Gifts for an Angolan Christmas: A Sort-of Soccer Story

Photo by J.Star on Flickr

A note in preface: The story here is a bit of a divergence from my usual weekly post.  With Christmas coming and the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola not far behind (kicking off January 10th) I’ve been thinking about the 2002 Christmas I spent in Angola when working on my dissertation research.  Part of that involved helping to organize coach training programs in refugee camps near the capital of Angola—and while the programs included a variety of sports, ‘futebol’ was what really mattered.  So while this particular story is only tangentially about the game, the game is what offered the connection.

The story itself—mostly true barring the vagaries of memory—is something that started as a Christmas letter.  Now, with the Africa Cup of Nations about to begin, I’ve re-written it in hopes a few fans of the game might be interested in some experiences of Angola outside the stadiums (which I wrote about last month).  If you like your soccer writing witty and cynical, please ignore.  If you can excuse some sentimentality around the holiday season, I hope you enjoy…

For several Christmases they had lived on a soccer field, in front of a crumbling brick schoolhouse, in the deep outskirts of Luanda.  Or, more specifically, a soccer field that had been converted into a temporary refugee camp for Congolese families fleeing violence.  The soccer field was just a reasonably flat space intended to serve the families for a few weeks.  Then a few weeks had turned into a few years.  And it probably wasn’t ever a very good soccer field anyway—the space around the touchlines leaned badly, it had no grass to speak of, and when it rained the red dirt surface segmented into canals of thick mud.  But when I stopped to think about it all, the idea of being condemned to Christmases living on a not very good soccer field, I felt overwhelmed.  Of course, I felt overwhelmed often in Angola—the unfamiliarity and the noise and the confusion of it all.  And, on that particular day, the 23rd of December, the rain.

It had rained a few times in the months I had been in Luanda, living in the central city and commuting daily to various refugee camps outside the capital of Angola, but for the most part the city itself was dry.  That morning it had suddenly become flooded with tumults of water.  Around 6:30 am I looked out the window of my Soviet-style apartment block, wedged into an eclectic downtown mix of dilapidated cement shells, gleaming glass high rises built with money from oil and diamonds, antique Portuguese colonial villas, and shantytowns surrounding the urban core, to find that three hours of pouring rain had turned the drain-less streets into rivers.  Every open space was suddenly a lake.  It was supposed to be our last day working in the camps before Christmas.

Christmas in Luanda was a filtered version of Christmas elsewhere—a day of vaguely religious reflection, a chance for a nice meal, an expectation of gifts to the extent one could afford them.  But being in a place that daily shoved dramatic inequalities in my face—the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor—the gifts piece became more complicated.  I want Christmas to be about something more than material exchange, about celebrating the birth of Christ or engaging in a giving spirit.  But I know gifts matter.  And in the long-term refugee camps where I worked on my research and with volunteer programs promoting play for children, camps where people had lived in forced dependence to Western donors for years, the expectation of gifts was raw.  I was the ‘wealthy’ outsider, the American who showed up periodically in a pock-marked Land Cruiser with balls, cones, papers, and games.  So the refugees had asked matter-of-factly, not awkwardly nor hopefully nor greedily: “what are you getting us for Christmas?”

My Angolan colleague and I had tried to get them something—at least for the ten or so adults who’d volunteered with us for a coach training program.  We’d spent what for us felt like considerable time and expense getting together small Christmas baskets: flour, eggs, powdered milk, and a chicken.  The idea was to give the people we worked with the chance to make a decent meal, maybe a cake if they could work that out on their cooking fire.  My Angolan colleague assured me they could.  And so that morning around 8:00, worried whether we could make it through the storm, we loaded the truck for delivery.

Luanda

We only worked at the camp on the soccer field on Mondays because it was small and further from town—we hoped maybe it hadn’t rained as much there.  And on our way from the city to the camp, our truck hydroplaning through the crooked streets, the rain did seem to slow just as the usual morning crowds began another day.  Luanda is a city of 5 million originally designed for a few hundred thousand; the roads host hives of people squeezing between the noise of cars, trucks, busses, carts, and the choke of modern life.  On that particular day the storm amplified the masses of emotion: some people shook sadly in their second hand western clothes, some were zestfully dancing and sliding and soaking in the quagmire, many kept on selling their wares with a water logged version of the usual intensity—weaving and wading on foot between disjointed traffic waving plastic bags of soft drinks and beer, fake Christmas trees, bubble gum, sandals, toy cars, popcorn, newspapers, underwear, pictures of sofas (available in a waiting warehouse).  Entrepreneurial youth were charging people a ferry toll to carry them on their backs or shoulders through the deepest mud.

