Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Swallows and Seasons

I feel like I timed this whole end of college thing perfectly: graduation in May, full summer in rural Connecticut and the beautiful Pacific Northwest, arrive in South Africa just as their Spring is beginning, then get a second full summer in a row from November to March. My hair is going to be white platinum blond by the end of this thing.

The coming of Spring and Summer means that Richmond's soccer, like its pit vipers and desert cobras, has risen from its winter slumber and begun poking its head around the lives of innocent Americans minding their own business.

After the Richmond Super Cup a few weeks ago (you'll recall we beat Leeds in the final to take a big victory), the All Stars played the following weekend in a tournament hosted by Richmond's own Bafana Bafana FC. 14 teams, single elimination. This tournament coincided with an important visit from some American bigwigs so I wasn't able to play in as many games as I might have liked, but I did get a bit of PT here and there. Some confluence of the wind, me getting extremely lucky while striking the ball, and pure divine intervention meant that the first real play of the semi-final match was me rocketing a cannon ball from 35 yards. The goalie made a pretty heroic save and parried it over the goal. But it was too late for the few hundred people in the crowd who had thought it was in. Their initial cheer of excitement over the muzungu scoring his first goal was quickly drowned out by the "YeeEEuUURRRrrrRRRRrrrRRRR" ("GODDDDDDDDD") which Afrikaans-speaking Richmonders ubiquitously use to express dislike, disappointment, the presence of a terrible smell, an old lady crossing the one path across our river shortcut too slowly, or any of dozens of other negative emotions. But it was still really cool to feel some love from the crowd assembled for this huge tournament. I didn’t score any goals, but we won the game. Meetings meant I couldn't play in the final but All Stars went on to take the whole tournament, continuing our tear through Richmond athletic competitions and taking down a prize purse of over 2,000 Rand. Pretty awesome.

The Thursday of the week after, which was this past week (keep THAT math straight…), was a public holiday called Heritage Day and it was deemed fit by the Richmond Soccer High Council that a tournament should take place. Four teams: All Stars, Celtic, Leeds and Mixed Masala (a schmorgasborg team of the Caltex workers and a few of the men's teams) played a one-day afternoon tourney for fun. All Stars was in the final but--I think it was just the sheer amount of soccer played in the last two weeks--just did not have the gas in the tank to finish strong in this third tournament in a row, losing 3-2 to Celtic.

You know All Stars has a reputation in town when, I'm not exaggerating, I have been verbally accosted by Celtic players, supporters and, in general, non-All Stars partisans all week for that loss. On one such occasion, Saddam and I were walking down the main street after purchasing some farming equipment for the garden we’re putting in at the community center. One of the Celtic players who we know got in our faces, boasting to the high heavens about the previous week’s victory. Saddam and I talked about it the whole way back to the community center. Back in the garden and laying into mother nature with some pitchforks, Saddam kept talking about it in Afrikaans with a few of the All Stars players who had showed up to help with the work. At one particularly poignant moment in the the discussion, Saddam stopped working, got the group’s attention and gave a finger-wagging speech—unfortunately in his native tongue, because it probably would have been hilarious—which seemed to disparage the Celtic players for their offensive arrogance following their win.

The assembled group laughed boisterously. “You zhee Chris,” Saddam turned to me, “Eén zwaluw maakt nog geen zomer.” He paused, looking around for some vocabular help, “How do you...?”. “You zhee…the Celtic boys they must learn,” and then—between the young and old men assembled—they came upon an acceptable English translation of his chosen Dutch proverb: “Ein…One Zwa…Swallow doesn’t make a zom…summer. One swallow does not make a summer.” I needed a second to figure out the seasonal connection to the discussion of Celtic’s hubris. Saddam gave me half of one, and though it was quickly clear on my end he had already jumped into a full explanation. “Because Celtic are like de zingle Zwallow.” He looked me straight in the eyes, dead serious and expectant. Yeah Saddam, I got it. “And zhey think summer time is already here.” With you, Saddam. “But it iz not. Because many zwallows come in the summer. And zhis…zhis is only ein zwallow.”

Regardless of his ornithological knowledge, Saddam is correct in that summer—purely seasonally speaking—is not yet here. All Stars have a rematch against Celtic this Sunday and, now that I think about it, I don’t think I heard any birds singing this morning.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Story of GRS

This is a short, really interesting blog post by the biggest wig here at GRS, founder Tommy Clark. 10 paragraphs gives the story of the founding of GRS, taking you from his childhood as a white kid in pre-AIDS Zimbabwe through his time playing at Dartmouth College, his later return to Zimbabwe to play professionally and teach English, and finally his decision to attend medical school and found GRS. Well, I just gave away the general trajectory of the story, but it's much better to hear it straight from the ostrich's mouth.

