In some ways soccer brought me to Africa, so it seems fitting that my last full day on the continent will be spent completing a soccer-related task.
Let me begin at the beginning. For the first 35 years of my life sports meant absolutely nothing to me. Nobody in my family cared a lick about physical fitness; there was never a game on T.V. If anything, sports were an irritant. I grew up with two and a half television channels and thought it appalling that every few years CBC would be hijacked for entire summers or winters to show people skating, or running, or working the pommel horse (though I can admit now that this event held my interest; make of that what you will).
And as a queer teenager, the doors to the gymnasium were hardly flung open in anticipation of my athletic contributions. Indeed, in these years I learned who I was – and I was an artist. This realization lead to a lot of swanning around (a habit I have not yet kicked), and to smoking cigarettes (one I have). Also, to wearing of capes.
So, when at 35 years old I joined a co-ed soccer league, I was a little surprised and a lot delighted to discover that I enjoyed playing the game. League strategists wisely put me on the defensive line and used mnemonic devices to improve my performance: when in DOUBT, kick it OUT! And I realized that everything they say about sports is true: it teaches confidence and leadership and teamwork. I travelled to several international tournaments (where I met many outstanding people, including Lady Kennaway himself), and took on a leadership role within the league.
Then, in 2006, the league decided to host an international tournament of its own, and fourteen of us put together a women’s team to compete in the women’s division. I use the term “compete” very loosely here: that first year we sucked hard, ultimately staggering bloodied and bruised to the middle of the dusty pitch to be photographed as the last place finishers. Sports also teaches you about exhaustion, defeat, and humiliation.
Thus galvanized, we prepared for the following year’s tournament by practicing regularly and learning how to play as a team. We were gratified to earn silver in the finals. I could not have been prouder when my team went all emo and refused to choose just one MVP. The honorary game ball was accepted by the 18 of us, and it was quickly decided that teammate Kim Atlin would travel with it on her upcoming trip to Zambia where she would donate it to the kids at the orphanage she’d be visiting.
When things are happy, the circles we run feel not like ruts but like a series of closures. Pieces fall into place and next steps are clear and met with anticipation. So it was that when the team won gold this year I was already booked for Africa. Of course I would take the game ball and I would find a team of girls to give it to. For this, I went back to Sandile, the coach of MDAFA team Mountain Birds.
And so it came to be that I am sitting in the front seat of a VW hatchback, its sides rattling and warping in the G-force of 180 kilometres per hour squeezed out of this shitbox’s tiny, shrieking engine. My last day in Africa would not be complete without one final dose of DANGER!, I think to myself, trying to push mental images of manglement from my mind. The bladder of the ADIDAS ball is flexing against its seams, so tightly am I gripping it between my knees. Sandile sits in the back seat, chatting casually in isiXhosa with the driver, who – terrifyingly – keeps swinging his head around to make eye contact.
Finally, mercifully, we pull off the highway and with the help of several locals, navigate down a dirt road into the village of Ndevana. Ndevana looks the part of a small African village: many of the houses are round with thatched roofs; chickens and children run in the roads. Sandile laughs as two teenaged boys crane their necks to stare into the car. “I don’t think they’ve seen a white person before,” he chuckles.
I am not sure what to expect of this. On the drive here Sandile told me that the Ndevana Ladies FC is sponsored by ABSA (a major South African bank) and that the team has had an impressive season. Suddenly, it occurs to me that this is all wrong: I see myself standing in front of a group of Olympians, holding my paltry offering. Oh God, what if they want to scrimmage? I break into a sweat.
We pull into the parking lot of a school and I am introduced to Gqibile Jacobs, who flashes me a wide and surprised grin when I pronounce his name correctly. I will see that same look on his face in 20 minutes when he realizes I am a soccer player. As we walk to the school room, he tells me the girls are expecting a visitor but he did not tell them who it would be. I step through the doorway and all poking, tickling, giggling, chatting, and horseplay abruptly stops. Twenty-odd curious faces turn towards me, silent. One girl falls off her chair, literally. Well this is awkward, I think.
I haven’t prepared a speech so I just launch into the story: I am from Canada; I know that soccer is not supported as much for girls as it is for boys; I have brought them a ball as a gift from my girls’ team (cue dawning surprised look from Gqibile); I hear they are a very good team and I wish them luck in the coming season. Silence. Sandile speaks in isiXhosa and I realize he’s translating. When he finishes the girls clap and stare at me. Gqibile says, “So… you are a player?” This guy is giving me a complex, I think, and I suggest we go outside to take some photographs.
Gqibile tells me that the next time I ask after it, the ball will be “destroyed”. I approve, and bid them farewell. Goooooooooo Ndevana Ladies FC!