I played a game of pickup soccer with my host family the first week I had moved to Bo, but had not played with them again for a number of weeks. I wanted to, but my schedule was hectic. Even my class-free weekends had become busy. Most of the free time I spent with my host family I used to relax and talk; practicing my Krio, the Lingua Franca, as well as some Mende, the local tribal language.
One lazy Sunday afternoon my cousins tried to convince me to play, which they had been attempting to do for weeks. I declined again, as I often had, preferring to sit and practice language with my uncle.
My uncle however decided to switch sides, and with a wry smile told me we were done practicing Mende until I agreed to play. I couldn’t say no. I walked out to the dirt field with my gaggle of cousins, brothers and friends all ecstatic that I’d decided to play once again.
Teams were settled and the game began. It was a fast affair, end-to-end, as we were all led to chase the ball and the game more often than any one team was ever in control. It was typical enough for a neighborhood game. Possession was fickle and changed quickly. At one point my host cousin and teammate Hamid won the ball in a tackle on the opposing teams’ half of the field. My brother’s and I charged forward in support to make ourselves available for the next pass, or put ourselves in goal scoring positions.
Hamid kept the ball at his feet, initially sending a defender the wrong way, but dribbled forward until his opportunity disappeared, as well as the chance of a pass, and he was dispossessed.
We weathered the quick counterattack that followed, and a minute later my brother Nyake made a play that mirrored Hamid. He stole the ball near midfield and charged forward, never letting the ball get too far away from his feet. Never letting anything get to close to steal or threaten his opportunity that he had just won from somebody else. We all charged forward in support once more, being there, in any position at all that was of value.
Nyake ran forward, loving the ball as it stayed with him. He dribbled on, beat a few defenders, but looked to have no opening. His look for a shot dwindled, and then so did his chance for a pass. He dribbled on, hoping, if not convinced that he would have an opening to shoot, to score. And he too was dispossessed.
I started to drift out of the game and became more of a spectator, watching my host brothers, cousins, and their friends play ball. Watching how they played, how it came that this pattern seemed to form where we would have a golden opportunity that never fulfilled itself. It seemed to me as though every time the ball landed at my brother’s feet, at my cousin’s feet, it was a bottle of apple cider that someone had handed to them. It was rare enough that a stranger would walk up and offer half a bottle that he had just been drinking, it must have seemed equally rare and wonderful to have the ball at one’s feet, with the open field ahead, ready to be manipulated into a score. Every time the ball lay next to the feet it was a fleeting opportunity; anything was possible. It was not to be shared, given away, one could not even afford to blink. When the opportunity appeared it was everything and anything all at once.
In a land rich with amazing people, culture and natural beauty but poor in material wealth and individual opportunity, it was always the fleeting possibility of something so much more tucked away in that ball. So much potential in that moment, with the ball and the goal in front, in sight. Life was lived one day at a time here- can you do enough to get through it?- and if you had a way to improve today, to score just one goal, that made not only today but everything better.
It made me wonder back to the Italy-Uruguay match I had seen a few weeks prior, and the bar crowd’s love and respect for Luis Suarez. Yes, he is one of the most recognizable stars in football today, but that day in the bar there seemed to be so much more in everyone’s affection for him, how attached they were to him and his game. It was as if everyone in Salone related to the way he plays, the way he attacks every moment in the game as if it was his last, as if everything depended in that one single play. Saurez loses himself, and seemingly his mind at moments in games, and Salone loves him for it.
Everyone in that bar seemed to know what it felt like to claw, and scream, and bite, and hope for something more to take from that opportunity. They knew what it was like to dribble into the opposition with no real chance but dreaming for more, just as my host cousins and brothers showed me on the football field.
It was a funny moment to realize how much culture was reflected just in the way my host family approached sport. There was little team work, little pragmatism, there were no role players in this version of football, no individuals forsaking their independent glory for the sake of a greater team ideal.
It was ten attackers on a field each searching for his own opportunity to take and run away. A team mate was simply someone else trying to score on the same goalie, not a reliable partner to advance the ball and build a sustained offense. It was a version of football I didn’t really know how to play, and so withdrew from, but I loved it for how much it told tell me. Loved it for how much it told me about everyone playing in front of me.
Salone is a land of few personal opportunities, and when one happened to appear, even if just a glimmer, one had to make all effort to grab at it, to attack it, to cling to any fleeting glimmer that it could be more.
In this version sharing only insured what little there was to go around would be split into oblivion, no one person getting anything, truly. A goal seemed to not be a collective accomplishment, but an individual achievement, so long as the individual shed all adversity to achieve what he could with what little he was given.
The only way to guarantee that anyone could have what they want ever is to take it, wholly, cling to it, not let it go, and see how far it goes. I realized my version did not mesh at all; trying to play one-two passes and make runs to disguise my lack of technique and skill. So whenever the ball fell to my feet, I did the next best thing I knew how to do, playing it off to the nearest individual trying to score in the same direction as me, and watch ardently as he put everything he had in that moment to score.
It happened to be the last time I played soccer with my host family. Not even two weeks later the entire American Peace Corps presence in Sierra Leone was withdrawn, our potentially two year stay becoming a casualty, albeit the least, of the spreading Ebola Virus. News from the country continues to worsen, and the numbers have only become more and more frightening. In a land of few opportunities I can only imagine how many more have disappeared with their society shrinking and closing ranks to deal with the greatest threat to its existence since Civil War came to a halt twelve years prior.
I have not had a chance to talk to my host family on the phone since I left, but I do correspond by email, trying to maintain regular contact so that I can assure myself that they are still safe and with each other. In one such email my host mother’s fiance told me how debilitating Ebola’s impact had become, shutting down local commerce. He proceeded to tell me that everyone in my host family was still alright and healthy. As his email concluded, he added that Nyake and Hamid wanted me to know how many goals they had scored in a game a few days prior. I could only imagine how happy it had made them for one day.