The post is here (to reiterate: it's really short and worth the read if you have any interest in GRS):


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Zhey Go For Your Eyez:" A Tale of Two Fences

Things have been pretty quiet in terms of Grassroot Soccer-related business around Richmond. We're finishing up our first batch of interventions at the high school (now drug free!) and middle school; should have some fun graduation ceremonies for those kids coming in the near future. Otherwise, just playing tons of soccer with the kids at the community center; my groin feels a lot better now so I'm happily back training with the All Stars. First practice back from injury yesterday; scored a goal (no big deal). I've been brainstorming some cool ideas for community projects not directly related to Grassroot Soccer; the one I'm most excited about is possibly starting and coaching a youth soccer club here in town. More on that to come.

This was our first real relaxed weekend here in Richmond since there were no soccer tournaments or matches, no big trip to visit friends; nothing really to do except laze around, watch embarrassingly long stretches of Anna’s 10 seasons of Friends episodes, and maybe get some small errands and chores done. This past Saturday, then, I literally sat around the house from 9 AM onwards cooking a long breakfast, “playing” (loose definition) my guitar, and enjoying a pleasantly warm Richmond afternoon. Around mid-day, though, Anna had seen enough and thankfully dragged me outdoors for a jog around town. She’s the expert as she’s had a bit more motivation to go for runs to explore Richmond and the area immediately surrounding it. So Anna took us out to these cool water pools which we got really excited about swimming in come summer but quickly realized were the town’s sewage treatment reservoirs.

The reservoirs are basically on the edge of town, and from there you can look in one direction and see Richmond, then look the other way and get endless Karoo desert. Not wanting our adventure to end with sewage, Anna and I set off into the “veld”—prairie/desert land—at first on a dirt track but when that ended we found ourselves picking a trail through little bushes and termite hills. Even though it’s still winter, I was on full “snake alert” and—ask Anna—I was freaking out every time a flurry of wind made some bramble move [note: my geneticist’s license is only good in 47 states, but I’m pretty sure my fear of snakes is a direct inheritance from my mother, who cannot be taken out to movies because the chance snake appearance in a film will ruin the film for everyone involved]. Here is the trail we set out on initially, with the Great Karoo in our sights.

Once we were well into the thick of the veld, off in the distance we saw a hill that looked like a sweet climb. We were in farm country and must have stumbled into some farmer’s territory because we hit a barbed wire fence. Following the fence to a point a little before the climbing had to begin, we realized the only approach up the hillside was on the other side of the jagged metal. Thankfully, we were able to dig under the fence, remove some rocks, shimmy under, and climb up this hill. Sweet views of Richmond and the Karoo ensued, but pretty soon it was time to descend and head home.

You can see the hole we used to foil the farmer's defensive system:

The hill and scenery we were trying to get to:

My inner Pacific-Northwest-Mountain-Man-With-A-Huge-Beard begs me not to write this, but—between constantly scanning for s nakes and, as a result, tripping over nearly every rock and crag on the way down—the arguably mild descent down this hill became unnecessarily treacherous. Once safely at the bottom, we picked up the trail of the barbed wire fence and followed it back towards town. Having no interest in screwing around with the 5 rows of razor wire on top of the fence but not quite remembering where we had come under, Anna and I just fixed our eyes on the dirt at the foot of the fence and started walking, searching for our original diggings and access point. After about a quarter mile of this, we finally looked up to give our eyes a rest. What we saw began the next, harrowing part of this tale. It was a carpet.

A brown carpet with some white crap sticking out from one end of it, about 50 feet away. And it was raised up off the ground flapping around as if there was somebody on the other side shaking the dust out of it. Like I said, since our eyes had been glued to the base of the fence for a solid 15 minutes looking for our hole, we had basically stumbled entirely obliviously onto this strange scene. After about 20 seconds of the elevated brown carpet flapping and waving around in the wind we realized that, well, it wasn’t a carpet at all. Because at that point the carpet stood up and turned around, and we saw this:

An ostrich. And not just any ostrich, but a 6 and a half foot tall, gnarly looking bird monster. It had looked like a carpet because it was doing some sort of weird flapping dance. Best of all, with the dance’s conclusion this thing started walking towards us. I don’t know how many of you have ever been in the presence of an ostrich—and especially an ostrich out of captivity—but these things are huge and legitimately scary. Not knowing what to do (GRS Intern Training in Cape Town had only covered Flying Squirrel and Baboon attacks), Anna and I walked backwards and quickly felt our backs up against—you guessed it—a 6-foot fence with rows of razor wire across the top. But we just kept backing up parallel to the fence, away from the ostrich, still with our eyes never leaving the animal. At that point the ostrich accelerated into a trot towards us; Anna and I responded by turning our backs and sprinting down the fence line, searching for something—anything—that looked like either our original entry point or an option that would just work well enough to get us on the other side of this fence and away from the bird monster. Who, by the way, was closing fast as Anna and I finally came upon something that I figured would work.

