This past weekend the time finally came for my wereda to play in the zonal (Ethiopia is divided into eleven regions, which are subdivided into 63 zones, which are further subdivided into 529 wereda) volleyball championship. I had been looking forward to this for quite some time. My town seemed extremely skilled at volleyball, but I have no frame of reference for their skill. My volleyball experience was going once a week to a recreational, church volleyball get together with my friend Tom. The level of competition in Lalo is a bit higher.
Now the timing for the tournament has been a mystery for some time. They have said oh it’s next week for the past month. But they swear to me it’s this weekend. On Saturday I head to Mettu, the zonal capital. It’s about 4 to 5 hours away by bus, and the largest city in the far western region of Oromia. It has two traffic circles and amenities such as ketchup and Borneos, fake Oreos.
I get to Mettu and realize I have no idea where the stadium is. I ask around and get sent in all sorts of different directions. Directions in Ethiopia are notoriously and frustratingly poor. If I ask an Ethiopian where something is, at best they’ll point in a direction and say over there and then I get a little bit closer to my destination. At worst they’ll point in a random direction, say over there then I find out 20 minutes later I’ve been walking in the wrong direction. I give up and go to the internet cafe. The internet cafe has 3 computers and on a good day the internet is awful. I hang out there for a few hours checking ESPN, NYtimes, etc. I talk to a guy there that says the competition begins tomorrow the stadium is right next to the bus station. Finally, solid information.
Tomorrow rolls around and I head towards the bus station. I find the stadium, it’s within yards of the bus station. Son of a bitch, I spent hours yesterday walking around Mettu and it was next to where I started. I say stadium but that’s a generous word. It’s a large swath of open dirt with seating made of tin metal for 100 people. Of course, along the outer edges is seven to eight places to sit and drink coffee. People are milling around, there are fresh chalk lines of a soccer field and two volleyball courts. A competition is brewing.
I’m in the right place. I grab some coffee and in strolls Negib and Neyim. The two best players from Lalo. They must have heard I was there (I had periodically seen people I knew) because they sat right down next to me and we start to chat. They then tell me to come join them. I go with them to a hotel a half mile away.
At the Mattu (Mettu is spelled many different ways, Mettu, Mattu, Metu and Mattu) Hotel. There I walk into a sanctuary on Laloians. Everyone is thrilled to see me and excited I came to join them, Eldana, Samwell, Negib, Neyim, Zetihuan and a lot of people whose names I have no clue. They hand me a yellow addis jersey and say let’s go. I quickly realize the Lalo contingent is going to the stadium. We walk down the middle of the street with an Ethiopian flag and an Oromia flag singing songs. I have no idea the words to the songs, but they’re cultural Oromo songs. It’s an incredible experience to be surrounded by 30 singing, chanting, dancing, adulated Oromos. There is one leader of the chant/song who is echoed with the subsequent verse by everyone else. All the weredas have a similar envoy from the hotel to the stadium.
One thing separates this contingent. A tall, white guy is sticking out. I chuckle at the people just walking down the sidewalks or going about their business who look at the group of people singing, parading down the middle of the street and do a double take. Lalo is the equivalent of a hillbilly town too. Some people there didn’t know where it was at all. I had people come up to me later who would ask where I lived and didn’t believe it was Lalo. Our contingent had roughly 30 people, most weredas had 60. We enter the stadium and there’s an entire opening ceremony. There are a couple hundred people watching and they call each team and everyone parades in front of the stands. The ceremony includes a wushu show. Wushu is a chinese dance/karate. It’s in the bigger towns in Ethiopia. There’s a lot of flipping, flaunting and fake fights complete with cartwheels, twirls and roundhouse kicks. The ceremony ends and the competition begins.
There are about 1000 people there watching the volleyball, and soccer. I catch the afternoon volleyball matches. The average Ethiopian male is 5’6, 5’7 by my estimate. Notably shorter than the average American. But, there is plenty of variance in the population. Looking at the volleyball teams made that evident. Most teams had a guy in the 6’5 range, most had multiple. Lalo’s tallest player is 5’11 on a good day. I’m starting to think maybe Lalo isn’t that great at volleyball, after all, I have no frame of reference. I watch the first two matches and even with the height advantage I’m not impressed by the play. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow, Monday to find out.
At this point I realize I’m going to have to miss school on Monday. I call my counterpart Geniti and, as I’ve stated in previous posts, he’s the best guy in the world. He says it’s no problem, in fact, I’ll just teach your classes. The games finish up and I head back to Mattu hotel. At the hotel everyone is hanging out. It reminds me of travel baseball tournaments as a kid. Going to far away places and enjoying the camaraderie at the hotel as much as the play on the field. Only in Mettu there’s a lot more chet being chewed.
