“A Day at the Field” (8 Minute Read)
[This post features a bonus chapter written while I was working at a school for orphans in Kenya. It’s one of my favorites but I decided not to include it in The Definition of Success. Hope you enjoy!]
It’s the first breath of the weekend and I’m sitting in a tree, watching the final match of the provisional football (soccer) tournament, Mbita versus Rosinga boys. The scene in front of me is a canvas: The hills rise around the lake, dark green at the bottom and lighter on the top. They meet a sky full of blues and white clouds washing over us all while the sun beats hard on the tin roofs of the mud huts. Their reflection makes the hillsides glitter and shine like coins in a well.
All eyes are at the foot of the hills, where the ground is flat enough for a ball. Hundreds of elementary school children have walked as many as five and six miles. Old ladies set up stands selling mandazi and sweets. Bodies surround the field and more settle in the trees. Their legs dangle and swing with thoughtless motion, as natural to the landscape as the trees themselves. Across the field is the town drunkard. He calls all white males “Johnston,” and walks up and down the sidelines hitting unsuspecting children with a stick. He claims to be a line judge, and takes his job seriously.
The lines have been etched into the dirt. There are no termite hills and even a little bit of grass—it’s a good field. Only the goalies have no shoes. At both ends are two pieces of wood with a rope tied from top to top. It’s difficult to tell when there’s a goal; the rope swings and blows and there’s no net. There are a thousand spectators but only one referee. At one point his back is turned and there is a shot on goal. The Rosinga players celebrate while the crowd protests wildly, but the referee didn’t see a thing. Judging the reactions of the players against the reaction of the crowd, he sheepishly asks a few people, and takes nearly a minute and a half before making his decision. “No Goal!” he yells. The crowd roars. The match goes on.
“At halftime I take a breath. I look around me—at the beauty, at the people, and I remind myself of how lucky I am.”
Our team from Mbita is made up of fifteen boys, two who are from the school I’m volunteering at. The boys are mostly all in seventh and eighth grade. They wear the jerseys I brought from The United States. The team from Rosinga is full of boys old enough to be men, and rumors travel up and down the sidelines that many of them are not even in elementary school, that instead they play for club teams. Joe says it’s pretty common for older boys to play illegally, and I’d say judging by some of their facial hair and physiques that he’s probably right.
There is no doubt that our boys are outmatched. It’s already one to “nill” and the crowd is getting a little antsy. The half is nearly over, and we’re yet to take a shot. Then a through-ball gets sent to #13 on our team, who looks like a 4th or 5th grader, but is as fast as Michael Johnson. He ekes ahead of the defender and gets a touch just inside the box before the defender puts his hand on his shoulder and brings him down. The whistle blows.
Penalty kick! The crowd is going berserk. All of the students rush to that side of the field. Judi is clapping her hands. Even the town drunkard is dancing. Using his stick as a bridge between his arms he moves his upper body in a circular motion one way, and his lower body follows. As the students rush by, he realizes he’s not doing his job, and frantically starts yelling and waving his stick, whacking one kid in the ear.
Caltex, a student from our school is taking the penalty. Caltex is the kind of player you like having on your team. He plays hard, he passes well, and when he shoots he scores. Everyone knows Caltex is the best player in Mbita, but even though Caltex religiously comes over to Steve and Judi’s for pancakes on Saturday mornings, I’ve never once heard him say anything about it. Caltex’s father played professional football in Kisumu, and if I had it my way Caltex would have a family to stay with and a football scholarship in the states.
Caltex lines up the ball. Everyone waits, anticipating—the children, the teachers, the town drunkard. The goalie has his hands up, his knees bent. Caltex is pulling up his socks. The crowd stills to a silence.
Caltex aims for the right corner, but doesn’t put the ball far enough over. The goalie dives. Everyone feels the disappointment. I feel the disappointment; I feel the disappointment for Caltex. David Onundo’s father, the ex-chief, walks by. He’s had enough. A few minutes pass and it’s the half.