It was a gate the farmer must have used to access this part of his grounds. With our eyes on the ground we must have missed it on our first pass—either that, or we’d been dissuaded by the single line of jagged barbed wire protecting the top of the gate. Well, a wise man once told me that one strand of jagged barbs is better than five strands of jagged barbs when fleeing an ostrich attack so I immediately grabbed the barbed wire and Anna went under it, straddling the gate as she made her way over. She got hung up for a second and, looking up, I saw that Big Bird had now kicked its attack into overdrive and that the feathered monster was coming right at us, full speed, and was no more than 20 feet away.

With Anna still navigating the last few motions over the top of the fence, I started running through my options. I could try to fight this thing. My first instinct was that, hey, I don’t see any claws or sharp teeth and, you know, maybe I could fend it off with some vicious kicking. Deciding immediately that my initial “whirlwind ninja kick” plan was a terrible idea, I figured my actual best bet would be to grab one of the larger rocks on the ground and try to get this thing in the head with a throw or just a swinging rock-bash to the face. I had seen both done in various full-length features whose titles began with words like “Defiant Warrior:”, “Silent Defender:” or “Twilight Assassin:” (the colons are crucial) and ended with phrases like “Jungle Takedown 2”, “Assault on Delta Bunker” or “Lights Out, President Gorbachev.”

With the bird a few paces away, however, both my better sense and unwarlike post-Viking Age Swedish heritage kicked in and I noticed that, by now, Anna was basically over. With a very ungentlemanly shove [note: sorry Anna] I pushed Anna the rest of the way over the fence and—heroically—she recovered from the tumble to the other side in such a catlike manner that—with the ostrich’s now-scary-looking beak nearly within striking distance—as I lunged for a single-shot high jumper approach over the fence Anna was already there holding the barbed wire as high as possible. I hurled myself over and through, and plummeted the 6 feet to safety on the other side. We were alive. But our adversary was right there, glaring at us—cognizant of how close he had come to an early dinner. Not tonight, bud (or, as one of the locals might say, “Nie naan, my bru.”).

This was the barbed wire gate we went over to escape:

Our harrowing escape complete, Anna and I set off through the veld to get home. After a bit, we came upon an old woman out for a walk who had seen the whole thing go down. As we approached she just stared at us: these two dirty, scraped up, bloody Americans whom she had just seen hurdle a barbed wire fence with an ostrich nipping at their heels. Denise turned out to be a real nice old lady, and during our conversation with her we learned just how much trouble we might have been in. Apparently, it’s mating season right now and, when we first saw it, the ostrich had been doing a mating dance. Looking back through the terror to those whimsical first moments of a floating brown carpet, I realize how cool that dance was. But then the terrifying escape comes rushing back in and I think of how much I now hate large, brown, dancing carpets.

Anyway, Denise went on to tell us that this ostrich was definitely a male, that he was probably doing his little mating dance as a warning (I mean, Anna and I are both fairly attractive people, so an alternative explanation is just that love was in the air), and that it definitely would have attacked us. “How do you handle an ostrich attack out here?” I asked. “First, you covers ze eyes. Anybody who works around ostriches always covers ze eyes,” Denise quickly responded [Afrikaans-ization of her otherwise spotless English added for effect]. Curious, I followed up, “Why cover your eyes?” “Because zhey go for your eyez.” Then—motioning to her old, gnarled hands in what could have been the first scene of Jurassic Park where the Paleontologist guy scares the crap out of the little kid with a big old Velociraptor claw—Denise started swiping at our eyes. “Ze ostrich can only kickz forward, but he has one sharp nail on hiz footz.” Continued clawing motions, now at our stomachs. “So what should we have done back there?” I continued, just in case we were ever to find ourselves in an ostrich attack situation again. Resident ostrich fighter Denise had a lot to say on the subject, but it seemed that her go-to move would have been to throw any large piece of fabric over the ostrich’s head. “It vill immediately become docile and you vill be safe.” Good to know, huh? We parted ways with Denise, but not before discovering that she is one of two people in Richmond with a swimming pool. Immediately recalling that temperatures hit over 100F in the summers here, Anna and I thanked Denise profusely and left things cordial with the kind old lady.

On our return to 54 Loop Street, Anna and I were ready for a beer, dinner, 5 episodes of Friends, and sweet, ostrich-free sleep. But on our front porch we realized, to our horror, that neither of us had brought the correct house key with us and that we were locked out. Sweaty, dirty, bloody, traumatized by an ostrich, and—to rub salt in the proverbial eye gouge wound—now we were locked out. Mercifully, the Richmond hotel that owns our house is located just across the street and, with their last employee just about to lock up and go home, we pleaded with her to help us try to find a spare key somewhere in the hotel store room. 25 minutes and a similar number of keys later, we thought we might have a key that at least looked like one of our backdoor keys.

