Fidelity, Faith, and Football
The phone rang. As I dug it out of my pocket, I casually answered, “Hey brother, what’s up?” “Nothing good,” came the reply. “My wife left me. The children are gone. She took everything.” I sat there in stunned silence on the other end, wondering what to say next, as if I could say anything. I walked out into the starry night to my friend’s house, gracefully hopping my way over the bridge. It had seemed like a peaceful night until his house, where a yelling match was taking place on his front porch, as a moto taxi man debated with my friend’s sister over the price of whatever stuff he had transported. I wandered forward out of curiosity and concern, only to feel and hear the crunch of shattered glass under my feet. As the shards reflected softly in the moonlight, all I could feel was a sense of what must have been brutal destruction that day: The breaking of a family. Wandering inside was the remains of what she and her brothers had broken as she had moved out of the house. My friend’s nephews stood kneeling on the floor, sweeping glass, wood, and debris into dustpans, their shoulders hunched over, silently and slowly trying to piece together a broken house. The remains of sadness stood on my friend’s face. Not even here in Cameroon, could families be immune to this. I hugged him and said, “Do you want to go watch the football game?”
I had a flashback to 2014: Football (soccer) match, Cameroon v. Mexico. With very little time for a social life, I had decided to make the effort to go out, if only for a night in full glory with some friends and enjoy a match. Somehow I had convinced Joe the builder from the school to buy me an “Indomitable Lions” jersey to support Cameroon at the bar. As we sat down, a few tables down we heard jeers. “Hey lady,” one man said, “Who are you cheering for?” he sneered. “Cameroon of course,” I replied, confused. “And you?” “Ah we support Mexico of course. We’re Mexicans.” They laughed as I rolled my eyes. “Hey lady,” another said, forcing me to turn around. “Your team is going to lose.”
It was the worst match of my life. Not only did Cameroon play badly, but they played badly, with a famous play that is now etched in the mind of every citizen: an elbow of a Cameroonian lion, straight down on the back of another player, in full force. Red card history was truly at its finest.
My brother and I wandered to the closest bar near us to watch the match: Cameroon v. Senegal. As we walked in, we were 4 minutes late, and yet were somehow the only people there. “Hey!” I shouted to my friend who worked at the bar, “Aren’t you going to watch the match?” He looked startled, and then switched the channel on the TV. Every person there had completely forgotten.
We all sat there, awaiting the impending doom, expecting Senegal’s amazing team to crush us. Some of our colleagues had lost power in their houses and ran over the bar, which slowly over time filled mainly with young boys, all craning their necks one way or another to somehow catch a view of the impossibly grainy, tiny screen. We watched in awe as time after time, Senegal attempted goal after goal….and failed. Our goalie had miraculous moves, somehow his hands were like magnets, consistently catching each ball as it flew through the sky. Along came extended play: 30 gruesome extra minutes of endless attempts, with nothing to resolve the standstill null match. It had to be resolved with penalty shots.
Senegal shoots: scores. Cameroon shoots: scores. Back and forth, both sides scoring 4 shots. But then, right when we could barely handle it anymore, Senegal missed, as our goalie did exactly what he had been doing all night. As the final Cameroonian lined up to shoot, my brother grabbed my hand and our colleague’s hand, forcing us to stand, as if praying. “This is a moment in Cameroonian history, my friends,” he shouted, almost shutting his eyes. As the player arched his foot and kicked a glorious goal, the bar could not contain itself anymore. It wasn’t out of relief. It was out of pure surprise, and sheer joy. No victory could be sweeter than the unexpected. As we danced and jumped and screamed, all of his real problems seemed so far away, you could not see a trace of them on his face for that one moment. I knew they would come back all too soon.
Several days later, frustrated with the grainy screen, we moved to our colleague’s house up the street for a clearer view: Cameroon v. Ghana. This night there were plenty of people in the bar already, and more and more people were talking about the match, still convinced that after all of these years of bad sportsmanship and politics, Cameroon could never win. And yet we were jumping and screaming even louder as Cameroon not only scored once, but twice in the last ten minutes of the game. As I walked home, everyone around me was abuzz. “I knew the Lions could win,” people were exclaiming, “I know they are going to with the African Cup this year!” I smiled, laughing at the contrast with several days ago, when everyone had told me, “There’s no way they can win, I don’t even want to watch them suffer.” With a new team, and a new style of sportsmanship, the Lions had done something they hadn’t been able to do in almost 30 years. They had brought back faith. “Here’s what is true about my country,” explained my colleague, matter of factly. “When things are bad in Cameroon, and nothing seems to be working out, somehow we succeed. Somehow we can make it.”
I laughed, because it reminded me of a quote I had seen written by a Peace Corps Volunteer: “Cameroon: the country where nothing works, but everything works out.” Somehow, just maybe, this can be true. Maybe not every family could be fixed, or every political and social problem could be resolved, but for just that moment, I could see it on my brother’s face: it felt good to be Cameroonian.
One week later, when the Lions finally did win the finals, I was away in Yaoundé, celebrating by being thrown into a swimming pool with dozens of crazed fans. Drenched to the core, we all screamed to the sky above, bringing just one moment of happiness into a challenging world. The moment the last goal was set, and the team had one, I grabbed my phone, and sent out just one SMS to my brother: “Even though I am in Yaoundé, we are celebrating together.” I hoped that he knew that I still believed in him, in his resilience to survive his challenges, whatever they would become. I had faith.