At halftime I take a breath. I look around me—at the beauty, at the people, and I remind myself of how lucky I am. I go and sit next to a few children from Mbita Primary (elementary school). One of them wants to sell me something. The others are touching the hairs on my arms and toes. They touch with just a finger, and then their hands, and then they move their hands up and down, and finally they grab. I speak a little Kiswahili to them and when they ask I say “yes, I know him,” taking a second to enjoy their wild-eyed faces, “Barack Obama is my neighbor.” They’re pretty impressed, and I get up and walk back to the tree where I started. Keti is there guarding our water, and the mandazi, and the bread and butter she’s been surreptitiously divvying out to a few of her friends, including me, and eating herself. I like Keti, and so I climb back in the tree and talk to her a little before walking back to the sideline to look for Steve and Judi.
I don’t see Steve but I do see Mr. Gwalla, our principle. Mr. Gwalla is wearing a shirt that looks like Tetris. He is a pillar to the community, and knows just about everybody there. He settles disputes, gives advice, and blesses people. He’s sitting in the small stand of bleachers with some other men, conducting business which I suspect will last him through the weekend. I sit next to Judi because she’s sitting next to the town drunkard, who sits Indian style. He feeds us with tall tales, telling us he’s just come from Mombasa (on the other side of Kenya) and before that Germany. He calls Judi “Momma” and tells her in Luo that he loves me. He pulls up his jeans and pulls down his sock to show me the places where his skin should be black but is now snow white.
“In Mbita, Caltex’s penalty shot was ever as important as one of Manchester United’s; international wars, economic crises, or anything else. For that moment the whole world pivoted on his foot and that ball. Did you feel it?”
The second half has started, inconveniently, because the town drunkard has just started preaching to Judi and I, telling us of the things God has done in his life. Everyone in Kenya has not just a story to tell, but a story to tell of what God has done in their life, and I waver between enjoying these because they’re humorous and being annoyed by them. The town drunkard sees children too close to the field, springs to his feet, picks up his stick, and gets back to work—forgetting his hat.
These moments—a day of football, a visit of homes, a killing of a chicken—have made Kenya for me, the ones where if I wouldn’t have made myself slow down, to observe, to breathe, I would have missed them all together. We’re isolated here in Mbita, between the hills and a lake and dirt roads, and the people treat it as such. In Mbita, Caltex’s penalty shot was ever as important as one of Manchester United’s; international wars, economic crises, or anything else. For that moment the whole world pivoted on his foot and that ball. Did you feel it? Probably not, because, things like this, they’re in the moment. We, the busy who fail to live in the present, spend our time either hammering every detail to bits or letting it all slip by to later ask, “What the heck was all that?”
The second half is nearly over now, I’ve returned the town drunkard his hat, and now we’re making nothing less than a spectacle. He’s balancing on Joe’s volleyball under his foot, having put down his stick to lift his arms and show me how to move diagonally around a defender. He tells me “practice makes what?” “Perfect?” I say. He smiles and tells me that he loves me again. I parrot what he’s already said a million times, “Ahhh, I’m getting your point!” He smiles some more.
“Birds of a feather what?”
“Flock together,” I say.
We carry on like this for some time, and could have gone on longer. The game ends, and the town drunkard holds hands with me as he escorts me out, because he loves me, because he “needs my support,” of all things, “for a soda.” He introduces me to his father, who’s literally sitting in a bush, holding a cane. He tells me his father is 99 and then 102, which makes me believe this man is either not his father, not 99 or 102—or none of these. He’s still asking me for money when I climb in the back seat and Judi says something to him in Luo. She closes the door just as Steve pulls away.
There are 11 of us in the Land Rover. We cobble down the road, passing all the spectators wandering home from the game, in no particular rush at all. Steve makes a few drop-offs, and lets me out at Joe’s, where I spend the night and wake up early to write this down and to never forget: The day, the penalty kick, but mostly the look of disappointment on the town drunkard’s face; like he’d taken me on a date and I wouldn’t kiss him goodnight.