In describing our attempts to get into our backyard and access the rear door, a brief description of our house’s defenses is in order. Despite Richmond’s lack of crime, our house is pretty Alcatraz-ed up. All of the house’s inner doors lock with deadbolts, and each inner door is protected by an outer, barred locking door. Every window has steel burglar bars. The backyard is ringed by a 5 foot brick wall which is covered in barbed wire—but here I’m talking the good stuff which rings and snarls around itself and has tons of spikes and sharp edges that actually keep people out, none of this farmland veld crap that allows no-good trespassers to escape from guard ostriches. So that was a no-go. The only other point of entry into the yard was up and over the huge wooden gate (perhaps the second fence to which the story’s title refers???) that unlocks and swings open to allow a car to park back there. There’s no barbed wire, but it is 7 feet tall. With the GRS Richmond Intern Team by now well-accustomed to finding its way over fences and the like, I gave Anna a boost and she was over that thing in seconds.

Anna disappeared around back for a minute or two. Now, the key we had found was the kind of key that only unlocks the outer double-doors, so—even if this key was the right one—I was still skeptical that we were going to be able to get through the second, inner door, which locks from the inside.

But then I heard a shout of success, and Anna triumphantly burst out through the front doors.

Apparently, we had not only forgotten to lock our inner backyard door, but we had forgotten to even close it when we had gone for our run. That meant that when the spare key worked on the outer barred door, Anna could just stroll into the house. This, I can say, will probably be the only time I’m ever THANKFUL for not locking my own door here in South Africa.

Badly in need of decompressing, Anna and I immediately took a stroll to Die Supper Klub, the newest restaurant in town (there are now three). There, we told the owner, Hannes, about our ordeal with the Velociostrich. Hannes—another pretty legit old Afrikaaner—had some interesting thoughts on the situation. First, defying Denise’s advice, he told us that—if we’re ever in trouble with an ostrich again—we should just immediately drop to the ground and wait it out. Skeptical of this approach, I wanted some clarification. “So if we do that it can’t hurt us?” No, no. “Oh, he’ll trample you alright. You’ll come away injured, but at least no dead.” “Dead, Hannes?” With a Denise/Jurassic Park-style swiping motion that Anna and I had by now come to fear, Hannes replied “Oh yeah, they kick forward like a Kangaroo with that front leg and they’ll open you up right through here with that big toenail of theirs;” and then he traced a line with his finger from just below his neck down to his belly button. “They’ll gut you on the spot.”

You know, I really had no idea. Every single person we’ve spoken with in the last few days has seriously warned us about the danger of ostriches. Our friend Mari Urtel even told us that the ostriches are so dangerous and feared in the community that the farmers deliberately place them in different parts of their farms to scare off would-be sheep thieves. That would have been good to know before we started “exploring” the farmlands around here. I honestly think that Anna and I came out on top in this whole ostrich attack though. For one thing, since it was a legitimately dangerous situation it sounds like we were lucky to get out of there unhurt and that we need to be a bit more careful gallivanting around in the veld from now on. Overall, though, we’re still alive; and—since Anna was daring enough to steal one of the ostrich’s feathers (which got stuck on the fence) right out from under its nose—we even have a little souvenir from the harrowing tale.

My sophomore year at Yale I had to write a history paper about a guy named Sir George Robertson, some badass British imperial soldier who I’m sure hopped a barbed wire fence or two in his day. In the 1890s Robertson, finding himself and his troops somewhere they shouldn’t have been, got stuck in an old fort at a mountain pass called Chitral in northwestern British India (which would be modern Pakistan) as hordes of pissed off Pashtun tribesmen laid siege to him and his small detachment. Writing during the 25-day siege in his diary about his frustration with not knowing where enemy troops were in the buildings surrounding the fort, Robertson commented, “it is a pity one cannot know exactly what is behind a big stone wall, without going round to see.” I don’t know how many ostriches there are in Pakistan, but Anna and I were in another former frontier of the Empire, there was a wall (or two), and we certainly went round to see. Both we and Robertson escaped unharmed from our respective predicaments but, as things turned out, Anna and I didn’t need 15,000 soldiers to hike out here from Calcutta and come bail us out. In your face, George.

Ostrich Attack Matrix
Helpful acronym in case of attack:
--- O.S.T.R.I.C.H. ---
Only Stop To Retrieve Intestines Carefully and with both Hands

Situation: | Appropriate Response:

Ostrich AT DISTANCE | - Remove article of clothing to throw over ostrich’s head
- Acquire “V-prong” stick which can hook the ostrich around its neck and hold it at a distance.

Ostrich UP CLOSE | - Lie down on ground and cover head; Ostrich will try to trample you but its most dangerous asset—the toenails and powerful, sweeping forward kicks that send them towards you—will be neutralized.

More to come soon.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"The World's Best Developed Desert" - Richmond and the Karoo

Just some cool pictures we've taken of Richmond, so you have an idea of what things look like out here.

Karoo Scenery: the little sandstone mountain caps are called "kops" or "koppes." There are some cool (probably half-true) stories about outnumbered British soldiers setting up shop on these strategic vantage points to fend off overwhelming odds in the 19th century wars against native Africans and then, later on, the Dutch-origin Boer commandos.

