***This post is dedicated to the members of Team Arts Bar (no apostrophe), old and new. Beat Team Baby Tee! See you January 2…
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that love is the universal language. There is only one International Language, and I will tell you what it is: football. Okay, soccer if you want (let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony that there are multiple English names for The International Language). Soccer transcends all languages: a goal is a goal in any tongue, and a well-executed slide tackle needs no words at all.
I have spoken The Language for almost twenty-one years now, and during that time I’ve played with my share of various nationalities. I’ve played with Mexicans, Brazilians, Englishmen, and now Kenyans. I can feel so out of place in a country and struggle to communicate with locals, but when I see people playing soccer, my worries vanish instantly. It is a great feeling to approach a group of people I don’t know and with whom I can’t converse, grinning like an idiot, and gesture that I want to play with them. I’ve never been turned down—it is the people’s sport, and all are welcome; that’s an unspoken rule of footballers everywhere. The playing commences and the Talking begins…passing, dribbling, juggling, and shooting.
The other day I ran into downtown Talek only to find that there was going to be a match. Each of the lodges in our area has its own team, and throughout the summer and fall they have an enormous round-robin tournament. The games draw quite a crowd and the ultimate winner maintains bragging rights until the following summer.
So I get to the field and I see one team sitting in a circle behind one goal, the other team nowhere to be found. “What kind of a warm-up is THIS?!?” I ask them with a smile. They inform me that the other team is running late because their car has broken down (this surprises no one). I point out that we can still PLAY, so a few guys get up and we start juggling in a circle. Then they get a call that the other team has fixed their car, hooray, and we start upping the ante a little (not to mention our heart rates), playing keep-away. I marvel at the fact that none of them seems the least bit perturbed that I have joined their pre-game warm-up, despite the fact that obviously I can’t play in the game—these games are official, with rosters and uniforms and referees and the whole bit. Only one or two of the guys in our circle speaks any English, but as I’ve said, this doesn’t matter at all. Keep-away doesn’t change much, even when you cross oceans.
Then one of them gets a call that, oh dear, the other team isn’t coming after all. So the guys start organizing an intrasquad scrimmage, and much to my delight, I am going to be included. But just as we start to make teams, two land cruisers come racing up in a cloud of dust and guys start pouring out of them like clowns out of a Volkswagen, pulling on cleats and uniforms as they run toward the field. Disappointing for me, but good for the home team. The game starts over an hour late, which really isn’t all that bad considering the attitudes toward punctuality in our area (“Oh, I’m late? Must be God’s will.”).
As the game begins, more people start wandering over from the nearby downtown area to watch. Some cheer, some clap, some just stand idly and chat with their friends. I get far too wrapped up in the game and whoop and holler with the best of them, jeering the referee at poor calls and groaning at missed opportunities in front of the net. When the visiting team is offsides I flail my arms and shout, although I don’t think anyone has any idea what I’m talking about and I get more than a few odd looks from Maasai (“Oh look, Crazy White Girl is here and has completely lost her mind and control of her faculties. How charming!”).
But my favorite part of all is halftime. In international-level play like the World Cup, not to mention in the States at any level, it’s typical for the team to go off and have a private meeting with its coach during halftime while getting some water and regrouping. Not so in Kenya. Here, the team goes and sits with the coach, but then—here’s the kicker (har har)—the ENTIRE fanbase moseys on over and joins them. We’re talking well over a hundred people who invite themselves to hover within inches of the sweating players, listening to what the coach is saying. And it gets better. After the coach is done giving his spiel in a mixture of Swahili and English—and, frankly, sometimes before—random people start chiming in their two cents about the game thus far. Fans, friends, miscellaneous goats, all are welcome to contribute their ideas about what could be done better. And the players actually listen, too, which is to their credit, because I know what I would have said if some random person came up to me at halftime, after I’d just run my butt off for 45 minutes, and began pontificating about how I should do this and that, but I don’t think I’m allowed to write it here. Instead, these men are polite and open-minded and even ask me MY opinion, which catches me so off-guard that I blush, smile, and shake my head. (Then, regretting that instantly, I pull the captain aside and inform him that no, you DON’T want your tallest and strongest guy taking the corner kicks, you want him IN FRONT OF THE NET. Duh.)
The men share two 1-liter bottles of water among them—not nearly enough in the equatorial heat, but they don’t need mothers—and then take the field. There is a short delay as a stray cow is herded off the field, but no one seems to mind. Soon the men are running back and forth once more, and when the home team scores the winning goal, I hoot and clap along with everyone else.
As I start walking back towards home, I pass a kid of about ten who is kicking a ball around on the sideline. I wave and he says something in Maa, and I just shake my head and shrug. He kicks the ball to me and I look up, grinning. Now those are Words I can understand.