“ndashobora gukina?”

Sunday, July 6, 2008 (backtracking a bit, this is the ‘Church’ post)

I’m walking to the football fields, which is at the end of a long road leading eastward toward Lake Tanganyika (directions: « turn at the intersection near the radio tower »). As I walk on, I notice the other side of the street is getting more crowded. A few more minutes and the crowd is loud and dense with people in white t-shirts. Everyone is staring at me. I ask the man walking next to me about the crowds: it’s a rally for the CNDD-FDD, the incumbent political party. A muddy old bus rolls by, full of boys sticking their heads out the window, slapping the side of the bus. They’re staring at me, too, and yelling things I can’t understand. I have no desire to get mixed up in politics. Maybe I didn’t understand the directions? Maybe I was supposed to turn at another radio tower? I think about how big a radio tower has to be before someone uses it as a landmark for directions. Maybe I wasn’t thinking big enough.

I do get to the field eventually and approach a guy who is about my height and kicking a ball. In the background, another bus of raucous teens pulls up and drumming begins. I ask, « Ndashobora gukina? » « Can I play? » These are magical words. And hearing (and understanding) the response is just as great: « Urashaka gukina? Urashobora. » « You want to play? You can. » We walk over to the group of players warming up as, slowly, a cluster of little kids gathers around us. Some are poking at my legs and giggling. Others just stare. The drumming picks up.

The field is mostly dry dirt with patches of dead grass. A breeze blows continously off the lake, which I heartily welcome until I realize it causes mini-duststorms that leave me half-blind and parched. On the south end of the field is a terrace and bar, and on the other end is a gutter that players bathe in. It looks like the water runs down from the nearby gas station where there is also a carwash. On the west side is another field. To the east – well, it’s hard to explain. The grass slopes up and on the street-level, there is a tree under which there are some benches that spectators sit on. Around this tree, women are cooking and grubby kids in tattered clothing wander around playing with whatever is on the ground. Sometimes, it’s a dried fruit rind, sometimes, it’s an empty bottle. Plastic bags are either tied or nailed to the tree and from some branches hang mosquito nets. This is someone’s home.

Across the street from the cooking is the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) compound. It looks like a prison with the usual motifs: heavy steel doors and long coils of razor wire punctuated by guard turrets. There’s a small cell in front; ‘For Visitors’, a sign reads.

At 9 :30, someone says to me we are ready to start. (After the game, the referee says to me, « Come back next week. We play every Sunday. We start at nine and we play for 60 minutes, no stops. » So, I think, even if we start a bit late, it couldn’t be past 11. I check the time: it’s 11:40. What? How?) So we play 11 against 11, shirts against skins; my team is skins. I toss my shirt down with the others and a pile grows right on the center half line. I think, someone will move the whole pile (as someone always does) to the side because surely, we can’t play with a little hill of clothes, bags and shoes on the field. Then when the whistle blows and the pile is still there, I realize it isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s deliberate: anti-theft measure.

My team sticks me right in the middle of the field: play everywhere. I’m not bulky enough for defense and I’m not so pudgy that I can only play offense, so the all-important midfield it is. Self-selection by default.

The game doesn’t go that well for my team.

Not twenty minutes in, someone on the sideline takes off his shirt and jumps in on our side. He plays for about five minutes before someone notices and then a thunderous argument ensues, with the referee being the most pissed. He’s spinning left and right, yelling at everyone near him, and the players on both sides just get angrier. They close in on him.

I’ve seen bad sports arguments before but this is almost violent. Some players sit on the ground and wait it out. I’m kind of chuckling except I’m also surprised at how incensed some of the players are. And then, just as quickly as it started, it ends. Sort of. These scuffles play out like they always do: with someone getting a yellow card for dissent. And per usual, it goes to some undeserving player who then explodes in disgust at the referee, starting the whole cycle again.

It’s rough going. Only one player has shinguards but no one pulls back. The players are all big and strong (to me); some play for club teams and practice every day. About three quarters of the way through, a teammate taps me on the shoulder and points to my right hip. I’m bleeding from a series of gashes. I don’t remember how it happened and I don’t feel anything, but as soon as he points it out, the cuts start to hurt. Ouch.

We end up losing 4-1. By the end, our defense is bickering at each other. The other team, of course, is in good spirits, especially their forward, who scored three goals. Each time he scored a goal, he thumped his chest a few times and ran to the sideline with a finger over his mouth like he’s shhhh-ing the non-existent crowd for cheering against him. The women under the tree are totally indifferent to his antics. A couple of the little kids run after him each time, cheering and rolling on the ground in his wake.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Much better. One to one, a draw. After the game, a guy, who I can only describe as massive in red shorts that are not massive enough, leans in close to me. He drips big beads of sweat over my forearm, apologizes, then smears it all over my arm – all gone! He whispers to me, “We go to Chicago, me and you.”


Re: previous post – igitoke may in fact be plantains.


Upcoming: Ministry, pt. 2, and gender issues, especially relating to ex-combattants.

1 Response to ““ndashobora gukina?””

  1. 1 Flynn
    July 24, 2008 at 5:29 am

    Jeff the only thing that surprises me is that you were not involved in a single one of these fights.

    Are you telling us that there is no one in Burundi who will aggressively foul you when you’re holding the ball? I find that hard to believe.

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