s a pitch just five minutes from here. You’re going the right way. Keep walking, you’ll find it. It’s in the middle of the fields. You have luck, the local team is training.”
I watch in admiration as he walks down the path in his sandals, jeans, and black Guinness T-shirt.
I begin jogging, hoping to get some training in. Coming around the corner on the same path, I’m able to see the valley below. Crops decorate the hills for miles around, but a small patch of dirt, no more than twenty five yards in width and length, has been cleared out about halfway down the hill from where I stand. A crowd of youngsters and old men surround the local team as they warm up.
I’m pleased to have found some football and eagerly make my way toward the field. My approach is meant to be graceful, but I stumble on a dirt mound, nearly falling on my head. The young faces of the children fail to conceal their amusement. One of the older men takes my arm, pulls me out of the loose soil, and leads me away from humiliation, over to secure ground. He nods his head and resumes watching the players shake out their legs, jog, and kick up enough dust to blur the mountains in the background.
I’m not surprised they only have one soccer ball, but I’m curious what happens when the ball rolls off the field? Who has to chase it? The team that kicked the ball out, or the team that will get possession? With the exception of one proud player, nobody has cleats on. It’s then that I notice the chips of rocks scattered across the dry mud. Yet, they jog across the field with more grace than most soccer players with new cleats on a fresh patch of grass. They wear only shorts and each player’s body looks as though it has been chiseled out of the hard earth below. They begin touching the ball with exciting African flair, choosing the creative and flamboyant over the practical–very entertaining.
The captain of the team is calling out an African chant as they perform jog/stretch combinations, warming the muscles on an already blazing afternoon. Some of the younger boys and girls take advantage of the team’s concentration, running with the ball at their feet, maximizing use of the available real estate. One of the boys kicks the ball hard, smacking a little girl in the face. I wait for the tears, but she instead socks him in the stomach and runs to retrieve the ball that is headed in my direction. It rolls up the little hill, all the way to my feet. I accept the good omen and flick the ball up to my foot, juggling it in the air, then up to my thighs and with my shoulder play it back to the little girl. She laughs, pointing, and the young group races over as though I were handing out cookies. They throw the ball back to me and demand to see more tricks. Not wanting to be a circus clown, I decline, but the captain of the adult squad notices and calls: “Mzungu.”
“Come to play,” he shouts, waving me over.
I remove my cleats from the plastic bag and I’m happy they are old with holes in the toe; it’s bad enough that they’re white, bearing special strips of grip on the toe for bending the ball with precision—all this feels very stupid at the moment. I want to play barefoot, but after taking a few steps, I realize it will lead to a bloody mess. The kids surround me as I put on my boots, wrapping the laces around the bottom and securing the tongue to the shoe. I try a few different facial expressions and they laugh louder with each change; the tougher I try to look, the more they laugh. The captain shouts:
“Mzungu, let’s go.”
“I’m coming,” I say, glancing at the older gentleman, who pulled me out from the dirt; he looks surprised. I imagine he’s thinking “not again, they’re going to kill him, this white boy can barely walk.”
“You play with the second team,” says the captain, leaving no room for discussion.
“Sounds good,” I say, the younger kids looking on, laughing.
I jog around the limited space, sliding on the dirt with each step. They pass me the scuffed ball. I take a few touches, then kick it back to the captain’s hands.
“I’m ready,” I say, smiling.
Backpedaling into an open position, I notice the local villagers walking down the mountain, emptying out of their huts, trying to get a look at the white boy playing with their local squad.
My first touch on the ball, I simply pass it to another teammate. I ask for it back when he’s pressured by a defender.
He places his foot on the ball, rolling it back and forth, teasing the defender and the second he’s about to be tackled, plays it back to me and jumps out of the way, smiling.
We begin to possess the ball, not letting the other team get a touch. Our younger squad is now dominating the game and the captain doesn’t look too happy, so he launches a tackle, both legs flying forward, aimed like spears at the boy’s shins, but the ball is in there somewhere. The kid drops to the ground in pain, but surprisingly gets up and walks it off.
Locals, whistling, and telling them to play it to “Mzungu,” now surround the field. I take a moment to enjoy the situation, then the ball is kicked out of bounds. I walk over to see how far down the hill it will run, thinking we’ll never see it again. To my surprise, a mound of dirt stops the ball, and again, I’m impressed by the raw practicalities you find everywhere in Africa: this time having a soccer field on a hill, surrounded by crops. Smiling, I ask for the ball and proceed to juggle it over the head of one of the players; the crowd loves it, and demands more. I try not to go overboard, but the expression on their faces is worth the showboating.
The game goes on for hours, becomes a battle between the players who will last the longest. I decide to go for the marathon and we don’t stop until darkness robs us of our mutual passion. Sweat is dripping off our bodies, dampening the hard earth below us. The captain is swarmed by his many children, but we share a smile, before I head back up the path.
Jevin Lee Albuquerque grew up in California, on the local pier in Santa Cruz, fishing for striped bass. He recently completed his second full-length novel, American Mess. His prose and poetry have appeared inDouble Take, Points of Entry, Gravel, Meat for Tea, Outside In,Literary Juice, Paradise Review, and Map Magazine in Madrid. In a former life he was a professional soccer player. He has a degree in Latin American Studies from UCLA. His artistic soul divides time among Paradise Valley (Montana), San Francisco, and New Orleans.
(Updated May 2014)