Richmond from distance (notice, if you look closely, "our Hollywood" in the shadows on the hillside)

A Karoo Scene: bramble in the foreground; Windmills are big here (shoutout to the original settlers of the Karoo, Boer farmers with Dutch heritage?), and used as the primary means of pumping water on most of the farms I've seen.

Typical Richmond street: sleepy and quiet; we're told it gets really nice and green here in the summer (November-Feb/March). It is a semi-desert though, so we're not holding our breath.

"Downtown" Richmond, Loop Street; Driesfontein Retirement Home is in the foreground on the right, directly next door to our house on Loop Street (Loopstraat). While practicing guitar on our front porch, an old lady on her way home asked if I would come play for all the old folks sometime. I said I might be able to, once I get a bit better at playing. I've since realized they have cable TV there so, Hilda, put me down for 3 o'clock next Tuesday.

Richmond Signs: The "Drankwinkel" is not only an awesome word for liquor store but also the busiest shop in town; Guest Houses are big business here; you already know how I feel about the prison; I have no idea what Groenvlei means; and the arrow to the airport refers to a dirt landing strip out thatta way in the middle of the desert (Anna and I have run out there...don't plan on flying in to visit anytime soon).

Another epic sunset in the Karoo

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gangster's Paradise

First, a few pics of what we've been up to.

Here is one of our Skillz placards set up before an intervention at the high school (for this activity, "Team Talk," kids are read a statement about healthy behavior or decisions relevant to HIV/AIDS and, based on their stance on the issue, they either run to agree or disagree; e.g. "I would be willing to take an HIV test")

And, second, a photo of Saddam doing what he does best (besides shredding goal nets and breaking defenders' ankles as the All Stars star striker), leading a discussion during one of the interventions.

Anna and I currently have the pleasure of a visit from some GRS higher-ups, Zak Kaufman (a recent Dartmouth grad who does all of of Grassroot Soccer's Monitoring and Evaluation) and Derek Daniels, a black South African who is one of GRS’ master coaches now, meaning he is in charge of training new coaches and making sure existing programs are chugging along. They’re here to check in on how things are going in Richmond and bring a wider GRS strategic perspective to our little paradise here in Richmond. And that, friends, is why this post is titled Gangster’s Paradise. Just kidding. This is why:

This morning me, Anna, Derek and Zak were walking from our house to Richmond Höerskool (the one high school in Richmond…henceforth referred to as Richmond High) for an early-morning intervention (GRS-speak for one of the HIV/AIDS education sport practices; the full curriculum is made up of 8 sequential interventions, each 45 minutes long). Our route takes us down a long, straight paved road which passes the police station, goes over a bridge, comes alongside the “prison” (quotation marks to be explained soon) and arrives at Richmond High. We were walking next to the “prison,” about 100 yards away from the high school, when six (SIX) police trucks (they don’t have squad cars here, they roll in trucks with the back bed covered and tricked out with barred windows and outward-locking doors so it can hold people they detain) and two unmarked police cars flew past us down the road, parked in formation outside the high school, and emptied 15 police officers, who swarmed out towards the main entrance of RHS.

We need to reflect on this for a second, because you have to realize that in the course of a day Anna and I might see five cars in Richmond, one of which may be a police truck. The fact that screaming past us came what must have been the Richmond Police Department’s entire vehicle fleet and every officer in its employ, including the police chief Marius and vice-chief Roy (we’re on a first name basis…), is NOT within the ordinary. As any of you who have been reading this blog with any measure of consistency will surely know, Richmond is a very small, very quiet place. My first reaction to seeing this assault force cruise past us was that we were either witnessing a joint operation by every town in a 100 mile radius, or that they found Osama.

Neither was the case. But it was EVERY SINGLE active officer from the RPD (if only the town’s goat bandits and tractor thieves had known about the operation!). As we approached the high school I went over to vice-chief Roy and—as I saw the 15 officers fan out in three squads of 5 to cover all the exits of the school--asked if it was safe (and chuckled inside my head as I asked such a ridiculous question) to go in there for our HIV education session. Roy, looking up at me from a game on his cell phone, told me that it was a simple search of the premises. He said that there had been a fight recently between two groups of teenage boys [Ha, we actually already knew about this since it happened at the community center and we had to break it up…Your move, South African Criminal Intelligence Agency] and it was enough of a cause for concern that they wanted to check the school for weapons and drugs. Smiling, Roy said, “We can’t have this place turning into a Gangster’s Paradise.”

Paradise, huh? Gauteng Province, the region which contains Johannessburg and its notorious Soweto township, is lovingly referred to by many South Africans as "Gangster’s Paradise" because vehicle license plates from the region all read “GP XXXXXXX.” But that Richmond would ever take on the title is laughable, even when our little town is at its worst. And, just as a policeman with a specially-trained drug-sniffing dog piled out of one of the trucks and made for the school, we were waved along past the secretary’s office.

