Monthly Archives: January 2014

Footballing

A few years ago when I studied in France a couple of friends and I decided to visit Switzerland for a weekend and have a look at their Alps.  After spending Saturday night experiencing all that Geneva nightlife has to offer (we each drank two beers and were in bed by 10 PM), on Sunday morning we found ourselves hanging out on a bench in a quiet park near Lac Léman.  As I sat there a handful of Swiss guys came along—they all showed up in the space of 10 minutes, so they must have planned this in advance—and began to organize a pickup soccer game.  First they jogged a few laps and stretched before putting on cleats, then they divided themselves into equal teams based on shirt color, and finally they selected one of their number to act as a referee.  I watched in fascination, because this was literally the most interesting thing I had seen since getting to Switzerland, as the referee selected two MORE players to serve as linesmen, who carefully paced out a soccer pitch, marked it with cones, and finally the game could begin.

This wasn’t an impromptu practice session of the Swiss national team or anything.  These were just a couple of bros kicking around on a Sunday morning, and their style of playing soccer and letting off a little steam involved three officials and a precisely delineated field.  I’ve been playing a lot of pickup football lately here in Uganda, and I think about that morning in Switzerland a lot.  Soccer may be a global language, but every country speaks its own dialect.

I first started playing when I was about seven years old, and I played on intramural and club teams for eight years after that.  I love soccer.  The only required piece of equipment is a ball, it’s played from Siberia to South Africa to Singapore, and little kids in the most rural villages here in Uganda know who Lionel Messi is and can’t wait until they’re old enough to sign for Manchester United.  I’ve been travelling a lot over the last few years, and I haven’t yet been to a country where young guys my age don’t profoundly love football and play it at every opportunity.  In Guatemala I watched games played on a sprawling dirt field between equally matched hordes of about 30 ten year olds vying for a deflated ball, in Senegal I played savage beach soccer against Senegalese, Nigerians, and Ivoirians who considered dribbling through the ocean and throwing elbows to the ribs within the scope of fair play, in Paris I juggled a ball in front of the Palais du Luxembourg, and now I play every day after work here in Hoima, Uganda.

It took me a little while to pick up on the rules around here, so I’ll pass them on to you now in case you ever find yourself in Hoima Town around 18h looking to play.  My teammates here select a referee before every game, which is a pretty coveted position because you get to blow a whistle and you don’t get kicked in the shins quite as much.  There is a team called Red and a team called Yellow, and the Red team wears orange pinneys and the Yellow team wears green ones.  I’ve been assured that this makes sense.  The games are taken seriously, and people wear cleats, play positions, and use pretty good footwork and passing to knife through the opposing team’s defense.  There are also a lot of fouls, which is where the referee comes in.  He responds to fouls in a variety of ways: he assigns yellow cards, red cards, for especially serious fouls “two red cards,” and most frequently of all “don’t care.  You play!”  Usually the ref is too busy texting or joking with friends to watch the game, so players have to bring fouls to his attention.  “Mr. Referee, he kicked me in the stomach—” “don’t care.  You play!”  “Mr. Referee, he scored from offsides—” “don’t care.  You play!”  A player slides and whacks the referee in the shins—“Foul!  Two red cards!”

I love it.  I play every day, and yesterday I was scouted for a position on a real club team here—FC Hoima, I guess.  I think mostly I was invited for novelty value, but I may look into it.  I have a month left, and you gotta keep busy.

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Alfonzo

I’ve been away for a while.  To be precise I’ve been away for the last three months, which is the reason I’m writing this blog, but in the last few weeks work and travel have been overwhelming and I didn’t make time to write any new posts.  So I have some catching up to do, and a good place to start is by telling you that my housemates and I adopted a dog.

On a Friday in late November my housemate S.A. and I went out on our front porch to find a tiny puppy curled up asleep on top of a pile of sandals.  It was a mystery how he got there—the gate of our compound was locked, and the whole thing is surrounded by a forbidding wall topped with barbed wire.  When the dog woke up we fed him peanut butter crackers, he peed on the floor of the house, and within an hour it was pretty clear that we were going to keep him.  To name him we periodically wrote down suggestions on the whiteboard of our office, and when I wrote “Alfonzo” and no one erased it for three days, the name stuck.

