Football (aka soccer to us silly Americans who can’t name sports as obviously as the rest of the world) is huge in Senegal, like most African countries. Essentially only boys and men play soccer though, so whenever I say I played football (and basketball) in the States most people are very surprised. I told the guys that I wanted to play football with them when Ramadan ended and they started playing football again. A couple of days after Korite I saw several guys kicking a football around next to the well, so I quickly ran back and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. When I was coming out of my compound the guys were heading off to the football field, so I joined them (and Cora and Teresa came to watch). We had a nice warm-up and team stretch before playing. Tons of the younger boys in the village (ages 8-14 probably) were there watching and kicking a smaller ball on the sidelines – older football players elicit the same respect and admiration from younger players in Senegal as they do in the States.
Very few girls play soccer in Senegal – in fact more girls actually play basketball than soccer. Knowing the rarity of basketball courts, there must be very few girls that play soccer. This means it is very possible that I was the first girl the guys in my village had ever played soccer with. That just kind of blows me away. Apparently playing football is not only a great way for me to have fun, stay in shape, and get to know people, but also a way for me to share about American culture and do SeneGAD work (Senegal Gender and Development – this is Peace Corps Senegal’s gender awareness/empowerment/development group). (Many PCVs – including me! [or so I hope anyway] – do SeneGAD work as secondary projects.)
I can’t talk about football without writing a quick about our field. It is mostly pure (though relatively hard-packed) sand with a few weeds fighting through. There are no lines on the field – peanut plants and other weeds and trees mark the exterior lines. There is a big mango tree just outside the left corner of what would be the goal-keeper’s box (if there were lines), which clearly acts as a relatively large hazard though the guys have gotten surprisingly good at working around it or using it as a teammate/wall for personal give-and-go’s or rebounding a pass around a defender. The goals are metal poles with a string across the top; there is no net – the boys watching do a decent job of retrieving the ball after a shot, and the ball can’t usually go far because of the vegetation around the field.
The second time I played football with the guys we did some drills and sprints before we scrimmaged – the head coach for the team was there this time leading “practice.” I can actually hold my own with most of the guys, which makes me feel really good about myself (seeing as I haven’t played competitive soccer in 6 years), though I was not used to having to do sprints, especially in the sand. At least I have good tennis shoes to wear. The main starters on the team have cleats but most of the guys wear specific clear plastic sandals (I’ll try to remember to get a picture of them sometime to post) or crappy tennis shoes. A few of the guys were even playing barefoot. Anyway, about 15 minutes into our scrimmage the sky became really dark and we could see lightening far off in the distance. Storms here in Senegal move fast so I knew it was going to rain soon. No one seemed too concerned, so I didn’t worry. It’s not like I haven’t played football in the rain before. Sure enough, about 5 minutes later is started sprinkingly. We all just kept playing. The coach, though, called to me: “Soxna! Dafay taw!” (It’s raining!) I responded: “Waaw! Amul solo.” (Yes! It’s not important.) Like I said earlier, it’s not like I haven’t played football in the rain before. And it felt amazing to have the cool rain pouring down rather than the scorching sun. We continued to play for probably a good 20 minutes, but by this point the field was so full of puddles and sticky sand that it was getting very challenging to make even a simple pass so the coach called it quits. We did a quick cool-down jog and stretch and then headed home. When I got back to my compound, there were several young boys sitting in the small covered common space that all of our rooms open onto along with my siblings and parents. The boys had been watching the scrimmage and had just stopped at my house (since it’s the closest one to the field) to wait out the rain. Everyone was really surprised to see me come back soaking wet and covered in sand from the field – it is much more unusual for a girl to be like “just one of the guys” in Senegal than it is in the States.
All this practicing hasn’t just been for fun, though. The TawaFall (my village) football team has played several games against other villages. Cora, Teresa, and I have gone to 2 of them. These games are quite the experience (like most things in Senegal I suppose). The team typically leaves the village around 3:30 in the afternoon in a big Alham. (I mentioned these vehicles before – they’re big white vans with tons of seats in them that are, in general, really noisy and rickety.) The Alham drops them off at the field and then comes back to pick up the fans. (The driver of the Alham is, by the way, one of the coaches, and Teresa’s uncle – very convenient for him, the team, the village, and us.) Everyone then packs into the Alham. Essentially all the fans are the kids in the village (ranging from babies and their young mothers to guys in their early twenties). Adult men also go, too, but from my observation they seem to find their own way there. Everyone, especially the women, are dressed up in nice clothes – which involves the more traditional outfits for the girls typically, though some have worn jeans, and nice jeans and t-shirts for the guys. The ride to the field involves a lot of singing/cheering (this is mainly the women’s job – since they can’t play, they have developed very elaborate cheering and dancing skills), clapping, and dust (it wouldn’t be Senegal without dust). At the field everyone pays the small fee to get in to watch the game. The field is decent – much bigger than the TawaFall field and with significantly more weeds though still mostly sand. Cora, Teresa, and I have opted out of the option to stand and dance and sing and cheer with the girls and women all game. It seems way too exhausting and would significantly limit our ability to actually watch the game. We’ve mostly stood with the other guys from TawaFall watching the game and chatted in our broken Wolof. The first game we saw no one scored, but the second game we were getting dominated quite a bit by the other team but had a really nice goal late in the first half which got everyone from TawaFall super riled up. It was sweet. No one scored in the second half, so we ended up winning – go TawaFall! :) All the women stayed near the well when we got back from the game to be there to cheer for the team when they got back from the field. As I’ve said, these games are quite the event.