We went to check on the classroom in which we were supposed to be working and, as we arrived, saw that each class was being escorted out to the main courtyard. As we got to Grade 8, section C’s Life Orientation class they were filing out with an officer, heading in the other direction. Not wanting to interfere with whatever was going on, the 4 of us outsiders just stayed put in a smaller courtyard on the other side of the school.

Although by now we were a physical ways away from whatever was going on, we were still well within earshot. So it was with a significant measure of surprise that, while sitting there, we heard literally nothing. 5 minutes passed in silence as we wondered what could be happening. Finally, we heard a piercing cheer erupt from the center of the school’s campus and, with that, had to go check it out. Zak led us around a few of the portable classrooms towards the sound of the commotion and, as we rounded a final corner, I saw what must have been one of the most bizarre scenes in the history of school-based police surprise attacks.

I'm going to reserve analysis, and just call it like I saw it. We round the last portable and our path opens into the school’s main central courtyard. There the ENTIRE school (hundreds of people: students, teachers, administrators) as well as all the police were arranged in a large, thick circle surrounding something we could not yet see but which was clearly the center of attention. We were able to climb up onto a ramp and the altitude gain allowed us to see what everyone was looking at. I knew that something seemed strange when we first saw all the kids in the courtyard, and at that point I realized it was because none of them had their backpacks. Where were the backpacks, you ask? Why, right in front of us, in the middle of the courtyard. There every single bag and backpack—a rainbow of makes, models, colors, sizes, etc.—had been arranged into 6 long, neat rows. Sweeping the rows was the specially-trained officer and his sniffer dog. This process was actually one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, as the officer was giving clear hand signal and whistle instructions to the dog during the sweep, and the dog seemed to be carrying out the instructions exactly as ordered. Every so often the dog, a cute white and black collie, would identify a bag of interest and start sniffing around its zippers and straps. A slow-building tumult could be heard rising from the students: "whaaooooaaa..." Then, every so often, the dog would decide the bag was worth pursuing further and—literally—tear into it and start wildly ravaging it in front of everyone. The apprehensive and expectant sigh which had been building gradually would, once it became clear the dog was really gonna go for it, then be freed and eventually erupt into a huge cheer ("wahhh...waooohhh...WAAOOOOH...WHAOOOAAAAAHHHH!!!!") from either the girls or boys depending on from which sex the bag's owner hailed. After 10 or 15 minutes of this, multiple raucous cheers from both sides (I think the score at the time was Boys – 3 Drug Scares, Girls – 2 Drug Scares) and several sweeps through the piles of bags, a few of the bags which had been especially identified by the dog were pulled aside and their owners identified. We couldn’t see exactly what happened at that point, but it looked like the bags were being searched. At that point the entire assault operation was proven worthwhile as, yes, a little girl's bag was revealed to contain Advil and she broke down in tears in front of everybody, probably just from the inherent stress of the situation, before being let go. [ed: Roy later told me that they also found a bag of the marijuana on one of the kids, thus clearly making the raid and hours of lost education totally worth it]

With their release, the K9 Cop gave a nod and the whole school massed around the little collie to watch it do tricks. A school bell rang and three hundred kids swarmed the piles of bags to find their own, and proceeded back to whichever classes they were supposed to be in. What struck me the most was that as the crowd dispersed—with teachers heading to their classrooms, students to a 10 minute break, police back to their jobs—everybody was smiling, laughing. The cops and teachers were joking around, all the kids were in high spirits. And everybody went back to their business.

This experience added to a perception I’ve been forming about life in Richmond where, as best as I can tell, there really isn’t ANY crime. But--and here’s the key--there are still crime-related processes that have to occur. The best way I can describe it is that Richmond has this “wink, wink” relationship with crime. For example, we have a prison, with prisoners dressed in orange prisoner outfits, who committed crimes. But here in Richmond they mockingly call the prison the “Holiday Inn” and the prisoners rock out to Whitney Houston songs in a fenced-in courtyard which has a gate that barely locks (I was at the prison for a meeting and, when I tried to leave and none of the guards were around to let me out, I just did the old reach-around through the fence to the outside, unhitched the latch, took a deep breath of fresh air--free man's air--and made my escape into the morning sunshine). Seriously, I think our prisoners are basically low-level offenders who are spending at most a year or two in jail. Yet Anna and I were still surprised the first few weeks to see them walking the streets of town, totally unsupervised, going about little community service projects (trash clean-up, manual labor, etc.) to which they’d been assigned. The rationale, dictated to us by Saddam, is that these guys have pretty small sentences (most are only in for a few months) and there’s just no logical point for them to try to escape. Most of the guys are from Richmond and really have nowhere else to go, so they’re better off just serving out their time, following the rules, and enjoying the sweet privileges they get around town. I guess at first glance it just really seems like a very different and strange approach to crime. But I’m not complaining, since we got 8 prisoners to come help us with the back-breaking labor of digging a huge trench for the community center garden by literally taking pickaxes and hacking into concrete-hard dirt for 3 long, awful days.

