by Jennifer Williams
She gets in the game and makes a breakthrough.
At low tide, the white sands of Mombasa’s northern beaches stretch nearly half a mile out to sea. The shore is framed by palm trees, run-down hotel buildings, and wooden stalls selling fried cassava chips and cold Coca-Cola; in the distance, the vivid blue of the Indian Ocean is flecked with the faded colors of tiny fishing boats anchored in the shallow water.
In my hometown of San Diego, California, a beach of this size would be crawling with toddlers in floppy hats, skinny girls in skinnier bikinis turning on their towels like meat on a spit, and hairy men dozing in bright trunks.
In Kenya, the girls are fully covered and the men play soccer.
I sit at the periphery of a game of local boys and watch with an eye to join. The field runs about 40 yards along the beach, sticks standing upright in the sand marking the goal posts at each end. Width is determined by the tide. There are thirteen players, meaning one side is a man short. This could be my ticket in.
There are strategies to joining a pickup game and rules to abide by. You have to size up the teams and the style of play—are there designated positions? Is the action mostly passing or dribbling? How seriously are they taking the game?
Most importantly: am I going to get my ass kicked?
There’s an additional factor when you’re a girl attempting to join a game of men, especially in a country like Kenya where serious women’s sports are still something of a novelty. Being among the conservative constituency of Kenya’s predominantly Muslim coast doesn’t help either. Context, I conclude, might be working against me.
It’s a position I’ve been in before. In college I played in a regular pickup game with a crew of guys from Iran, Japan, Argentina, Scotland, Ghana, and a dozen other countries—many of whom hadn’t realized that girls could play. Although they were skeptical to begin with, my background on a national championship team served me well, and I soon earned a place on the field.
Now, as I sit on the warm sands of the Indian Ocean coastline, I weigh my status. It’s been over a year since I touched a soccer ball. My current aerobic capacity, to put it generously, is somewhat lacking, considering my greatest exertion the past month has been running to catch a departing matatu. Plus I’ve never played in deep sand like this.
Even so, I’ve been watching this game for twenty minutes, and I think I can hold my own. I’m taking mental notes on which players seem to be on the same team, which ones have skills, and which ones have already cast a curious glance in my direction.
Someone takes a shot and it goes wide, sending the ball rolling far behind the goal line; one guy jogs after it. As the other players mill about, I decide to make my move.
“Hey,” I offer to a defender idling close by. “Is this an open game?”
He gives me a blank look. “You want to play?”
“Yeah. Can I join?”
He hesitates, then looks at a teammate who shrugs in response.
“Sure,” he says, turning back to me with a grin. “You can play on this team, we need one more.”
Introductions are made all around, and I promptly forget everyone’s name except Mohammed, the guy who let me on. Off to a good start.
I spend a few minutes outside the main action, trying to get my bearings. I’m wearing the only clothes I brought to the beach—a sarong wrapped around my waist, tied up in a dozen knots to keep it out of the way, and a tank top. My feet are bare and burning on the hot sand.
When the first pass comes from Mohammed, I still feel awkward—the ball is slow and unpredictable, and my feet are heavy. The boys are shouting at me from all directions and it’s hard to figure who’s on my team with the blur of dark bodies and faces running in front of my eyes. I’m not wearing my glasses so I can’t recognize features; I try to pick out shirt colors but even that can be deceiving.
Suddenly I feel another body behind me, his feet scraping for the ball. The pressure to get rid of it is high, but no one’s open on the receiving end. I look up at my assailant and recognize him as one of my own teammates.
“Hey, we’re on the same team,” I say, thinking it a misunderstanding. He tightens his jaw and lunges for the ball again.
“What the fuck, man!” Caught off-balance, I get pushed to the side and he manages to dribble the ball away. I’m disoriented and pissed off.
When the play is over, I turn to Mohammed angrily.
“We’re on the same team. What’s his problem?” It’s not about losing the ball, it’s about respect.
Mohammed brushes it off. “I think he didn’t know. It’s okay, just play.”
Determined to win acceptance, I try to shake it off and concentrate again on the game. Just jogging in the sand for a while has trained my feet to lift a little higher, and I’m feeling comfortable in a sort of center back position. My strength is in defense—I’ve never been a flashy player—and I make two solid tackles in the space of a few minutes. I note a couple raised eyebrows and a slight sense of approval.
Another ten minutes, and I feel in tune with the rhythm of the game. The pace goes in spurts—a moment of intense action followed by a leisurely few minutes of casual passing. The boys are mostly smiles and good humor, especially when someone gets nutmegged (an embarrassing defensive lapse when the ball goes between your legs). There are no out-of-bounds, no throw-ins or corner kicks. If the ball goes behind the goal, the defending team brings it back into play with a pass. Sometimes the sport takes us into the water, where the ball gets pulled by the tide and there’s more splashing than kicking.
I have a momentary flashback to when I was in high school, playing for the Surf Soccer Club in San Diego. People who weren’t familiar with the club sometimes asked, “Oh, Surf—do you play in the water?” After all these years, I can finally answer “yes.”
For a while I notice that people are noticing me—passersby stop to watch a bit of the game that has been joined by this strange white girl. But the oddity wears off quickly and I become just another player, another set of feet on the pitch.
I get the feeling that the boys, too, are forgetting I’m not one of them. I get passes more often and they’re not so tentative when going in for a tackle. One of the greatest compliments I can get on the field is when the guys stop treating me like a girl. They don’t ask if I’m okay every time I get knocked off the ball. They don’t shy away from defending my dribbling. They send the ball elsewhere when I put on pressure.
In a moment of action, I intercept an opponent’s pass and send it forward. It connects with the teammate who’d earlier been my attacker; he’s in a perfect shooting position and the ball slides between the goal posts. The team cheers and my former adversary gives me a nod on his jog back.
“Good pass,” he says.
“Nice shot,” I reply.
The sun’s getting hotter and my shoulders feel baked. After an hour of sand, sweat, and soccer, I decide to call it a day. My legs, I already know, will be punishing me tomorrow. At a break in the play, I start walking off the field and wave goodbye to the other players.
“Thanks for letting me play,” I say. The boys wave back and call out their farewells.
“You’re leaving already?” asks Mohammed. Maybe it’s just the way he’s squinting in the bright sun, but his face betrays a bit of disappointment.
“There will be other times,” I say, sure that there won’t. I’m leaving tomorrow to continue traveling up the coast, and it’s not likely I’ll be back. But maybe I’ll find other pickup games along the way, and maybe this time around I’ll be smart enough to wear shorts and bring water.
And maybe the next girl who wants to join their game won’t have to ask first.
Jennifer Williams is a writer, and soccer player, who lives in Colorado. “The Ringer” won the Gold Award for Travel and Sports in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.