About dinner time we’re all talking in front of the hotel, I see a foreigners’ face peak out of a gate. He has no qualms approaching me, well, no one really does. But, there’s a difference, this man speaks English. He asks if I want a drink, I oblige. I’m befuddled, Mettu while a town of size is still remote, foreigners are far from common. He’s the first non Peace Corps member foreigner I’ve ever seen. He introduces himself as Neyaz and says “You’re John, right?” Whoa. I had gone to a pharmacy a few weeks ago to buy deodorant and apparently told them my name. The pharmacy owner had asked Neyaz, who’s from India, if he knew me, because, you know, we’re both foreigners. As absurd as that may seem, Neyaz and I know each other know. If he comes upon the same circumstances he will say, sure I know John. Neyaz is around 5’0, looks more like he’s from Nepal than India with a bubbly personality. He’s an economics professor at Mettu University. Neyaz is long winded, and fast talking with intermittent spurts of giggles. We have a great back and forth and it was fascinating to get the perspective of a foreigner teaching University students. His students are what my students aspire to be. I’m surprised by the gap in our problems. His issues could be American, he says students on on their phones too much and not going to the library enough. I’m surprised by my reaction. It makes me happy. My problems while very different are much more logistical, students are late because they’re coming from so far away, they cannot understand me no matter how much I slow down. We do have one problem in common cheating. As we agreed, it’s ingrained in the culture here. By 9:00 I have to go eat dinner, he tells me to come by his house next time I’m in town for dinner, he’ll cook some Indian food for me. He asks me if I like injera. I don’t have much of a choice, injera is eaten with every meal. It is the staple food and literal utensil. He informs me he just cooks Indian food at home, I’m jealous. Next time I go to Mettu to Neyaz’s house I go.
I grab some food and return to the hotel. Before bed we get a pep talk from the coaches at the hotel. It was an hour long and I didn’t understand most of it but it sure seemed motivational. I do my best to sleep on the thin mattress in my $3 hotel room. We wake up, and head off to the stadium. The volleyball team is playing at 9:00. We get there at 8:30 and the first game is just starting. Looks like Lalo isn’t playing until 10:00. The team goes off to chew some chet and draw numbers on their jerseys. After spending the entire previous day in the sun I was sun burnt. Everyone was worried about me, they thought I was sick. Nope, just white people problems.
The game before finished up and Lalo is up. You may be wondering right about now why I wasn’t playing with them. I have stated I play volleyball everyday with these fellas, and, yes, I’m 6’3. My volleyball experience before coming here was slim at best. I couldn’t spike the ball. While I have no problem doing that now, I have had to build a lot of skill. These guys have played their entire lives and my height advantage is nullified by their jumping abilities. As of now I’m about as skilled as the worst guy on the team with less experience and without the language skills to talk strategy. I’m content to stand on the sidelines and cheer.
My goal is next year to play with them.
Back to the game. Lalo is up. The whole Lalo contingent is out in force, the entire soccer team is there as well as the ambulance which came packed with the high society of Lalo. Let’s hope no mothers go into labor in Lalo. Now it’s time to see if this rural bunch of guys are any good. Negib is 5’11, outside hitter, he has intimidating scares on his face, he is Lalo’s key to success and he has legitimate NBA athleticism. I do not say that lightly. I asked what his job is, Geniti said, he has none, then chuckled his job is volleyball. Samwell is a primary school teacher, 5’11, outside hitter. He has a slick afro, a sculpted body and is the 2nd best hitter on the team. Neyim, outside hitter, 5’10, he works at a restaurant. He is ripped. The muscles from his shoulder to neck look like an exponential growth line. He is also a lefty, a huge advantage in competitive volleyball, it allows a hitter on the right side to hit to both sides of the court with ease. Zertihuan, 5’10, outside hitter, he is the guard for the government offices. He is a swiss army knife. His hitting skill is significantly below the previous 3 mentioned outside hitters but he is a cerebral player. He knows his skill and doesn’t try to do too much. Khalid, setter, 5’7. He may be short but with his beard and constant scowl he is the most intimidating. He mostly keeps to himself, I don’t know a lot about Khalid. Noradin, 5’7, setter. He is pudgy but athletic. One of those guys who holds his weight with grace, aka Pablo Sandoval. Lalo jumps out to a 5-1 lead. It’s clear my suspicions regarding Lalo’s skill is true. The Lalo contingent watching on may have been small but they were loud, with a constant stream of Oromo songs. Nostalgia courses through my veins at being able to watch a sporting event with a team I cared about. It’s odd how integral watching sports was to my life for so long, now it’s been 8 months since I watched a live sporting event I cared about. My mom had to give me a breakdown of the Superbowl. Not a single person in my town knows what American football is, let alone who Tom Brady is.
I wish I could report some wonderful game, where Lalo comes from behind in valiant fashion. It was a route. Negib and company crush Yayo in a 3-0 route. After Negib brings the hammer down on the final point he dashes over to the Lalo crew. In adulation we dance and sing together. I’ve practiced a few of the songs. I still don’t have them down but I do my best. Electricity is pulsing through Laloians. I look down at my watch, 12:00. I have to leave to make it back to Lalo today. Don’t want to miss another day of school.
P.S. I’m writing this a week later. Lalo volleyball got 3rd place out of 24 weredas. Women’s volleyball lost in the championship, they got 2nd place. As Fanta a fellow teacher has said the soccer team brought great shame to Lalo. They lost 3-2 then 9-0. We know what sport reigns king in little Lalo.