So that was my one other observation before seeing the drug and weapons search today. At the high school, it seemed like it was this whole “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” thing where the cops would come into the school in attack formation and full combat attire, have their dog bark at some bags, make a girl cry, allow the kids to cheer and treat it like a big joke, and then actually have everybody joke about it afterwards as they went along their merry ways. And I think a big part of this is the fact that, like I said, there really is very little actual crime in Richmond, but the town still has police departments and prisons and people with jobs and fancy police trucks and drug sniffing dogs whose existence is fueled by the veneer that some reasonable amount of crime other than minor in possesesion of medicine exists.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just a bit naive and still in bright-eyed tourist mode where everything seems new and exotic and, in fact, this is not that different from how low-level crime management works in the USA. Even if I’m totally wrong, I'll just defer to my friend and fellow GRS intern Karti Subramanian, who recently wrote from his site in Musina, South Africa, “Hey, I'm blogging, I can say what I want."

Okay, just thought I would share that experience.

Monday, September 7, 2009

GRS Interns

Here is all 26 of us, back when we visited the GRS field in the Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town.

Me and Anna

Now that I've figured out how to put in pictures, here's one of me, Anna and Gerhardt Engelbrecht (Engellllllllburrrrrrecccchhhhhhhhht), one of the local Rotary sponsors of Grassroot Soccer projects in the Northern Cape. In the background is the community center garden, one of Saddam and my baby projects. Growing stuff in the desert ain't easy!

Richmond Stadium

As my dad would say, "She's a 'beaut!"

The Richmond Cup and High School Memories

From the most recent edition of "RICHMONDNUUS," our local newsletter, sold for 25 cents at Percy's Grocery Store:

"Richmond Cup 2009: Coach Mandla Vilakazi of All Stars is confident that his side will win the Richmond cup on the 4th and 5th of September 2009. Despite poor performances against Wonderboom Young Tigers, where they lost home and away. Wonderboom beat All Stars 2-1 at Richmond and 1-0 at Wonderboom. "I am confident my side will win the cup. The last game against Wonderboom we were unlucky because we lost a lot of clear chances due tot he lack of discipline and commitment form some of my players. The problem has been solved and my players are ready for the tournament" said coach Mandla. The tournament will be held here at Richmond, which will include netball as well. It is supported by Richmond Councillor Ms. Lorna Adams, and it is planned to be a BIG event!!"

So this past weekend was the Richmond Super Cup, featuring 5 teams: 4 from Richmond (All Stars, Celtic, Leeds United and Chiefs) and the hated Wonderboom Farm Young Tigers. As I've learned more about the town's soccer politics, I've found that All Stars and Wonderboom have a bit of a rivalry going back quite a while. Wonderboom is this massive sheep farm about 45 minutes outside of Richmond on a dirt farm road; most of the guys who work on the farm also live there with their families. There are enough workers out there that they can field a fantastic team which wears brand new, fancy maroon Nike jerseys with the patronage of the wealthy farm owner (who, though I've never met the man, I like to think of as Mr. Wonderboom, if only for the mental image that it conjures). The All Stars, on the other hand, are a grittier, urban (or as urban as you can get in a place like Richmond) team with hand-me-down jerseys of a variety of colors, makes and models. We have a coach, and he's this crazy, washed-up former pro who is now a construction contract manager but still seeks to relive the glory days of yore. Depending on who and when you ask, it seems people go back and forth between who the best local team is: All Stars or Wonderboom.

All this All Stars vs. Wonderboom rivalry talk takes me back to my high school soccer days, playing at ol' Ballard High in Seattle. Back then there was a significant Urban Seattle vs. Suburban Seattle soccer rivalry raging. Seattle's top high school soccer division, in which Ballard played, had 10 teams in it, 6 of which were located in the wealtheir suburbs. Even in our best season during my tenure, we took something like 6th or 7th place. One of the problems was that we always had to play against these rich, suburban high schools with names like Redmond High, Woodinville High, Lake Washington High, etc. These high schools and the neighborhoods around them, located in the Eastlake suburbs, were the kind of places that the kids of Microsoft folks went. They played on elite, expensive club teams and usually destroyed cute, urban Ballard. That was one side of the suburban teams. After you get thrashed enough, you start creating a fictitious mental narrative of your assailants. Eventually, I set upon an agricultural narrative to explain Ballard's poor fortunes. You see, I told myself, once you get east of Lake Washington, out in the suburbs, that there's farm country (well, all that land in between the mansions, that is). I could close my eyes and get this picture of monstrous farm boys who rose in the morning with the roosters to bail hay, drove tractors to school, and THEN went to their elite club team practices, stowing their spades on the sidelines. So, regardless of its factual accuracy, that was the story I set upon. And, I'm telling you, some of those eastlake guys really did work on farms. And some of them were HUGE.

