Destinations Magazine

Soccer Ball Diplomacy

By Davedtc @davedtc

soccerWritten in 1999 based on true events from 1984, 1997, 1998 and 1999.

“The toughest job you’ll ever love.” As a kid growing up in the mid-1980s, I heard that slogan on a Peace Corps commercial showing a volunteer planting rice in a flooded field. I said to my mother, “I want to do that.” But I don’t think I really knew what it was all about; it just seemed adventurous or something.

It wasn’t until college that I gave it serious thought and decided to apply to join the organization. I was up for a challenge and the Peace Corps experience appeared like it would offer me one. So when I received the invitation to join the fresh-water fisheries program based in Gabon, I quickly accepted the opportunity.

Gabon is a French-speaking country in central Africa. The terrain consists of dense rain forest where I live, with savanna in certain regions. There are about 100 volunteers here, doing projects on everything from fish culture to agriculture and community health to school construction. Gabon is located on the equator along the Atlantic Ocean coast and northwest of Congo, south of Cameroon. Some areas of the forest contain thousand-year-old hardwood trees and a plethora of wildlife, with elephants, wildcats, monkeys, antelopes porcupines, and more.

I am a volunteer but I receive a stipend of 5,000 CFA, or about $8, per day. CFA is a central African regional currency, and 1,000 CFA can buy either a small bag of groceries from a store or a cooked meal of meat and rice from an eatery in Mbigou, the closest town. My job here is to search for potential fish farmers and, if they are interested, help them find a suitable place to build a pond (preferably in a valley that has a natural water source from a spring). I demonstrate how to construct a dike or “barrage” in a stream and divert the water down a canal to a spot where we build the pond with clay, one shovel after another.

With the pre-existing fish farmers, some two dozen in the area, I assist in the maintenance of their ponds, including the tasks of filling the fertilizer/compost cage with green plant material to create a plankton bloom and feeding the fish directly with termite larvae or other types of plant leaves. Also, I help in the harvest and sale of the fish being raised: Tilapia.

But I am learning that I also serve a role here as a sort of diplomat.

I just recently moved into my mud wattle hut, a five-room, single-story structure made of wood, woven vine and hardened clay. It has a dirt floor and a corrugated metal roof. There is no running water or electricity. I use a latrine instead of a toilet, and a kerosene lantern to light my way at night.

I am posted in Mikouandza, a tiny village located about 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) from Mbigou. I buy supplies at the market in Mbigou on a monthly basis. Since the population of Mikouandza is only about 40 people, the government has not bothered to install a water pump for the village. I get most of my water for drinking and washing from a rainwater collection barrel beside my house. But now that it’s the dry season I have found some difficulty getting easy access to water. A spring is located at the bottom of a steep hill near the village, but its a struggle to carry a bucket of water back up.

Despite the current dry weather conditions, I have been digging a garden behind my house. I plan to plant some tomato and lettuce seeds that I bought a couple months ago in the capital, Libreville, to demonstrate to the villagers how to grow these unfamiliar yet nutritious vegetables. One day last week, a kid named Lehonse crawled over to me. He can’t unbend his legs at the knee joint and therefore he is unable to walk. I suspected that it was from a birth defect but I have since learned that he had polio.

He asked if I would bring him back a soccer ball from the town of Mbigou. I explained to him that if I give him a gift, then all the other kids would want one, too. He said, “No, I will share the ball with everyone.”

“And if there are kids who don’t play ball,” I asked, “what about them?”

He seemed bummed out, so I offered a compromise. I told him that if he did something for me — like help build a bamboo fence around my garden — then I would buy him the ball.

By the time we working, I had a team of children wanting to lend a hand, hoping as well for a gift in return (batteries for a radio, for example, to make music with electricity instead of gazelle-skin drums). The children don’t want money so much as they need goods and supplies. Even if I pay them with cash, they can’t easily travel to the market to purchase products. So a simple economy of barter is best for me and them, with items paid for their labor and expertise.

We gathered a few dozen saplings (each two meters tall and a couple centimeters thick) from the surrounding forest to create the fence posts. Then they showed me where the bamboo grows, about one kilometer from the village, along the road. They worked hard. With machetes, we cut down 10-meter long pieces of bamboo shafts and carried them on our shoulders to my house where we split them with an ax. We collected vines from the forest and tied each bamboo strip to the posts. Lehonse’s disability prevents him from doing most tasks, but he provided helpful advice to the other children.

When the fence was complete, I went to Mbigou, bought the gifts and gave them as promised.

That evening, the children asked me to join them in a soccer game with the new ball on their makeshift field. I agreed to play. That’s when it dawned on me that Lehonse, the kid who first asked for the ball, was about to partake in a running and kicking game despite the fact that he is crippled.

“How’s he going to play?” I pondered, eagerly waiting to see him in action.

Polio is not uncommon here. It is transmitted by ingestion of water contaminated with feces that contain the virus. Plans to eradicate polio have not reached this remote area of the world. The vaccine must be kept refrigerated, which is not really possible in certain places in this country, complicating efforts to administer the vaccine. So, some people contract polio and suffer for the rest of their lives. Lehonse has a wheelchair that the government provided to him but it was challenging to navigate on the dirt roads. He mostly “walks” on his hands and knees.

Suddenly, one kid kicked the soccer ball and it bounced near me. I turned to give it a swift kick and then I paused. There he was in front of me, a boy crawling as fast as he could towards the ball and then “kicking” it with the backside of his hand just before another kid on the opposing team ran for it.

“Now that’s remarkable,” I thought. “What a handicapped kid can do to play ball.”

Contact author Jonathon Shacat at [email protected]

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