Alfonzo is what a conscientious American rescue society might describe as a “mixed-breed dog” of “indeterminate parentage,” but in Uganda his type is universally known as a Village Dog.  Village Dogs are the skeletal animals you see skulking between mud wall houses in every village in Uganda, sporadically darting up to the cooking fires to try and wrest a chunk of meat from the pot before being driven away with slaps and rocks.  When I was in Guatemala I remember being surprised to see street dogs of all breeds; Jack Russell terriers, black labs, and even huskies, but the Village Dogs all look exactly the same.  They are of medium height, medium build, medium weight, medium color, and foul tempered.  Ugandans don’t keep dogs, but they don’t drive them away either, so the Village Dogs just exist, far from domesticated but a few hairs shy of being completely wild.  During the day they snooze in the shade keeping a wary eye on the humans nearby and whatever they might be eating, but when dusk falls they take back the night.  I live in a village just 2 kilometers outside of the fairly large town of Hoima, but from 21h onwards the soundscape of the night is the packs of Village Dogs barking and howling as they race through fields of maize and sorghum hunting rabbits and baboons.

Alfonzo is pathologically mischievous, and usually acts like the Tasmanian Devil on a sugar high.  A week after we adopted him he chewed up the same pair of flip flops we had first found him sleeping on, which we realized too late was an omen of what was to come.  Alfonzo gleefully tears laundry off the clothesline, barks at us and nips at our calves when we prepare his food, hides chunks of food throughout the compound which we later locate by following the swarms of flies, jumps on visitors, and dug a tunnel under the gate to get out of the compound and roam through our neighbors’ fields.  When our colleagues returned to the office on Monday to see Alfonzo sprawled beneath their desks nosing at power cables, they were stupefied.  Ugandans think that keeping dogs as pets is absurd, and keeping them in the house where you live is unthinkable, but acknowledge that adopting dogs is one of the bizarre quirks of American expats in Africa.  Usually, however, the expats go to breeders in Kampala or Kenya to spend hundreds of dollars on pedigreed black labs, German shepherds, and wheaten terriers.   Village Dogs are associated with farmers, poor villagers, and they aren’t pets.  One visitor to the office who had come to apply for a job at Village Enterprise walked in one morning to find me yelling at Alfonzo, who had planted both paws on my desk to nose at my scrambled eggs while I was shaving.  Her eyes widened as she took in the scene: a white man half lathered in soap yelling at a smug Village Dog licking egg off of his whiskers, and I turned in time to hear her mutter “sorry…” as she laid her CV on the table and backed out the door.

The one thing Alfonzo has going for him is that he’s shockingly cute.  For the 23 minutes per day when he gets tired and snoozes at my feet in the office, I’m reminded of why Neanderthals ever thought it was worth the trouble to domesticate shaggy wolves in the first place, and I briefly forgive Alfonzo his uncountable transgressions.  He loves to play soccer, and as I dribble and juggle in the yard he flings himself at me bodily to try the knock the ball away.  I bought him a rubber chew toy in Kampala (it took me five minutes to explain that I was looking for the section of the store where you could buy things to give to dogs) and he left it untouched, but when I used a scrap of twine to hang a plastic bottle 18 inches off the ground in the backyard he lunged and snapped at it for hours.

He looks less and less like the other Village Dogs every day.  He’s starting to get fat, his fur is in good shape, and he’s pretty healthy: no worms, no scars, no missing ears or tail.  Snappish and frantic as he is, it’s nice to have him around.

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Dispatches from Tanzania

Vulture's eye view

Vulture’s eye view

Zebras

Zebras

The view over Ngorongoro, the largest open volcanic crater in the world

The view over Ngorongoro, the largest open volcanic crater in the world

Maasai rock paintings circa 1900.  If you look carefully, one of them is riding a bicycle

Maasai rock paintings circa 1900. If you look carefully, one of them is riding a bicycle

I can't believe that animals like this exist

I can’t believe that animals like this exist

After a prolonged chase, I caught this turtle

After a prolonged chase, I caught this turtle

Three cheetah brothers

Three cheetah brothers

The littlest elephant

The littlest elephant

Driving in Africa

Driving in Africa

Best plane ride I've ever taken

Best plane ride I’ve ever taken

A tree full of lions

A tree full of lions

They actually do look majestic all of the time

They actually do look majestic all of the time