This is the psychologically traumatic history I brought to the All Stars/Wonderboom rivalry, a relationship with some actual urban/rural grudges (or, more accurately, rural/really rural grudges). That's not to say that the Wonderboom Farm has anything to do with suburban Seattle, but it's just worth pointing out that as the Richmond Cup got underway my weird old high school delusions came flying right back at me. And Wonderboom's captain is seriously this MASSIVE farm boss named Shakes; think of a 6 foot 4 inch black guy built of solid muscle and you get a feeling for the type of man we were dealing with.

It's first necessary to say that I injured my groin on Wednesday in the Police vs. Teachers community benefit game (they had Anna and I playing for the teachers, since we work in the school). So I wasn't playing this weekend, but when we showed up on Saturday morning at the dusty Khaya field in the black part of town things were not going well. In the group stage of the tournament, All Stars drew Wonderboom for their first match and, when we arrived halfway into the game, All Stars were losing 2-1. Wait, make that a 3-1 blowout and a terrible start to the tournament. Wonderboom and All Stars were the far-and-away favorites to meet in the finals since the other Richmond teams are more-or-less considered "just for fun" enterprises. So it was with great confidence that All Stars went into their second game (out of four in the group stage) against Leeds. A 3-1 catastrophic defeat left us aghast and Coach Mandla screaming out the window of the cab as he carted the team, loaded entirely into the back of his pickup truck, to the convenience store to load up on some needed Gatorade and dignity.

At this point All Stars had to win its final two games to have any chance of advancing to the semi-finals. The third game of the day was against Celtic, and we scraped out a 2-1 win to stay alive. Our final game saw us face Chiefs; when I asked assistant coach Sticka how he thought it would go he promised a victory, stating that "All Stars haven't lost to Chiefs since 2005. How can we lose?" A 5-1 win saw Sticka vindicated and All Stars through to the knockout-round semis on Sunday morning. Against whom? Ah, against Wonderboom Farm.

I woke up early Sunday and ate a big breakfast hoping my groin might be playable for the semi-final game against our despised rivals. The two semis and the final were to be played in the Richmond stadium at the community center, and I suited up in the team kit but--after trying to warm up--realized it would be stupid to play on it and risk getting hurt even worse. I told Mandla about the situation and he said he understood, but to stay ready just in case. African soccer teams around here have the AWESOME tradition of leaving the designated field well before the start of their game, preparing, talking and warming up elsewhere, and then arriving just barely on time in a big show as they dance and sing their way onto the field in front of the assembled crowd. Someone told me that all the gusto is to show how coordinated and together the team is even before they've touched a soccer ball. Regardless, even as a big, uncoordinated, talentless white guy it was a joy to be a part of our entrance show. The game started poorly enough. Shakes, the massive Wonderboom captain, rocketed a free kick from 40 yards out straight into the upper corner of the goal to give the Young Tigers a 1-0 lead within the first 20 minutes of the game. A fortuitous header gave All Stars a goal and a tie game going into halftime. Nearing the end of the second half Masinga, the All Stars center back, laid into a corner kick that bent and dipped magically into the far side of the goal and gave us the lead. A stout Wonderboom attack kept things interesting but before any disasters the ref thankfully blew the whistle, and we'd (finally) beaten Wonderboom. The home-town Richmond crowd went wild, and Wonderboom's normally-annoyingly loud shrieking fans were refreshingly quiet.

The final saw All Stars play Leeds, the cinderella pick of the tournament after beating Wonderboom on Saturday and knocking off Celtic in a high-strung 17-kick penalty shootout earlier that day in the other semi-final match. Despite ridiculous refereeing which left a lot to be wondered about the biases of the official, All Stars led 2-1 with 10 minutes left in the Championship Match and light fading quickly as the end of the day neared. Just then, and with all our reserve players except me in the match plugging holes left by injuries throughout the 2-day affair, one of our center backs went down screaming after a bad tackle and had to be helped off the field. Mandla and Sticka approached me asking if there was any way I could go in so we could finish out the game with 11 men. Defying my better judgment, I agreed to hobble on with my injured groin and positioned myself squarely in the middle of our half of the field, like a motionless defensive emplacement planted there to protect some river mouth. In my 10 minutes of hobbling around I managed to get myself to one stray ball and launch it in the other direction, getting not only a few minutes but also a touch in the championship match. With the match time and light fading, Leeds received one last free kick just outside our goal area. Piso, the All Stars keeper, had to scream to the other end of the field for the assorted cars to cut their lights since, by then with darkness entirely fallen, the light was in his eyes and blinding him at this critical moment. The Leeds player somehow made strong contact with the ball despite the dark, but Piso parried the ball up and over the crossbar just as the referee, mercifully, blew his whistle for full time. The All Stars had won the Richmond Cup in a disjointed, though definitely enjoyable fashion; it killed me I couldn't actually play in the tournament, but making an appearance on field in the final was awesome.

And the RICHMONDNUUS prediction by Mandla? All the beloved coach would say at the end of the tournament was, "I told you so."