by Tom Weller
It was the spectacle that mattered.
Clouds of dust bloom around feet pounding across the bronze field, bare earth baked hard by the Chadian sun. I move with the flow of the action, like a swimmer tossed by swirling currents. I angle hard to the right before circling around to the left, I drive forward, arms and legs pumping like pistons, I break into a backpedal, eyes up, scanning the field, alert and wary, my movements linked to the constantly changing path of a soccer ball scuffed gray by daily use in the third world.
In July of 1994 I began my second year of service in Peace Corps Chad by helping to train new volunteers. The training site was a collection of four or five low and large cinder block buildings, their fresh white paint odd in a landscape dominated by browns and grays. Smaller round huts dotted the grounds like huge mushrooms and served as classrooms for language and technical training. Trainees lived with Chadian families in Darda, a village of four hundred or so people in straw-roofed mud huts. Every morning trainees made the twenty minute walk from Darda to the training center, and every night, after hours of lessons on French, Arabic, pump maintenance, rural animation techniques, personal health, and Chadian culture, after eating dinner and spending a few hours taking advantage of the electricity available only at the training site to study or write letters home or play cards and share stories, the trainees marched back to Darda, canteens always around their necks, the glow of their flashlights pathetic and inconsequential when compared to the thick canopy of stars.
Darda always stuck me as a dreary village, even by Chadian standards. It lacked the spark and energy that I felt in Beinamar, the southern village where I lived and worked. In Beinamar the air was alive with the squealing of children, the hum of women sharing secrets, the drunken grousing of old men, the constant milling about of people and goats and chickens and dogs. People in Darda seemed to mostly sit slumped in the shadows near their mud huts, sharing only brief mumbled conversations while waiting for something to get excited about to happen, and most days nothing did. But even Darda had it moments. When I was a trainee, the whole village crackled with gossip and activity for days after a hippopotamus was spotted in the river bordering the village then killed and eaten, the entire village sharing in the meat. The summer I was a trainer, the village seemed most alive during the several soccer games played between the young men of Darda and team Peace Corps.
The games took place on Darda’s soccer field, an expanse of flat dry earth more similar to a softball infield than a typical American soccer field. Unencumbered by friction from grass, kicked balls seemed to take on a momentum of their own, zipping across the hard-packed dirt as if left untouched they might roll to the horizon. Tree limbs with the circumference of a baseball bats driven into the ground served as goal posts, drooping lengths of rope the crossbars. Shots into the upper corners would scrape against the rope, a sound more subtle and elusive than the whoosh of a basketball net, and cause the rope to twitch and dance, as if some magic in the ball had brought the goal to life.
The players for Darda all appeared to be in their middle and late teens. Most were dark-skinned and long limbed. They wore unmatched shirts and shorts stained and torn by field work. A few of the more affluent members of the team wore cleated shoes that appeared to be made of molded hard plastic. Some played in bare feet. The team from Darda emphasized speed in their game, using quick bursts of dribbling and long passes to move the ball down the field.
Team Peace Corps was a motley collection of trainees and experienced Peace Corps volunteers who provided technical training and Chadians who provided language training. Our ages ranged from early twenties to mid thirties. Our fitness levels ranged from NCAA division I athlete to couch potato. The trainees’ shorts and t-shirts still held their vivid American colors, reds as vibrant as tomatoes bursting in the garden, whites as clean and inviting as sparse summer clouds. The clothes of the experienced volunteers and Chadian trainers looked flat and tired in comparison, victims of hand washings in harsh detergents and the unrelenting sun. But we all had shoes, mostly running sneakers, a few among us played in lightweight hiking boots. Our degrees of experience varied widely, so our style of play was more about effort than skill. Players weren’t always sure where to go or what to do, so the best option seemed to be to just keep running full speed through the confusing swirl of bodies and hope a few balls bounced our way.
I had grown up with soccer, playing in recreation leagues starting when I was eight years old and continuing through high school. I even found a spot my freshman year on my division-three college soccer team. That spot mostly involved being run around and run over by much better players during grueling practices and sitting on the end of the bench with a scorebook in my hands during games, but, still, I learned a lot about soccer from that experience. I wasn’t the best player on team Peace Corps, but I was good enough that I played in the middle of the defense, a spot from which I could try to guide less experienced players with shouted directions and calls of encouragement, and a spot from which I got a view of the entire field and could appreciate the spectacle of those games.
And that’s what I remember about those Darda soccer games, not final scores and winners and losers and aching muscles and sweaty camaraderie after the games. I remember the feeling of being part of the spectacle, the feeling of being part of something that made Darda jump, and wondering at the heady cocktail of elements, elements as familiar as my childhood in Indiana and as foreign as a remote African village, that created that spectacle.
I remember following the flight of a long pass, trying to anticipate where it would land, how it might bounce, just as I had done thousands of times before in my life, but the moment abruptly turning strange, my concentration broken as two goats lingering on the outskirts of the field entered my line of vision.