Soon it became obvious that there had not been less rain outside of town.  If anything there had been more.  A mile from the camp, away from urban rush on a road lined by yellowish green hills drifting towards the ocean, we turned off the tarmac to find the road a pit of deep red mud.  We could see our destination in the distance—the school and its field stood on a hill overlooking rolling acres of bristling grass, leaf-less trees, and scattered huts.  But, looking at a long curve around a dangerous bend, driving wasn’t worth the risk.  We were stuck.  It had taken us an hour to go this far.  It was two days before Christmas and we had perishable gifts in our backseat.  We had to walk.

Mud seemed so strange in Angola.  Or maybe mud seems strange everywhere and I just haven’t spent enough time with it.  Whatever, when we stepped out of the truck the mud immediately overwhelmed our shoes—it layered on magnetically like a cross-section diagram of the earth’s core.  Within five steps I was walking on uneven seven inch platform boots, realizing that shoes were of no use.  We returned to the car, left our shoes and socks, and set off again.

When was the last time you walked a long distance through thick mud in your bare feet?  What fun.  Especially when you are in undulating hills outside Luanda, Angola.  When you have Boabob trees dotting the horizon.  When you have glossy little kids cartwheeling through the puddles on the side of the road, stopping briefly just to give you a “Bom dia.”  When you pass a mess of uneven thatch huts with women peering out and shaking their heads in confused amusement.  When mud splays up through your toes and rests on your instep—the whole sensation like a warm bed after a long night.

Passing the crest of the final hill, a stressed hockey bag full of flour and powdered milk digging into my shoulder, the camp seemed empty.  Water was dripping heavily around the 50 or so small huts that occupied just over half the soccer field; small canyons of water weaving between piles of trash and clumps of earth.  Every step I took required an intense focus on the ground, negotiating rusting tin can lids from South African tomato paste, corroded blue Chinese D cell batteries, broken Portuguese beer bottles—a refuse of globalization.  We were soaked, our legs encrusted with dirt, immersed in a soporific din.  It was 10:00 in the morning, still raining, and the camp was asleep.

We went to a house in the near corner of the camp, a mud, stick, and canvas construction little bigger than a backpacking tent that we knew to be the home of a friend—one of our coach training participants.  My Angolan colleague, balancing a large cardboard box of chicken on his head, announced our presence with a sharp hand clap.  There had been no words, we hadn’t spoken since leaving the truck 45 minutes before, and there was no response.   Just rain beading on a dull blue tarp, seeping down my face through a sparse excuse for a beard- a beard that everyone said made me look sad.

After more clapping, there was a slight rustling in the hut.  Our friend emerged, pulling back the maize sack hanging in place of a door.  He was sleepy and confused.  What were we doing there?  Didn’t we know about the rain; about the camp being asleep?  He shook the shadows out of his eyes, invited us in, and made space for us to sit.  One plastic chair, orange and broken, one plank laid across grey scarred tins the size of paint cans.  There was a sickly looking chicken running around the dirt floor, water falling out of its feathers as if it was leaking.

Our friend went to call the other few participants from our coaching course.  Four came, and impractically all were wearing shoes—shoes weighed down by layers of mud from a walk of about 20 yards.  Even though their feet were tough from years of movement, even though it was much easier to negotiate the mud in bare feet, even though they risked ruining their shoes for a 20 yard walk, even though my own feet were bare, the shoes were important.

We explained that we didn’t want to do much today—I wanted them to know I wasn’t so naïve as to think we might work on a day like this.  But we had small gifts.  We emphasized small gifts; on his own my Angolan colleague told them in Portuguese that the gifts were just symbolica.  I wondered what they symbolized—but everyone seemed to understand.   So we unloaded the bags and the cardboard box, we gave them a list of who we intended the things for, we shook still confused hands, and we left.  There were very few words exchanged.  They didn’t complain, but they didn’t express much appreciation either.  They had expected something, though maybe not that day or that way.

The walk back to the truck was downhill and our loads were gone, so we should have gone faster.  But our feet had tired and our bodies were slow.  We still didn’t talk.  I focused less on the road, which seemed familiar now, and more on the vista.  I tried to remember clues our friends might have given about whether they liked what we brought.  I worried that others, for whom we hadn’t brought anything, would be angry with us.  I wondered if I should feel good about what I had done, or if I was just playing a role in a big global act—the privileged outsider trying to salve his broken sense of justice through gifts symbolica.

Then, slowly, my thoughts settled.  My body more easily coped with the gelatinous road.  There were even a few minutes where everything seemed quiet—a few moments during which I watched grass rustle and felt the soft pleasure of earth wrapping through my feet.  With my back to the soccer field, on a muddy red road where my work was done, the world oozed through my toes.  It was a moment of tired happiness, and it was the gift: a few minutes in the warm rain of an Angolan Christmas.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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