A Day of Competition

Today seemed like most days. Little did I know what it would turn out to be. It began at school telling my 120 students their grades. It was one of the harder tasks I’ve had. No one was happy with their grades (I had one student get above a 90) yet the other teachers were amazed at how many students passed my class (About 85 of 120). I padded the hell out of their grades with completion assignments. I was sitting in a field surrounded by children shouting their numbers for me to tell them their grade. I felt awful saying Askenesh you got a 43. I didn’t feel too bad about the kids who failed, they had plenty of opportunities to pass. But, it’s one thing to be at home writing on a grade sheet not feeling bad and another to look into a kids eyes and say you failed. Students had started to peter out when a student, not mine, comes over and says come play volleyball.

Hmm, odd I thought it was about noon, normally volleyball doesn’t start until 4 because it’s too hot. Whatever, I head over to the government office field, adjacent to the school and see a horde of people gathered. Odd again I thought. There are fans dangling on trees and a rope around the court to keep people out. I’d estimate 200 people. I look to see who’s playing and it clicks. The teachers had mentioned a volleyball tournament with our woreda (county), this is it. The Afan Oromo teacher, Adamu,  spots me and shouts for me to come over. I make my way through the crowd and quickly get subbed in.

I should mention here that for the past two months I have played volleyball every day for two to three hours. My knees are eternally aching but I have nonetheless improved by leaps and bounds. I would even say I am decent at volleyball now. Being 6’3 sure helps. I went from not having the ability to spike the ball to being able to place my fastballs where I want, for the most part. I’m not amazing, but decent. I’m also the only teacher who can spike the ball downwards, they simply aren’t tall enough.

As I walk onto the field the crowd roars. I get goosebumps. Playing baseball we would have the occasional crowd, but baseball is on a huge field and the onlookers are separated by a fence. No such barriers here, in fact, there were two designated people with sticks to swat at people encroaching on the field. It’s the teachers and students of Lalo vs Lalo “Youth.” I say “Youth” because that was the term meant for citizens of Lalo who are awesome at volleyball. There’s zero correlation with age, their youngest player is 25.

Lalo is known for our prowess at volleyball. I mentioned the teachers skill and physical limitations, they play together at the school every day. About 50 yards away separated by barbed wire is the government volleyball field, anyone and everyone can play there, only caveat is you better be f—ing good at volleyball. These guys hit fireballs that are all but impossible to dig unless it bounces off your chest, if you do manage to block them you are left with an aching welt on your forearms the next day. These guys, Negib, Mosisa, Zertihun and Namee, could all dunk a basketball with ease despite being around 6 feet tall. They are blessed with athleticism and long arms. Negib in particular is incredible, he represent my region, Oromia, in the country wide volleyball tournament, he is a local celebrity.

As I hear the the crowd roar I look at these familiar foes and realize our doom. Oh well, let’s have a good time. We our already down 10-4 in the first game of a best to 5. I start out in the back row, dig a few serves and flail in vain at a couple spikes from the other team. I rotate to the front and the crowd starts cheering “Johni, Johni, Johni”. Because of the courts proximity to the school there are a plethora of students, my students. I get my first set at a spike and hit it square and with power, right into Namee’s hulking wingspan. Son of a bitch. I was too caught up in the moment to begin to think about placing my spikes. The next point I get another opportunity, and  pound it across and straight down, a perfect set from the Chemistry teacher Adossa. The crowd erupts, I feel all tingly inside and holler a primordial “WHOOOO,” Rick Flair would have been proud. That has been my trademark here when I have a good spike, Laloians think it’s hilarious. The crowd belches out a “WHOO, WHOO, WHOOO” over and over again. I have an ear to ear grin, engulfed with joy. I start raising my arms to pump up the crowd, they are confused, then I say “Whoo” again and they get it. I get some momentum going and have a few more spikes and a block. Each time I get a kill the crowd bursts into a “WHOOO.” I am on top of the world. We lost that game 25-16. The next game the Lalo “Youth” positioned Negib on the same rotation as me. Shit. I got blocked my first two spikes, then tried to avoid losing the game for our team. We almost won, blowing a 24-22 lead, losing 26-24. The crowd teetering with every point, clearly rooting for Lalo Secondary School. The last game I started out strong getting an impossible dig by getting lucky, the spike by Mosisa bounced off my thigh to one of my teammates. The fans cheering as if it was a skillful play. I rotate to the front row and we are tied 4 to 4. We serve and there is a bad dig from the “Youth” towards the net. There is, what I just learned, is called a joust. When the ball is straight over the net and a player from each team meet at the ball trying to push it to the opposing side. Negib and I both go up for it. As most of you know I’m not the strongest fellow in the world. Against someone like Negib I lose most jousts. Not this one. I shout a “WHOOOO” but it’s inaudible, my students have already beat me to it. It was all downhill from there. We lost that game 25-15. I have never experienced anything like it. I was gushing sweat, utterly defeated but I didn’t want it to stop. I walked home tired, hungry and happy.

Coming off my high at noon I returned to school to turn in my final grades. While there Kamal the school director said there was a soccer game between Gordomo (The town over) and the Lalo teachers and students. I was doing nothing else. I head out to the soccer stadium. The stadium is about a 20 minute walk from town. Lalo is on a small hill, the soccer field is located in a small valley outside of town. The field is in a magnificent location, a full sized soccer pitch carved out of the palm trees and sugar cane fields of the Lalo outskirts. Suburban rainforest.

The soccer field is full sized and complete with lines sculpted into the ground. Nets are nailed into logs for an appropriate sized goal and every game has a referee and two assistant referees. I hang out with the teachers watching, I have no place in a soccer game. The complex has amenities too. Makeshift coffee places are set up with thermos’. There are small children with small igloo coolers shouting “Jala Jala Jala.” They are selling popsicles for 1 birr (5 cents) each. i think the children enjoyed as many popsicles as they sold. Lastly there are farmers selling their recent crop of sugar cane, a treat to chew on in Lalo. Trying to eat sugar cane with nothing but your teeth is an art I haven’t mastered yet. The outside stalk to a sugar cane is quite durable and Laloians rip it to shreds with their molars. I struggle, now my teacher friends will buy me sugar cane just to watch the fiasco that is me trying to eat it.

The game was eventful. About 10 minutes into the game there was a stoppage. Not for a foul or substitution but because some kids had knocked down a beehive that was swarming. People were fleeing onto the field. Lalo Secondary School appeared to take the lead 25 minutes in. A header from a corner kick. Children, men and women swarmed to the field tackling Kifle the goal scorer. It was waved off, a handball was called. At halftime the score was 0-0. For snack instead of orange slices and Capri Suns they got stalks of sugarcane and sugarcane water. 5 minutes into the 2nd half a Gordomo player took a weak shot on goal. The ground is uneven so it skipped up and hit the Lalo goalie in the chest. The goalie pounced down trying to corral the ball. As he was corralling the ball the Gordomo player careened into him. The Lalo goalie is laying flat on his back and the ball rockets into the air. It falls down right in front of the goal line. The Gordomo player, on his hands and knees caresses the ball into the net. This sure looked like a foul to me, and to all of the Laloians there. After a tumultuous call earlier the crowd had had enough. Chaos ensues. The referee is swarmed but not swayed. The call stands – Gordomo 1, Lalo 0. The referee is running around, I’m not sure if he knew to where. He is followed by a parade of pissed off Laloians. Then the police step in along with the guys with whips. This may sound rough but it’s not. Just to ensure order. Everyone disburses. Lalo refuses to continue the game. Everyone goes home with angry words under their breath. The Gordomo contigent celebrates in adulation.

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