Football!

In Zambia, as in most of the world, the game known as “football” is what we call soccer in America, and it is definitely the most popular sport around. Zambia’s national team is “Chipolopolo,” which means “copper bullet,” and from what I can tell, they usually play decently. Any day that there’s a game, you can be sure that everyone will be wearing their Chipolopolo jerseys and sporting their Chipolopolo scarves and knit caps, even when it’s almost 100 degrees out. Team spirit is much more important than personal comfort. In town, all of the bars or restaurants with a television will be packed, and here in the rural villages everyone gathers at households with a radio. Stores will close, people will pack up their market tables, and cows and goats will be left unattended. Everything just takes a bit of a break during the game.

As you might expect, though, the real fun comes from actually playing football. There are official league games between schools, there are organized games between the villages in my area, there are pick-up games that all the young men play in a nearby maize field, and there are the endless skirmishes in our yard between all the village kids. Many days I’ll be sitting in my house, and I’ll hear a kid, who speaks hardly any English, triumphantly shout “Four to Zero! I win!” Then of course a new game starts right up.

Several of the kids, the older boys especially, seem to do nothing with their spare time except playing football. They get home from school, rush through their chores, then spend the next several, very hot, hours playing, until it eventually gets too dark to see.

What fascinates me, though, is what they play with. The more official, organized games use a raggedy old ball, which is pretty much what I expected. The kids, though, will make a ball out of nearly anything. They will stuff a plastic bag full of trash and play with that. They will wad old cloth scraps together. They will tie a holey mealie-meal sack (think woven plastic feed bag) into a ball using bark-fiber twine. I am constantly amazed at the ingenuity that goes into making a ball out of trash, though I must admit that my favorite part is watching emergency in-game ball repairs. Everyone crowds around and tries to help re-stuff or re-tie whatever had come undone, then there’s a scuffle for who gets the ball, and the game’s back on. I’ve seen some pretty sneaky goals get scored when half the kids didn’t realize the ball was back in play already.

In the last month, though, all that has changed. My mother found online something called “One World Futbol Project,” which has developed a puncture-proof soccerball. With a donation to their project, they will send one superball to you, and one to a village where they are based, somewhere in South America. So, a few weeks ago I got a care package from home, and inside was a superball.

This ball is regulation size and weight, but it is made out of thick, rubbery plastic that is rigid enough to hold its shape and act inflated (e.g. bounce), even though the ball isn’t airtight. I guess it’s not truly puncture-proof, but punctures just don’t make a bit of difference. As was well tested on the first day I brought it out, when one of the kids accidentally kicked it into a pile of very thorny acacia branches. We had to pick the spikes out, but the ball was unharmed.

Now, instead of using trash balls, the kids will spend hours each day playing with the “big ball.” At this point, I estimate that the ball has seen over 100 hours of rough playing time. It is starting to show some signs of wear, but it still works just as well as when I first brought it out. Eventually I think the kids will have to go back to their more creative balls, but they have sure gotten a lot of enjoyment out of playing with a real ball. I just hope that when it finally does wear out they haven’t forgotten how to tie knots in bark-fiber twine!