Editor’s note: Independent sports columnist Karl Lindholm is filing his reports this year from Yaounde, Cameroon, West Africa.
There I was, last Saturday morning, sitting in a small grove at the Rain Forest International School (RFIS), at an all-day girls’ soccer and boys’ basketball tournament. The day was hot and muggy, and I was glad to be in the shade.
Every day here is hot, more or less: We are in the transition now between hot and dry and hot and rainy, when the red dust turns to red mud. It is rarely brutally hot here in Yaounde, however, and it cools off nicely at night.
In front of me, up a little rise, two girls’ soccer games were being played on adjacent pitches, and to my left, down the hill, the boys’ basketball game was in full pitch. I was surrounded thus by animated sounds — the shouts, cheers, and whistles, of kids at play.
The American School of Yaounde (ASOY), my daughter Annie’s school, played their first game before I arrived and were defeated by the host school, 1-0. This was something of a moral victory, as RFIS had drubbed ASOY the previous week, 9-1, and Annie and her teammates feared the rematch.
Annie is a field hockey and softball player at home in Middlebury, but with only 40 high school students, ASOY offers just basketball and soccer as interscholastic sports, so Annie this year is a basketball and soccer player.
ANNIE LINDHOLM HAS learned to like soccer, which she plays in Yaounde since her school doesn't have a field hockey team.
Annie likes The Beautiful Game and is pretty good, despite her inexperience. She wins 50-50 balls and understands how to move the ball down the field. She’s brave. The ASOY girls won the third game they played on Saturday, 1-0, on a nice goal by Mina Eyango, for their first win of the season. They’re getting better.
Leaving Annie’s game to watch some of the basketball, I found myself falling into step with a fellow wearing a “New England Patriots” jersey. Naturally, I asked, “you a Pats fan?”
He said. “Absolutely.”
Turns out he was a Mainer, like me. We exchanged Patriots’ talk. He’s the IT specialist at RFIS, and he told me he had only been there two months. Finally, I thought, someone as green as I. Not so, alas. He and his wife and kids had spent the previous four years in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. So my claim as the most naïve and timid American in West Africa still held.
There on the campus of the Rain Forest School in the middle of March, now seven months after we arrived in Cameroon, I recalled with amusement our first visit to RFIS.
No one in our family will ever forget that day last August, our very first in Yaounde. After a very full day of travel and an overnight stay in a hotel, we were scheduled to meet with the director of ASOY at 10 a.m. to get Peter and Annie enrolled the school, which had been in session for a week.
Our cab driver took us through the city streets of Yaounde, thick with cars, little yellow Toyota taxi-cabs, one after another, most looking as if they were headed to the Demolition Derby at Field Days, so dented and abused were they; black smoke billowed from their exhausts.
Motorcycles with two or three riders weaved in and out of traffic. Vendors thrust their wares in the windows of our cab, everything from candy to nuts to clothes to tools and automotive accessories.
We drove to the outskirts of town, then further along heavily rutted narrow dirt roads, passing through a number of neighborhoods, quartiers, teeming with people, the women in colorful ankle-length dresses and skirts, carrying goods on their heads.
Markets spilled out into the streets — vegetables, fruits, and everything else under the sun. It was a riot of color, a riot of people-sounds and honking horns, a riot of activity.
The traffic, the driving, was the Wild West. There seemed to be no rules of the road, hardly even suggestions. Red light: No one’s coming, why stop? Driving on the wrong side of the road, passing on the right, no right of way at intersections, honk at pedestrians in the way — it was every man for himself, horns blaring, survival of the fittest, no quarter asked, none given. Eighteen-year-old Peter clung to the seat-belt strap with both hands.
The entire time we were in the car, over an hour, looking out at scenes we couldn’t have imagined just two days before, we didn’t see another white face, amid the thousands of people we saw, not a single one.
At one point, with Brett, Annie, and Peter huddled in the back seat, and me, terrified, riding shotgun, we looked at one another with an expression that said, “Toto, we are so not in Kansas anymore.”
Finally, our cab stopped in front of a large iron doorway, surrounded by stone walls.
The driver, Pierre, said with satisfaction: “Ici, l’école américaine.”
We groaned. “Non Monsieur, pas cette école. L’autre l’école américaine.” We read the sign next to the big door, “Rain Forest International School.”
He persisted, “Ici est l’école américaine!”
“Non, Monsieur. Pas ici, vraiment. Il y’a une autre école américaine.”
Clearly frustrated, he made a few calls on his cell phone and we commenced to retrace our route, bumping and thumping our way back through the urban chaos, finally ending up not far at all from where we started, this time at the American School of Yaounde (ASOY), our destination, an oasis of serenity for our tired brains and bones.
And that’s how it all began.
Read more about Karl Lindholm’s adventure in Africa online at innocentsinafrica.wordpress.com.