I remember the crowd, lined up along the sidelines, necks craning to follow a Darda player dancing past a defender, the ball moving like an extension of his body. The spectators’ poses matched those of the family members that followed the action of the teams I grew up on. But in this crowd men still wore the sweat from a day spent in the fields, small children rested their hands on their distended bellies, the women wore wrap-around skirts of motley Nigerian fabric, their arms rippled with muscles earned by years of pounding grain to feed their families. Cries of encouragement rose up from the spectators, just when they should, but they came in French and Arabic and tribal languages I didn’t recognize and couldn’t name, a virtual UN of sound that hung over the field like music. And these cries were more exuberant than I was used to, like there was something more important than winning and losing at stake, like the cries came from people seizing a chance to celebrate and be a part of and create spectacle.
I remember a Darda defender running toward a loose ball, teeth gritted, legs churning, clearly intending to put everything he had into a long clearing pass. He took a final stride, swung his right leg forward, and missed the ball completely. It rolled past him, heading toward the goal, a sudden scoring opportunity for team Peace Corps. I anticipated low groans, muffled so as not to sting, cries of encouragement to shake it off, the soccer etiquette I grew up with. Instead, the crowd erupted in laughter, laughter so loud and unrestrained that I thought it might shake the birds out of the trees, a jarring reminder that while Chadians are generally wonderfully hospitable, they have few social mores about mocking weakness.
Other sounds surprised me. The rumble of an oncoming attacker’s footfalls, oddly muffled when I faced a barefooted player. A familiar grunt of exertion strangely punctuated by a cry of “Ki,” a kind of all purpose sound in Chad used to express surprise, disbelief, or frustration.
As I patrolled the soccer field of Darda, Chadian culture was not new to me. I had been in Chad for over a year, had lived in Beinamar, the lone Westerner in the village, for nine months. I ate all my meals with my Chadian counterpart and his family. I spent my free time sitting in tea shacks or lounging in the shade of a big mango tree, receiving informal Ngumbaye lessons from my neighbors. But on the soccer fields of Darda the similarities and the differences between my life in America and my life in Chad both became vivid. Combining long-practiced skills, learned instincts, muscle memory, and Chadian culture in the tight Petri dish of the Darda soccer field allowed me to understand Chad and my relationship to Chad in a different way.
One flash of memory stands out among the others.
Shouts of “Pelé” rise up from the crowd as one of the Darda players catches up to a long pass, gains control of the ball with his first touch, and breaks toward the goal. Someone shouts Pelé every time this player touches the ball, the crowd’s way of affirming the obvious fact that he is the best player in Darda. He’s been running circles around me the whole game, and I’ve grown to resent his nickname, grown to feel the cries Pelé like a knifepoint prodding my spine.
I’m running parallel to Darda’s Pelé, just to his right. Sweat streams down my back and into the waistband of my shorts. My mouth open, hungry for air, I fight to raise my knees higher, desperate to generate more speed, but I’m quickly losing ground. Pelé’s strides are long and easy. To me, they look effortless, as if he somehow learned the secrets of speed from the gazelle who infrequently roam the bush in Southern Chad. I can’t see his face as he starts to pull away from me, but I’m sure he’s smiling.
Then instinct takes over. I lunge forward with my right leg while my left leg collapses underneath me. I skim across the field in a controlled slide, leaving some of the skin of my left knee behind, swooping toward my left, toward Pelé, toward the ball. It’s a desperate move I used regularly in college, where frequently I was so overmatched that my only hope was to throw every inch of my body and every ounce of my momentum towards the soccer ball and hope for the best.
As I slide, I know I’ve got Pelé. I can feel it, a sixth sense developed after years of playing the game. My right foot reaches the ball, stops it dead. Pelé flies over the ball, his arms churn the air. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him look uncoordinated. The crowd gasps and then breaks into loud laughter. Taunts litter the field, the name Pelé now delivered with a sarcastic edge. I pop back up, the ball at my feet. I loft a long kick toward the opposite goal, not caring where the ball goes, just happy to have it out of my end of the field for a moment. I see the huts of Darda in the distance, turned red and orange in the rays of the setting sun, see the smoke of cooking fires rising into the air, small plots of millet and sorghum starting to push up through the soil. I see the Darda players running around me and know that tomorrow morning most of them will march back to the hard work of subsistence farming. And still I hear the crowd, their cries mingling to form one exuberant whoop, old men and young boys so caught up in the action that they jump along the sideline.
I watch Pelé scramble to his feet, and I quickly shuffle through my French vocabulary. I want to waggle a finger and deliver a chiding line, something like, “You’re in my house now,” because instinct and Chad both demand a little trash talk, a little more fuel for the spectacle, the celebration of the moment.
Tom Weller is a writer who lives in Greencastle, Indiana. This story won the Gold Award for Men’s Travel in the Third Annual Solas Awards.
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